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For Oakland Student and Her Teacher, Graduation Means Both Celebration and Loss

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Work is top priority for Fremont graduate, Karina Dealba Perez. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Students at Oakland’s Fremont High School will collect their diplomas in person this week, part of a wave of Oakland public school seniors who’ve managed to make it through a year of distance learning. But at Fremont High where staff focus heavily on getting English language learners to academic success, the pandemic has left gaps, unraveling the kind of in-person support system that helped students not only graduate but plan their next steps.

The Friday before graduation Karina Dealba Perez was inside Fremont High bent over a computer, working on her post graduation plan with her teacher, Maya Brodkey. They were looking over the AmeriCorps community service program while other students in the room were getting last minute projects done in order to graduate on time.

There was a moment in this school year when Dealba Perez wasn’t sure she was going to graduate. She was working so many hours to support her family that school went by the wayside. Even when her father got his restaurant job back this spring, things didn’t get easier on the family financially.

“We just had a funeral and we have a lot of funeral expenses going on and it’s a lot,” Dealba Perez explained. Her cousin who had been living with her family died of gunshot wounds earlier this year.

“My mom was his guardian so he was like a brother to me," she said. "We didn’t have money, we weren’t prepared for it," said Dealba Perez. She says she stopped going to classes for almost a month, but once she let her teacher know, Brodkey helped her out.


Brodkey gave Dealba Perez work she could do on her own time, as part of a capstone project to help make up for lost attendance. It’s common at Fremont High for teachers to be more than educators and yet, at this point in the pandemic, Maya Brodkey was also having financial issues of her own.

“My partner had to close her business due to COVID and all of a sudden Oakland rent was really expensive and we had to move someplace where we could afford to be,” Brodkey said. The couple decided to try out living in Eureka, roughly five hours north of the Bay Area, where rent was cheaper, until school reopened in person.

Brodkey’s partner found work and Brodkey taught remotely. They both planned to return to Oakland, but when they tried to find housing in February, Brodkey said rents had increased even more. “In some ways I'm making a decision and in some ways the decision was made for me,” she said, of her choice to quit teaching in Fremont after this year. She’s looking for a teaching post in Eureka now.

Brodkey says she applied to teach at Fremont five years ago because people who work at the school are "scrappy and creative" and fight hard for their English language learner students, who make up the majority of the school. But she says things have been different for this graduating class.

“I’m very worried about them going out into the world with I think much less preparation than seniors normally get," she said. "And this year, there's been so many students that have just kind of fallen off the map.” Of 153 seniors who began the year at Fremont, 138 will graduate according to school administrators, a graduation rate of about 90 percent, similar to the senior class from last year, according to Nidya Baez, Fremont High School's assistant principal.

Brodkey says school staff was able to reconnect with many students by doing outreach to homes and helping provide assistance to families, but the continuous in-person support that the school prides itself on took a hit during distance learning. Brodkey says that’s the kind of support that can not only help determine whether a kid graduates, but also sets them up for their future.

“There are students who could have had a more solid post-high school plan, who don't have that because that support hasn't been there," Brodkey said, adding that not all seniors are interested in college because many see work as a priority.

“There's a lot of students who really would benefit from something structured and something that's really going to put them on a path for some kind of career, build a real strong skill set,” Brodkey said. For the last couple of years, she's brought in speakers from places like AmeriCorps, California Conservation Corps and Cal Fire to talk about other post high school options. This year, she said there was increased interest for these programs, even if it was done virtually this year.

Dealba Perez herself needed a plan. “I didn't even apply for colleges because I was so busy with work," she said. "Ms. Brodkey was helping me with programs that were going to be in the summer.” Dealba Perez liked the idea of entering a program that would give her exposure to different career paths.

Brodkey said this kind of plan also protects students from moving onto community college without a focus, potentially using up credits while trying to find a direction, resulting in them having to pay for college before they have determined a career path.

Dealba Perez is counting on a program like AmeriCorps to pay her living expenses over the summer so she doesn’t have to work. As she and Brodkey wrap up their in-person session at Fremont they agree to stay in contact over the summer to follow up on more applications. But until she has something solid,  Dealba Perez says she will be picking up more hours where she works now, at the phone store.

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"It was a struggle for everybody in one way or another. To just be able to want to continue," she said, and to have motivation to graduate. "It's something to be very proud of, something you push yourself to."

Karina’s parents were in the stands at Fremont High June 1, although she's disappointed that due to COVID-19 only two guests per graduate will be allowed. Her advisor, Ms. Brodkey, also attended, making the trip from Eureka to Fremont High one last time.


"I've been teaching some of these students for three years, so seeing them graduate is important to me," Brodkey said, adding that she wishes she could have done even more. "This class is graduating with even more uncertainty about what the future holds for them than previous classes. And I think that uncertainty is exacerbated by the fact that we haven't been able to support them as much as we would have in-person."

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