Fremont High School Media Academy teacher and alumna Jasmene Miranda says, "We didn't really have what other kids had at the time." Tonya Mosley/KQED
Fremont High School Media Academy teacher and alumna Jasmene Miranda says, "We didn't really have what other kids had at the time." (Tonya Mosley/KQED)

Innovation in East Oakland: The Realities of Keeping Up Outside of Silicon Valley's Bubble

Innovation in East Oakland: The Realities of Keeping Up Outside of Silicon Valley's Bubble

6 min

In 1993, former KQED reporter Harry Lin visited Fremont High School in Oakland to see how students were using the latest technologies. Here's an excerpt of what Lin first reported:

"MTV, Nintendo, virtual reality games. It’s the kids, not the grandparents who program the VCR. Kids carry pagers, even when their parents don’t. They seem to be plugged in and wired all the time, everywhere."

Plugged in and wired all the time. But Lin also wondered if that was enough to help students at the time think about a future where they could be the creators of technology. At least one teacher in the piece remarked that he felt students had a surface understanding of technology. "They know what video games are ... MTV. You get about 3 seconds of attention, and then they move on."

I decided to go back to Fremont High to see if anything has changed, and I found that the school almost feels like reporter Harry Lin described it 25 years ago:

"There’s a wrought-iron fence encircling the school here in the working-class flatlands of East Oakland," remarked Lin in his story. "Aggressively plain buildings and a smattering of temporary trailers turned permanent classrooms hunker down inside the encampment. The green windbreakers the guards wear say “security” across the back. Armed with walkie talkies, they patrol the fences' gates ... the grounds' walkways ... the buildings' stairwells."

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The trailers are gone, but the wrought-iron fence is still there, and so are the security guards. The day before my visit, the school was on lockdown. A student brought a gun to school. Media studies teacher Jasmene Miranda is doing her best to get things back to normal.

"OK, I’m going to lock this door so that we don’t have any more interruptions!" Miranda yells. She's been planning this day for months -- a special demo for her Media Academy class. It's a hackathon -- where her students will come up with ways to use augmented and virtual reality to improve their communities.

Francisco Pantaleon, 18, quickly finishes up a game of Fortnite with his friends and directs his attention to Miranda and a presenter from a virtual reality company. The idea of virtual reality excites him.

Students in the Media Academy at Fremont High School in East Oakland work on a solution for a community problem using virtual reality. (Tonya Mosley/KQED)

"Well, the thing is real life kinda sometimes stinks sometimes, and we need to get away and have a little bit of fun time," Pantaleon says with a smile.

Francisco Pantaleon, 18, wants to be a video game designer one day. (Tonya Mosley/KQED)

Pantaleon wants to be a video game designer one day. But Miranda is hoping this VR demo will get Pantaleon and his classmates thinking about other possibilities, too.

"What can we build, what can we do with it? What can we be on the back end? We can be the creators," Miranda says.

It’s a thought process Miranda wishes she had when she was a student here in ‘93. When KQED visited Fremont High that same year, the school’s Media Academy was hailed as a program teaching kids about the latest in technology.

"If you think of what was available back then, we didn’t really have access to that," Miranda says. "There was a mention of VR, and I do remember the discussions back then. I can’t remember if it was SEGA or Nintendo, there was a glove, the Power Glove! We didn’t have access to stuff like that."

Teacher Jasmene Miranda in the '90s during her time as a student at Fremont High School in East Oakland. (Courtesy of Jasmene Miranda)

The Media Academy at Fremont High did teach students back then how to create their own publications and tell their stories through radio and video. But in light of the flood of technological advances and startup culture in the Silicon Valley that followed, Miranda wonders if they were taught the right thing. She listened to that old KQED story and felt an unexpected wave of emotion.

"Relistening to the original, I laughed, and then I was sad because I don’t think that things have changed much," she says.

They Live in a Real World

Teacher and Fremont High school alumna Jasmene Miranda and her classmates back in 1993. (Courtesy of Jasmene Miranda)

Here's how Lin described the students' lives in 1993:

"These students live in a real, as well as the virtual world. That real world harbors family money problems, racial discrimination and impoverished schools." Teacher Steve O’Donahue: "Most of the students here don’t have personal computers at home, they don’t have modems ... they don't have the basic tools to access the knowledge, the superhighway."

Miranda says her students today still live in that real world. Fremont High struggles with attendance problems and low test scores. And Miranda knows the reasons behind those numbers. These students deal with all sorts of things outside of school, like violence and poverty.

"Yes, we have computers, but the amount of students in my academy that actually have access to the internet at home is not as high as you would think it is. So they're using their cellphone on campus using our Wi-Fi signal, and sometimes they may have a cellphone, but that doesn't mean that their cellphone is actually operating," Miranda says.

One of the most eager students in the piece from 1993 was Benjamin Brooks. Miranda helped me track him down through Facebook. KQED's Lin said Brooks didn't have a cellphone, but he was a tech head nonetheless. Here's Brooks, 17, back then:

"Technology is just to make everything easier, you know. Computers are an easier way of filing and storing information. So I think it’s you know, just another stair step. Who knows what we’ll be able to do later on."

"To hear my voice, being so young. It really took me back," Brooks laughed during a recent phone conversation. Brooks now lives in Sacramento and works as a program technician for the California Bureau of Automotive Repair. And he’s happy with what he does.

But when I asked if it had ever crossed his mind back then, the possibility that he or his classmates or friends could be a part of creating technology in Silicon Valley, he got really quiet, and then said this:

"Where I grew up at, I represent the area of people where we are just going to consume. So we get information, enough information so that we can perpetually consume and teach our kids how to consume, and the curriculum that we have leads to us consuming, not inventing and creating. And it’s a cog in the machine that keeps certain things in play."

But Brooks says he’s proud that Jasmene Miranda is getting kids to think of themselves as more than passive consumers. And Miranda says, while all of her students may not make the connections right now, she believes by planting the seeds, one day, they will.

Teacher Jasmene Miranda working with a student on a virtual reality project. (Tonya Mosley/KQED)

"Maybe they’re in college, and they meet up with someone in their dorm room, and they decide they want to develop an app -- and they create a company, and they make sure they hire more youth of Oakland, and they start listening to pitches like what they experieneced today," Miranda says.

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And just maybe -- 25 years from now -- we’ll be telling that story.

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