You might never know it, but a creek runs underneath a busy stretch of MacArthur Boulevard near Castlemont High School. Cross the street and climb a long set of concrete steps, and you'll see a sweeping view of the San Francisco Bay.
In her urban ecology class, sophomore Michelle Thomas climbed that steep hill for the first time. "When I was up there, I saw a lot of really nice, green trees," she said. "When I walk out in Oakland, I usually don't see that."
The Sustainable Urban Design Academy at Castlemont instructs students to take stock of their surroundings -- green space and transit hubs, empty lots and liquor stores, churches and businesses -- with a critical lens. The new academy, now at Castlemont's East Oakland School of the Arts, is one of many interdisciplinary efforts in the city's high schools. But it's the first in years to take root at Castlemont, whose three small schools have a combined dropout rate of 49 percent.
This summer, those schools will merge into one, the second major overhaul on the campus in less than 10 years. Much is riding on the academy's success.
Timothy Bremner brought the academic program to Castlemont from Youth Empowerment School after that high school closed last year. As it expands, he said, students will learn about urban agriculture and forestry, clean energy technology, community health and food equity -- as well the role of race and class in their environment.
As Bremner puts it: "How is it that East Oakland is so drastically different from the hills?"
Like other California Partnership Academies, this one uses intensive collaboration between departments and an approach to learning known as "action research." Core courses, such as biology, chemistry, history and math, are designed around common themes relating to community health, land use and social justice.
Students will learn the terminology used in the green economy and about possible careers; some will do summer internships.
The Institute for Sustainable Economic, Educational, and Environmental Design, an Oakland-based nonprofit also known as I-SEEED, has been supporting the academy at no charge. Among other forms of support, it's providing technical assistance for a community mapping project: Teams of students are documenting the assets and challenges of their neighborhoods.
On a sunny day this spring, groups of students with clipboards and cameras headed out on MacArthur Boulevard and split into different directions with adult supervisors. Bremner led a small group westbound, stopping them at the creek. As buses and cars rushed past, they looked out over a concrete barrier that was tagged with gang symbols and other signatures. Far below, they could see the narrow waterway lined by tall trees -- and a chain-link fence.
"So where do I put this?" asked Michael Ford-Kelly, a senior, wondering how to classify this largely ignored pocket of nature.
"Can you get to it?" Bremner responded.
"So it's there, but at no place anywhere on either side of the street can you get to the creek," Bremner said. "How would you evaluate that?"
The students passed a number of vacant storefronts and empty lots on their route, and talked about the gardens or health centers that could be there. They giggled as a woman wandered up to Ford-Kelly, confusing him with a famous hip-hop artist (and refusing to take no for an answer). They photographed a parking sign that had been changed to read "NO KILLING, ANYTIME."
Claudia Suarez, a senior, said she'd walked along MacArthur countless times -- but mostly with her head down, trying to get to and from school as uneventfully as possible. Now that she has learned some urban design principles, she said, something occurred to her: Very little planning must have gone into the area.
There is little greenery to be found along the wide boulevard, and some of the lots and stores have been vacant for years.
Back in the classroom the next day, students recapped their observations.
"So as we walked, did you see any thriving businesses?" Suarez asked her group.
"No," said her classmate, Edson Gonzales. "No thriving businesses, at all."
"But there's liquor stores. Aren't they thriving? Because people go all the time," Suarez said.
Bremner said he hopes the students' observations and ideas will be incorporated into school district plans and city projects. Already, he said, the students have made their high school campus a more environmentally friendly place, reviving a large community garden, volunteering at the school's regular farmers market and monitoring the food bins in the lunchroom to make sure the waste is sorted appropriately.
Ford-Kelly said the class has made him see his neighborhood's problems and potential in a new light. "If we thought we knew the place that we live in, we really didn't," he said.