Gina Hill, the new principal at the Oakland Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, remembers that while she was growing up in Cincinnati, she attended schools that had few teachers of color and lacked diversity in the curriculum.
Those negative experiences made her decide very early that she wanted to go into education to create more diverse opportunities for students like herself.
She moved to California in 1993 and to Oakland in 1995. What attracted her to Oakland, she said, was its reputation for being in the forefront of working for social justice.
Her first teaching job was as a substitute teacher at Havenscourt Middle School in East Oakland in 1998. “The kids were so talented and intriguing that I subbed one day, and I never left education,” she said.
“I was treated so well by parents when I visited students’ homes,” she said. “They were happy I was there.”
She later worked as a teacher at the Street Academy before becoming an administrator in the Oakland Unified School District, earning her administrative degree at UC Berkeley with the idea of eventually returning as principal of the school.
Hill will replace Pat Williams, the beloved principal who is leaving after working at the school for most of the 40 years that it has been in operation.
“Coming back to Street Academy is exciting because this is what I really wanted to do,” said Hill.
Some of the qualities that make the school unique, she
said, are that teachers meet and have input in how the school is run. Teachers also act as counselors and mentors to their students. They do not just teach them; they are also invested in helping them succeed.
At the top of Hill’s agenda is to increase enrollment at the school and to establish a culture of restorative justice, which means that students who break the rules will make restitution by improving the school community rather than being punished.
Hill also wants to start an international travel program at the school. She already has experience coordinating and leading groups of students in traveling around the world.
She recalls that as a child, she saw magazines with photos of activists and freedom fighter Angela Davis. Then, as a teacher at Street Academy, Hill organized a Black history event, where Davis spoke and student dancers performed.
“These are the kinds of experiences that left a lasting impression on me and on students,” she said. “When students have an opportunity to travel, meet new people and see new places, they learn things that will last a lifetime.”