Dennis Guikema (center), principal of the Alternative Learning Community, says he hopes the new middle school in East Oakland will inspire kids to be successful students and good citizens.
Dennis Guikema (center), principal of the Alternative Learning Community, says he hopes the new middle school in East Oakland will inspire kids to be successful students and good citizens. The school opens today. At a Wednesday open house is (from left) Brenton D. Stuart, 12, his mother Sharon Stuart, Glendalyn Caldwell and ShaTerra Pugh, 11. (Ray Chavez - Staff)
OAKLAND — This week, a sweet-faced teenager with a mustache and admitted anger problems came through the doors of a new public middle school in East Oakland. At 13, he was already in search of redemption.

In a soft mumble, he told the principal about his faults: He often skipped classes at his last middle school, and the smallest perceived insult would set him off.

A relative, who had brought him to see the school, said his family placed him in a home-study program after a group of kids began to threaten him with a gun on his way to school.

"Safety is our main concern right now," she said.

Dennis Guikema, principal of the Alternative Learning Community, responded with the kind of ease cultivated through countless such conversations. He assured them the school would be safe — even though it wouldn't have high fences — and that staff would make sure, in the very first period of the day, that everyone was in class.

"I can tell you this: Within two months, you'll know everybody's name," Guikema said. "There's no strangers here."

The Alternative Learning Community opens today on the former Toler Heights Elementary School campus with 90 students in sixth through eighth grades.

Guikema and his young staff — five of the seven teachers have taught for one year or less — aim to create a place where kids can thrive, even if they haven't been successful in the past.

Some students have a history of truancy and suspensions. Others have simply struggled academically or have been held back a grade. Families choose to enroll their children there; it's not for kids who have been expelled.

"These are kids that, frankly, we have failed as a district," said Fred Brill, a central office administrator who oversees half the city's middle schools.

The 15-student classes planned for the Alternative Learning Community are roughly half the size of those in most middle schools. Each classroom will have an adviser from the Lincoln Child Center, a local nonprofit that provides mental health services to kids, as well as a teacher.

The curriculum has a strong environmental science and outdoor adventure component — with a possible camping trip at the end of the year — and an extended day. Each student is to have his or her own "learning plan."

The model isn't cheap. Funded partly through alternative education funds, it costs roughly twice as much to educate each student as it does in other Oakland schools. But if it works, dozens of students each year won't give up on their education, as they might otherwise.

A report released this week by the California Dropout Research Project estimates that each group of 120,000 20-year-olds drains $46.4 billion from California's economy in lost earnings combined with government spending on crime, health services and welfare.

It also found that the lifetime earnings of an average high school graduate are

$290,000 more than a high school dropout, and it projected that more than two-thirds of dropouts will use food stamps during their working years.

"We know a lot about the dropout problem in Oakland," Guikema said. "The fact is, it's not just a high school problem. Middle school is a place where the problem is definitely rooted."

It has been estimated that roughly half of Oakland's ninth-graders don't make it to graduation. But until now, few options have been available for middle schoolers who appear to be heading down that well-worn path. Oakland's Community Day School works with children of middle school age, but only after they have been expelled or placed on probation.

Brill recognized the need for such a program after coming to the district last year, Guikema said. The idea began taking shape last winter and has moved quickly.

The former elementary school building, located near 98th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard, undoubtedly will undergo a transformation once a crew of teenagers arrives. It still has a Little Engine That Could-like mural in the hallway, a remnant of the building's previous inhabitants.

Teachers have been at the school since Aug. 1, taking part in meetings and creating lesson plans. Last Monday, as a few families dropped in to formally register, the building had a high-energy vibe that Guikema described as "beautiful chaos."

Dominique Biagas, 11, and her older sister, Dakota, said they were impressed — and a bit surprised — by how clean the place was, and how friendly the adults seemed.

"The people who are here are very nice," said Dominique, who said she has been reading books about middle school to prepare herself for sixth grade.

When asked if she had any pre-school year jitters, she said, "I hope the teachers don't yell when they get mad, and they don't cuss at the kids."

The staff members are also steeling themselves for the opening today, when 90 adolescents will put the vision to the test.

"I'm just anxious about what kind of kids are going to come in, and to see how well they take it — how they take it in," said Michelle Ina, an intervention specialist from Lincoln Child Center who will provide extra classroom support to students and teachers.

Last week, at the end of his conference with the 13-year-old boy, Guikema said he wouldn't judge him based on his past grades. Then he leaned in, looked the young man in the eye and offered a deal.

"If you step up and you take care of your business, if you're working hard and you have great attendance, you're going to move to high school next year," he said.

The boy relaxed a bit and smiled.

"I like that," he said.

"You like that," Guikema repeated. "But you know, that's not a gift."

More information about the school can be found at alcoakland.com.

E-mail Katy Murphy at kmurphy@oaklandtribune.com. Read her Oakland schools blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/education.