OAKLAND -- Twice a week, 20 East Oakland teenagers get to school early, some of them arriving by bus before 7 a.m. They sacrifice sleep for something other high school students might take for granted: the chance to take advanced placement English.

"For colleges to take me more seriously, I need to take these AP classes," said Ricardo Cruz, 17. "It's a must for me to take this class."

Last year, as a record 1.8 million students from 17,000 schools around the world took advanced placement exams, the East Oakland School of the Arts cut its last AP class.

But two English teachers -- Kateri Simpson and Marguerite Sheffer -- decided to offer it anyway, before school and on their own time.

The sacrifice made by these teachers and students for an opportunity that's a given in other schools illustrates their commitment to education. It also highlights the system's inequities and the shortcomings of the Oakland school district's attempts at high school reform.

East Oakland School of the Arts is one of three small schools on the Castlemont high school campus. It is one of about a dozen high schools the district created in the mid-2000s to improve the dismal graduation rates and test scores in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. It once offered four AP classes. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other major philanthropies poured millions of dollars into the initiative to close Castlemont, Fremont and McClymonds high schools and to open smaller, themed ones on each campus.

But that money is gone. After years of declining enrollment and state budget cuts, many are struggling to provide the basics.

Oakland's small high schools were a trade-off from the beginning: In exchange for a safer, more intimate learning environment, students would give up the range of courses and activities available at a big high school. While Oakland's large high schools have nearly 2,000 students, most of its small high schools opened with fewer than 500.

But some have become far smaller than they were meant to be.

Five years ago, almost 1,300 students attended one of the three high schools on the Castlemont campus. That number has dwindled to 700. The Fremont campus, also in East Oakland, has experienced a similar slide, as neighborhood families opt for tuition-free charter schools or district schools with better reputations in safer neighborhoods.

Last fall, the two small high schools on the McClymonds campus merged back together with a combined enrollment of fewer than 250. Soon, district staff are expected to release details about a proposed "redesign" of seven other high schools, including six at Fremont and Castlemont. Mergers are likely.

That worries Peace El Henson, 17, and other AP English students at East Oakland School of the Arts who say they have benefitted from the size of their school. Though their course options are limited, they receive a lot of one-on-one attention from their teachers, they said.

El Henson said she and her classmates have stayed late into the evening, working on essays and other projects under their teachers' guidance -- a connection they fear the schools would lose if they were bigger.

"It's like customized learning," El Henson said.

After another English teaching position was cut from the school's budget last year, the AP course was eliminated.

Simpson said when her student Ibrahim Abdallah heard the news he asked her what he was supposed to do.

"Ibrahim said to me, 'I don't understand. I'm trying to apply to USC. I don't know how I'm going to get in,' " she recalled.

Shaken from that conversation, Simpson began talking to Sheffer about the possibility of teaching the class together twice a week before school and once a week during the afternoon art period. They drew up a strict-sounding contract for students to sign, saying they'd cancel the class if fewer than seven enrolled.

Thirty came on the first day.

Simpson and Sheffer opened the course to everyone, including those who hadn't passed the English portion of the California High School Exit Exam. Most students take an additional English course during the regular school day, so the AP class doesn't conflict with their other requirements.

"It's always really important to me to give students opportunities to reach for more, and I'm always impressed by how many take it, and how far they take it," Sheffer said.

Last month, dressed in their best business attire, the students discussed "characters caught between colliding cultures" and other prevailing themes in some of the works they had read: "Macbeth," "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." It was their final seminar for the semester.

Ana Felix, 18, didn't expect to enjoy the class as much as she has. She said she has come to appreciate the finer points of literature, writing no longer intimidates her and she now reads for fun outside of class.

Felix said she was grateful for what Simpson and Sheffer have done. Until this week, when the teachers learned they would earn a stipend, they had assumed they wouldn't be paid for the extra class.

"To me, it means a lot," Felix said. "You can tell they want us to get somewhere."

Few would suggest that the solution to school budget problems is for teachers to teach, pro-bono, before sunrise. The class has made a long day longer. But, Simpson said, it has also been a rejuvenating break from the day-to-day grind.

"I knew in my heart they were capable of extraordinary things," she said.

The class, she said, has given her a glimpse of what they can do.

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.