by George J Elbaum
Lighthouse Community Charter High School, founded in 2002, is a public charter school in East Oakland and serves 750 students in grades K-12, with 214 students in grades 9-12. The school is located in a light industrial park near the Oakland airport. Because of its high population of low-income students of color (83% Hispanic, 9% Black, 3% Asian, 2% White) and 80% participating in the free or reduced-price lunch program, the school’s test scores are rated by Great Schools Ratings in “Test scores for low income students” and receive a 9-out-of-10. These are compared to state averages as follows: English Proficiency — 81% vs. 44%; Math Proficiency — 48% vs. 33%; Graduation Rate for low-income students — 82% vs. 79%; and graduates completing the necessary requirements to be eligible for UC/CSU — 98% vs. 42%. Furthermore, 95% of Lighthouse graduates, almost all of whom are first-generation in their families to attend college, are accepted into four-year colleges. Lighthouse was named the Hart Vision California Charter School of the Year in 2013, and the #1 Bay Area high school for closing the achievement gap for low-income Latino students in 2016 by Innovate Public Schools. All very impressive!
I first visited Lighthouse on March 21, 2016 and it was a memorable experience for me. For the previous 6 years of giving talks in schools, all questions during the Q&A dealt with the subject of my talks: my Holocaust childhood and adulthood. Yet the first question asked by a Lighthouse student on March 21, 2016 (early in the US Presidential campaign) was whether the campaign of Donald Trump had similarities to that of Hitler’s in the 1930s. I was amazed and impressed that current US politics were of such impact and concern to a high school student as to reach back 80+ years into a shameful period of European history and ask me for a comparison. Since that visit, I’ve spoken in 40 other schools and the question of the Trump-Hitler comparison has been asked more and more often, including today again at Lighthouse. However, for me it started at Lighthouse a year ago.
Teacher Catherine Cole organized my presentation for her 11th grade students who have been studying the Holocaust by reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and doing term projects on resistance during the Holocaust, including case studies such as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the White Rose, Martha and Waitstill Sharp, the Edelweiss Pirates and Bishop Clemens von Galen. In attendance also were Lighthouse teachers Sherman Moore, Charles Wagner, and Zachary Harrington.
Sarah Altschul of Facing History and Ourselves arranged today’s presentation and made the introduction. She was accompanied by a new Facing History colleague, Hadiya McCullough.
Letters from students
A couple of weeks after my visit to Lighthouse a pack of notes/cards arrived in my mailbox, all made by the students with fanciful drawings, cut-outs, etc. (see photo below). However, we had just left for Poland where a series of talks had been arranged for me in 7 schools, and where my book had just been translated & published in Polish. After returning home, still jet-lagged, my wife Mimi & I read all of them, excerpted those sentences or phrases which really resonated with us because of their sensitivity or empathy, and the results are below.
- I like that you said “always be for something, not against something.
- Live the moment. Not the past.
- The part that stuck with me the most is when you said: “Don’t let anyone discourage you, and keep an open mind.” This one quote especially stuck with me because it has motivated me to follow my dreams and continue to pursue them no matter what anyone else says to me.
- Thank you for showing me the real sacrifice you and your mother had to go through to survive. This made me appreciate my family and be grateful to have what I have.
- Your words “Then I realized my story has value” was really powerful. I thought how everyone’s story has value and that life discourages many of us to never get a chance to share them.
- I hope someday I will be able to tell my story. I am a survivor too like you. I come from a town in Mexico where many families like mine had to move from town to town to cities to be safe and stay alive. I lost many family members, like you. I’m able to connect with you in some parts of your life. In Mexico I had to change my name too until I came to the U.S. I started a new life, I learned a new language, a new culture. I learned so much from you on Friday.
- Your words “Don’t let anyone discourage you” inspire me & motivate me to work hard.
- The question about Hitler’s campaign compared to today’s political climate was refreshing because we are not only the events of our past but also the actions and thoughts of today.
- LUCK is all you need when nothing else works!
- The thing that I will always remember is the sugar cube scene. It was such a strong scene for me because that sugar cube was the first real taste of freedom. It actually left a good taste in my mouth.
- Your story has taught me more than the books have ever taught me about the Holocaust.
- Thank you for motivating me to push through school to be someone.
- Thank you for not only sharing your story but also that of your mother, whose strength and wits remind me of my own mother, which made me connect with you that much more.
- I can connect to your story when you said that your mom worked with fake ID and papers because my family did the same.
- The ultimate personal question of what type of person I want to be in this world, an upstander, bystander or perpetrator, is something I think about every day.
- Your story really made me think about my hardships and how they’ve made me the young woman I am today. I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to forget the past, but your story and reflection of your past has made me want to accept my past.
- I’d like to start opening up more about the events I’ve lived through so the people around me can get to know me better and so I can get to living without any unwanted baggage.
- You and your wife make a beautiful couple, and the small part of your relationship that I saw is so beautiful. I admire that so much, and I hope to have that type of support from my future soulmate😊