Many public schools are coping with constant and deep funding cuts to education, and neighborhood schools are looking for creative ways to serve the needs of their students. Six public schools in Oakland now house on-site health centers for just that reason. The newest – a state of the art clinic at Roosevelt Middle School – helps kids who are struggling with the twin traumas of violence and poverty.
Roosevelt Middle School is in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood. In the main office students, parents, and teachers are busy answering phones, filling out paperwork, and directing visitors to the health center. The office of Principal Cliff Hong is inside this active room, but he is often out in the school, making sure things are running smoothly.
Hong has been in charge for two years now and his focus is to improve the environment here at Roosevelt. Hong says, "We believe in the broken windows theory, where you take care of the little things and then the big things won’t materialize. For example, you can’t have hats in the building, no hoods, and that’s a practical thing too, because we want to know if there’s some sort of stranger that’s on campus, so we can’t have kids covering their faces. Once we change the reputation of Roosevelt, more people will enroll, so we’re almost there, but we need about a hundred more kids to make that perfect structure."
That perfect structure is a unit that Principal Hong calls a "family." Each family has about 120 students per grade level who share the same teachers for each subject. That makes it easier for the teachers and students to get to know each other. Hong adds, "Every teacher in each family has the same conference period… so five days a week they can meet with each other, and talk about the kids."
One of those kids is Ramey, an outgoing eighth grader at Roosevelt who is working in the office. Ramey says that he has seen the school change since Hong took over. "He’s doing a better job than the other principal. I remember when I was in sixth grade, the old principal here, she was nice and all, but then the school was like a mess, like a real complete mess,” says Ramey, adding, “I feel kind of more safe now." Ramey says he doesn't always feel safe after he leaves school: "Sometimes when I walk home, I get scared ‘cause there’s bad people around our school."
Hong says there have been at least four murders within a mile of the school in the last two months. "Someone’s dad was murdered, somebody’s brother was murdered, about five or six of our kids witnessed a murder right next to them,” Hong adds.
Hong’s concern about safety out in the neighborhood is very real. City of Oakland weekly crime reports show a spike in violent crimes like robbery, burglary and auto theft of almost fifty-percent over last year. And the poor economy is not helping either. At Roosevelt, about ninety-percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch programs.
Hong says that situation adds extra stress. “Sometimes the kids just seem agitated and stressed out, and you start talking with them a little deeper and you find out that the folks at home are stressed out. I’ve had parents asking me for jobs. Whether it’s those singular events or just the fact that you are low income, kids are bringing trauma to school with them," says Hong.
Two days earlier, there had been a safety lockdown at the school. Police confronted an armed burglar who was fleeing in the direction of Roosevelt.
Principal Hong now has a team to help the students cope – counselors and therapists from partner programs offer services five days a week at the on-site health clinic.
Hong wants to make Roosevelt a world-class public school within ten years or less. The clinic could help him get there.
Health services include: mental health, medical, and dental care. Any student in the district can use the health center. There are two physical exam rooms, a testing lab, a room for medical records, a multi-purpose room, and two consultation rooms, where the kids can meet with counselors or therapists.
Mizan Alkebulan-Abekah, the clinic supervisor, knows the students she sees are dealing with trauma. "I think that a lot of the youth and people who live in the area, including myself, are people of color, and based upon the larger system of economics that exists, it definitely does not support healthy lifestyles,” she says.
Alkebulan-Abekah says that poverty creates stress for students, but what people do not always realize is that "youth are very resilient, and they come to this space still with a love of life, and still with a love of learning, love of each other, just trying to figure out how to make sense of this crazy world that we’ve kind of provided for them as adults, and I think that that is evident when I walk the halls as well."
Principal Hong recognizes that quality in his students too: "We know about the back stories of a lot of our students, and so it’s pretty amazing in terms of resiliency, to see the high level of calm and serenity that we have on campus. And there’s a sense of being inspired, amazed, and proud that students are able to push through those experiences and focus as well as they can."
Principal Hong still has a lot of work to make Roosevelt a world-class school, but in just the second year of his administration, his report card looks pretty good.
This story originally aired on May 23, 2012.