A Rose in Concrete

Jeff Duncan-Andrade is changing the lives of East Bay high school students.

Chris McDermut/Photo

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On the evening of March 25, 2009, Yohaira Gil received a frantic call from her younger brother Josue Lopez-Gil's friend.

"He's alive! Pick him up! He's alive!" she recalls the distressed young voice on the other end of the line screaming.

Moments before the call, Josue was walking with two of his friends. As the group passed along the 1800 block of 55th Avenue in Oakland, they were approached by two boys. After a terse exchange of words, one of the boys pulled a gun and shot Josue. Swooning from the pain of his wound, Josue managed to stagger down Holway Street collapsing a few blocks away.

Josue, a sixth-grader, was 13 years old when he died that night. His murderer was 13 years old, too. He was shot over a spat involving a girl.

In July, 16-year-old Marco Esparaza would die of gunshot wounds sustained on 35th Avenue. In August, 14-year-old Ricardo Cortez would be shot and killed a few blocks away on 47th Street. All in all, Oakland would see 104 homicides that year including numerous school-aged children.

The violence, poverty and corroding schools make all of Oakland's youth suffer.

Nowhere is this more prominent than in the classroom. In East Oakland, only 23 percent of all public school students entering the ninth grade from 20022005 graduated, and a lamentable 5-percent were eligible for admission to the UC or CSU systems.

Compared to nearby Piedmont's 93 percent graduation rate, one begins to understand the stakes.

In this context, it's sometimes difficult to parse through the grim stories of coffins, truancy, and trammeled dreams to find hope in Oakland's urban public schools. And yet, in the case of Mandela High School of East Oakland, hope abounds in one classroom in particular. In fact, a novel teaching style is yielding amazing, seemingly impossible results. Students once considered lost are attending their classes, doing their homework, and 90 percent or more are going to college.

Who has reached these kids where so many others have failed? None other than a Cal graduate and Ph.D., named Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade.

Andrade is an enigma whose story is bumpy and fraught with heartache. Nonetheless, Andrade's story is one of triumph - a story of empathy, dedication and gritty determination. An educator and a coach wizened by experience, but made more committed by it. Underlying Andrade's story is an undercurrent of love. Real unabated love forged out of the crucible of life in all its drama. Andrade's passion transcends his students. His self-ascribed mandate is to change the way we all view the scholar, the athlete, and the progeny of America's inner-city.

Long before you could find Andrade commanding a classroom in Oakland, you would have found him on a soccer field in a working-class neighborhood outside of Eugene, Ore.

Andrade was a high school standout in soccer, basketball, and track. Never considering himself a scholar, Andrade would go to class only long enough to be eligible to practice that afternoon. He was recruited to play basketball at several high-profile schools, but accepted a scholarship to play soccer at Cal.

But Andrade would not last long in the collegiate athletic world. In his first practice, Andrade tore every ligament in his ankle, crushing any dreams of a career.

Depressed, Andrade started to skip class. His grades plummeted and it became painfully apparent that Andrade's disengagement may have cost him his scholarship and even his degree.

"I think I felt like if I didn't care and I didn't make it, then so what? I did better than everyone else, right? I went to Berkeley for a semester," Andrade says. "I had my withdrawal papers; I was going to drop out."

That is, until professor Harry Edwards stepped in.

There are critical junctures in individual's lives that define who they are and what they become. Meeting Edwards was one of Andrade's moments.

Edwards, a famed sociology professor, became a tough love mentor.

"Somehow it got to Edwards (I was dropping out), and I met with him," Andrade says. "And he blasted me for like two hours. (He said) 'you've become exactly what they expected you to be. You come here, you put on your clown suit, and you run around to entertain them and you don't even believe you're a good student.' It was like he knew me without ever having met me. I was a walking stereotype."

His ears still ringing, Andrade walked back to his dorm room at Clark Kerr. The athlete was crying, a foreign experience for the young man. Edwards had held up a mirror to Andrade, and he did not like what he saw.

When Andrade got back to his dorm he had already began to transform.

Frustrated, he started by burning all his athletic gear in effigy. His cleats, his blue and gold "Cal" emblazoned jerseys, his warmups; he burned it all. In that moment, Andrade decided to fight back - he finally cared. After losing his scholarship due to his grades that fall, he took on three jobs at the library to pay for tuition and recommitted himself to his classes and to his future.

