OAKLAND -- When Alan Lessik stood before the podium to address his students one recent Friday morning, his voice shook with emotion.
Lessik is the executive director of Civicorps, the only accredited school in the Oakland Unified School District that serves 18-24-year-old high school dropouts. The school hits the young adults hard with a combination of academics, life skills and work experience to set them on their way. Call it a curriculum of hope.
Lessik looked out across the sea of faces, most of them African-American and Latino. Many of them, he knew, had experienced high levels of violence and trauma. He told them that their unique backgrounds placed them alongside three other important groups of people: Holocaust survivors, witnesses to war and survivors of the AIDS epidemic.
"We have that experience," said Lessik, whose own partner committed suicide a year ago. "When entire communities just disappear from their lives, many of you have had that experience."
Civicorps has been active in Oakland for more than 30 years, and in that time, it's estimated that some 50,000 young men and women have passed through its doors. The school's demographics paint a bleak picture indeed: 95 percent live in poverty; 31 percent have had some sort of involvement with the courts; 30 percent are already parents; 32 percent come out of the foster care system; and fully 95 percent are people of color. Additionally, some 20 percent have some sort of learning disability.
"The regular education system just isn't set up to deal with the issues that come up with even half of these things," Lessik said. "But what we find is that behavior isn't always an indication of the quality of the person -- it's just a behavior. So we ask, what can we do to help understand that behavior?"
A Civicorps experience is divided into three distinct phases. After an initial orientation where students learn some of the school's cardinal rules -- be on time, dress appropriately and refrain from violence -- students begin a course of general studies classes like English, math and social studies. If they're successful, they go on to phase two, which is centered around a work-study program with one of several partner organizations, including the city of Oakland, Caltrans, Alameda Flood Control and the East Bay Municipal Utilities District. After a full day of paid work, through which the school and its partners aim to impart lessons about how to be a productive member of society, the students return to school for more classes.
Given the traumatic backgrounds of many of these students, the school has set its ambitions high.
"We are here to create a life for you that you can live," Lessik said.
About 120 young adults are enrolled at Civicorps at any given time, and with a rotating entrance and exit schedule, roughly 30 of them graduate every year, an average 80 percent graduation rate. They come in with wildly divergent levels of skill. Some made it all the way through high school but, for whatever reason, failed to pass the exit exams. Others are functionally illiterate. Classes aim to advance individual progress along a spectrum rather than work toward definite end goals.
Civicorps teachers are accustomed to being a combination of teacher, parent, counselor, friend and advocate. "Most of the kids are on the right track," said Avery Moore, 33, a Berkeley native and the school's English teacher. "Sometimes they fall off, or leave, but they're all trying to get out of that lifestyle, and they've experienced how difficult it can be to survive without a high school diploma."
The school has also set itself a new goal: to help ensure that students move on to college once they've left Civicorps' West Oakland headquarters. This is phase three of the program, a flexible yearlong period during which teachers and administrators stay active in the students' lives to make sure they're getting the support they need.
The school has a $6 million budget, divided up into several components. As a charter school, the state provides roughly $700,000; a recycling program provides another $400,000. Work contracts make up the lion's share of several million and another half-million or so has to be found each year through fundraising.
For many students, the experience at the school is the first time any have had positive feedback from adults in a caring environment.
"We do a lot of hand-holding, a lot of encouragement, teaching them what's important about life, about friends, about jobs," said Rodney Dunn, an administrator and a Civicorps graduate. "With a lot of these kids, something happened along the way that prevented their success, so part of our job is asking: What happened?"
As Lessik wound up his speech, the room had gone silent, and many of the students were nodding their heads.
"I don't see people dying every day, like a lot of these kids," Lessik said afterward. "Many of Oakland's neighborhoods have resources, spiritual support, and they come out OK, but a significant number do not, and that's who we'll see here."