Oakland’s new alternative school: a haven or a dumping ground?

Principal Dennis Guikema talks with students in the yard.

Staff at Oakland’s new alternative middle school have learned many things this year, through trial and error. But, perhaps above all, they came away with this: When you put 90 adolescents with educational, emotional and/or behavioral challenges under one roof, you’d better be ready for them. Really ready.

But the Alternative Learning Community wasn’t. And, from what staff have told me, it didn’t take long for the kids to catch on. Although the year had its redeeming moments, some have begun to wonder whether it’s such a good idea to group struggling students together (with the intent of providing more services and one-on-one attention) to begin with.

“Some of the kids have succeeded, in spite of the chaos,” Simone Harvey, a sixth-grade adviser, said. “You wonder, sometimes, if it really makes sense to take all of these kids who have the same problems and put them in the same place.”

Does it? (You can read the full story here.)

photo by Laura A. Oda, staff photographer

Katy Murphy

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

  • Sharon

    I would be curious to learn the average number of years, and type, of teaching experience that this staff had. Were most of them newcomers to the teaching profession?

  • Katy Murphy

    Five out of the seven original teachers started the year with one year of experience or less. And ALC Principal Dennis Guikema, while an experienced alternative education teacher, was relatively new in his administrative role; from what I gathered, he was not known to have a particularly effective or consistent approach to discipline.

    Guikema (pictured above) said that it was unrealistic to expect a new teacher to be successful in such a setting, but that there were few incentives for seasoned educators to take the job.

    “This is the toughest environment that anybody could teach in,” he said.

    Do other alternative schools have exceptionally young staffs as well?

  • Nextset

    This is an interesting story and I hope there will be more coverage of the alternative schools. Somebody has to work with these populations and their families. Yes, you don’t get the best or most experienced teachers and staff, yes you will see more younger staff and more staff with something to prove or a need for adventure… That goes with the territory.

    I wonder to what extent they have installed male authority figures..

    Good for all of them. I hope they keep on trying until they find a formula that works for most of the students. The school has to be somewhat unconventional and think out of the box.

    I think they need to keep control of the basic discipline issues and decide what students they absolutely do not want on the premises (Firestarters? Psychopathic kids? Intermittent Explosive disorders?). At some point if they are not careful they might get saddled with certain kids that could take the whole place down.

  • Javier Armas

    I helped start ALC. The school offered no real pedagogical system that would lead middle school students forward. Administrators would blame staff for such shortcomings. The students were the ones who were shorted. 7 teachers, 5 Advisors, 3 MSW clinicians and three other important staff members worked for the school to deal with less than 80 students (It didnt start with 90). But the lack of planning coupled with the principals incompentence destroyed any potential. I left because I felt that the school was a dumping ground. Working in what ALC staff called the ‘war zone’ became very tautological.

  • Simone Harvey

    I am part of the original staff at ALC and have survived this year with a little more than indelible optimism. While I have many criticisms of how the school was run and have communicated them openly, I think it is all too convenient to sensationalize the school’s issues at the expense of communicating why we have significant numbers of children at this particular end of the spectrum in the first place. As the quasi centerpiece of this focus on what I consider, my school – my emotional and professional education – I would like to offer a perspective that, coincidentally, didn’t get much space in the article or the blog.

    I would’ve liked to hear that these kids are a product of their environment and the difficulties that we’re presented with at ALC are emblematic of the conspiracy of circumstances and the trauma of this population. It would have been fair to contextualize these students with what is happening in Oakland in terms of crime, drug abuse, illiteracy and more specifically, the fact that the Oakland Unified School District’s porous nature allows many students to slip through the proverbial cracks.

    It bothers me that this article gravitates towards hamstringing these students in a self-fulfilling prophecy while painting the staff as naïve and short of breath. I posit that the people who were involved in this project knew full fell that we had the bare minimum of resources and that the gravity of the sexual, emotional, physical abuse, crime and violence and well as a lack of academic and family support, demands more than what we were so generously provided with.

    We asked for a lot more, all of us. And admittedly, I was one who questioned the efficacy of grouping all these children with similar issues together, however, it is hard to imagine that anyone would offer an alternative. Apparently, this is the best we can do. I would like to know what people, which families, which administrators are going to get behind me on mixing problem-labeled kids with the mainstream darlings. What reasons do people with “normal” kids have to force them to mingle with the rabble?

