Just over a year ago, Darius Aikens was homeless, couch-surfing from one friend’s place to the next, while trying to keep up with his junior-year classes at Oakland High.
And, working through the East Bay College Fund, the program has provided 700 high school seniors — 300 last year and 400 this year — up to $16,000 to help pay for college books, tuition fees or whatever else they need over four years, as well as a mentor to navigate college life.
The city has raised $28 million of the $35 million needed to implement the initiative in the first four years, and officials are working with hundreds of community groups, individual donors and businesses on long-term funding, officials said.
“We are changing the entire system from the day a child is born to the day they march across the stage for a college diploma,” Mayor Libby Schaaf told donors Wednesday evening, as she prepared to address this year’s 400 Oakland Promise graduates. “What is so exciting is in just a little more than a year we’re creating this kind of hope.”
Schaaf could only be described as giddy that night, describing the send-off of the college-bound seniors, and the $3 million raised for them, as “bomb diggity.”
The 400 students — 75 percent of whom are African American or Latino — filled the fourth floor of the Oakland Scottish Rite Center across from Lake Merritt, as families, mentors and donors watched from the fifth-floor balcony.
Arthur Renowitzky, who helps promote the program as an official Oakland Promise ambassador, was there to cheer them on. The 29-year-old city native said he grew up like many of them, believing college was out of reach, too expensive and too foreign.
A higher education seemed even more unlikely after he was shot in the back when he was 20, a robbery that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Doctors said he would never walk or talk again, but now he’s attending community college.
“Once I got my voice back, I promised I would never take it for granted,” he said. “I want to help the youth who are discouraged to go to college. There is a way to a college education.”
When the campaign launched last school year, it offered every low-income student at Oakland High and Coliseum College Preparatory Academy up to $16,000 if they met academic and attendance requirements, applied for federal financial aid and demonstrated community service or leadership. The program added Castlemont High this year.
Down the road, city officials want to see the scholarship program expand to every low-income high school student in the city.
While many universities subtract such scholarships from the financial aid offered to students, the East Bay College Fund has an agreement with the UC and CSU systems, as well as several other colleges, to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Students from high schools that aren’t yet in the Oakland Promise program can still apply for help from the East Bay College Fund, which has provided financial aid and mentoring since 2003 and boasts an 80 percent success rate in getting students to finish college in a six-year period.
The national average for all demographics is about 50 percent, though in Oakland, just 22 percent of city students overall who start a college education finish in that time frame.
At Castlemont High, 61 of the school’s 116 graduates this year are taking advantage of Oakland Promise, with more than half of participants heading to a four-year college. Overall, 92 percent of students filled out federal financial aid forms, compared with 75 percent last year.
The city initiative also includes a partnership with Peralta Colleges to cover qualifying students’ tuition and fees for the first semester at the community college district with campuses in Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley. In addition, Oakland graduates are guaranteed admission to Cal State East Bay in Hayward if they meet grade and test-score requirements.
“Everything we do is ask ourselves how can we get kids through college?” said Diane Dodge, executive director of the East Bay College Fund. “We’ve always known it’s about opportunity and support and (the students) keep proving that.”
Aikens, who now lives with his grandmother, plans to major in political science and African American studies at UCLA, while relying on Oakland Promise funding and other financial aid.
He’s excited for the next chapter of his life in Southern California. But he’ll be back in Oakland, he said. Long-term, he has his eye on Schaaf’s job.
But first: a college degree.
Oakland Promise “keeps hope alive in the community,” he said. “It just allowed me to know I had an entire community to support me. I’m just ready to see where this journey will take me.”