Kimi Kean and Minh-Tram Nguyen have spent years creating a bubble of safety and responsibility on their shared elementary school campus at 80th Avenue and Rudsdale Street.
The principals now are turning their attention to the streets outside.
Three times since December, bullets have flown by ACORN Woodland Elementary School and EnCompass Academy while school was in session. One shooting took place while children were at recess. Parents say that robbers have begun to target mothers walking their children to the East Oakland campus and that gang members — often school-age youths themselves — are bullying boys and girls on their way home.
"This steep escalation in violence at our campus indicates an unacceptable level of risk and vulnerability in our school community," the principals wrote in a letter they sent this month to dozens of city and county officials, community leaders, police officers and school district colleagues.
Their call to action was heard. On Friday, City Councilmember Larry Reid convened a meeting on the campus. It was tightly run and solution-oriented; Kean and Nguyen had set the agenda. City and school district police officers attended, as did school district staff, the operations manager of public works, a few parents and a local business owner who offered to help.
"You can rest assured you are getting more patrols during the day," said Capt. Paul Figueroa, an area commander who supervises police operations in the neighborhood.
As an Oakland school district parent, Figueroa said, he was "deeply troubled" by some of the problems shared at the meeting. "Kids not being able to walk to school just breaks your heart," he said.
Kean and Nguyen said they were overwhelmed by the response to their plea for help. However, they have a broader goal, too: They want to spur a similar spirit of cooperation throughout the city and to cultivate a "shared sense of responsibility" among its residents.
With a new police chief and a new superintendent of schools, they said, it is time to take a different approach to Oakland's persisting safety problems.
A lot to worry about
When it comes to safety, schools throughout the city — particularly those near gang hot spots — have far more to worry about than maintaining a secure, healthy environment on school grounds from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Early this month, someone fired into a crowd gathered at a popular lunch spot near McClymonds High School in West Oakland; no one was hit. In January, police received three reports within two days of students being threatened with guns near the Havenscourt Middle School campus at 66th Avenue and International Boulevard.
In October, a car struck and killed 11-year-old Alana Williams while she was in a crosswalk on her way to Frick Middle School; the driver fled the scene. At least seven other Oakland students have died violently since August, often in gang-related shootings at night or on the weekends.
"I see our community get numb to all the violence that happens, when, in fact, this is crazy," Kean said last week as she kept an eye on children in the playground.
After recess ended, Kean and Nguyen crossed Rudsdale and walked down the street, past a pile of insulation and children's toys dumped on the side of the road, past a vacant building and toward the spot where a 16-year-old boy was shot in the leg Feb. 5, about an hour before school was dismissed for the day.
Gangs and graffiti
As they approached 81st Avenue, Kean pointed to a garage door that was covered in graffiti. Several names had been crossed out, a sign of deep disrespect by a rival gang.
"Do you know how provocative that is?" she asked.
Then they saw an older man crouched on the grass, a few feet from the defaced garage door. He was gardening.
"Do you have any idea why this happened to your house?" Nguyen asked, after shaking his hand and admiring his well-tended yard.
"Young kids," the man responded, his eyes cast downward. He nodded when she asked if he had tried to cover it.
The principals thanked him for his time, invited him to a community meeting and said they would try to find him some help.
"I wonder what's going on, though," Kean said quietly, as she walked away.
On the way back to the school, three baby-faced teenagers in black hooded sweatshirts rode past on bicycles. It was 11:30 a.m. "Look. Look at who's rolling by up here," Kean said to Nguyen, almost loud enough for the boys to hear. "Tell me they're 18 years old."
That evening, at a middle school in another East Oakland neighborhood, parents listened as a teacher listed the warning signs of gang affiliation: skipping school, tattoos, hand signs, obsession with certain colors, school notebooks decorated with gang symbols.
As if on cue, a mother opened her purse and held up a stack of lined notebook paper. The pages were covered with colorful symbols drawn by her 15-year-old son.
After class, the woman said her son changed last year after a good friend was shot and killed. She suspects that was when he became more seriously involved in gang life. "I came here to learn how I can get him out before he gets further into it," she said in Spanish.
The parenting class, run by Project Re-Connect, is one of several gang-prevention efforts launched by the school district. During a time of diminishing resources, the public school system is relying on partnerships with other organizations to reduce truancy and gang membership, to promote pedestrian safety and peaceful conflict resolution, and to find jobs and mentors for teenagers, said Laura Moran, the school district's chief services officer.
This year, for example, the district began to work more closely with county probation staff members to make sure the 900 students who go in and out of the juvenile justice system each year return to school, and quickly.
Moran said she has encouraged school leaders to become involved in neighborhood watch groups; she estimated that about 20 percent of schools have done so.
Na'Kia Young and Kimberly Moreno, 10-year-old ACORN Woodland students, said they are ready for something to be done about their neighborhood.
"My mom doesn't want me to walk to school because there's a lot of things she doesn't want me to see yet," Na'Kia said.
The girls said classmates have found needles, knives and marijuana bags on school property; they explained that people are known to hop the fence and use the space as a hangout on the weekends.
Still, the girls said they felt loved at their school. Most of the time, they said, they feel protected from the dangers outside.
"When we don't think about those things, we feel safe and taken care of," Kimberly said.