county boards
Alameda COE Opportunity Academy offers students a second chance
Every day, Felicia Murphy looks at her cap and gown. “It’s surreal,” she says. “For the first time in my life I set a goal and completed it.”
Murphy is one of 90 students who graduated last fall from the Alameda County Office of Education Opportunity Academy (AOA) and are starting a new chapter in their lives, high school diploma in hand, after a nontraditional path to commencement.

The Opportunity Academy serves students who have previously separated from school or have been unsuccessful in school, desire a high school diploma and will benefit from support with employment readiness and obtaining employment. Opportunity Academy utilizes an independent studies format with blended-learning models, incorporating computer-based curriculum, small group instruction, independent and classroom-based study options.

“We opened Opportunity Academy in response to the statistic at the time that 20,000 adults in Alameda County didn’t have a diploma,” said Alameda COE Chief of Schools Monica Vaughan, who oversaw the launch of AOA in 2017 to serve students who have been unsuccessful in school and are seeking a high school diploma.

Initially envisioned as a program that would serve students ages 16 to 24, in two years the academy has seen a wide range of students walk through its doors and a need to serve students older than 24, which prompted the academy to lift the ceiling on age and serve anyone who desires their diploma. Murphy is an example of one of the remarkable success stories that AOA has produced.

Murphy has a longer journey behind her than most students completing high school. At 48 years old, she is earning her diploma after leaving school when she was in the eighth grade due to a host of family and shelter-related issues. “I used to excel as a teenager when I went to school,” said Murphy. “I was really, really good in school. I liked going to school.”

When AOA opened in 2017, the projected enrollment was 50 students. Instead, the school enrolled and served 187 students in the 2017–18 school year. By the end of 2018–19, the academy enrolled and served 256 students.

Top of graduation hats in crowd
The success of the academy wouldn’t be possible without community nonprofit partners. One of the school’s first locations was in Oakland at the Youth Employment Partnership, an organization that provides job-readiness training, education, job training and other support services. Another key partner is Next Step Learning Center, which offers free education programs for youth and adults, such as basic literacy and support with transitions to higher education and the workforce.

“We’re proud that we’ve been able to develop a program to meet a need, and that we’re able to grow and now have four locations,” said Vaughan. In addition to AOA’s Oakland location, it has expanded into East Oakland, Next Step in West Oakland and southern Hayward through a partnership with La Familia, an organization that offers mental health and community support services in the San Francisco Bay Area.

AOA offers a path to a diploma to students for whom a high school diploma equivalency certificate — such as the GED, which is earned by passing a series of tests — is not a viable option.

“For many of our students, test-taking is not the best path for them,” said Lisa Stringer, Next Step’s executive director. She noted that some students struggle to complete a standardized test with pressure to do well under time constraints.

Stringer said she has discovered that learning can be an emotional process, and for many AOA students, whose painful experiences and crises led them to leave school in the first place, supporting their return to the classroom is critical. Initial conversations with students at Next Step involve assessing and planning around the student’s needs with scheduling, transportation, child care and barriers to attending class.

Murphy says that after four years of working toward her diploma, she regards Next Step as her safe haven. “No matter what, I came, I saw, I conquered and I got through,” she said. She planned to start college in January, and eventually work with youth as a substance abuse counselor or case manager.