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Race, Policy and Law pathway to Black student opportunity

Oakland Technical High School is one of Oakland’s oldest and highest-performing public schools. Famous alumni like Clint Eastwood and Rickey Henderson once strode through the same hallways as current students. It’s also one of the largest public schools in Oakland. 

“It can be easy to get lost, easy to not be seen,” said Jah-Yee Woo, a longtime OUSD teacher who is the Race, Policy & Law Academy (RPL) pathway director at Tech. “It’s easy to walk off campus – because we do have an open campus – and nobody notices.”

That’s not happening to the students in the RPL pathway, though, where Jah-Yee and her team are making sure students are successful as they operate something like a school within a school and produce remarkable results.  

“Whether you are doing the right thing or the wrong thing, we try to make sure all of our students are seen,” Jah-Yee said. “And we try to lovingly support them, so they graduate with a plan for after graduation.”

Students in the RPL pathway aren’t just graduating with a plan, they’re graduating college eligible, and at a much higher rate than similar students across Oakland public schools.

Remarkable results for Black students

The RPL pathway is one of five Linked Learning programs located at Oakland Tech, and it’s the newest, with its first graduating class in 2020. Linked Learning “pathways” feature at all Oakland public high schools. Students in Linked Learning programs are less likely to drop out and more likely to graduate than students who do not participate in a program. 

During the 2021-22 school year, 82 percent of Tech students enrolled in the RPL pathway graduated high school with their A-G requirements met, making them eligible to apply to University of California and California State University schools. That’s higher than the overall percentage of Tech students who graduated A-G eligible that year (78 percent). 

When looking at racial subgroup data, the RPL pathway number stands out even more: 68 percent of Latino students, and 57 percent of African American students at Tech graduated A-G eligible in 2021-22. 

A majority of students enrolled in the RPL pathway (21 out of 34, 62 percent) are African American, and 81 percent graduated A-G eligible. Across OUSD, just 41.9 percent of African American students graduated A-G eligible in 2021-22. 

“Historically, we have seen particular student groups be successful, mainly our white or Asian students who come from relatively stable or middle-class or upper-class backgrounds,” Jah Yee said. “So our RPL pathway has been really able to serve Black and Brown students, as well as students who are the first generation in their families to go to college.”

An Oakland Tech alum shares her experiences with the RPL students during a 10th grade field trip to UC Santa Cruz in March 2023.

What’s in RPL’s secret sauce?

What is happening in the RPL pathway where the results have such a dramatic impact in improving A-G outcomes for African American students?

It starts with a purposeful culture, adults working in concert, and integrated A-G and academic advising for students starting early in their high school career. 

When Tech was adding a fifth pathway, administrators discussed what it should be about. There was a desire to add a humanities pathway to the mix (the other pathways at Tech are the computer, engineering, fashion and health). They were also intentional about the pathway being of interest to Black and Brown students while celebrating Oakland’s rich history of social justice. 

“We have students who have grown up in that history of organizing and fighting for justice,” Jah-Yee said. “So having been raised in that tradition, how can we ensure that public education is reflective of that for our students?”

Education that is empowering

The RPL pathway is all about giving students the tools they need to be successful, and so they can advocate for themselves. It starts with looking at the data. For example, the RPL team (which is made up of one administrator, three teachers, a CTE coach, pathway director and Student Support Specialists) noticed there was a dip between 10th and 11th grade when some students who had fallen behind would give up. “So we’ve tried to avert or disrupt that trend, and I think we are starting to shift that tide a little bit,” Jah-Yee said. 

The RPL educators also start working with Tech 10th graders to ensure they understand the importance of being A-G eligible, reinforcing information that they start learning in the 9th grade. That starts with checking for understanding of a counselor presentation on the requirements that happens soon after a student begins high school. They then reinforce that information each year and personalize it for grades 10, 11 and 12 so by a student’s 12th grade year, they just need a little refresher on the requirements. 

There is also individualized planning for each student, matching up the requirements a student needs to check off to graduate with what else is happening in their lives, like extracurricular activities, sports teams and responsibilities at home. Students are asked twice per year, “how does this look day-to-day (at school) and how does this look in terms of your vision for yourself?” Jah-Yee said.

An RPL student retreat at Destiny Arts facilitated by Studio Pathways during the Fall of 2018.

“It’s about helping (students) make informed choices to get them closer to the vision they have for themselves,” Jah-Yee said, “and the goals they have for college or career after graduation.”

Jah-Yee said an impact of the RPL she sees in students is their ability to advocate for themselves. She recalls a student who, after the A-G requirement presentation during their sophomore year, realized they didn’t have their algebra requirement completed.

“She’s like, ‘I don’t want to still be in algebra in 11th grade, that’s not going to make me eligible for any UC or CSU,’” Jah-Yee said. “She could see the track ahead of her, the pathway ahead of her. So that helped her advocate for what she wanted to see for herself. And we just tried to figure out a plan through concurrent enrollment and dual enrollment to help her manifest that and make it happen.”

Jah-Yee said students taking ownership of their own education like that gives her chills. 

“That is the type of education, the type of outcome, that we want,” she said. “We want them to see that education is empowering. We want them to be able to see that ‘you have the information, you have the tools and now this is about your decision.’ And we’re here to support you.”

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Families in Action for Quality Education (FIA) was founded in 2019 and now has grown to serve over 16,000 district and charter school families. FIA has graduated over 500 parents, youth, educators, and school board members from our leadership institutes to advocate for access to quality education across the city of Oakland. For more information and to sign up, visit FIA’s websiteFacebookInstagram or Twitter.

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