Rudsdale Newcomer High School students organized a “Fiesta de Patria” event for Central American Independence Day on Sept. 15. They dressed up in their countries’ colors and shared foods from home. (Courtesy Emma Batten-Bowman)
Oakland high school student Evelin Solis lost her job at a coffee shop a day after Bay Area shelter-in-place orders were issued. A week later, her dad lost his job painting houses.
Since they arrived from Guatemala in 2017, Solis and her dad have split their expenses 50-50. With both out of work, they barely scraped together April's rent of $900 for a room they share.
With no job, computer or home internet, Solis has been relying upon the support of her teachers at Rudsdale Newcomer High School. Her math and English instructors have become advocates, employment agents and grant writers, while teaching students remotely.
Nearly one in five high school students in Oakland Unified School District is new to the country. Like other schools in the district, Rudsdale High has become an essential service provider for these newcomers during the coronavirus pandemic, providing students with food and laptops and advising them on how to navigate social services and other support.
Teachers Help Outside the Classroom
Since campuses closed, Rudsdale High literacy specialist Kathleen Mitchell has been moonlighting as a manager of the school's food delivery operation.
“Food is like ground zero,” she said. “We have to have wraparound supports around food.”
Over the last seven weeks, she’s helped distribute 5,400 pounds of food to most of the school's 150 students and their families, including Solis and her dad.
“They bring the essentials,” Solis said. “When we can’t go pick up food it really helps us that they drop it off.”
Solis and her father don’t have a car, and she said it feels too risky to take public transportation during the pandemic. They've been relying on a friend to take them to the school district's food distribution sites or other food pantries when possible.
When Mitchell surveyed the students and their households — a total of about 700 people — she was stunned to learn that among the 90% of students who said they needed food support, nearly half hadn’t been able to get to an OUSD pickup site.
“There's definitely a gap between the students who absolutely need food and the students who are getting to the Oakland sites,” Mitchell said. “It's just not accessible for the families that seem to be some of the most vulnerable. They are going hungry for sure.”
For Solis and her dad, another concern is rent — they couldn’t pay anything for May.
“From now on, the truth is we don’t know what we’re going to do,” Solis said. “We're worried because the landlord is a little demanding.”
Rudsdale teachers say many students are in similar situations. One English teacher recruited his father, a lawyer, to draft a letter students could use to explain their rights under the eviction moratorium.
“I am representing your tenants,” it reads in part. “This letter is intended to comply with the governor’s order that tenants unable to pay all or a portion of their rent inform the landlord of that situation within 7 days of the first of the month.”
Solis has a copy in hand, but she’s skeptical.
“I’m not sure he’s going to take it well,” she said of her landlord. “We’ll see what happens, because when he comes, he always wants to take some money with him.”
She has reason to doubt. Some students are still being threatened with eviction, according to Abraham Falk-Rood, the English teacher who enlisted his father's help. In one case, a landlord tried throwing out a student’s belongings in the middle of the night, he said.
To support students like Solis, teachers and administrators have managed to raise around $43,000 through a combination of a GoFundMe campaign, stimulus check pledge and grant from the Rogers Family Foundation.
So far, Rudsdale administrators have given out relief funds to about half the school’s students. Solis recently got $200 that she said she’ll use mostly to cover her phone bills.
Falk-Rood is also helping Solis and her father apply for unemployment. Though both are eligible, they hadn’t applied because they struggled to navigate the process.
Juggling Academics and Jobs
Even before the pandemic, Rudsdale’s students were among those most likely to drop out of school. The majority are older, came to the United States alone and don’t have parents here. They not only support themselves financially, but often their families back home, too. Many are also undocumented and juggle appointments with lawyers and appearances in immigration court.
With so many responsibilities, prioritizing school isn't easy, and teachers worry the new hurdles created by the pandemic will make it all but impossible.
The first step toward making online learning feasible was distributing Chromebooks to the 80% of students who didn’t have computers at home.
Solis was glad to get one, but without an internet connection it was mostly useless.
“Students immediately started texting us, ‘Hey, the Chromebooks don't work. I can't get on the internet,’ " said Rudsdale math teacher Nick Johnson, who’s in charge of getting students the tools they need for distance learning. “They needed Wi-Fi access, and that’s been a lot more complicated.”
Sixty percent of Rudsdale students surveyed didn’t have home internet. And while companies have advertised free service, students are struggling to access it. Johnson has spent weeks walking students through applications by phone, troubleshooting one hurdle after another.
After Solis tried to sign up, she got a letter in the mail asking for proof she’s low income. She didn’t have it. With others running into the same problem, teachers stepped in to write letters confirming students are eligible for school nutrition programs.
“It’s hard not to feel like some of the companies weren't more concerned with getting good publicity than they were with making it an easy process for our students to get connected,” Johnson said.
Weeks later, Solis still doesn’t have home internet — and neither do a third of Rudsdale students.
Administrators think that’s the primary reason the attendance rate for the first two weeks of online classes was less than 40%.
Solis is trying to participate in online classes with her phone, but has found it frustrating.
In Johnson’s Zoom math classes, the experience for students joining by phone is hardly ideal. They try to follow along with the math problems on screen while toggling back and forth between the Zoom app and their phone calculators.
Between the economic impact of the crisis and the barriers to online learning, Johnson said some of his best students are falling behind. One student lost his job working nights at Denny’s because of the pandemic, so Johnson said that student is now picking up construction jobs during the day.
“He just doesn't have time to deal with getting online and trying to do homework anymore,” Johnson said.
Of Rudsdale's 150 students, nearly all of whom were working before the pandemic, only about 10 still have jobs. So along with homework instructions, one teacher made a video showing students how to apply for a job online.
“I really am concerned when we come back, school’s not going to be able to be a priority,” said Rudsdale Vice Principal Emma Batten-Bowman. “They're just going to have to work.”
She knows school was never the easy choice for her students. Still, she hopes the current crisis may spur the development of an online learning system that offers students more flexibility in how they learn, making it a little easier to choose to stay in school.
Solis, for her part, is eager to get back to Rudsdale in person as soon as it's safe.