“How can we make sure that our city’s teachers are the best they can possibly be,” asks Esmeralda Arias, an 11th grade student at Skyline High School’s Education Academy. Arias is pushing for student-driven reform in her school and in her district. Here’s her story on the why, the how, and the what.

This is a guest blog authored by Esmeralda (Esme) Arias, a current 11th grade student at Skyline High School’s Education Academy.

Esme and Mr. Orphal getting ready to put the band back together

At left, Esme and Mr. Orphal getting ready to put the band back together.


“What do you think, Esmeralda?” she asked.

What did I think?  I thought that it was amazing that I was sitting at the table. I was one of only two students, the youngest and the only sophomore. I was surrounded by teachers and officials from Oakland’s schools, talking about how we can make sure that our city’s teachers were the best they can possibly be.

Looking back at everything I had done this year amazed me. I never thought I would be able to do all of these things and at such a young age. I mean, I never thought I would be able to stand in a room full of adults and talk. I never thought I would be able to teach a curriculum to elementary school students. I never thought I would be given the chance to work on a project that would change my school. I had those moments when I broke down because I felt it was too much for me, but here I was. I was able to do all of these things and take part in making positive change.

Lost and Found in a Big School

Thinking back, my freshmen year was quite challenging, I broke down in tears the first week because I felt so lost and wasn’t accustomed to such a huge school like Skyline. I was also extremely worried. It seemed that everyone was telling me awful stories about teachers who do not care or pay attention to their students.

I found out about the Education Academy at Skyline by a presentation that was offered in one of my core classes, I was so excited about it and didn’t think twice about signing up. I chose the Education Academy because I thought I would get to learn about my education system, how to interact with children, how to conduct a very professional presentation. I was right. The academy opened my eyes on how to improve my education, and many more things.

In my Introduction to Education we were able to work with kids our ages from a special education class. We were partnered up with a student and did different activities like paint a pumpkin for Halloween, send a letter to an injured soldier for Christmas, play games, have dance battles, and have a graduation party for the students who were finishing high school. It was such a wonderful opportunity to be involved with them.

Being a Teacher

We also have an event called Junior Achievement (JA) day where we have two partners and teach elementary children about business and entrepreneurs.  Many of us thought that teaching was a pretty easy job.  After being given the opportunity to teach elementary school twice… let’s just say I never thought preparing a curriculum and running a class would be so stressful and overwhelming! Both of my JA Day experiences were amazing, the children were well behaved and very interested in what we were teaching. I taught a special education class my first time and my second time I taught third graders.

Student-driven School Reform

I also worked in a group the beginning of the school year with some of my classmates, we looked over our school system and saw some flaws in it, so we decided to emphasize and dig deeper in those flaws.

We realized that our school needed better trained teachers and a solid evaluation system. We decided to come up with a system that would fix these problems and we were able to present it to the faculty in our school. It was a great experience because I was finally able to get my voice out there and say what I did not like about my school system and be able to offer a solution to that problem.

I certainly do not mean that all teachers are horrible!  Far from it!  Instead, we saw that some teachers had become rusty over time and need a little push, guidance, evaluation and feedback. We also saw far too many brand new teachers coming to Skyline with no idea about how to relate to Oakland’s kids.

I’m not saying at all of Skyline’s kids fit the stereotype of poor, inner-city youth.  However, not a month goes by where some student on campus isn’t hurt by the violence in some of our city’s neighborhoods.

My team admired programs like Teach for America, because they recruited from top colleges and universities.  However, after interviewing several of our teachers who are TfA alumnus, we found that had a really hard time dealing with Oakland kids, who were raised in such a different environment than they were.  We felt that these teacher candidates needed to come in on a regular school day and teach the students.  After that, students would get a an evaluation sheet where we would have the opportunity to help decide if this teacher should be hired.

Our second idea was to grow our own teachers here in Oakland.  We thought that the city could offer a program that guides Oakland students from high school throughout college and a teaching credential, guarantying them a job in a Oakland school once they graduate. We think this is a good idea because that way these teachers have an idea of what kind of environment an Oakland student faces day by day and all the struggles we face in life being Oakland.

Out team presented our proposal to our school Faculty Counsel.  The presentation was good, but unsatisfying.  Basically, we were listened to as if we were students presenting a class project, not as serious reformers.  I remember Mr. Orphal warning us that this might happen.  “They’re going to think your cute, as soon as your stand up and start talking,” he foretold.  “It’s going to be hard to convince them that you’re serious.  That’s why you need solid research to back up your ideas.”

While we didn’t change our school the day of our presentation, we did plant a seed.  Slowly, that seed has been growing.  As a result of my work on our team, I was invited to serve on the city-wide Effective Teaching Task Force.  As a member of that team, I read lots of research about teacher training and evaluation.  We made recommendations to the district, and this year, three schools are piloting the new evaluation system we recommended.

I learned about a lot presentation skills, teacher evaluation, and teacher training.  More importantly, I learned that positive change can happen for our schools and that student voices are needed at the reform tables.

That’s the real lesson I learned doing this project.

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