At the end of this month, a new free, public charter school open its doors in Oakland. Funded primarily by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the California Department of Education, Urban Renaissance School of Arts & Technology (often referred to as Urban but not to be confused with the San Francisco private school of the same name) is committed to preparing kids for college and having a small school community. Urban is dedicated to small class sizes, with no more than 25 students per class. The high school is open to students in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
“We want our kids to go to college,” said Co-Principal John Oubre. “All of our classes are aligned with the UC and CSU standards.”
Urban is a member of Envision Schools, a group of Bay Area public charter high schools. The mission of Envision Schools is to create high-performing high schools that meet college requirements and that provide an ideal learning environment.
Urban students will be assigned an advisor, who will aid them in their journey from high school to college.
“Each student at Urban will have an advisor who works with no more than 18 students,” said Co-Principal Alcine Mumby. “It is the task of the advisor not only to support the academic needs, but also to help with the psychological and social challenges—especially as students transition into high school.”
For the school’s first year, Urban plans to start with a ninth-grade class of 125 students. Every year they will add a grade until, by 2009, they hope to have a full high school of grades 9 through 12.
Oubre says that student safety will be a number one priority.
“This campus will be safe,” Oubre said, because we have chosen it to be so. I like young people. We need to work with them as long as we can.”
Urban is a little different from other schools. Rather than being focused on nightly homework, it is centered on projects, the reasoning being that projects combine work in the classroom with real-life experience to give students a more balanced education.
As its name states, the focus at Urban is technology and the arts. Art is not an elective at this school but a required course, with students allowed to choose anything from music to computer design. Technology is implemented into the school curriculum as well. Urban prides itself on the low computer-to-student ratio of 1:3. The entire campus will have free wireless Internet service.
Oubre tells the Daily Planet that parents of prospective students are showing a strong interest in Urban.
“Everyday, we receive four to five calls inquiring about Urban,” says Oubre.
Urban receives its charter from the Alameda County Office of Education. Envision Schools originally applied to the Oakland Unified School District for their charter but were turned down.
Urban was awarded $405,000 from the California Department of Education, which will be dispersed over a period of two years, and $360,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation over a period of three years.
Asked what effect might this charter school have on arts programs in the Oakland schools, like those at Skyline High School and Oakland School for the Arts (OSA), Oakland Unified School District Communications Director Alex Katz said, “In one sense, it will make competition, which can be good. We only exist to serve the students. If that school can do a good job serving students, we don’t want to stand in the way.”
Steven Goldstine, a consultant at OSA, speculates how a school like Urban got such a large grant from the Gates Foundation.
“It’s very unusual to get a large grant for something that doesn’t exist yet, unless they know someone in the Gates family,” said Goldstine.
However, Goldstine thinks that it’s better for the students to succeed rather than focusing on competition. He noted that “the graduating class at OSA went on to some remarkable institutions.” Urban will be hosting an open house every Thursday from 6:30 to until 7:30 p.m. through Aug. 24.
Urban Renaissance School of Arts & Technology will open its doors at 967 Stanford Ave. in Oakland later this month. Photo by