Nation's first youth-led charter school is heading to Oakland

Nation's first youth-led charter school is heading to Oakland

Janice Worthen
Alternatives in Action

Alternatives in Action will be leaving Alameda at the end of this school year. Photo by Michele Ellson.

The Alameda Unified School District’s space crunch has claimed another victim. Alternatives in Action, a nonprofit organization that has used innovative educational techniques to help at-risk Bay Area students since 1996, is moving out of Alameda after the school district decided not to renew its lease at the Woodstock Education Center.

Executive Director Patricia Murillo said Alternatives in Action High School, which was founded in 2001 as the the first youth-designed and youth-initiated charter high school in the country, will move out of Alameda by June.

“We love Alameda; it has been a home for us for almost 20 years,” Murillo said. “We spent almost a year looking for a new facility and could not find an appropriate space that was also affordable. After much reflection among our staff and board leadership, we decided to look at facilities in Oakland.”

Murillo said that Alternatives in Action works with more than 1,200 children and family members in Oakland and Alameda; about 80 percent of the nonprofit’s high school students come from Oakland. Even though a school in Oakland may be closer and easier to commute to for many of those students, families did not welcome the announcement of the move, she said.

“Even though the majority of our youth live in East Oakland, surprisingly, the location preference for our students and families was to stay in Alameda,” Murillo said. She said safety was families’ top reason for choosing the school.

The high school will move to St. Bernard Parish in East Oakland, Murillo said. “Moving our programs to an existing faith-based community that is respected in the neighborhood has given families some reassurance,” she said.

Besides security for families and students, one of the other challenges Murillo said the school will face is having to form new community partnerships. One of the nonprofit’s most valuable partnerships in Alameda was with Alameda Family Services, which offered students health care and group support.

“For at-risk youth, those services make a big difference,” Murillo said.

Alternatives in Action’s popular Home Sweet Home preschool, which will remain on the Woodstock campus for one more year, will likely close instead of being relocated at the end of the 2014-2015 school year since another location that parents feel comfortable with has not been found, Murillo said. She said that almost all of Home Sweet Home’s students live in Alameda.

Although the future of Alternatives in Action High School is uncertain, Murillo looks fondly on its past and what its students and teachers have achieved, and hopes that success will continue at the new site.

Back in 1996, said Murillo, Alternatives in Action was leading the youth development movement in the Bay Area. Leslie Medine, co-founder of On the Move and the executive director of Alternatives in Action in 1996, was invited into Alameda’s high schools by former superintendent Dennis Chaconas to provide school-linked programs.

When students were released for lunch, those interested were picked up by Alternatives in Action to spend the afternoon co-creating programs that Murillo said “support 21st century learning.” The organization also hosted teachers in their programs so they could learn new techniques to take back into their own classrooms.

When Alternatives in Action members interviewed the students, they were surprised to hear many describe school as oppressive. From student feedback, the organization identified what Murillo calls “strands” of student interest that it wanted to focus on, which included after-school activities for youths, jobs and career readiness programs, access to multimedia art, and most importantly, education reform.

Murillo said education reform is what prompted the organization to partner with 18 students to create the Bay Area School of Enterprise – the former name of Alternatives in Action High School – which was designed to help non-traditional learners take control of their education and succeed.

“Our focus was to create a non-profit based on youth-adult partnership that could serve as a social enterprise incubator where youth could develop ideas to solve community problems while gaining real-world skills,” Murillo said.

Alternatives in Action currently provides programs at three other Oakland high schools – Life Academy, McClymonds High School, and Fremont High School – including after school programs, academic support, college career readiness, and support for parent coaches who do workshops and other services for students on site.

Murillo credits the organization’s “group development model” for much of its success. She said all student work is done in groups, class sizes are kept small, and students are taught how to form positive relationships with others while working through assignments.

Since 1996, Murillo estimates Alternatives in Action students have completed over 100 projects, including a Unity Nightclub that provided students with a safe environment to enjoy music and the CityView skate park.

One of the largest projects Alternatives in Action started and continues yearly is Project YouthView, a youth film festival which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Murillo said the festival started out small and was inspired by students interested in film, but it has grown to be the largest youth film festival in California.

“This event really provides a red carpet, Oscar treatment for (young filmmakers),” Murillo said and allows the audience to “experience youth voice.”

Each year, students are encouraged to submit short films to Project YouthView. From these, eight to 10 films are usually chosen to be showcased at a Bay Area theater, where winners will receive audience choice and judge’s choice awards. Last year’s Audience Choice Award went to Andy To and Dara So of Fremont High School for their film Human, and the Judge’s Choice Award went to Lily Yu, a student at Skyline, for her film Limitations.

This year, 12 finalists have been chosen to be showcased at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland this Friday, May 2. The winners will receive cash and a tour of Lucasfilm.

In addition to viewing the youth finalists’ films, YouthView audiences are offered a youth-centered or youth-relevant feature film. This year’s film will be the documentary Rich Hill, which won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Celebrity judges often participate in the student-run festival; past judges for the film festival have included actor Steve Buscemi and hip-hop producer Russell Simmons. This year’s judges include Simmons, Terrence Winter and Rachel Winter, producer of the Oscar-nominated Dallas Buyer’s Club.

Murillo expects this year’s turnout to be about 1,000. Last year’s event drew about 700 attendees. Tickets for the event are available online or at the Paramount box office.


Submitted by Liz T (not verified) on Mon, Apr 28, 2014

What a shame. There seems to be plenty of interest in finding ways to build high density housing on every bit of open space left in Alameda but little interest in retaining schools and small businesses.