Oakland’s Life Academy: first out of the gate

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Life Academy

photo by John J. Kim

Life Academy

One of Oakland’s newest small schools helped Talicia Beck make an academic turnaround.

Two years ago, Talicia, now 16, was a freshman at Oakland’s Fremont High School, where she regularly walked out of classes, didn’t do assignments and posted a solid ‘D’ average. “The teachers [at Fremont] didn’t care, so I didn’t care,” Talicia says bluntly.

Then Talicia’s mother intervened. At the time, Fremont, a sprawling high school with more than 1,700 students, was divided into several career academies. One of them—the health and bioscience academy—was in the process of being spun off into a small, stand-alone high school that would be renamed Life Academy. That’s where Talicia landed. “My mom forced me to come,” says Talicia. “I didn’t want to—all of my friends were at Fremont and Castlemont [another large school].”

At the new school, Talicia’s outlook improved, and her grades rose dramatically to a B-plus. “Everything about Life is positive,” she says.

Life Academy, which opened a year ago with 250 students and 15 teachers, is the first high school academy in Oakland to spin off into an autonomous small school. Teachers, parents and students connected to Fremont’s Health Academy came up with the idea to launch their own school in the spring of 2000, when a district-wide small schools initiative called for transforming interconnected high school academies into autonomous small schools.

Being the first school to strike out on its own had some advantages, such as establishing new policies and procedures, says Life Principal Laura Flaxman, previously an assistant principal at Fremont. But there were also drawbacks. Implementing those new policies and procedures was time consuming, Flaxman explains. She and six young Fremont teachers who started the school had little time leftover to focus on curriculum and other academic concerns.

“This year we’re starting with a real strong focus on literacy, which we frankly didn’t have time for last year,” Flaxman notes.

Finding suitable space was another challenge. A former Red Cross facility already occupied by the school district fit the bill, and Life received $428,000 from the district to retrofit the space with science labs and pay for the move. (The school also received $250,000 over five years from the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation to pay for professional development and coaching for teachers.)

District funds, however, didn’t cover everything. The facility had no gymnasium, so educators came up with a creative way for students to earn gym credits. Between semesters, Life students must participate daily in one of several prescribed activities, including camping, kayaking or taking yoga classes, which Talicia did last year.

The science of Life

Life Academy has a rigorous college preparatory curriculum that requires students to take two science classes every year. Students are expected to graduate, attend college and major in a scientific field. (Last year, 96 percent of Life’s seniors were accepted at two- or four-year colleges and universities.)

The school also connects its life science coursework to hands-on experience through year-long, part-time internships at the city’s science museum, local hospitals and area biotech companies, says Flaxman. For instance, hospital internships allow students to do rotations with doctors, she explains.

More generally, Life aims to make every classroom an intimate learning community—a hallmark of the small school model.

With small class sizes—fewer than 20 kids per class—Talicia can’t escape the attention of her teachers. That means no more wandering out of class. Instead, she gets lost in her reading.

Last year, her humanities class read “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding’s 1954 novel of shipwrecked teens. Talicia says the factions formed by the stranded boys reminded her of Fremont, where exclusive social groups were the norm. Not so at Life, she says. “At Fremont I didn’t know anybody outside my own little circle, but here I kind of know everyone.”

Making sure students don’t fall through the cracks is a priority at Life, Flaxman says “Every kid will have at least one adult who knows them very well.”

Like other small schools throughout the country, Life uses advisors to foster a close-knit school community. Each student is assigned to a teacher who will get to know them personally and will serve as their advisor, notes Flaxman, who advises several students.

“The advisor is the person calling home, and the person meeting regularly with the student’s parents,” Flaxman says.

Talicia credits her advisor, humanities teacher Erik Rice, for getting her back on track. She says that more than anything, Rice simply listened to her. He also encouraged her reading, instilled better study habits and helped her set goals. It was in Rice’s class that she read “Lord of the Flies.”

“He’s the coolest teacher here,” Talicia says. “He talked to me about how to get into college, and he stayed on my back. I studied more and I didn’t leave class.”

Talicia now has her sights set on attending college, perhaps the University of California-Davis or Berkeley, she says, so she can stay close to home and her mom.