Oakland school offers students credit for volunteer work in community

Students at Oakland's Emiliano Zapata Street Academy had a back-to-school night that is very different from other schools in the Bay Area.

On Wednesday, the high school hosted an internship fair, bringing in 20 community groups to the small alternative public school. 

Students visited each booth, had interviews, and wrote down their top three choices for internships. The Academy gives the students academic credit for volunteering in the community and each student is required to complete 60 hours of social justice work in order to graduate.

Autriyon Myers says last year, she decided to volunteer at Oakland Children's Hospital.

"It was something I wanted to do. I'm not pushed to do it, like I had to do it. It was something we picked out ourselves," said Autriyon, who says now she is interested in becoming a doctor.

The internships encourage students to make small choices, that can lead to big dreams and an understanding of how classroom lessons translate into real world careers.

"It's about knowing that this is your community and you should be involved in trying to make it better," said Lara Lawal, the Academy's new Executive Director.

Lawal knows what it's like to walk in the students' shoes. She was a student herself at Street Academy.

"I graduated in 2005 and I went to Cal-State Los Angeles. Street Academy had something about it and made me want to come back and give back to my community," said Lawal, adding that her experience as a graduate has helped her relate to the students, "Just to be here for them is very important. I am them and they are me and I just want to make sure they have the best future for them, because they are our future."

Lawal says it feels like family. Class sizes they say kept at 20 students instead of 40 and they match each student with a staff member.

"Each of the teachers is not just an academic teacher but a counselor and mentor to the students establishing a relationship with them and their families," said Betsy Schultz, a Street Academy Board Member and former teacher at the Academy for more than four decades. 

The school's extra support network is a help to working parents such as Demtreanna Coleman, a single mom whose daughter is in the tenth grade. 

"I was a single mother since I was 15 years old and I grew up in foster care myself and it's all about breaking the cycle and I want my daughter to have a better life than me," said Coleman.

The school also raises donations to send students overseas to broaden their world. Last year the group went to Paris, and the year before that Guatemala.

"In Guatemala we talked about their environment. So we helped plant 10,000 mangroves with them because they've been cutting down mangroves," said Nayali Reynoso, an Oakland Street Academy senior who went on both trips and says she now wants to get a degree in international business and become an executive.

Others say the school's unique program, has given them a better sense of themselves. 

"I really discovered my true self and passion," said Sebastian Rivas. 

Rivas is a senior who says he wants to go to college and get a business degree so he can help people in his community get permits and start their own small businesses.

"I feel like it's better to have local businesses than big corporations because with helping local businesses it's better for the community. It brings a lot more joy and happiness and puts money back into the community," said Rivas.

"I really enjoy it because you're able to build relationships with other people outside of school. And it also allows you to visualize what you want to do in your life." said Essau Robins-Bilal, a junior.

For 2019, the school has other big plans. They just got a grant they say will help the students plan a new school yard. And they're hoping to take two trips this year to foreign countries instead of just the one. 

The school says they are so small with about 100 students in grades 9-12, the program has often gone under the radar.  But they're hoping to expand and help other Oakland children find their path.