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Attack of the–What?

In 2014 I wrote about the Paideia Program at Oakland Technical High School. Started at Oakland Tech during the mid-80s by Oakland Tech teachers assisted by people from Paideia, it worked counter to the prevailing view of North Oakland as a gun- and knife-infested crack war zone whose young people were good for nothing. During the first ten or twenty years of its existence, its students quietly demolished every stereotype of right and left about the ability, education, and the future of poor black North Oaklanders. The Paideia students engaged in close reading of Montesquieu and Machiavelli, Plato and Aristotle, Gandhi and Douglass. They discussed the reading and the ideas it generated in Socratic discussions—real ones. They learned to write. And when they applied to colleges, they were admitted: not just to Laney and Chabot, the nearby community colleges, but also Brown, Bryn Mawr, Cal Berkeley, Cal Poly, Cal State East Bay, Harvard, Howard, Johns Hopkins, Kenyon, MIT, Northwestern, Oberlin, Penn, Pratt, Rensselaer Polytechnic, Spelman, Stanford, and Wellesley.

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door. Regardless of who said it, this line has identified a pragmatic test of quality that Americans have recognized for years. It describes what happened as the program’s reputation spread. Students from the catchment zones of Oakland’s other high schools, some of them dire places, began to want to go there, including white and Asian students. Some parents removed their children from private schools and sent them to Oakland Tech, where, in the early 80s, bleeding dead bodies had lain in the corridors. Obviously the change was not all down to Paideia, though there is argument about what it was down to. Sociologists, epidemiologists, and criminologists will give it the needed study, but the great mass of the people knew what it knew: here was a free public high school accessible to all, whose graduates went everywhere from the campus down the street to Harvard Yard.

The Paideia program was faced with a “problem”. For a long time, students could gain admission merely by promising and showing they would do the “extra” (i.e., not extra or too much but exactly right) work the program required. Now, if I were a school administrator and some dedicated teachers had achieved such a brilliant success, I’d be asking how the program could be expanded. That is not what happened. It was “frozen” at its current size, which, given its increased fame and desirability, was bound to make applications more competitive and admission more selective. That is what happened, and it could have been avoided.

Build a better mousetrap, and your competitors will try to destroy it. The school forbade the Paideia teachers from seeking applicants among 9th-graders. The managers of Oakland Tech’s “Health Academy” forbade its students from joining Paideia. School district officials said Paideia ignored the district’s master plan for educational “pathways” (but not a widened path to Paideia’s door). In 2017 Ms Maryann Wolfe, one of the founding director-teachers of Paideia at Oakland Tech, resigned, concerned that the program faced a serious threat. Did it? This story works outside so many of the conventional thought-clichés and ways of seeing found in education that little has been reported or examined. A number of claims made “more in sorrow than in anger”—a sure sign of anger under the surface—suggest that it did, but I would like to see an update. 

The best way to close this story for now may be to quote a Paideia graduate. Daniel Hutchinson, an African American attorney, graduated in 1995. He said the program “reset my baseline for what was possible. Without it, I would not have become who I am today.” An admission officer from an earlier Stanford once told Ms Wolfe early in her tenure at Oakland Tech, “When we see an application from the Oakland Public Schools, we immediately throw it in the trash.” Not any more—we hope.

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