OAKLAND — An Oakland man whose life was changed in high school after being injured in a shooting has paired up with a fellow educator to help East Oakland teens succeed through an innovative school model.
Christian Martinez was 16 years old when he got shot below the knee in a random drive-by.
"I remember my leg hurting a lot, feeling alone in this world," Martinez said.
And after months of recovery, Martinez, then an undocumented immigrant, felt forgotten when he returned to high school.
"It made me feel like no one really cared; I was just another statistic here in Oakland," he said.
Years later, the three-time dropout earned his high school diploma at adult school. He then set out to launch a new type of campus to provide teenagers the support he never had.
"It was a form of resistance like we want to create something different and really let the world knew there are people creating magic," Martinez explained.
Founding Principal Lillian Hsu joined Martinez on the team that started Latitude High School in 2017 — a free, public charter school in East Oakland.
Hsu, herself a child of immigrants, drew on her education experience to introduce project-based learning model.
"I really felt like a high school that was about helping students to see a full spectrum of careers and opportunities they could pursue here in the Bay Area was something I found incredibly inspirational." Hsu said.
Latitude is a new opportunity for nearly 300 students a year where more than 90 percent are students of color and 70 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.
"For so many of our students, the more real world it is, the more hands on it is, the more they can see connections between what's happening," Hsu said. "They're motivated to engage in an authentic way."
Student projects include building tiny homes for the unhoused, constructing an underwater robot, designing a self-driving car, and starting their own business.
Senior Julian Orejudos most appreciates the internships.
"It's fun here compared to traditional high school. They push you toward careers." Orejudos said.
Senior Anyia Dowell said that having staff support in college and career goals makes her feel "welcome, comfortable."
"It makes me feel I belong here," Dowell said.
Science Dean Lex Schoenberg said Hsu and Martinez's heart for the students sets the tone.
"Lillian and Martinez care about every one of the students that walk through our doors. They know every name; they know every family," Schoenberg said.
Of Latitude's first graduating class of 39 students, nine in 10 decided to go to college.
And when it comes to having done all the coursework to qualify for California state universities, more than 90 percent of Latitude students have the work completed. That's compared to 65 percent of Oakland Unified students and about half of the students in the state.
And now, Latitude's student success has inspired Martinez to go to college.
He's studying online to earn his bachelor's degree in business with hopes of eventually earning a PhD in education.
So, for creating Latitude High School to help Oakland teens succeed through hands-on learning, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Lillian Hsu and Christian Martinez.
Latitude is partly-funded by grants from the nonprofit XQ Institute in Oakland.
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