For FilAm Principal, Cultural Roots Defined Career Path

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OAKLAND, Calif. – Gerald Reyes, co-principal of Oakland’s ARISE Charter High School, is one of a small number of Filipino American educators in California. While his background makes him something of a minority, it also informs an educational approach that is proving both effective and perfectly suited to the charter setting.

“I was inspired by ARISE’s potential,” says Reyes, 41, a Bay Area native know simply as “G” by his students.

The school’s name stands for Authenticity, Rigor, Inspiration, Success and Empowerment. With a graduation rate topping 95 percent, it does seem to be living up to its name.

The child of immigrant parents, Reyes says his own upbringing played an important part in his decision to become an educator. “I recollect very little from my education. My father, like a lot of [Filipino] fathers, was in the military, so I ended up living all over country.” The result, he says, was a “fragmented education” that left him with major gaps in his learning.

It also led him down a dangerous path.

At 15, Reyes says he began using drugs. By the time he arrived in the Bay Area to attend high school, violence was becoming an increasingly prevalent part of his life, while college seemed increasingly remote. He later turned things around, he says, and eventually enrolled in California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

“It was predominantly white,” he recalls of the campus. “The first two years, I went through a shift there. I was never around a lot of Filipinos, but at Cal Poly I joined the Filipino club and I became politicized.” It was then, he says, that he began to want to learn “more about myself, and others.”

California is home to the largest Filipino American community in the country. According to the latest Census data, there were some 1.5 million Filipinos in the state, accounting for roughly 27 percent of the overall Asian population.

Still, compared to other Asian communities, Filipinos have lagged in educational attainment, with higher dropout rates and far lower rates of college completion. Of those that do receive a bachelor’s degree, less than 5 percent major in the field of education, according to data from the California Preliminary Credential Examination.

Those figures make Reyes an extreme minority in a profession that statistics show is growing less – not more – diverse. Still, he insists, “Filipinos have a place in education … we can help work towards transformation.”

Reyes began his career in youth development, working with the non-profit Oakland Leaf, which uses art and music to bring education to disadvantaged students. He helped launch ARISE – located in the Fruitvale neighborhood -- in late 2007. Almost 95 percent of the school’s first cohort of seniors graduated in 2010, far exceeding the state average of 74 percent for that same year.

“It is unacceptable to not pass a class here,” he notes. That may mean an added year at the school, but by the time students graduate, “colleges see A’s and B’s on their transcripts.”

Students at ARISE are not penalized for repeating courses, and in fact cannot move to the next level until they either meet or surpass course requirements. The school’s wraparound services -- which include partnerships with nearby Mills College, as well as Outward Bound and the Oakland Unified School District – also look to address student needs both in and out of the classroom.

It’s an approach that Reyes describes as “ecological,” emphasizing that each student is part of a greater whole. Part of that has meant additional time spent on the students most likely to slip through the cracks.

“We focus on youth leadership,” Reyes explains. “We focus on the ones who've been in gangs and dealing drugs. We put them all in same room and say you're going to be leaders of the school.”

Latinos make up 90 percent of the 200 plus students there, followed by 11 percent African American and 5 percent Asian and Pacific Islander. Of the students, 85 percent qualify for free or reduced meals, while 90 percent are from families where neither parent has a college education.

“I'm the only one that has made it to high school,” says 11th grader Angih Hernandez, who notes that her aunt dropped out in ninth grade. “None of my family went to high school. They feel proud of me.”

But for Reyes that success has not taken his attention away from the very real challenges that the school and its students face. “There are failures every day. When Miguel doesn’t come to school, that’s a failure … when a young person is feeling suicidal, [or] when another person goes through a violent rape; when someone got high at lunch. Those are all failures.”

Indeed, says Reyes, these are all things that “happen regularly.” But for the staff and faculty at ARISE, the key question is how to support students on their educational journey.

ARISE is one of 33 charter schools authorized to operate in the Oakland Unified School District, serving up to 18 percent -- or 8500 students – of all students enrolled in the district. Two years ago its charter came up for renewal, with OUSD officials faulting the school for its low Academic Performance Index (API) scores, a state standard used to measure student progress.

In 2012, the school’s API score stood at 554, down slightly from the year before.

“The API scores are not indicative of our student growth,” stresses Literacy Coordinator and English Teacher Mary Kelly. “One of things to know as a teacher is that those [API] tests are inherently discriminatory … I place value on individual growth and the way we view students as a whole, a holistic picture rather than a test score. ”

Ultimately ARISE’s charter was renewed and will come up for review again in 2016. Until then, Reyes and his staff will continue to build on the work they’ve started.

“Often times, it’s said that you need to get out of the hood and then don’t come back,” Reyes says. “Here at ARISE, the idea is that you continue on past here, get the skills and agency you need, and then you come back.”

Racquel Rendon is a producer for the Emmy-award winning lifestyle magazine show, “Adobo Nation” at (TFC) the Filipino Channel in Redwood City, CA.