RFF Shout Out: ARISE High School

04 Mar, 2022

RFF Shout Out: ARISE High School

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Jonathan Willis, Restorative Justice Coordinator, trains the ARISE Student Justice Panel (Wolf Council) on leading circles and engaging others in the restorative process. Image courtesy of ARISE High School.

ARISE High School, uniquely located in the middle of Fruitvale Village Plaza, is a school birthed by and for the community through a partnership between founders Romeo Garcia and Laura Flaxman, and Mills College School of Education, the Mills College TRIO Programs, Upward Bound, Oakland Community Organizations, and the Coalition of Essential Schools. The school provides in-depth wrap around services to students and families, and many ARISE students are first generation high school graduates. Head of School Karla Gandiaga, a truly compassionate and community driven school leader, says, “Our school is smaller, but we have one of the largest student support networks out of any school that I’ve visited or worked in. There are a lot of people in addition to teachers, who support students because the journey of graduating high school and then figuring out career or college involves families and more. It takes a village.” 

Head of School, Karla Gandiaga, travelled to the homes of each graduating senior to conduct a full graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020. Image courtesy of ARISE High School.

ARISE prides itself in its mission to empower students with the knowledge, skills, and agency to become highly educated, humanizing, critically conscious, intellectual, and reflective leaders in the community. Karla says the school’s mission is what drew her to take on the role as Head of School, “When I saw the mission, I thought, ‘Wow. This is so bold.’ It’s what anchors us. It attracts passionate educators who really are anti-racist that are committed to this mission, and I think that’s really beautiful. When asking prospective teachers why they are interested in ARISE, they all mention the mission statement.” 

ARISE’s mission is actualized through providing a rigorous college- and career-ready education to their students. Not only is curriculum at ARISE  based on the state standards, but leveled-up by centering around the acknowledgement that students have existing cultural funds of knowledge. Karla says, “We just have to activate them. It’s easy to have a stagnant curriculum, but we [as educators and adults] get to grow and learn with our students.” As Karla shared in a recent newsletter, their approach and the school’s dedication to preparing students for college and beyond has led to ARISE being named the #1 school in the Bay Area for A-G Completion amongst schools with 80% or more students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, and ranked in the top 100 schools for A-G completion in the state.

Students in Biology and Public Health conduct experiments on worms and measure outcomes. Image courtesy of ARISE High School.

This year with COVID relief funds, ARISE implemented Enrichment Wednesdays, when 9th-11th grade students have the opportunity to connect with over 60 community partners who provide extra curricular activities. ARISE scholars participate in weightlifting, rowing, rock climbing, soccer, art, hip hop, graffiti, photography, improv, theater, cooking, first aid certification, and drivers ed. Enrichment Wednesdays are a key to creating an equitable learning experience for ARISE students, creating access and alleviating families of the burden of costs commonly associated with extra curricular activities. Karla says, “Anything you can think of, we have it!” Additionally, ARISE seniors participate in work-based learning, which takes the form of an internship experience related to a career path of their choosing. 

Another of ARISE’s offerings, the Academic Mentors program, is gaining much attention for its success and power behind its potential. The program is agile problem solving at its finest. It launched in 2020 when ARISE switched to virtual learning. Teachers were faced with navigating the many demands of a Zoom classroom, monitoring the waiting room, taking attendance, and addressing comments and questions that came up in the chat, not to mention delivering actual instruction. As a creative solution, ARISE hired college students who were ARISE alumni to serve as Academic Mentors – and the result was a radically transformed classroom experience for students. Karla says, “Academic Mentors were now writing private messages to students, translating lessons for newcomers, answering questions, running academic discourse in the breakout rooms, all sorts of things.” The program was piloted with 5 Academic Mentors, and has since expanded to 20. Now that ARISE is back to in-person learning, v.2 of the program has advanced. Academic Mentors take on support roles aligned with their academic and career interests – with some gaining experience in administrative and clerical support in the front office, while others are working on the operations and facilities to ensure classes have what they need, and even more mentors are in the classrooms helping teachers prepare for classes, taking attendance, making phone calls home to families, and working with students in small groups. This year alone, three Academic Mentors have received emergency teaching certifications to step in as substitute teachers, which Karla says was incredibly useful during the Omicron surge. This format has proven to be mutually beneficial to the Academic Mentors and the school. Karla encourages other schools to consider piloting alumni mentorship programs at their school attesting, “the program provides amazing community, workforce training, teacher pipeline, and a way for students to see themselves reflected in the classroom. We wouldn’t have made it through this year without them.”

ARISE staff members delivered groceries to an average of 160 families each week during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image courtesy of ARISE High School.

If ARISE had 3 wishes that could be granted today, they would wish for:

  • The academic mentor program to be fully funded and a permanent program in the school
  • A real school building in the community with enough classrooms, office spaces for mental health professionals and support staff, a cafeteria, indoor and outdoor athletic spaces, and a cute garden
  • All ARISE families to have access to affordable housing and healthcare.

When asked about the best part of working at ARISE, Karla says, “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have this community. Getting to school in the morning and standing in the plaza to greet kids is my favorite part of the day. Joking around with the students and staff and seeing everyone. Some of the parents still drop off their kids, and it’s such a sleepy, beautiful, and loving moment that I know I wouldn’t get if I was working in an office or virtually.” As Karla looks to the future, she says her dream is to work herself out of a job. “I want to see students take my job. Our Director of Operations is an ARISE parent, we have three ARISE parents working for the school.” 

Interested in staying up to date on everything happening at ARISE? You’ve got to check out this video about the school. Subscribe to the ARISE High School newsletter that’s so thoughtfully created by Karla each week, and follow them on Twitter and Instagram. You can also DONATE to support the continuation of ARISE’s Academic Mentor Program. ARISE is also looking for experienced and credentialed high school teacher-leaders interested in learning and growing in a professional learning community to join their team in the 2022-23 school year. Check out the full list of open positions on their website. 

Written and edited by Bonnie Look and Kate Ray.

Kate Ray joined the RFF team in 2019. Prior to joining the Foundation, Kate spent two years as a middle-school science teacher, first in Fort Worth, Texas, and most recently in Oakland with Aspire Public Schools. Kate’s favorite childhood book was Matilda by Roald Dahl. Her hope for Oakland students is that each will be provided with the tools and support they need to develop and pursue their passions.
Bonnie Look join the RFF team in 2017. She designs and coordinates the implementation of the Foundation’s strategic communications, program operations, grants management and evaluation. Bonnie’s favorite childhood book was The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Her hope for Oakland students if for each to realize their potential, to feel valued and loved, and have a hunger for continuous learning in school and beyond.