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Science Teacher Andy Kwok, right, listens to parent Antoinette Venable as her daughter Amanda Strong, 16, looks down during the Back to School Night at EXCEL High School (McClymonds campus) in Oakland. (Ray Chavez/The Oakland Tribune)
OAKLAND — At 6 p.m. Wednesday, a time when hallways and classrooms are usually dark and empty, EXCEL High School bustled with parents and grandparents, older siblings and babies.

It was Back to School Night, a chance for parents and teachers to meet, a month into the school year.

For some of Andy Kwok's biology students, it was an evening of reckoning. Many of them had failed to turn in an eyebrow-raising amount of work, and each missing assignment appeared as an F on their progress report.

Kwok wasn't sure how the parents would react to the poor progress reports. As if to soothe frayed nerves, he played classical music and opera at a low volume in the background. He also assured parents there was still time to complete assignments and retake failed quizzes.

Kwok, 22, is a first-year teacher at the small school on West Oakland'sMcClymonds High School campus. The recent University of Michigan graduate moved to Oakland to teach science. In the first five weeks, he has learned how quickly a loud argument between students can derail a lesson plan.

He was candid with families, more than he thought he would be. He apologized to some about the disruption their students routinely endure in class. He explained to others that their children were contributing to the problem.

"I honestly have higher expectations of him," Kwok told one mother, Wendy Williams, about her son. "Rocky can do it."

About 25 families visited Kwok in Room 303, representing more than a fourth of his students. Some students came with their mothers. Others came with a father, a grandparent or an older sibling. After talking with Kwok, some family members promised to become more involved.

One father said he had decided to become "part of the EXCEL program" and that his son's behavior would improve because of it.

"Look for a change there," he said as his son stood nearby, looking at the floor.

Kwok seemed to be at ease with the parents, even when delivering tough news. They thanked him and shook his hand before leaving with fresh copies of the missing assignments. No one gave him a hard time.

"This was a great day for me," Kwok said, as he walked down the emptied hallway two and a half hours later.

After nearly five weeks of teaching, he knew one thing for sure: He couldn't do it alone.

"Some days have been really good, some have been really bad. That's how it goes with this profession, or so everyone says," he said.

With the parents' help, he said, "Hopefully it will work out."

Contact Katy Murphy at or 510-208-6424. Read her Oakland schools blog at