"I took the same approach to studying that I took to sports," Andrade says. "It became a competition for me. I was going to beat everyone in every class."

And it worked. Andrade would graduate cum laude from Cal in 1992 with a degree in English literature.

"I'm really lucky," Andrade says. "I could script a million different narratives where we just miss each other. Where I don't make it to that meeting, or something happens to (Edwards) and he doesn't show up that day. If I never get hurt, I never become a teacher."

Andrade looks incredulously at the sheepish looking high school student fidgeting in front of him. "Why can't you make study hall?"

"Because my mom wants me home," the student offers.

"Why didn't she tell me that? I'll give her a call," Andrade retorts already perusing the contacts of his cell phone.

"OK," says the student calmly.

It's just another September day in Andrade's English class at Mandela and this is the breed of teacher he has become since graduating from Berkeley. Andrade is someone who knows and cares for his students and athletes.

Immediately after graduating, Andrade entered the Oakland school system as an English teacher at Westlake Middle School. At Westlake, Andrade took students with the hardest upbringings and most broken homes under his wing. And each year, Andrade would turn these kids around. His weapon of choice: convention-shattering commitment.

His students all called him Jeff and had his cell phone number. Sometimes, Andrade drove several of them home from school. He knew their families, and they knew him. As a result, they would show up to class and engage for the first time in their young lives.

"He's changed people," said one of his ninth-grade students at Mandela. "If a student is in a gang they won't come to school, except to his class."

Since his time at Westlake, Andrade continued to hone his craft teaching at Oasis Community, Oakland High, and Mandela. Each step along the way, Andrade helped Oakland's children discover their inner scholar. In his classrooms his critical pedagogy stresses community, collective success, and identifies social conditions of oppression so his students can better address them and cope. Watching Andrade, one sees that he can be strict but warmhearted, critical but supportive.

What truly sets Andrade apart is the ethos of commitment he instills in his students. Andrade takes a class of 30 ninth-graders, known as a cohort, and teaches them all four years in high school. His last cohort had a 92 percent enrollment rate in either a UC or CSU.

"If there's a quality that he has that perhaps 90 percent of the other teachers don't have, that is commitment to the student body," says Noel Gallo who has served on the Oakland Board of Education for 16 years.

But just like any family, reciprocity is tacitly expected. Today, Andrade's cohort alumni continue to come back to his classrooms and to commit themselves to a lifetime of teaching.

"I feel more comfortable with Jeff than my other teachers," says Richard Bennett who has joined the swelling ranks of Andrade's former students. "He's with you your whole life."

However, the classroom is only half of Andrade's story. From his tenure at Westlake through his time at Oakland High, Andrade coached basketball. Removed from sports since his traumatic experience at Cal, he returned to athletics with a new philosophy.

As a coach of the women's varsity basketball team at Oakland, Andrade applied the same principles to academics which had served him so well at Cal: every day his team would go to study hall before practice. Each athlete was a student first. He knows that a future in sport is never guaranteed.

"I wanted to be the coach and the teacher that I never had," Andrade says. "My coaches would drive right past me in the rain. I didn't want to be that coach. I wanted to be the coach that stops, and sees you in the rain (and asks) do you need a ride? Just simple forms of care."

And his facsimile approach of care has worked on the court too. In six years as the Oakland coach, Andrade's team had an 100 percent four-year college matriculation rate. The Wildcats succeeded on the court too, winning three Oakland city titles and appearing in the NorCal State Championship.

Andrade has found a paradigm-shattering teaching methodology that resonates with his students and athletes. He speaks the lingua franca of Oakland's youth: shared experience and the pain of dreams deferred. But Andrade also speaks a new language, a language of renewal and infinite possibility. His life's narrative is a testament to its power and a passport into the hearts of his students.

"Every day we have a choice to either contribute to the trauma of children or to help them," says Andrade. "If you spend any time with them you realize really quickly that they're just 15-year-old kids and they want the same thing that every kid wants."

"They want to be loved. They want to be challenged. They want to be cared for. They want to be supported. They're just kids and they're hurting like anybody else would hurt if they were exposed to unearned trauma and unearned suffering."

Andrade says he loses a student each year to the same sorts of violence that claimed Josue Lopez-Gil. And yet, each year he molds a cadre of young minds that will be responsible for taking up his mantle when he's gone. If Oakland has hope, it's in Andrade's infinite capacity for love.


Contact Chris Haugh at [email protected]

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