Three mornings a week, as the sun casts its first early glow over the city, scores of Oakland teenagers in heavy sweatshirts and winter coats are lacing up their skates at the downtown Oakland Ice Center.
The session begins at 7 a.m., more than an hour before they need to be at Oakland Technical High School, but they come anyway. The new 50-minute class, run by physical education teacher Kelley Haskins and coaches from the ice center, is wildly and unexpectedly popular. More than 100 teens pack the rink for each lesson.
"It's fun and relaxing just to be out on the ice," said Tom Geissler, an Oakland Tech senior, who said he takes the 5:50 a.m. bus from East Oakland to get to the rink on time. "You are pretty much in a different world here. You have control, and then again you don't have control."
With her rosy cheeks and bright, even-keeled demeanor, Haskins seems like someone who might have grown up skating on a frozen cranberry bog in Cape Cod — and she did. She played broomball competitively in college, she said, and her father was a semiprofessional hockey player.
Now, she and a team of coaches are showing Oakland teenagers how to swizzle, skate backward and slide on the ice. Soon, they hope to start an Oakland hockey league for boys and girls.
"People don't skate out here, so it's amazing," Haskins said. "It's giving them huge amounts of motivation for their other classes."
In 2007, Haskins learned that the management of the city-owned, privately run ice center was looking for ways to make the rink more accessible to Oakland youths — possibly, through school PE programs. Oakland Tech's principal, Sheilagh Andujar, embraced the idea.
A year and many bureaucratic hoops later, the popular physical education program was born.
Partnerships with other schools and programs, including the downtown Lighthouse Charter Academy, Oasis High School, Oakland School for the Arts, and the Lincoln Square Recreation Center, have brought about 3,000 Oakland public school students onto the ice in the past year, said Melissa Fitzgerald, the rink's general manager.
Many of the students in Haskins' class came in August with little to no skating experience. Even some of the more expert skaters, who practiced jumping and diving onto the ice last week, said they were wobbly at first.
"I could hardly keep balanced," said Randy Dillard, 16, who, like Geissler, now works at the rink as a skate guard. "I fell on the first day, real hard."
By October, 300 fans packed the rink to watch the group's first performance, "Thriller on Ice," a dramatic spectacle complete with props, smoke and stage makeup. Tech student Jackie Villalobos jokingly had suggested the idea one day, and the coaches ran with it, Haskins said. The show raised $400 for the skating program.
"We got so into it," said Tali Jacobson, 15, whose brother and sister also are part of the Oakland Tech skating group. Tali said she and other kids now flock to the rink on the weekends.
"Half of the people here have new hobbies because of this," she said.
That's exactly what Fitzgerald was hoping for when she and Haskins hatched the ambitious plan more than a year ago. Much of the rink's clientele had come from the suburbs, and city officials wanted the rink to become more of an Oakland institution, Fitzgerald said.
Local firefighters and police officers have joined the effort, rising early to help out on the ice. In addition to coaching assistance, they are raising money for school hockey gear through a "Guns & Hoses" charity hockey game at 5:45 p.m. Saturday. Haskins said the goal is to buy 100 sets of hockey equipment.
"It's kind of hard getting a hockey program into a public school," said James Halpin, an Oakland firefighter, who stood near the edge of the rink. "It's kind of something special."
Halpin paused to watch a group of skaters deftly hop and slide across the ice. He added, "Wait until you see them next year."
Oakland police officers and firefighters square off Saturday in a "Guns & Hoses" charity hockey game. It begins at 5:45 p.m. at the Oakland Ice Center at 519 18th St. Admission is $10 per person and includes a ticket to the game and 90 minutes of skating time afterward. All proceeds benefit the Oakland Technical High School hockey program.