New middle school has big hopes and plans

alcsignresize.jpgDominique Biagas, 11, and her older sister, Dakota, were surprised today to find that the principal of their new school had the time to talk to them about what they liked to study (science) and about whether they were excited about the start of school (yes).

The sisters were registering at the new Alternative Learning Community in East Oakland — which opens Monday at the shuttered Toler Heights Elementary School — when principal Dennis Guikema stopped them in the hallway to shoot the breeze (and admit that, unlike Dakota, he thought dissection was gross).

After a few minutes, Dominique looked up at her very tall principal with what looked to be a mixture of relief and curiosity. “Everybody’s nice here,” she said to him.

The ALC will have just 15 students and two adults (a teacher and an adviser) in each classroom — about half the size of a typical middle school class — an outdoor education curriculum and plenty of counselors. Students sign up voluntarily; they are referred if they’ve struggled academically or if they’ve been suspended or skipped a bunch of school. It’s not for kids who have been expelled.

The idea, spawned by OUSD administrator Fred Brill, is to start addressing Oakland’s truancy and drop-out crisis before high school. Guikema estimated that more than 500 students fit the school’s profile, but there is only funding for 90 kids.

I plan to write a story about the school before it opens, and to follow up later in the year to see how it delivers on its promise.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.