Oakland Unity Middle School students beating the odds in math, English

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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Oakland middle school beating the odds in math, English
Many students in Oakland are failing when it comes to English and math proficiency, but Oakland Unity Middle School is beating the odds.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Eight-grader Yaretzi Fernandez enjoys the way English is taught at Oakland Unity Middle School so much, it has inspired her beyond the class room.

"Because of (my teacher), I do want to be an English teacher. It's one of my dreams," she says.

That a strong sentiment considering that many of Oakland's Black and Brown students are failing when it comes to English and math proficiency.

A new report by Raise the Bar says of Oakland 45,000 students, only 2 in 10 Black and Brown students are reading at grade level. That's 14% below the state average. And just 1 in 10 are doing math at grade level, which is 10% below the state average.

MORE: Oakland's Black, Brown students lag behind state levels for reading, math: report

But not at Oakland Unity Middle School.

"We actually had the highest gains in math proficiency in all of Oakland last year," says Damon Grant, Co-Principal and math teacher at Oakland Unity Middle School.

The school is located deep in East Oakland -- 85% of the majority Black and Brown students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Despite all that, Grant says they have high expectations.

"Our students are coming in, sometimes with some gaps to fill. But we are not going to only focus on filling the gap. We are also going to make sure that they are being exposed to what 8th graders need to be exposed to," explains Grants.

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What's helped are its learning labs, which are 70 minutes a day, four days a week, devoted just to math and English.

"There is part of the English period that is spent in a grammar and vocabulary building space. And then there is part that is spent in book club and literature circles, and more of like a conceptual and creative space," she says.

Teacher Nicolas Ward shares how a recent 8th grade math project involved pitching to members of the community, who played the role of investors.

"The kids had to come up with the right equation. And basically pitch their idea to these investors in the room. I thought that is something I never saw in middle school, ever," says Ward.

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Oakland Unity Middle School is a charter school, which often means smaller class size. And, more autonomy over its curriculum.

"Teachers are willing to slow down. And look at data. And see, like, 'Hey this is something I might need to reteach with this group, or particular student,'" says Ward.

Principal Grants says retaining quality teachers is another key to their success.

"(I'm) just really proud of our kids and our community. And it's been a lot of hard work to get to this point, but I think we have created something really special," says Principal Grant.

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