    So dumping ground or not, if putting them all in one place is the only way ANY of these kids are going to get some real attention and, albeit painfully, highlight how much, as a society, we have neglected them and their families, then who is responsible for demanding more than this?! Who is holding themselves accountable to this population? Who is delivering whatever resource and unconditional regard necessary to these children? Who is throwing all their ability, compassion and advocacy into this bottomless pit of ALC students? Only ONE group of people: the ALC staff and principal. And unless someone else is stepping up to provide more for these kids and to ruffle some feathers, placing them where they are set up for success – with other unambiguously successful peers – highlighting the shortcomings of the school is a moot point because it is self-evident that the lack of significant power and ALC’s [limited] scope breeds incompetencies.

  • Macheo Payne

    It is reasonable for the leadership to take some of the responsibility for the school’s rocky start, however I don’t hear you taking ANY responsibility as someone who helped start the school.

    FACT: You yelled at the students and frequently got frustrated at them sometimes cussing when dealing with them.

    So when you lay the blame on the principal and administrators and seek to protray yourself, all the staff and the students as lambs, remember your own performance as an advisor and include your shortcomings along with your incredible strengths that you displayed with you adviosry curriculums and intense interest in the students that I still respect and find admirable.
    However I have to call you on your stuff when you ignore your own incompetence. You of all people should be coming with a higher analysis other than the same old, “bosses are bad, workers are saints” rhetoric. You have your own agenda in bashing ALC’s leadership and I won’t put you on blast but when you take open, public shots at a school you were so invested in, I am disappointed. I was disappointed with Katy’s article but she has no reason to be fair and objective. She is selling newspapers. You on the otherhand showed up to the graduation and still care deeply about the students. It’s a shame that you unwittingly contributed to the demonizing of our students without noting any critical context of the conditions that contributed to a school like ALC being necessary. No mention of why 94% of the students are black boys and girls. No mention about why there was not one white student in OUSD qualified to attend or referred to ALC, not one. But there is no mention of racism or inequity or your favorite, injustice. I wish you the best bro but you got to step your game up.

  • Katy Murphy

    Actually, Macheo, I do have plenty of reason to be fair in my reporting. I suppose it’s convenient to assume otherwise — I am part of the much maligned (often, deservedly) `mainstream media’ after all. But I actually do take pains to present the realities of the city’s schools as honestly as I can. Sometimes it’s an inspiring picture; sometimes it’s not.

    I hear what you’re saying about the larger context, the societal problems that make schools like the ALC necessary. But, unless I’m mistaken, current and former ALC staff aimed to improve the lives of their students through a different educational model — not to wait for society to change, or to use those social ills to explain why a school such as the ALC could never be successful.

    Otherwise, why open the school to begin with?

    Everyone I interviewed talked about a “lack of structure” at the ALC — a shortcoming which they believed was undermining the potential for the success and well-being of its students. It was a serious concern, and one they were working to address.

    It would be a disservice for me to gloss over such structural weaknesses and their consequences. Don’t the students deserve better?

    From my point of view, no one with whom I spoke was “demonizing” the kids. I don’t believe the article, although it described a general disorder at the school, presented the students as one-dimensional, either. (A teenager communicating with a bullfrog on an outdoor education trip is hardly a detail that would lead to such a generalization.)

    I do realize, however, that news stories don’t have the space to convey the complete picture of any situation, which is why I welcome you and others to fill in the gaps in this forum.

  • Cranky teacher

    “I would like to know what people, which families, which administrators are going to get behind me on mixing problem-labeled kids with the mainstream darlings. What reasons do people with “normal” kids have to force them to mingle with the rabble?”

    I honor your enormous committment to these kids. However, is there any need to bash other students as “darlings” and mock them as “‘normal'”?

    You chose to work with these kids and get paid for it, both in money and in the satisfaction of being on the frontlines, etc. That doesn’t mean a parent should feel guilty if they don’t want their child to be in an unsafe or chaotic school environment.

  • Sharon

    Thank you for saying that, Cranky Teacher. Here’s a question for you.

    One day, I asked a middle school teacher how many difficult-to-manage and inclined-to-be-disruptive kids it takes in her 30+ student classes to completely destroy the environment for the rest of the group. She said, “About three would do it.” Her answer made me start to think about numbers and balance and if there is some way to judge what percentage of high-need, non-compliant, disruptive kids a typical school (or classroom) can tolerate before their presence overwhelms what teachers are trying to do, and destroys learning for the other students.

    My hypothesis is that there is a tipping point, I just don’t know what it is. Of course, there will be variables in terms of teacher skills, the presence (or not) of an effective school-wide discipline policy, etc. but what would be a reasonable range?

