Today I had to the chance to meet with recent Dewey graduates Jachai O'Guinn and Grecia Palma about their experiences at Dewey Academy and what they see as the priorities for OUSD's goal to rebuild the former administration building at 1025 2nd Avenue.
Both students talked about how Dewey has been a sanctuary for them after the traumatic experiences they had at larger high schools where they felt anonymous and unseen. They shared how Dewey is smaller and the staff know and care about each student and their specific needs.
Both students arrived at Dewey missing necessary credits to graduate, and not having attended school regularly before, but shared how Dewey staff helped them to recover their credits quickly through intensive tutoring and after-school study, and got them more engaged. Jachai became involved in All City Council and is now Vice President of the citywide Student Council for OUSD.
They shared with me their priorities for the 2nd Avenue project, and I wanted to share them here, because I thought they made a compelling case for the safe haven that Dewey provides for so students who face a great deal of instability in their lives.
1. They do not want any project that will force Dewey students to relocate. Many students come to Dewey because they do not feel safe at their previous school, due to gang violence or other kinds of violence or exploitation, and have had historical difficulties attending school regularly. If Dewey students are relocated, many students are likely to stop attending school.
They also feel strongly that they need to be within walking distance of Laney College and the school's onsite health clinic. The school works closely with Laney's culinary academy and also helps students to start college while still in high school, so that they have a headstart on their college education.
2. The students feel strongly that the open space and the easy access to nature they have on the campus is part of what lends the school its peaceful and calming atmosphere, and that any design of Dewey needs to maintain these features, so that the school continues to provide the same kind of nurturing space for students.
3. Safety for students was another issue that came up a lot. They are concerned about having a parking structure as part of the school, because of the difficulty of keeping students safe in spaces that tend to be dark and hard to monitor. They are also concerned about the distraction and potential danger to students of having classrooms and other student areas facing the street. They believe that Dewey works partly because students are sheltered from the outside world when they are on campus, which keeps them safe from the dangers and distractions they encountered at previous schools, such as fear of violence while at school.
The concern for student safety is also why they don't want want housing to be built on the site. They are afraid of what additional traffic and people who are not part of the school community could mean for Dewey students' safety and ability to be free from distractions when at school.
4. Finally, students said that if the project goes forward, students should see some benefits to their school and programs, such as a soccer field and a real kitchen (right now they just have a warming kitchen), which would add to their offerings to students in the culinary arts pathway.
Jachai O'Guinn, left, is Vice President of All City Council, after being in danger of not graduating just one year ago. Grecia Palma, right, graduated last year from Dewey and now works at the school.
My conversation with Jachai and Grecia was striking to me for two reasons. The first was that they have felt disrespect from OUSD as a result of the way that this project has been approached, and they have felt that their education was of secondary importance to district officials where the 2nd Avenue project is concerned.
Secondly, it was clear that they have been engaged and thoughtful in the process, and in thinking about how to meet the needs of both their fellow students and the district's staff. They suggested that OUSD run a shuttle between Lake Merritt BART and 1025 2nd Avenue, rather than building a parking structure, or if a parking structure is absolutely necessary, it should be built on E 10th Street, as far from Dewey as possible, to keep students safer and free of distractions.
Being new to the School Board, Dewey is the first continuation school I have visited, and I was struck by how quiet and peaceful the campus is. I can see why the students and staff are alarmed by the prospect of a large construction project bringing noise, traffic, cars and people into their sanctuary. I am only one person on a board of seven, but I will be supporting only projects that will be minimally disruptive to the students at Dewey and can be completed as fast as possible, because I want to see Dewey continue to be a place of calm and nurture for many generations of Oakland students to come.