The amazing Oakland International High School

As part of lifting up successes in Oakland Unified that are not being sufficiently celebrated, I am happy to get to write about Oakland International High School (OIHS).

Last week I went to an open house at the school, which is a very successful program for students who are newcomers to the U.S. The other attendees were teachers and administrators from other nearby districts who were coming to learn from the OIHS model since it has become so well-known.

First, some data: The number of newcomer students in Oakland has surged in recent years, largely due to the crisis in Central America: there are 3,562 of them in Oakland - they are 9% of the students in OUSD and 3% of the students in Oakland charter schools. OIHS is a small high school, 100% newcomers, of just under 400 students in the Temescal neighborhood. When we say newcomers, we don't mean students whose families immigrated here ten years ago - these are students who are brand new to the country, who might enroll at school mid-year because they just arrived last week. These young people might be in complete shock at their new environment and terribly upset to be apart from family they have known their whole lives, or readjusting to living with family members who they have not seen for many years.

Visiting classes, I saw students engaged and learning, despite the challenge of widely varying educational backgrounds and levels of English. To make sure all students are constantly moving towards graduation, Oakland International's approach is to support all students to take college-prep classes, even if that means they need to take another class at the same time, instead of putting students in remedial courses that don't count towards their college entry requirements.

Like all OUSD high schools, Oakland International has a career readiness program (or academy); since it is a small school, all students are automatically in the Media program. This consists of art and graphic design in 9th/10th grades, web design in 11th grade, and a video production class in 12th grade. They celebrate at the end of the year with a film festival of their work, which you can watch online at

The school has used their Measure N funding in part to support teacher assistants in every class. This is essential because so many students have experienced so much trauma and are so overwhelmed by their new environment, and the teacher doesn't have to stop class every time a student is in a crisis moment. And when there is no crisis, the assistants can support small groups since learning is happening at many different levels.

Some school staff started as volunteers, got hired as a teacher assistant, and then completed their credentials and got hired as teachers. The most impressive aspect of OIHS is their track record of teacher and staff retention. In part, this is thanks to the incredible mission of the school, that so many of their staff are passionate about. But it's also important that they have created sustainable pathways for their teachers. Teachers on the panel said that sometimes they needed to take a year or two out of the classroom (often when they had a child), and that the principal supported them to take on other roles such as coaching new teachers so they didn't have the stress of full-time teaching. Then, when they felt ready to go back into the classroom again, they did. What an inspiring model, in a district where too often it feels like teachers burn out and leave the district, or else seek a job at central office where they may no longer be as connected to schools and kids.

Carmelita Reyes, the founding principal, spoke about seeing every problem as a "design challenge" which required creative thinking and problem-solving, rather than banging her head against a wall. After 12 years at OIHS (and several years before that at Life Academy), Ms. Reyes has finally taken a job at central office, trying to solve the knotty problem of how OUSD operations can serve our school sites more efficiently. However, she told me she makes sure to spend a little time at the school every week to keep herself grounded. I love the irreverent and honest way she approaches every conversation and problem. (Somehow, there is an interview with Ms. Reyes on the U.S. Dpet. of Education website that Secretary Betsy DeVos hasn't erased yet.) If anyone can solve the "design challenges" of OUSD's budget and operations, it's her!

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