How Oakland is getting kids into college — and keeping them there

Feb 5, 2018

A program aimed at tripling the number of Oakland students who graduate from college is entering its second year.

Jaden Starks, 18, sits in his East Oakland living room on a well-loved maroon sofa.

 

There are “a whole lot of really intelligent people in Oakland, and I feel like you don’t get to see it because of the violence,” he says — violence like what Starks and his peers from Castlemont High School saw growing up.

 

One survey says about a third of students there have already lost friends or family to violence. In an environment like that, SAT scores can seem like the least important thing in the world.

 

“I’m gonna keep it real," Starks says. "Some people out here, like, they don’t want their kids to go to school. They just want them to stay home and work to help them out with like bills because they can barely do it themselves.”

 

Starks is the former football captain of the Castlemont Knights. Eventually, he wants to be a social worker for kids in Oakland.

 

Culture shift

 

He says something changed at his high school last year when Mayor Libby Schaaf visited.

 

“She announced the Oakland Promise. I think it gave a lot of people who weren’t planning on going to college, gave them a little, a boost, and a kick,” he says. “Everyone just started just straight grinding, going to class, getting stuff done.”

 

Oakland Promise is a program that provides scholarship opportunities to students with solid attendance and a decent GPA, money ranging from $1,000 to $16,000.

 

Starks received $1,000 to attend Laney Community College.

 

“People you didn’t see like every day, you’d probably see them like three to two times a week,” he says, “they were just there, after class, before class, just getting stuff done.”

 

Maggie Croushore says this is the goal of the Oakland Promise, to shift the culture around college until everyone is buzzing about it. She works in the mayor’s office and says they’re already seeing an impact.

 

“This year we saw an increase of six percent for college enrollment at the Oakland Promise schools, despite declines overall in Oakland Unified School district.”

 

Still, getting students into college is very different than getting them to graduate from college.

That idea — called college persistence — is something the nonprofit East Bay College Fund thinks a lot about.

Their college graduation rate is 80 percent in a city where just ten percent of students ever walk across that stage.

They’re so good at what they do, the city gave them the Oakland Promise money to distribute.

 

At their downtown Oakland office, college freshman Christian Selano fills out his paperwork, and explains what he can and can’t do with this scholarship check.

 

“I know I can’t pay tickets. Like parking tickets with it,” he says with a laugh. “But you can pay your tuition and stuff like your books. Anything related to your college expenses.”

 

The vibe is infectious and it seems fueled by ... chocolate?

More than academic support

Halloween candy covers the table. And when I sit down to talk with director Eric Guico, he’s showing me a poster of alumnae with one hand and drinking a glass of chocolate milk with the other.

 

“Yeah this is pictures of our scholars throughout the year. The new one, with the Oakland Promise, we wouldn’t have a poster that would be able to fit all the scholars,” he says.

 

That’s a big deal. Guico’s lean staff is responsible for nearly three times as many students now that they’re partnering with the Oakland Promise. They depend on a small cadre of volunteer mentors, who help students through the academic or financial roadblocks that might otherwise cause them to drop out.

 

“Some of the other problems are a lot of what students call ‘going through it.’” Guico explains. “It could be a lot of family issues, one of the students we know of had a death in her family recently and that really affected their performance.”

I think of Jaden Starks. On the day we met, he had actually skipped class, not to play hooky, but to take care of his grandmother.

 

Despite the challenges, Guico thinks the mayor’s moonshot is not just possible, but a moral imperative.

 

“As you know Oakland is changing a lot and many low-income families, many of which our students come from, are leaving Oakland and we don’t want that to happen. We want families who have been here to stay here.”

 

But he says, tripling the number of college grads in Oakland isn’t something his organization can do alone. It will take the entire town getting involved.