Not a single student at one of Oakland’s public high schools has to be there. They all arrive by choice – willingly, happily, sometimes desperately – at Civicorps Academy, a charter school for young adults who have aged out of traditional high school but aren’t too old to want another crack at earning a high school diploma.
“People tell me, ‘You’re getting a diploma? (You’re) 22.’ I am,” Tyneisha Crooks said she tells her incredulous inquirers. “There are people older than me getting (a diploma) and I commend them for that; that’s a big step. You got to start from the bottom to get on top and that’s what I’m doing.”
More than 47,000 Oakland Unified high school students dropped out in the past five years. During that same period, nearly 200 of them graduated from Civicorps Academy. California’s overall high school dropout rate has been declining in recent years. Out of 501,729 students in the class of 2012, 65,687 dropped out, or 13.1 percent, according to the California Department of Education. That’s 1.6 percentage points lower than the class of 2011 and 3 ½ percentage points below the class of 2009. But it’s still tens of thousands of students a year who leave high school without a diploma, and they’re disproportionately students of color.
Crooks is one of about 150 students between the ages of 18 and 24 enrolled in Civicorps’ high school diploma and job-training program, which is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. The school is housed in a modest rust-colored building in West Oakland, close enough to an adjacent Amtrak line to see what the passengers are reading. Once inside, however, Civicorps Academy has a soothing, somewhat pastoral atmosphere due, in large part, to a high-ceilinged atrium, left over from a prior tenant, where meetings and programs are held under a canopy of ficus trees that are rooted into the ground water.
The program opened in 1983 as the East Bay Conservation Corps, which also ran an elementary and middle school. They converted to charter schools in 1995, receiving the state’s 99th charter and, in 2009, changed their name to Civicorps Academy to better reflect the program’s community service and job-training mission, explained Head of School and former Peace Corps volunteer Tessa Nicholas. East Bay Conservation Corps consolidated the elementary and middle schools in 2009, and closed them last year citing declining enrollment.
While there are many adult education centers and community college programs in California where people who never completed high school can go to earn a high school equivalency degree, known as a GED, Civicorps Academy is the only public high school in the state that requires students to earn a diploma along with job training skills. The only other similar school in the state, the San Jose Conservation Corps and Charter School, offers diplomas or vocational certificates, according to the California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara. Because they are publicly funded like any other charter or traditional public school, students don’t pay to attend.
Other programs, such as Job Corps, a federal program with seven locations in California, offer both GEDs and diplomas, but the majority of their students receive technical training or GEDs, according to Job Corps data. Those students are not counted as high school graduates by the state Department of Education.
“I think it’s a model that has been proven to work,” said Russell Rumberger about the Civicorps type of program. Rumberger, who directs the California Dropout Research Project and is an education professor at UC Santa Barbara, said that by linking academics and job training, students see the relevancy of their schoolwork. “In general, especially for this group of kids, it’s a viable model because they can earn their diplomas and get job skills.”
In order to graduate, Civicorps students are required to pass the California High School Exit Exam just like anyone else. They also take specialized adult education assessments such as those offered by the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment Systems. However, instead of graded exams in each class, diploma requirements include research papers, oral reports, class projects, community service, multimedia presentations and workshops on such topics as First Aid and CPR. They also have to show competence in life skills and career development.
Bombarded with trauma
“The academic curriculum at Civicorps is demanding,” says Head of School Nicholas, especially in the beginning when the focus is entirely on academics.
“Those first three months are when I think some people will walk in the door and think it’s going to be a cakewalk, and then we really hold them to a high level of accountability,” Nicholas said. “They
need to be here every day, and they need to be here on time; they need to follow instructions, and some people aren’t prepared for that.”
Classes are held Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., just like any typical high school. Those first three months are the period when Civicorps has the highest dropout rate. Anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of the students leave, Nicholas said. She suspects it has to do with the makeup of the cohort. A new class of 15 to 20 students enters Civicorps Academy every six to eight weeks, and some groups seem to gel and create a support network while others don’t.
The school’s academic program is self-paced. Students come in with different ability levels. Some dropped out in middle school, others left their senior year of high school; some can’t read, others were math phobic, and more than a third have diagnosed learning disabilities. The average student takes 12 to 18 months to complete the program. Some students stay longer, some drop out and return and a few stick around to intern at the school.
