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Teaching in Oakland: A Bunche of Memories

contributed by Pendarvis Harshaw

The 2014-15 school year was my first as an instructor at Ralph J. Bunche High School in West Oakland. Now, I understand if you don’t know where that is; that’s cool. I get that a lot. I tell people it’s on 18th and Adeline, right across the street from DeFremery Park. Because (almost) everyone knows about DeFremery Park (AKA Lil Bobby Hutton Park)! It’s a hub for the West Oakland Community. Home to where the Black Panthers used to hold programs for youth and current home of Oakland’s biggest skate park.

Principal Ms. Steele and students

Yeah, in the shadow of that is a little continuation high school they call “Bunche”.

Ralph J. Bunche, the first African American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, has a story that is rarely talked about— at least in my circle (and I roll in pseudo-educated circles of people of color, go figure).

Much like the school’s namesake, the school receives rare mention when it comes to talks of education in the Town. It’s often overshadowed by the larger schools; hell, the OUSD page for Bunche is dang near blank!

Again, it’s a continuation school. One of four “alternative” high schools in Oakland; it’s for students who are on their final chance to earn enough credits to graduate from high school on time.

Gio and Taron in construction class

The students have a number of reasons for being on thin ice: behavioral problems, shaky home situations, or simply being late/absent too many times; there are even some students who’ve just recently immigrated and need to play academic catch-up.

The school functions much like an adult school. There are students who only have two or three classes throughout the day to fulfill their requirements. In turn, they’re in and out of school like a revolving door. Some students only spend six weeks at Bunche, get the credits they need and then dip back to their old school to walk the stage or they just get their diploma and start working.

The rapid turn around makes teaching a cohesive course difficult. While my class was a part of the after school program, some students really needed the credits. So, I had an average of about nine students on any given day — although my roster said I had more.

Tasia’s photo

The subject matter of the class was photojournalism, but it quickly evolved into media studies. We’d discuss current events, historical dates and the future of the media. Guest speakers like an artist named Erk The Jerk, a pop culture curator named Max, and even my own niece, all paid visits to the classroom on separate occasions. We took field trips to UC Berkeley, Oaklandish, and to the American Steel Building — which is right across the street (catty-corner to DeFremery Park). Our biggest project was creating a yearbook, raising funds to print copies and distributing copies to the 200+ students at Bunche.

 

The classes were hour-long sessions, during which I got a chance to see the influence of social media on students: when one student fell out of his seat, the others rushed toward him, phones in hands, all attempting to put the image of the kid on Snapchat.

I saw the lack of political influence on this teenaged demographic: the quietest it ever was in that classroom was when I asked them who the mayor of Oakland was.

Dodgeball!!!

I also saw the influence of love on a group of young people who many feel as though they have messed up in life. Some students on probation, a couple with bullet wounds and a few pregnant women. For them to allow me to come into their world and use media studies as an excuse to show love, laugh at their jokes and take time to assist them on their resumes — these were the action and interactions that will always stick with me.

Now, when I pass 18th and Adeline, I have another notch added to the history of that area. Right next to the memories of the Black Cowboy Parade and Life Is Living Festivals at DeFremery Park are my memories of teaching at Bunche.

Me and my students!

 


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