OAKLAND -- A year ago, Maryann Wolfe watched as parents ran -- ran! -- down the hallway to secure a space in her oversized classroom.
"It was wall-to-wall parents," she said.
Wolfe was not only overwhelmed by the rush, but by what caused it: an information session about a humanities program at Oakland Technical High School.
For years, parents have been running -- away from the city's public high schools. Concerned about fights on campus, lackluster academics or a high dropout rate, families have enrolled their children at Berkeley High, private schools or tuition-free charters.
High school enrollment in the Oakland school district has continued its long, steep slide this year. But Oakland Tech has 200 more students than it did in fall 2009. With an enrollment of 1,900, Oakland's latest "it" school is as big as Skyline High, a public school in the hills.
At Tech, they issued crowd-control admissions tickets at parent night.
Last month at the North Oakland school, hundreds packed the gymnasium bleachers for Principal Sheilagh Andujar's address. A series of choose-your-own information sessions followed, and families found their way through the crowded hallways and stairwells of the main building, or to one of the portable classrooms along the athletic field.
"I guess Tech is the popular thing now," a man observed aloud as he watched the crowd leave the gym and splinter in different directions.
Like Tech, Oakland's two other large, comprehensive high schools, Skyline and Oakland High, draw students from throughout the city. While the two schools have had a succession of new principals in recent years, they offer a wealth of advanced placement programs and send some of their graduates to top universities. Skyline is known for its performing arts. Oakland High, east of Lake Merritt and just south of Interstate 580, has a thriving environmental science program.
To generate more interest in their local high school, parents from the Glenview neighborhood created an online forum this year called "Consider Oakland High." The group promoted a parent information night at the school Tuesday evening.
A big draw
Oakland Tech has a number of popular offerings, including a selective engineering academy, a health academy, and a revitalized drama program that traveled to Scotland over the summer to perform in a theater festival. But if last year's parent night stampede is any indication, a humanities program named Paideia -- paired with an economic downturn -- appears to be a driving force behind the school's enrollment surge.
Paideia started in 1986, when Dennis Chaconas -- who would later become the district's superintendent -- was Tech's principal. He recruited Wolfe to help shore up the school's academic program.
At the time, Wolfe said, the honors English class was assigned one book a year.
Paideia students are expected to read 12.
"There's homework every night, every weekend, every break and over the summer," Paideia's co-director, Marietta Joe, explained at one of three information sessions during a parent night held last month. "It's a constant joy of the learning process."
About 370 students -- 29 percent of the school's 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders -- are enrolled in Paideia. Blocks of about 30 students take English, history and, for seniors, government, together for two to three class periods a day.
Lessons are closely woven together. In Joe's English class, seniors were reading Shakespeare's "Richard III," a tragedy about the power-hungry son of the king of England. In AP government, they discussed what advice Machiavelli might give to Jerry Brown and other political candidates just before the November election.
Whether they were reciting "Macbeth," debating voting rights, or discussing Republican and Democratic platforms for environmental and military policy, the students seemed to listen to each other and their teachers. When an 11th-grade student struggled to find a line of Shakespeare he had memorized, the room was still. During a debate about suffrage in Nate Gong's class, a handful of students took the position that the homeless should not be allowed to vote. Their classmates were quick to disagree, but they responded with reasoned arguments rather than personal attacks.
Elaine Swiedler, 17, is in Paideia and the Engineering Academy. She said she would describe her classmates, for the most part, as "a pretty motivated group."
"It involves serious thought," she said about her humanities courses. "It's not something you don't have to prepare for."
Ninth-grade teachers recommend students for Paideia, but Wolfe said a recommendation is not necessarily required. As long as students are willing to put in the work, she said, the program generally has "a pretty open door policy."
As Paideia has grown in popularity, the school has added sections to meet the need. This year, however, the program ran out of space; for the first time, it turned away students -- about six -- because there wasn't room.
Joe leveled with parents about that reality. "We're trying to expand the program as quickly as we can," she said.
Expansion isn't simple, however. The program needs teachers who hold credentials in history and English. Essay grading is notoriously time-consuming, and Paideia teachers are expected to give their students critical feedback on grammar, critical thinking and overall thesis for each of their 12 five-page essays. Wolfe said she works until 11 each night, after a break for dinner, and that she rarely has a free weekend.
"It's hard to recruit people to do this kind of a job because of the amount of work it takes," she said. She said one near-hire, an East Coast transplant with at least three years of teaching experience, turned the job down after learning he would start at $42,000.
If interest in the program continues to grow, Paideia will either have to expand or become more exclusive. Wolfe said she teaches more former private school students than she once did, a trend that has coincided with the poor economy and the housing burst.
Wolfe thinks all the interest in Tech might be something of a cumulative effect, like a successful basketball program that easily draws players and fans. She said a Stanford admissions officer told her that college applications from the school once went directly into the wastebasket.
The president of MIT visited the Engineering Academy last year, and Harvard and Columbia recruit at the school.
"We're winning," she said.