Oakland mentor pushes for charter boarding school

  • March 26, 2014

By Carolyn Jones
Staff Writer, San Francisco Chronicle

Oral Lee Brown has tutored, fed, comforted, encouraged and paid college bills for about 150 disadvantaged students.

But now at age 68, the Oakland real estate agent wants something more.

The fiery Mississippi native wants to open a boarding school in the Oakland hills for kids whose home lives are so dysfunctional they need to be physically relocated in order to succeed.

"At their homes, no one's around to help with homework. Mom might be working two or three jobs and still doesn't have enough. There's no food in the house. We can open a regular charter school, but that still doesn't address the problem," she said at her East Oakland office.

"These kids need to have a sense of security and well-being, where they can focus on their educations," she said. "I'm going to do it. And I don't take no for an answer."

Brown has so far raised about $7 million of the $21 million she needs to build the school, which she envisions as a 480-student kindergarten-through-12th-grade academy for kids "who want to work hard but don't have anyone at home that can help them."

"I want the kids whom society has given up on, but they haven't given up on themselves," she said.

The school would be free to the student. Teachers would be highly paid, given small classes but held accountable for each student's success. If a kid fails, the teacher would be fired.

The funding would come from grants, donations and taxpayers, as the school would operate under a charter within the Oakland Unified School District.

Giving generously

A good chunk of the money would come from Brown herself, who plans to sell her house - estimated at $500,000 - for the cause.

"How can I ask others to do something I'm not willing to do?" she said.

The students would enroll with their parents' blessing, she said. At a few recent back-to-school nights, she asked parents if they would be willing to send their kids to such an institution, and demand was overwhelming, she said.

Her former students are among the first to support her new cause. LaTosha Hunter, 32, was in Brown's first "adopted" class at Brookfield Elementary in East Oakland. With Brown's support - financial, emotional, academic and otherwise - Hunter became the first in her family to graduate from college. She now runs the Enterprise rental car branch at the Oakland airport.

"Anything Ms. Brown needs, I'll be there for her," Hunter said. "She was a life changer for me. She pushed me. She never stopped checking in. My mom is so proud of me now. ... Now I want to give back, too. Ms. Brown taught me that."

Zachary Johnson, 27, was a freshman at Skyline High in Oakland when he joined Brown's program. With her support, he graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta with a degree in economics and finance, and now works at Splunk, a tech data firm in San Francisco.

"She believes in us. It's a gift Ms. Brown gives to us - the ability to dream, which is all too often taken from young minority kids in Oakland," he said. "She sacrifices so much for us, it's a very powerful thing. It's made me want to give back, too."

Alumni network

Johnson started an alumni club for Ms. Brown's proteges, so they can stay involved with her work after they enter the career world. They raise money and serve as mentors to her current students.

Brown did not set out to run a one-woman educational service. Growing up in rural Mississippi, she was picking cotton at age 8 and cooking for 14 people every day, more focused on survival that anything else.

When she was 18, she moved to Oakland to be near her brother, and she enrolled at Laney College. She eventually transferred to the University of San Francisco, where she earned a bachelor's degree, and in 1980 she became a real estate agent in East Oakland.

One day in 1987 she walked to the corner store to buy her usual breakfast, Spanish peanuts and a Pepsi, when a girl of about 7 asked her for money.

Brown brought her into the store and told her she could buy whatever she wanted. The girl picked out a loaf of Wonder Bread and a pack of bologna, and then left.

"That should have been the end of the story, but it wasn't," Brown said. "I couldn't sleep for about two weeks. Why wasn't that girl in school? Why didn't she have enough food at home?"

Brown went to the local elementary school, Brookfield, and looked for the girl, to no avail. On a whim, she asked the principal if she could "adopt" a class of first-graders: tutoring them, taking them on outings, pushing for their success and ultimately paying for their college education.

After undergoing a litany of security precautions, the principal said yes. Of the two first-grade classes at Brookfield, 19 of the 23 kids in Brown's group graduated from high school and 13 finished college. In the other class, only four finished high school, she said, typical in a neighborhood with some of the city's highest dropout rates.

She funded their educations by investing $10,000 a year of her own money, even tough she was earning only $45,000 annually, and collecting donations.

Bustling office

These days, Brown works with about 85 kids of all ages from throughout the city. They gather on Saturdays at her foundation office, at MacArthur Boulevard and 91st Avenue, for homework help, field trips, college visits and encouragement. A bevy of tutors from UC Berkeley and Cal State East Bay help out. On the walls are pictures of her seniors, with checklists of where they've applied to college and where they've been accepted.

The roster is impressive: Berkeley, Stanford, Mills, Morehouse, UCLA and many other schools. Some of her alumni have gone on to earn master's or doctorates, a big feat for students who come from some of the poorest and least-educated pockets of the city.

"People say it's incredible. It's not," Brown said. "No kid wants to grow up to be a bum or in prison or on drugs. When they're young, these kids all want to succeed. All I do is push them a little bit."

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