  • Cranky teacher

    Sharon: I would think the range is enormous.

    Great curriculum and great teaching, given some time and support, can make ANY class run smoothly.

    The rub is gettin those key things in place!

    Average teaching and average curriculum with average support only work with middle-class kids.

  • Javier

    Interesting discussion. I would simply say that if the school had built a real pedagocial structure, one that was applicable to these students, we could have seen what ALC could have become. I never remembered a staffer not agreeing with this fact. The potential was enormous. I think Fred Brill is brilliant institutional engineer. But the complete negligence of building a pedagocial structure destroyed the potential ALC had and it quickly was thrown into a state of constant institutional chaos. As a result, admin blamed “objective causes” and the limitations of teachers and advisors. But what is very problematic is, the lack of such structure actually reproduces the racial and class inequalities the students are already subjected to. And to deny this fact is to be an accomplice with such injustice. How could someone argue that the fact that 94% of these students being black justifies the lack of structure? And the sad thing is, if a real structure was built in ALC, it would have had the opposite affect of breaking down such systems of inequality that is so built into Oakland schools. But I think a deep nihilism that permeated in certain key people fostered a shallow careerism and acceptance of such chaos and inequality.

    20 year old Gary King Jr. slain by OPD, has a painting that reads something that is applicable to this discussion, “The Children of Oakland Need Justice.”

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  • W. Dean

    All anyone has to do is go back a few years in history and see what happens when a group of people literally “worships” their president. The exact same footsteps are being followed today. But very educated people are the ones that are blind to it. Do your homework, just as you tell your students, look past the illusions instead of following blindly. Teach “Our Treasures, Our Children” to think for themselves. Teach them that there are no limits. Every single student in this school can be successful! It’s up to you as an educator to teach them Wealth and Success. Teach them that anything is possible. Teach them to build a business, build an empire, not to have a dead end job. Our children are our treasures, they are a “Diamond in the rough” and are thirsting for knowledge. Each and everyone of them deserve better. It looks like the Oakland School Board is only looking out for themselves. Look at the article below, this is where the Oakland School Board is leading our children by renaming the school. Which of you educators will step up to the plate and actually do something about this.



    The Hitler Youth

    Jungsturm Adolf Hitler

    Hitler Youth Propaganda poster

    In 1920, Adolf Hitler, authorized the formation of a Youth League of the National Socialist Workers’ Party (NSDAP) based upon the principles of an earlier German youth group known as as the Wandervögel. The Wandervögel (translated as “Migratory Bird”) were the German equivalent of the Boy Scouts of America and the World Organization of the Scout Movement.

    Wandervögel members had an idealistic, romantic notion of the past, yearning for simpler days when people lived off the land. Wandervögel members distinguished themselves by wearing shorts and hiking boots rather than the starched shirts and creased trousers of the middle class. They believed in the importance of rediscovering nature without any modern conveniences. They sang old German folk songs around the campfire and greeting each other by saying “Heil.”

    This new Nazi Youth League attracted very few members at first, competing against numerous other well-established youth groups, and following the failed Munich Beer Hall Putsch and Hitler’s arrest, the Youth League of the NSDAP had been outlawed.

    Adolf Hitler with one of the Hitler Youth boys

    However with Hitler’s release from prison and the resurgence of the NSDAP, a new Nazi Youth Party was established and headed by Gustav Lenk. In May 1922 Lenk held a beer hall meeting in Munich, to officially proclaim the foundation of League. The Nazi Youth League was formally established small units were created in Nuremberg and other cities.

    The growth of the League was slow at first, and in 1922 assistance came from the party newspaper the Völkischer Beobachter which now called for new members, declaring:

    “We demand that the National Socialist Youth, and all other young Germans, irrespective of class or occupation, between fourteen and eighteen years of age, whose hearts are affected by the suffering and hardships afflicting the Fatherland, and who later desire to join the ranks of the fighters against the Jewish enemy, the sole originator of our present shame and suffering, enter the Youth League of the NSDAP…”

    In May 1923, Lenk published the first Nazi youth magazine, Nationale Jungsturm, which proved to be a money loser and was subsequently diminished to being merely a supplement of the Völkischer Beobachter.

    Gustav Lenk maintained strong convictions on exactly how the League should be managed, and soon had a falling out with the party and its leader Adolf Hitler.

