On a recent Thursday afternoon in Ashur Bratt’s class in Oakland, about 20 middle school students stood tall on chairs and tables and flung their arms out from their sides, looking very pleased with themselves.
“How do you feel?” Bratt asked as students raised their arms, competing to be called on. “Ecstatic!” one boy answered. It turns out, Bratt told his class, if you expand your body for a couple of minutes, it helps you feel better and think bigger.
Thinking bigger is part of the culture at Elmhurst Community Prep, a middle school in East Oakland that has expanded the school day to 5 p.m. with a variety of after-school offerings, such as Bratt’s class on building self-confidence. Students can choose robotics, music or dance. They can make collages, dissect fetal pigs or create apps. They visit well-known companies such as Google and Pandora.
“We’re not just cookies and basketballs,” said Principal Kilian Betlach, who keeps tabs on his students as he roams the halls with a baseball bat (“It’s a prop”) and a sense of humor. “We have a real moral imperative to provide kids from low-income backgrounds with the services and opportunities that middle-class kids get. We don’t do just hard academics. We offer access and opportunities.”
The school of 375 students – in the middle of a tough Oakland neighborhood where the shooting of a 13-year-old boy on New Year’s Day was the city’s first homicide – has been promoted as a national model for how to create and finance an after-school program that supports both enrichment activities and academic success.
Every student at Elmhurst, in the Oakland Unified school district, attends the expanded learning program, making it part of their normal school day. Classes begin at 8 a.m. and end at 5 p.m., at least two hours after most other Oakland students are done for the day.
Rodzhaney Sledge, dressed in the light-blue school uniform, is new to the school as a 6th grader, but she already understands how the after-school part of the program supports her academic work. For example, she took a class called Tools for Peace, where she learned to meditate. Meditation, she said, has helped calm her so she can focus on academics. She also appreciates the help with her homework she receives for at least an hour each day.
“I don’t understand the students who have problems staying after school until 5 p.m.,” she said. “You can do your homework and don’t have to do it when you get home. You’re free.”
Betlach and community partners – primarily Citizen Schools, a national nonprofit that focuses on providing quality expanded learning programs for middle school students in low-income communities – have cobbled together federal, state, local and private funding to support the unique program. The school was one of five featured in a national report by the National Center on Time & Learning about financing exceptional expanded learning programs.
Building on partnerships
What makes the expanded school day economically possible is the school’s reliance on AmeriCorps teaching fellows like Bratt. The fellows are funded by the federal government and receive special training from Citizen Schools staff on how to teach in an urban environment. They are involved in both the academic morning program and the after-school classes from 2 to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, helping to provide a seamless transition for students. The schedule also allows the regular academic teachers an hour each afternoon, from 2 to 3 p.m., to work collaboratively and plan.
In exchange, the AmeriCorps fellows will have earned their intern teaching credential at the end of their two years at Elmhurst.
Edgard Vidrio, a sixth grade history teacher who joined the Elmhurst staff this year, said he appreciates the variety of opportunities the program is offering his students.
“I have kids in my classroom who have never been on the beach,” he said. “Many are suffering extreme hardships.”
Vidrio says the young, dynamic AmeriCorps teachers develop deep relationships with their students. If a student in his class is upset, he or she will often ask to talk to one of the teaching fellows, Vidrio said.
The fellows also come into the classroom to work with individual students who are behind and teach intensive intervention sessions – called Rise Up! – in the morning that last about half an hour and group students based on their abilities in the subject area.
AmeriCorps teaching fellow Jeannette Aames, who is finishing her second year and hopes to teach high school math in Oakland Unified in the fall, said teaching a math intervention class was her most rewarding experience at Elmhurst. The class of three girls and nine “rowdy boys” could not grasp the concept of negative numbers.
“Direct instruction didn’t work with them,” Aames said, requiring her to develop more hands-on approaches to teach the concept.
Aames also has learned how difficult it is to teach children facing poverty and violence in their community.
The first homicide of the year was a student from Alliance Academy, a middle school that shares a building with Elmhurst.
“We knew him,” she said. “It feels like he was one of our students.”
Last December, the 2-year-old younger brother of one student – and cousin of another – was shot.
“It makes it hard to figure out what motivates each child,” Aames said. “Many of them have a lot bigger things than learning math to take care of, like their parents or their siblings. But I believe there is a way to help every kid feel successful and be successful.”
A fighting chance
Only about a third of the 6th graders come to Elmhurst at grade level, Betlach said. The school has had the greatest success at raising the academic achievement of the lowest third, who enter 6th grade three or more grade levels behind. Most of those lowest-achieving students will improve and graduate from Elmhurst at a 6th or 7th grade level, giving them a fighting chance to succeed in high school, Betlach said.
The students also get opportunities through Citizen Schools to participate in apprenticeships with “citizen teachers,” any adult from the broader Bay Area community who has a passion, such as robotics or radio reporting, to share with the students. The citizen teachers receive basic training on how to teach from Citizen Schools staff before they begin the after-school class.
The citizen teacher is partnered with an AmeriCorps fellow who assists the teacher with handling classroom management. At the end of the apprenticeship, the students make a presentation (called a “WOW”) to their parents and business and community leaders, showcasing what they have learned.
In addition, local companies invite students to their offices for apprenticeship experiences.
At Pandora, students learned how to make an app. “It was a video game where you dodge fireballs,” Betlach recalled.
The school also works with nonprofits such as Waterside Workshops in Berkeley, where the students built a boat.
Students are encouraged to try a number of apprenticeships with the citizen teachers. But in 8th grade they are expected to focus on one after-school activity, sort of like picking a major in college.
Andres McDade, who tried robotics, skateboarding and film, chose to major in music this year as an 8th grader. He plays the saxophone and percussion drum.
“I like the joy of playing music,” he said, adding that the AmeriCorps teachers have showed him how music can help him get a scholarship to college.
McDade hopes to attend UC Berkeley. “I hear it’s a good school academically,” he said.