OAKLAND — Wesley Sims pulls a lifeless crayfish from a tub and brings it to his seat, next to a blank sheet of paper. Seven other teenagers who have made it to physiology class on time after lunch do the same.
Their task for the next 45 minutes is to draw the creature from three angles: dorsal, ventral and sagittal. The teacher explains, when Sims asks, that the activity is meant to sharpen their observational skills.
Some might consider it a creative, hands-on lesson. Sims, 18, is not impressed.
"Just think about it. I'd rather be learning something than drawing," he said in a low, emphatic voice. "Why am I just drawing this? It's easy work. That's why I get 4.4s."
Most students grumble
Until that changes, he argues, even students with good grades will find themselves ill-equipped for college.
Sims, a sharp, confident teenager with "9800" — an East Oakland block — tattooed on a forearm, is giving voice to an assertion that civil rights advocates have repeated for decades: That kids, particularly those at high-poverty, minority schools, are capable of much more than is being
Sims gave an extemporaneous speech on the subject during a televised school board meeting last month.
"I woke up to take my SAT, and me being a 4.4-GPA student, I'm like, 'All right, SATs, let's go, I'm ready,' " he said. "I opened my book and knew, let's say, 25 percent of the things that were going on in the book."
Sims has been accepted to Cal State Northridge, his first-choice school. He takes his college placement test in March, the same test that he says has landed some of his friends — honor roll students — in remedial college courses. (He said he wasn't aware of Cal State's voluntary Early Assessment Program, a short test that some 350,000 high school juniors took in the spring, along with their school's regular standardized tests, to gauge their preparation.)
Oakland's new superintendent, Tony Smith, said he felt "equal measures of sadness and fury" as he listened to Sims' story at the board meeting.
"Here he is, he wants to be successful, he's trying, and we didn't prepare him," Smith said. "There are teachers who say, 'What he's going through is tough. If I challenge him, maybe he'll quit. If I push him, maybe he'll break.' We need to define what effective teachers look like and what they do. In the city of Oakland, what do we expect the kids to experience? What does 'good' look like?"
East Oakland School of the Arts is one of the three small schools carved out of Castlemont High School in 2004. Supporters of the school reform initiative, which was largely financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, say the change made the Castlemont campus safer and far less chaotic, conditions necessary for academic progress.
But the new schools are struggling academically and financially. Many of their teachers are new to the profession, and staff turnover is high. The combined campus enrollment has fallen by more than one-third since the new schools opened, to just 950 students. Funding — and the means to support those new teachers — is evaporating.
Alice Spearman, an Oakland school board member who graduated from Castlemont, said many of the area's motivated students take buses each morning to schools across town. Her granddaughter is one of them.
"I just feel so sorry for those students that really deserve a good education, and in no way are they getting one," Spearman said. "These kids will rise to the occasion. They do what they're expected to do."
Hip-hop beats play softly in the science classroom as Sims works on his crayfish sketch. A girl walks in late and asks what is happening. The students' conversation drifts from a burglary on campus to the Grammys to a recent fight. Some draw and talk, others mostly talk. Sims sells a CD.
"It's too loud in here," the teacher says at one point. "This is a working environment."
A teenager, apparently from another class, comes in to gossip. Two students in the back, who have barely said a word, finish their work early. For at least 10 minutes they sit silently, waiting for the bell.
When it rings, Sims heads to his last class of the day, a course exempt from his blistering review: pre-calculus.
"It's the only challenging class," he says.
He sits down and starts working on a problem that his teacher has written on the board.
"All right, we want the six trigonometric functions of theta," she said.
"This is not a test," she added. "You can talk to each other."
"How do you do this?" a classmate asks Sims, leaning across the aisle from his desk.
"What I did, I drew a graph first," Sims starts to explain.
"Oh, yeah. I get it now."
There is a buzz in the classroom. The students are talking — about math.
"I'm liking what I see," the teacher said, as she walked around the room, checking their work.
Sims initially received an A-minus in pre-calculus. He wasn't happy about the minus part, vowing to prove to his teacher that he had turned in all of the assignments. (He did.)
His grade in Spanish came more easily. During his school board meeting speech, he had complained that his class had a substitute teacher for weeks — with students "doing nothing but listening to music, playing bingo, watching TV, and watching movies" — but that they took a final exam anyway, on the content they should have been taught.
He "bombed" the test, he said, but that didn't seem to matter. He got an A in the class.