It was hard for teacher Katie Porubek to hold back the tears Monday night as she spoke about a few of her graduating Oakland High School students.
It was no small task for her students, either. Many never thought they’d get to wear the traditional cap and gown.
Just a decade ago, no one graduated from Tacoma Public Schools’ alternative high school. Some considered it a dumping ground for students who couldn’t succeed. Expectations were low.
But the number of Oakland graduates has been steadily climbing in recent years – 16 in 2010, 32 last year. And on Monday night, a record 44 seniors shook hands with Superintendent Carla Santorno during commencement ceremonies.
Nicholas Burkhart was among them. He was going nowhere when he arrived at Oakland three years ago. After two years at Wilson High School, he said, too much marijuana and not enough studying had put him 11/2 years behind in credits.
Oakland gave him the drive he needed to succeed, and, with just a few hundred students, the more personal and relaxed environment he craved.
Nick signed a contract to complete his regular classes, along with independent study and credit retrieval classes.
“The contract helped me stay focused – I’m easily distracted,” he said. “I stayed after school every single day.”
Porubek was there with him, pushing and shoving him to the finish line when his determination wavered.
Now Nick is aiming for a career in graphic arts and plans to attend Tacoma Community College and then The Evergreen State College.
Nick’s success at Oakland is the reason his friend, Darra Cobb, came to the school, said her mom, Jamie Cobb. Nick moved in with the Cobbs more than a year ago.
Darra was floundering at Wilson, Jamie said: “It was a big school with huge classes. She didn’t want to be there.”
At Oakland, Darra said, teachers knew her. “The teachers cared so much and wanted to see me succeed,” she said. “I realized I had to get good grades.”
Success began for her in math class, then moved on to other subjects. Monday night, she was awarded a scholarship from the Tacoma Education Association, one of more than a dozen Oakland grads who earned scholarships. She’s headed for TCC and wants to be a radiology technician.
Cole Peterson had been to two other Tacoma high schools before landing at Oakland. He said great teachers made the difference. His Oakland classmates nominated him to become a peer mediator – a panel that helps students resolve disputes at school. He plans to attend TCC and Central Washington University, and to have a career in fashion merchandising.
Oakland student enrollment this year has hovered at or just below 300. Many arrive with virtually no credits from their previous school, so traditional lines tend to blur. Teachers and students think in terms of credits earned, rather than class rankings of freshmen or seniors.
Last year’s free and reduced lunch rate, which measures poverty, was 78.7 percent at Oakland – well above the 63.9 percent figure districtwide, according to state figures.
Thu Ament is in his second year as Oakland principal. But he credits his predecessors with helping set Oakland on the path to success.
New this year is the designation of Oakland as a federal Title I school, which added funds to pay for teacher training and increased parent involvement activities, Ament said.
Another factor in student success, Ament believes, is breaking the school year into quarters instead of semesters. Students take three classes in three 90-minute blocks each day. That way, they can focus on fewer classes at a time, and they’re able to complete coursework in a shorter time frame than in a traditional high school.
For some students, Oakland is a stop on the way back to their mainstream high school or to another high school completion program at a community or technical college. For others, like the 44 seniors this year, it’s a path to traditional graduation.
But many Oakland students have steep mountains to climb on the way – from homelessness and broken families, to legal issues and teen parenthood.
The Communities in Schools program at Oakland offers help. A corps of more than three dozen volunteers runs a clothing and food bank, provides mentors and supports activities like a trip to the state Capitol.
Oakland has a day care center and special program for teen parents. Some Oakland kids juggle school and full-time jobs.
Oakland has the highest student turnover rate in Tacoma Public Schools by far, but it is dropping.
Ament, formerly the principal at Foss High School, lauds his entire staff – everyone from classroom teachers to custodians and office staff – for the school’s transformation.
“We tell kids, ‘We’re going to help you.’ But you have to be responsible,” he said. “Let us help you. Let’s create a place you want to come back to.”Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635