On a recent Thursday afternoon in Ashur Bratt’s class in Oakland, about 20 middle school students stood tall on chairs and tables and flung their arms out from their sides, looking very pleased with themselves.
“How do you feel?” Bratt asked as students raised their arms, competing to be called on. “Ecstatic!” one boy answered. It turns out, Bratt told his class, if you expand your body for a couple of minutes, it helps you feel better and think bigger.
Thinking bigger is part of the culture at Elmhurst Community Prep, a middle school in East Oakland that has expanded the school day to 5 p.m. with a variety of after-school offerings, such as Bratt’s class on building self-confidence. Students can choose robotics, music or dance. They can make collages, dissect fetal pigs or create apps. They visit well-known companies such as Google and Pandora.
“We’re not just cookies and basketballs,” said Principal Kilian Betlach, who keep tabs on his students as he roams the halls with a baseball bat (“It’s a prop”) and a sense of humor. “We have a real moral imperative to provide kids from low-income backgrounds with the services and opportunities that middle-class kids get. We don’t do just hard academics. We offer access and opportunities.”
The school of 375 students – in the middle of a tough Oakland neighborhood where the shooting of a 13-year-old boy on New Year’s Day was the city’s first homicide – has been promoted as a national model for how to create and finance an after-school program that supports both enrichment activities and academic success.
Every student at Elmhurst, in the Oakland Unified school district, attends the expanded learning program, making it part of their normal school day. Classes begin at 8 a.m. and end at 5 p.m., at least two hours after most other Oakland students are done for the day.
Part of the school’s uniqueness is the way it blends the regular school day and the after-school program.
Rodzhaney Sledge, dressed in the light-blue school uniform, is new to the school as a 6th grader, but she already understands how the after-school part of the program supports her academic work. For example, she took a class called Tools for Peace, where she learned to meditate.