Like Tyneisha Crooks, more than a quarter of the students are single parents, three-quarters are African American and just about all of them survived ordeals far more challenging than anything high school can throw at them.
“Our students are bombarded with trauma and they bring that in and we absorb it,” says Rachel Friedman, a former middle school English teacher who, as instructional lead, develops curriculum and mentors the five classroom and special education teachers.
Crooks comes from a family of eight children, four girls and four boys. She’s number six. For several years during elementary school, the family was homeless; they slept in a car and later in a motel, the kids on the floor. She said that was embarrassing, but it didn’t compare to what happened years later when a fight ended with someone firing a shot into the car Crooks was riding in. The bullet hit her 16-year-old cousin in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life,” remembered Crooks as two tears slowly traced her cheeks and disappeared under her chin.
Teachers and staff work very closely with the students to help dismantle the barriers – emotional, financial, behavioral – that might set them back, again. They get transportation vouchers, child care, food and counseling. Civicorps has one full-time social worker on staff and is hiring a second one. They partner with other community organizations and networks to provide whatever services the school can’t offer. The program‘s annual budget is about $6 million and comes from a variety of sources including foundations and partnerships for job training programs; and, because it’s a public school, Civicorps receives state funding based on average daily attendance.
The school also runs its own recycling business that provides job training for students and income for the school.
Check assumptions at the door
Their capacity to overcome tragedy and hardship seems to give these young adults the strength to return to an environment most of them remember as a place of alienation, fear and failure. Komarai Anderson said he was an introverted kid with few friends and was bullied into fighting even in elementary school.
Anderson attended three high schools, and passed the California High School Exit Exam that is required for all California graduates, before dropping out to work and help support his family. He spent a year living with different relatives and trying, unsuccessfully, to find a job before moving in with an uncle in Oakland who knew about Civicorps Academy.
“It was the perfect time,” Anderson said. “This seemed like my last hope for trying to avoid the streets and stuff, because I was at a point in my life where it was either make some money somehow or just be homeless.”
That was one year ago. Now, Anderson is on track to graduate in December, with career options. Earning a high school diploma is not the end goal for Civicorps’ students. Nicholas calls it a “door opener” to attend college, build their résumés and be prepared to embark on what the school refers to as a “family-sustaining career.”
About 12 weeks into the program, students who have passed all their classes transition into the job training program, where they work during the day and attend classes two nights a week and Friday mornings. Once they’ve completed their academic requirements, students are also required to enroll in a community college course or other postsecondary training.
In his job training, Anderson has been paid to learn landscaping – he says it’s his “first legit job” – and completed a basic wildland firefighting certification. He plans to continue those courses in community college to become a firefighter and emergency medical technician. To look at him today, it’s hard to imagine this striking young man with neat, neck-length dreadlocks and an easy rapport with classmates has anything in common with his younger self. During a recent two-day leadership summit at school, Anderson confidently facilitated a discussion and planning session around improving education and career opportunities for Oakland’s youth.
“This program really saved me from going in a whole different direction in life,” Anderson said.
That’s the sort of testimonial that sustains Civicorps’ teachers in what is often an emotionally draining job.
“I feel like this is the social work of our time; this is the justice work of our time, it’s what I’m passionate about doing and I hope I have the energy to sustain it for years to come,” Friedman said.”You can check your assumptions at the door because each one them has a compelling story and each one of them knows what they want to get out of this high school degree and this job education.”
By the time students walk in the front door, they usually have a sense of urgency about getting on with their lives. About 78 percent of those who complete the academic requirements graduate within a year to a year and a half. Tyneisha Crooks just learned that she passed the high school exit exam. When she completes job training, Crooks wants to study nursing, first at a community college and eventually at UC Berkeley.
She and her 19-year-old brother Jacob enrolled together in Civicorps Academy in June and plan to keep each other on track to finish the program.
“I said to him, ‘Me and you went through a lot together, so we’re going to rock this out together,’” Crooks said, “and that’s what we’ve been doing since we got here.”
Kathryn Baron is a senior reporter at EdSource Today. Contact her or follow her @Tcherspet.