Oakland Student Achieves Success Despite Financial Woes, Absent Parents

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — On any given day after school, you might find Brittany DeWeaver on the golf course practicing her swing, or in a tournament. She’s captain of the golf team at Holy Names High School, a beautiful old college prep school with shiny floors and tall ceilings in the hills of Oakland,

If you think she must have money to be playing golf and attending a college prep school, you would be wrong. Brittany goes to the school on scholarship with a program called Achieve, which sends promising, low-income kids to private high schools.

Brittany is indeed promising and definitely low-income. “To be the first in my family to go to college is life-changing,” she said, “for me, for my family, for my community, my friends.”

Most of the other kids at her prep school have no idea of the world Brittany returns to at night, traveling by bus and BART to East Oakland where she lives with her disabled grandmother. They live on social security and some retirement benefits. “We live paycheck-to-paycheck,” explained Brittany. “I’ve never been to a doctor regularly. Never, really. The dentist – never really done that regularly.”

At school, she is learning to fit into a whole different culture. “Brittany had to learn how to adjust and interact in a world of privilege; a world that was very different than the community she grew up in,” explained Assistant Principal Kendra Carr. “She attends a school which has more resources; which has more parental and family support.”

If Brittany wants something, she has to get it without the help of parents or family contacts. It has given her a special kind of confidence. She didn’t land in this college prep school by chance; she made it happen, step by step. Brittany said she would like to be a judge and when you look into her eyes you can see that happening someday.

“Knowledge is power,” she said. “Having knowledge and learning about new things opens up your opportunities and you can make more choices in life.” As she says this, I can already picture her wearing the black gown of a judge, sitting at a large desk.

She has perfect grades and a quick mind but her greatest strength may be her ability to take advantage of opportunities and resources. “Brittany creates her own luck because she is assertive and determined,” said Achieve Counselor Linda Perez. “She sees an opportunity, she focuses on it and she goes for it.”

Carr concurred this skill is what brought Brittany to their school. “The odds were against her,” said Carr. “She was not supposed to be a 4.0 student, she was not supposed to get into a college preparatory school, but she did.” It makes Brittany both inspiring and intriguing, Carr added.

Brittany has lived with her grandmother since she was a baby. Her mom was in and out of jail all Brittany’s life. “I know that she loves me because she tells me that she loves me,” Brittany explains, “but she’s not there as a mother. She’s not.” Her mom was 16 when Brittany was born. “She’s been in and out of jail for maybe selling drugs or driving without a license.”

Brittany’s father has been in San Quentin since before she was born. She said she is not allowed to visit because she is underage, and also because of some legal complications involving her mother. Brittany is vague about those complications and her father’s past and said she wasn’t sure why he is prison.

“Is it something you’d almost rather not know?” I asked.

“Yea, sometimes,” she said. “He’s turned over a new leaf, I believe, and I like to focus on the positive rather than what happened in the past. The man that he is today.”

Britany is only allowed to talk with him on the phone and communicate by mail, but it is clear she loves him very much. “I don’t really know him that well but I do know that he’s a good man,” she said. He has become very religious and tells her to stay close to the bible. She holds tightly to the hope that he could someday be released.

Brittany and her grandmother’s East Oakland home is in one of the highest crime rates in the Bay Area. “I have to keep my guard up because any random person can come up to me and be violent.” But that is only one of the dangers for an intelligent young woman with dreams. “A cycle of poverty is a cycle of violence, cycle of misfortune, prison, death,” said Brittany. “It’s a cycle that I didn’t want to be a part of.”

So she began to create a path to break the cycle. “I have to go get it on my own if I want it. Anything, everything.” She laughs as she says this, but she has built a rather extraordinary support system by herself. She gets a lot of advice from her aunt who encourages her to go beyond what she sees in East Oakland.

Brittany joined Girls Inc., a non-profit that taught her to be “strong, smart and bold.” Brittany recites that slogan like a mantra; it has taught her to take risks, she said. The Achieve Program not only pays her tuition, but also provides counseling, tutoring and other opportunities like sailing lessons.

Perez said Brittany grabs at those chances. When Achieve offered a math tutor, hoping to help some of its struggling students who were struggling, “It was Brittany, who was in Honors Geometry and had a B+, who said, ‘I want to get tutored because I want an A.’” said Perez.

She got that A, by the way. “I was lucky enough to see what I did want and I was lucky enough to have a support system,” says Brittany.

But her team of mentors said none of it was luck. It was all Brittany.

“She’s learned a lot from her lived experiences, from what she’s been through,” said Carr. “I admire her wisdom.”

I asked Brittany what her advice would be to other kids like herself. “Rise above. Don’t try to be like everyone else. Be yourself. Want more.”

This fall, she’ll find that “more” at college.

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