Oakland activist pushes for educational equity

OAKLAND  — With part of her childhood spent growing up in San Francisco’s Sunnydale housing project, Lakisha Young had the chance to attend good schools and experience the power of education to “open doors to a different kind of life.”

As a mother of three children in the Oakland schools, Young’s experience fueled her desire to help low-income students in the district have similar access to a good education and go to college. Her efforts became imperative after the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools, and many Black and Latino students were left at a serious disadvantage.

OAKLAND, CA – DEC. 18: The Oakland REACH co-founder and CEO Lakisha Young, of Oakland, is photographed at her home in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

Young is co-founder and CEO of The Oakland Reach, a parent-led advocacy group. The Reach garnered national attention for its “City-Wide Virtual Hub,” which kicked off in June with an online summer academic and enrichment program for low-income K-8 students.

As the Hub launched a second phase when school resumed remotely in the fall, the Reach joined Los Angeles parents in a lawsuit against the state for failing to provide “basic educational equality” as schools continue distance learning. Here, Young talks about the “crisis in learning” for underserved communities, and why programs like the Hub could offer solutions in a post-COVID-19 world.

Q: The Oakland Reach started in 2016 with the idea of helping families advocate for their children. Your first policy win got the school district to guarantee access for Black and Latino students to high-performing schools if theirs closed or merged. What other successes did you have?

A: Our Literacy For all Campaign taught families how to advocate at their schools around their children’s reading. For example, we talked to parents about scheduling a meeting to talk to their children’s teachers about a reading assessment, something families in the hills already know about doing. The campaign was about making sure that everybody connected to that child has some culture around literacy. We have mamas and grandmamas who cannot read.

Q: What did The Oakland Reach do when the pandemic first hit?

A: We gave out more than $400,000 cash assistance to more than 1,000 families to help them cover rent, food, utilities and other necessities.

Q: You’ve mentioned 8-year-old twins whose teacher only held class twice last spring. How was that allowed to happen?

A: When COVID-19 hit, you had the school district and the teachers at the bargaining table, figuring out how many hours they would be teaching online. The thing we want to see is parents at the bargaining table. Some of our teachers also didn’t have good internet access and computers. We had to purchase those for them as well, so they could teach in the new normal.

Q: How does the Hub work?

A: The Hub focuses on ensuring families receive high-quality remote instruction. For the summer program, there were about 200 kids Zooming in Monday through Friday. They did about 3½ hours of live instruction with a teacher. Then in the afternoon, which was cool, kids got to sign up for martial arts classes and cooking and science classes. There also was creative writing. Each family also had a family liaison.

Q: You say you saw some real benefits to children.

A: Phase I of the Hub was an unqualified success. Attendance for students in kindergarten through second grade was 83 percent, compared to only 35 percent at OUSD during spring distance learning. Student reading levels increased on average by two levels on the district’s reading assessment. Our enrollment increased to over 350 kids in the fall.

Q: How did things work in the fall’s Phase 2?

A: From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., kids were in their regular schools, but that’s when the family liaison was checking in and helping families with internet issues or knowing how to connect with their children’s teachers. From 3:30 to 5, we offered a menu of academic and social enrichment classes: math, literacy and science. Our science classes are provided by UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science.

Q: There’s been a push in some communities to reopen schools, over concerns that distance learning has hurt students’ academic performance and mental and physical health. What has been the experience for your families?

A: We did a survey of our families in November, and only 20 percent said they would have their children go back to school if we reopened. We dug in deeper around those reasons, and they are all COVID-19-related. Our families are really concerned and fearful of the spread of this virus and how it hits our communities. Also notably: 14 percent of our families said distance learning was serving them better. I believe that some of that is informed by the support they have gotten through the Hub.

Q: You’ve talked about how this pandemic has presented opportunities to make real improvements in education. What do you mean?

A: In-person instruction wasn’t that great prior to COVID. Less than 30 percent of Black and Brown students in the district were reading on grade level. When it’s time to go back to classes, we have to make sure our families have something worth going back to. I don’t even like to use the word re-imagine. But when you have a parent sitting with their kids and watching the instruction, you’ll see a shift in how that parent is able to “show up” for their children’s education. Our parents will have the same agency as hills families.

Lakisha Young

Organization: The Oakland REACH
Position: Co-Founder & CEO
Age: 45
Birthplace: San Francisco
Residence: Oakland
Education: B.A. English, Cal State East Bay, M.A. Educational Technology, Pepperdine University

Five Things About Lakisha Young

  1. Loves Hallmark Christmas movies: Fighting for a good education takes its toll, so it’s good to watch “feel good” movies “where life wraps up nicely at the end.”
  2. Loves to hike because it “brings peace and reflection” and “all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other.”
  3. Originally thought about becoming a lawyer until she tutored and taught in a summer program in high school.
  4. Her children love Harry Potter movies, and the family enjoys regular “movie nights.”
  5. Loves to dance, saying she almost wiggled off the bed at 6 months while ’70s soul music played in the background; favorite song is James Brown’s “The Payback.”

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