    Hitler greets members of the Arbeiterjugend

    Hitler would tolerate no insurrection within the ranks and Lenk was soon discredited by the party on trumped up charges that he was a traitor and petty thief. Lenk had no recourse and was eventually removed from all party functions and replaced by Kurt Gruber.

    Kurt Gruber, who impressed Hitler with his zeal and organizational talent was officially proclaimed as its first leader. On July 4,1926 at a Nazi party rally On Sunday, Gruber’s Greater German Youth Movement was renamed as the Hitler Jugend, with the official name being:

    Hitler-Jugend, Bund deutscher Arbeiterjugend (Hitler Youth, League of German Worker Youth)

    The Hitler Youth was born!

    The Hitler Youth is born

    When it originally began, the Hitler Youth was Munich-based only. In 1923, the organization had a little over one thousand members. In 1925, the membership grew to over 5,000. Five years later, national Hitler Youth membership stood at 25,000. By the end of 1932 (a few weeks before the Nazis came to power) it was at 107,956. At the end of 1933, the Hitler Youth had 2,300,000 members.

    Kurt Gruber organized the corps under adult leaders, and the general membership comprised boys aged fourteen to eighteen. Gruber initiated new guidelines stipulating that all Hitler Youth members over age 18 had to be Nazi Party members; appointments to high ranking positions required Party approval and Hitler Youths must obey all commands issued by any Nazi Party leader.

    Banne Flag of the Hitler Youth

    By the end of 1927, a further requirement was that Hitler Youths turning 18 had to join the storm troopers. However, this resulted in a shortage of trained leaders within the upper echelons of the Hitler Youth. The Youth Committee of the NSDAP then worked out an arrangement with the SA allowing valuable members to stay in the Hitler Youth past age 18.

    The basic unit of the Hitler Youth was the Banne, the equivalent of a military regiment. There were more than 300 throughout Germany, each of a strength of about 6000 youths. Every unit carried a flag of almost identical design, but the individual Bann was identified by its number, displayed in black on a yellow scroll above the eagle’s head. The flags measured 200 cm long by 145 cm high.

    Baldur von Schirach

    At the end of 1928, Gruber called for a meeting of the entire Hitler Youth leadership to streamline the organization. That meeting resulted in the addition of a new department for boys aged 10 to 14, later known as the Jungvolk. A separate branch was established for girls, later called the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the League of German Girls, or BDM.

    By 1931 Gruber himself ran into difficulties with high ranking members within the NSDAP over his management of the Hitler Youth. He came under fire by SA leader Ernst Röhm who felt the Hitler Youth should be subordinated to the SA. Gruber was often criticized for slow growth of the Hitler Youth ranks when the rest of the party was seeing large increases in membership.

    In October of 1931, under increased pressure from Hitler, and Rohm, Gruber resigned as leader of the Hitler Youth and was replaced by the newly appointed Reichsjugendführer (Reich’s Youth Leader) Baldur von Schirach.

    The Nazis capitalized on the natural enthusiasm of young people, their craving for action and desire for peer approval, hoping, ultimately, each young person would come to regard his or her Hitler Youth or BDM unit as a home away from home,in some case as an alternative to their real home.

    Hitler Youth at a Nazi rally in 1936

    Beginning in 1933, every year thereafter was to be given a special theme by the leadership of the Hitler Youth. 1933 was aptly named the “Jahr der Organization” or “the year of organization”.

    Many of the HJ activities thus centered on such topics as administration, organization, structure, etc. As a reward for his previous years of service, On June 17th, 1933 Hitler elevated Baldur von Schirach to the new position of “Jugendführer des Deutschen Reiches” answerable only to him.

    On December 1st, 1936, a law was enacted which made it mandatory for all German youths to be educated according to the philosophies of Nationalist Socialism from the age of 10 and higher. This was called the Reichsjugenddienstpflicht (mandatory youth service) and it essentially legalized the Hitler Youth movement and organization while also neutralizing nearly every other, non Hitler Youth affiliated youth movement.

    Schirach’s goal in 1936 was to enroll the entire population of ten-year-olds throughout Germany into the Hitler Youth as a present for Hitler on his 47th birthday. 1936 became the “Year of the Jungvolk”

    In 1937, a Hitler Youth rifle school was also established. About 1.5 million boys were trained in rifle shooting and military field exercises over the next few years with over 50,000 boys earning a marksmanship medal that required near perfect shooting at a distance of 50 meters.

