Oakland's alternative: Barack Obama Academy

 

Originally posted on KALW.org

In March of 2009, the Alternative Learning Community in East Oakland changed its name to the Barack Obama Academy, the first middle school in the United States to be named after the president. Ever since its name change, this technically alternative school has been helping kids who had trouble in mainstream education. For students at the academy, school isn’t just a place to be bored, mischievous, and overly social. School is a place to get to know classmates and teachers like family. With only 24 students and five staff, the Barack Obama Academy gives new meaning to personal attention for Oakland youth. Carmen Elster has the story.

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CARMEN ELSTER: It’s after school in East Oakland and about eight kids at the Barack Obama Academy are hanging out in a classroom being tutored and interacting quite loudly, but having fun. The hallways are empty, but enrichment is just getting started.

STUDENT 1: I know how to make eggs.

TEACHER: I’m glad you know how to make eggs!

STUDENT 2: Everybody do!

Lajuan Williams from the California Culinary Academy teaches the cooking class Tuesdays through Thursdays after school.

LAJUAN WILLIAMS: My name is Lajuan Williams. But they can call me “Chef.”

Chef Williams is helping the students make breakfast this afternoon.

WILLIAMS: We’re hanging out in Holland …
by making Belgian waffles. Fresh fruit consisting of strawberries, bananas, cream and a little syrup.

She loves working with the kids because she personally identifies with them.

WILLIAMS: I’m quite happy here because I had help.

Like many of the students at the Barack Obama Academy, Williams needed special attention – in her case because of her stutter. She says when she was in school, her teachers didn’t know how to deal with it. But her high test scores showed them she just needed someone to believe in her.

WILLIAMS: So I tell people here, although I am not perfect, I have accomplished. I have achieved. I’ve served my country. I am a veteran, and I hold three degrees – speech impediment and all.

That’s why she now dedicates herself to helping students reach their goals despite adversity.

WILLIAMS: So it was my choice, and my right, and my obligation to come here and instill and teach and cultivate a pilot culinary arts, and I want you to know that it is a success. And if you have an opportunity I would like for you to go outside and look at our garden.

The community garden sits on the corner of an asphalt playground facing the busy street. It’s small, but has a lot of variety.

WILLIAMS: Look at my garden! This is what the kids planted. This is our tomatoes. I have hothouse, roma’s.

In about six or seven wooden plant beds grow radishes, peppers, beans, tomatoes, herbs and strawberries.

WILLIAMS: These are so sweet and succulent. They’re smaller, but they are a party animal. I'm sorry but they are! Uh huh. That’s right. I love my strawberries. Yes I do.

But the biggest plant isn’t on the standard kid-friendly menu.

WILLIAMS: And believe it or not this is my pride and my joy – brussels sprouts.

Although many kids don’t like brussels sprouts, everything grown in the garden is used for cooking class so the students can cultivate healthy eating habits, and enjoy growing their own food.

Masai Murihia, or “Coach,” works with the YMCA. He provides the school with enrichment programs like culinary arts, studio engineering, film and flag football. But today he’s teaching chess.

MASAI MURIHIA: The next people that will be by the side of the king and the queen are the people             that give them advice. Literally, chess simulates how it would be in a kingdom so...

The YMCA sought out the Barack Obama Academy because it lacked after-school programs, and Murihia says they give the kids better options.

MURIHIA: So that the kids can have a place to be instead of going straight home or going home into a neighborhood that could possibly give them other options that wouldn’t be so positive.

Many of the students at the Barack Obama Academy had behavioral issues in so-called regular schools. Some students say they had trouble because teachers wouldn’t encourage them, and they would fall behind because of discipline issues. Some students just weren’t challenged enough. But Murihia says this school and its enrichment programs are all working for the same goal.

MURIHIA: We’re here to heal them, rebuild them and remind them, dust them off sometimes just dustin’ them off and reminding them that they have a shiny new coat of armor that just had too much dust. No one was shining them up. No one was seeing the potential. So it’s huge.

The idea is huge. And only a few years old. But the academy has big plans for the future. Despite budget cuts and low enrollment, teachers and administrators are working hard to provide great programs to students. And having people like Coach Murihia and Chef Williams around today may foster the next teacher, leader or even president of the United States.

For Crosscurrents, I'm Carmen Elster.