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Oakland Community Leader Envisions School For At-Risk Youth; Faculty May Include Prisoners

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) -- A man who grew up in a broken home and spent time in the juvenile justice system before becoming a top scholar and community leader is dreaming up a new school in one of the Bay Area's toughest neighborhoods - one that could include prison inmates on the faculty.

In between the liquor store and boarded up storefronts on MacArthur Boulevard sits the Homies Empowerment center. That's where Cesar Cruz, PhD and his team are designing a school for kids growing up in the gritty streets of East Oakland. The plan is to make the Homies School a public high school in the Oakland Unified School District designed to educate the young people who often have nowhere else to go.

"It might be kids that are homeless. It might be kids that are involved in gangs coming out of juvenile hall. And the assumption with those kids is 'Let's set the bar really low. Maybe they'll get a GED,'" said Cruz. "We don't believe that. I'm a product of that. I've been undocumented most of my life. Most people didn't believe in me."

In 2011, KPIX 5 first profiled Cruz and his monthly Homies Dinner - young people packed in for a spaghetti dinner at the YMCA to learn about Latino history and civics. Sometimes rival gang members sat right next to each other just to learn more about their culture. Cruz won a Jefferson Award, which recognizes local heroes who lift up their communities.

In 2016, Cruz became the first Mexican-born immigrant to get his PhD in education at Harvard University. Now, he has returned to Oakland to build a school from scratch using his own community as a model.

"You have to have security guards. We're going to sort of have security guards, but they're going to be grandmothers," Cruz said.

Some of the ideas are sure to shock sensibilities, such as helping drug dealers.

"What if there's a kid out on the block selling drugs right now and we don't want them hurting the community? But what if they have a business plan, they're deeply entrepreneurial, they're resourceful," said Cruz. "What if that kid could get an MBA and start up businesses that help the community? No one has really thought about a drug dealer to MBA pipeline. Why not us?"

The concept that is sure to be the most controversial: a plan to have prisoners on the faculty. Cruz says he would like to employ inmates who have turned their lives around, educated themselves, and are now ready to share their awful life lessons with students through live video software such as Skype or Facetime.

Omar Escalante, school designer of Homies Empowerment, said Cruz helped him get out of trouble as a youth. Escalante said the concept of enlisting the aid of elders from the community who are behind bars is not as far-fetched as it may seem.

"They're already talking to kids," Escalante said. "If you listen to music, if you listen to all these rap songs where they're saying they served so much time, and they sell so much drugs. Why not have people who are trying to educate them about something serious?"

Cruz said he would, of course, make sure the program is safe. He said he would like to partner up with a group such as the Squires program in San Quentin Prison, which is made up of inmates who meet with troubled teenagers in an effort to help them change their self-destructive behavior.

The Homies School is still in the planning stages. Cruz is asking the community to pitch in on every level. They need books, computers, desks and school supplies. They need someone to donate money and land. And they need a lot of volunteers.

"This is a grassroots effort," said Harry Williams of Allen Temple Baptist Church, a board member of Homies Empowerment.

"When you look around the room, we're poor people. We're not people with a lot of means. But this is the community coming together to make a difference. We can save ourselves. And I think that's what makes Homies Empowerment amazing."

This may all seem like a farfetched dream. Especially to those who have never met Cesar Cruz. But he has already raised $700,000 out of a goal of $3 million. He has put together a small staff. And he is determined to finish the new Homies School and begin classes that are unlike any others by the fall of 2020.


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