    Hitler Youth home in Litsmannstadt “Lodz”

    Special Hitler Youth Paramilitary formations for boys eventually included: the Flieger-HJ in which aviation enthusiasts built gliders, participated in annual glider flying competitions, visited Luftwaffe facilities and went for rides in fighters and bombers; the Motor-HJ for boys 16 and older in which they acquired their driver’s license and learned to ride motorcycles; and the Marine-HJ in which they obtained sailing certificates, learned river navigation, and participated in naval exercises aboard German training ships.

    In September 1938, the last peacetime Nuremberg rally was held. This event was called “Rally of Greater Germany” (Reichsparteitag Großdeutschland), and hosted nearly 700,000 members of various Nazi Party organizations over its weeklong festivities.

    Der Sturmer article depicting Hitler Youth

    On Saturday, September 10, over 80,000 Hitler Youths marched into the city stadium and performed military-style parade maneuvers, which they had been practicing for an entire year, ending with a grand finale in which they spelled out the name ‘Adolf Hitler’ in the grandstand.

    On November 9 1938, a coordinated destruction broke out in cities, towns and villages throughout the Third Reich. In a single night, Kristallnacht saw the destruction of more than 2,000 Synagogues, and the ransacking of tens of thousands of Jewish businesses and homes.

    Although predominantly perpetrated by Nazi SA Storm troopers, German women and children also participated in the riots and destruction of Jewish property. When von Schirach learned that Hitler Youth members had indeed engaged in such offensive actions, he issued an order officially forbidding Hitler Youth members from taking part in any similarly minded actions in the future.

    By 1939 the Hitler Youth became the largest youth organization in the world with over 7.3 million strong within its ranks. A new law was issued on March 25, 1939, conscripting any remaining holdouts into the organization amid warnings to parents that unless their children were enrolled they would be forcibly removed and placed in the custody of state run orphanages.

    Baldur von Schirach evacuating children from German cities

    In 1940 Baldur von Schirach organized the evacuation of 5 million children from cities threatened by Allied bombing. Not wanting to be left out of the war, received Hitler’s permission to volunteer for the army and later that year, he joined the army and volunteered for service in France, where he was awarded the Iron Cross.

    He was replaced by Artur Axmann as Reichsjugendführer who immediately began to reform the group into an auxiliary force which could perform war duties. The Hitler Youth became active in German fire brigades and assisted with recovery efforts to German cities affected from Allied bombing.

    Artur Axmann

    The Hitler Youth also assisted in such organizations as the Reich Postal Service, Reichsbahn, fire services, and Reich radio service, and served among anti-aircraft defense crews.

    In 1942, the Hitler Youth established the W-E Lagers. These were special military training camps lasting three weeks in duration. By November of 1942, the Wehrmacht operated 120 W-E Lagers and the SS operated 42 such camps. If all of the Hitler Youth boys at their local school were 17, the whole class was sent to the W-E Lager as a single unit.

    13 year old Hitler Youth captured near Nartinzell

    The year 1943 marked the military turning point for Hitler’s Reich. In January, the German Sixth Army was destroyed by the Soviets at Stalingrad and the call to arms amongst the ranks of the Hitler Youth was raised. The result was the formation of the 12th SS-Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.

    The division was deployed during the Battle of Normandy to be deployed against the British and Canadian forces in the north of Caen. During the following months, the Hitlerjugend division earned itself a reputation for ferocity and fanaticism.

    Towards the fall of 1944, many of the Hitler Youth were drafted into service digging anti-tank ditches around eastern German towns to stop the advancing Red Army, and in the west to stem the advance of the Allied forces. Hundreds of miles of trenches were frantically dug by young boys all over the country.

    By September of the same year, the war had taken its toll on German youth. The Hitlerjugend division numbered only 600 surviving soldiers, and with little ammunition and no armor, thousands had of young lives were wasted in Normandy and Falaise. The division also participated in the failed Battle of the Bulge, and were later sent to Hungary where they participated in the failed attempt to recapture Budapest.

    Member of the Hitler Youth captured by American soldiers

    On May 8, 1945, numbering just 455 soldiers and one tank, the 12th SS-Panzer Division Hitlerjugend surrendered to the American 7th Army.

    The Hitler Youth formed a major part of the last line of German defense, and were reportedly among the fiercest fighters. The city commander, General Helmuth Weidling, ordered Axmann to disband the Hitler Youth combat formations but the order was never carried out, and many more Hitler Youth died defending Berlin street by street from the ever-advancing Soviet army.

    The Hitler Youth was disbanded by Allied authorities as part of the De-Nazification process and many of its leaders were put on trial by Allied authorities for corrupting the hearts and minds of millions of young Germans.