1. Congratulations! We’re excited that your school has been chosen for a 2017 Community School Awards for Excellence. Tell us about your community school and how the community school strategy has impacted your students, families, and community?
We’re honored to be recognized for our work! OIHS serves roughly 400 students from over 32 countries, ranging in age from 14-21. All of Oakland International High School’s students/families made the journey to the United States—often a difficult and even treacherous one—to build a better life. But when they arrive they meet the new challenge of integrating into their new U.S. homes and the overall U.S. society. At the same time, our families also bring with them remarkable skills and assets—from professional savvy to trade skills to empathy to resilience to multilingualism—that make significant contributions to U.S. communities. Our school exists to support students to build their language skills, acclimate to life in the United States, and connect them to services such that their skills and assets can be honored and be put to use. Without addressing these issues of socio-emotional support and integration, we know that the majority of our newcomer students will not thrive in school. OIHS is uniquely designed to serve the educational needs of all immigrant groups, new and established, large and small, and the accompanying socio-emotional needs to support their successful and meaningful integration into life and school in the Bay Area.
2. Why do you do what you do?
As someone born in the United States who, like many of us living here, is of immigrant heritage, I feel like it is my responsibility to support newly arrived communities as they rebuild their lives. I harbor a deep belief that immigration and immigrants are what make the United States great, and the more we can support students’ and families early transitions, the more we are building bridges for newcomers to make meaningful contributions to our communities. I also absolutely love what I do; I get to work with tremendous educators, inspiring families, and dedicated service providers. Our school feels like a family, and it has been a great joy to be a part of building this community school program.
3. OIHS serves a lot of immigrant students and families. Do you have any advice or best practices to share with other coordinators who are also working to support immigrant families?
First and foremost, it’s important to create a warm and welcoming environment so that students and families, from the moment they walk through the doors, see the school as a place of support and solidarity—even if they don’t speak the same language as any staff members. Ensuring that students have access to academic supports outside of the classroom, from tutoring to additional classes to recuperate their credits to summer school, is critical (particularly at the high school level) for students to learn English while also “catching up” on content they may have missed as a result of limited/interrupted past education and/or the experience of immigration. All individual needs are different, but we have found that, among our largely low-income student body, supporting access to socio-emotional services—from health to mental health to immigration legal services to food and shelter—makes a big difference for students and families who, by virtue of being so new to the U.S., often lack community connections and the navigational know-how to avail themselves of these services. The Community School model is rare outside of the United States, so part of the work is introducing to families the fact that school is a place where they can come with questions and needs beyond the classroom.
4. In our April Twitter Chat on Trauma Informed Community Schools, a lot of people said they are seeing more trauma and toxic stress associated with fears around immigration and deportation. How are you supporting your students and families dealing with that?
In today’s political climate, improving pathways for immigrant students and their families to integrate into the United States society, build connections, and access opportunities for their futures is perhaps more important than ever before. Oakland International High School is a sanctuary school in a sanctuary school district in a sanctuary city. Our job is to educate students and support them to feel safe and cared for. We assure parents and students that, as a school, we do not and will not turn over any private information to immigration authorities. At the same time, we understand the term “sanctuary” in broader terms: a place of refuge, of calm, of tranquility. As such, we work to support our students and families to know their rights in the United States (in partnership with our tremendous legal service provider partners), to see school as a place of safety and of opportunity, and to be a source of information and solidarity while not forcing conversations about politics upon our students. This balance feels particularly important at this moment in time.
5. You have said that “school is a place where [students] can have a voice.” How has your school empowered youth voices?
One way we support youth voice is through our annual Community Walks. To better connect with our diverse newcomer student communities, each year for the past five years, Oakland International High School offers “Community Walk” Professional Development for teachers and staff. Designed by students, with input from parents and community leaders, OIHS teachers and staff visit student communities where they are shown important landmarks and cultural centers; meet with community leaders, advocates and/or support people; and meet with families (in either homes or community centers) to discuss families’ questions, concerns and hopes for their students and the school. Students also organize readings for teachers to do before the Community Walk, and hold an hour-long “teach in” where they, inverting the roles, teach their teachers about important aspects of their communities’ backgrounds, histories and immigration experiences. These professional development sessions educate teachers about students’ backgrounds, challenges, community and cultural assets, and the educational concerns of OIHS diverse newcomer students and families. They also serve to immerse teachers in the home environments of their students, and give students and family members the opportunity to serve as leaders, inverting roles such that our teachers become the students, and our students and families become the teachers.
6. Can you tell me a story about a student, family or community that you directly impacted as a coordinator?
When Franklin Velasquez first showed up at Oakland International High School, he was seventeen, and had been out of school for a full year. He'd crossed into the US by himself, fleeing persecution in Guatemala, and spent a year working in day labor zones, doing gardening, construction, moving, and other irregular odd-jobs, while living with a distant relative. After a year of this, he was desperate to get back to school to continue his studies. So he showed up at our front door late one August evening and asked "Can I come to school here?"
Though he wanted an education, school wasn't always easy for Franklin. In spite of how smart and determined he was, Franklin was working full time during 10th and 11th grades, and living alone. He was struggling to both support himself and keep up in school. Plus, he had no papers, and was fighting an immigration case with the help of his attorneys at OIHS partner agency, East Bay Sanctuary Covenant. Thanks to that connection, he won his asylum case.
He was often in the office talking about dropping out, but he persevered, and didn’t give up. He got a lot of encouragement from teachers and staff, and found the soccer program at OIHS, run by Soccer Without Borders, incredibly therapeutic—a place where he could be a kid, could play, where he had support from a team and dedicated coaches, and where he could forget his worries for a few hours each week. He stayed in school and, by his senior year, Franklin became a leader in his class, a strong English speaker, and frequently helped other students. He graduated—against all of the odds—and is now taking classes at a local community college, with plans to transfer to a University and become an Engineer.