| | By Julie Anderson
Four years ago, David Kojan, a history teacher at the College Preparatory School in Oakland, was teaching his popular senior elective on archaeology when the thought occurred to him: "Is this the kind of class kids really need?"
Kojan wanted to get students out of the classroom and into the community. His aim was to enable students to learn not just through books, but through their own lived experiences. "The students at College Prep are really adept at classroom-based learning," he explained, "so I thought it would be good for them to do something that pushed at their comfort zone and put learning in a different context."
What Kojan, now assistant head of the school, came up with is STOak—short for Social Transformations Oakland. STOak's classroom is the city; the students learn about Oakland and the issues it faces by meeting with city officials and observing government meetings, as well as through summer internships at local nonprofits.
The response from students? They absolutely love STOak.
"It's such a unique opportunity," said senior Maya Levi. "It's made us much more aware of and engaged with the political system."
Hands down, the highlight of the course for all 10 seniors currently enrolled in it is the summer internships.
Kojan places students in local nonprofits according to their interests. For example, Anna Granados, a dancer and actor, worked at Destiny Arts Center, an arts-based organization that teaches kids skills like mindfulness and conflict-resolution. Caroline Hubbard, by contrast, wanted to work on issues related to young people, and spent the summer at California Youth Connection, an organization dedicated to improving the foster care system.
For Michael Liew, the area that most interested him was incarceration and education, so he interned last summer at the Urban Strategies Council in downtown Oakland. Liew found the internship transformational. "I felt like I really got a chance to see what this type of work is like and expand my horizon," he said. "It's super cool to tell people how education provides a solution to recidivism and mass incarceration. Usually, people don't know much about this."
The internships had a few unexpected challenges for the kids. Izzy Edrada, who worked at East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, an organization that supports and advocates for immigrants, pointed out that "sometimes you have to look someone in the eye and tell them you can't help them. I had to figure out you can't help everyone."
Gaby Battle was shocked by just how demanding jobs in the real world are. "Having a nine-to-five job, working and working—it's like, oh, you're an adult now! It's really tiring."
Still, these challenges are all part of the experience for students in STOak, and they relish every minute of their internships.
The internships owe their success in large measure to the way Kojan sets up the class. Kojan helps kids identify what social issues they want to work on, then teaches them methodologies for learning more about these issues. "Sometimes, they might need to go the library, or sometimes they might just need to call up Grandma," he explained. He also provides valuable background for the internships by teaching kids about Oakland's rich history of social movements (the Vietnam War protests, the Black Panthers, the environmental movement), as well as about current issues facing Oakland, like changing demographics, gentrification, and policing.
As much as possible, the students get outside of the classroom and do field trips to learn about Oakland's city government and politics. Last spring, for example, Kojan and his students met the mayor of Oakland, the chief of police, and the president of Oakland's Chamber of Commerce. The class also hosted a debate betweenstate Assembly candidates Buffy Wicks and Jovanka Beckles. STOak participants even took time off from school on election day to volunteer as poll workers in Oakland.
Edrada, who comes from El Sobrante, loved getting to know Oakland through these field trips. "Oakland is one of the greatest cities in the world—it's super cool to know the city like this," she said.
In the fall, the kids do a deeper dive into the issues they worked on over the summer; they research their issues extensively, then present them to the school and local community at the end of the semester, the culmination of a year of hard work.
Though the internships and presentations are the main projects the kids focus on in the course, Kojan ensures that there's time for the kids to discuss current events, like Judge Brett Kavanaugh's controversial appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court this fall, or the Parkland School shooting last spring. Conversations in class were, in part, what inspired two of the students, Lucy Brannigan and Manju Von Rospatt, to go a step further and independently organize a student walkout against gun violence last April.
Brannigan said about the class as a whole: "I see now how government affects you, even if you don't think it does. And I'm seeing more and more ways of making an impact beyond street protesting."
Talking with the students in Kojan's STOak class, you quickly realize that these kids are on fire to make the world a better place, and the real world experience they've received through STOak has only sharpened their resolve and their enthusiasm. It's tempting to feel jaded or cynical about the world, but these dedicated young people are out there making a difference.
If you run a program that you think would be a good fit for the course and would welcome a summer intern, contact David Kojan at David@College-Prep.org.
College Prep STOak students met with Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb at the Oakland Chamber of Commerce offices. David Kojan, now assistant head of school, came up with STOak, which gets students out of the classroom and into engaged off-campus settings and internships, as a history teacher. The novel approach seems to get students pumped up over the civic issues popping up in their hometown. Photo courtesy STOak and College Prep.