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It’s back to school for Oakland’s youngest college aspirants

The purple packs were especially popular among the girls. Everyone seemed impressed with the little individual pencil sharpeners. Overall the enthusiasm was reminiscent of children rummaging through a Christmas stocking full of goodies, and not one of them looked like he or she would rather be anywhere else in the world.

It was opening week at Frick Middle School in Oakland, where OP Staff Assembly reps and participants of UC’s California GEAR UP program were on hand to distribute fully loaded backpacks to this year’s sixth-grade class.

The backpacks and their contents had been organized, solicited and assembled through donations to the OP Staff Assembly’s Project Fill-A-Backpack, which took place all summer at UCOP’s Oakland offices.

The campaign yielded lively participation and generosity among OP staff, resulting in more than 150 complete backpacks full of pens, highlighters, binders and other school supplies to help boost productivity in this year’s entering class. At last, the backpacks were reaching their intended recipients.

“We are really excited that our sixth-graders are receiving these backpacks,” said Principal Jerome Gourdine, who has served Frick as a teacher and administrator for a total of 17 years and principal for the last eight. “The backpacks coming from UC will help support the kids’ opportunity to move up academically and create the idea that college is an option for them.”

While Gourdine admits the school still has a long way to go, since 1999 Frick has made greater gains in state test scores than any other non-charter middle school in Alameda County. In the last two years alone, its Academic Performance Index (API) scores, which measure a school’s academic performance and growth on a variety of academic measures, have gone up 100 points.

Some of the new backpacks contained spiral-bound notebooks sporting the Cal logo, 150 of which were donated by UC Berkeley’s Cal Student Store. Every pack contained a copy of College: Making it Happen, a California Education Round Table publication to help middle school students and their parents prepare for college.

Frick, an East Oakland public school located near Mills College, has 450 students, largely African American and Latino, in grades six, seven and eight. The entire student body qualifies for free or reduced-price school lunches through the National School Lunch Program, reflecting family incomes of 185 percent of poverty or below.

For these kids, due to budget cuts, sports happen only after school hours; art, music and foreign language classes have been confined to “exploratory” classes, extra offerings above and beyond the core curriculum.

Despite the economic challenges, Frick’s aspirational spirit is on display everywhere, from the college and university banners hanging in the front office to the life-size posters of top black athletes like Kobe Bryant and Serena Williams in the gym. Along the hallway hangs a motivational banner that reads: “Some people find an excuse — others find a way.”

Frick also features a variety of programs to boost academic excellence and provide extra support for low or high achievers, including GATE (Gifted and Talented Education), Techbridge (a technology afterschool program for girls) and Saturday School for anyone who needs extra help.

OP has worked with Frick on several outreach projects, including a garden installation in which some OP staff participated on their furlough days to teach the kids about farming, cooking and nutrition. The backpack project was the brainchild of Andrea Gerstenberger, 2010–11 OP Staff Assembly chair, who has since left her OP job to move out of the area.

“People at OP really stepped up for this project,” said Blaze Farrar, program support specialist with California GEAR UP and OP Staff Assembly communications chair. “We knew it would be ambitious, but I was impressed with how everyone jumped in. It was really over the top.”

Contributors included those who donated cash to purchase the backpacks as well as those who purchased supplies from a specific list so that each child would get exactly the same stuff. Others helped coordinate the effort to make sure all the materials were in on time to assemble and deliver the packs on time.

The Staff Assembly owes a huge debt of gratitude to a few people in particular, Farrar said, including Kaiser staff who initiated a competition between the east and west wings of the sixth floor that produced 40 backpacks; Treasurer’s Office staff who helped coordinate donations; and Farrar’s own GEAR UP colleagues, whose donations yielded 20 packs.

“Nathan [EVP Brostrom] has been really supportive of the project and promoted it in word and deed,” Farrar added. “He asked the Staff Assembly to work on staff morale, and I think this project got us working together, talking and doing something to get young people started thinking about college. It’s the reason we’re here, after all.”

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