A.V. Benford | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Nathaniel S. Colley Sr. High School, the Sacramento County Office of Education’s newest community school, opened August 12 in south Sacramento. 

The school was designed to serve high school students and young adults whose circumstances have dictated the need for a more flexible path than that provided by traditional schools. 

Students who may need to work while going to school or who have become parents or caretakers will find a home at Nathaniel S. Colley Sr. High, which sits on a manicured 3.6 acres. The school provides training in construction, the trades, and mentoring.

Its mission is in keeping with the resilience of its namesake, a highly decorated civil rights lawyer and Sacramento community titan who was general counsel for the NAACP. 

Al Brown Sr., Colley’s son-in-law, said the new school addresses Colley’s belief that “everybody doesn’t want to go to college, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t live a good life.” 

Brown, a former Sac State professor who’s a SCOE board member, said that Colley, originally from Alabama, often referred to himself as a “country lawyer” who worked for all people. He believes that it is fitting for this school — founded on the idea of helping the differently advantaged obtain a secondary education — to be named in honor of Colley, who spent his career fighting for fairness in housing and hiring. 

“Sacramento is a unique community, because of the work that was done by Mr. Colley and others in the ’50s and ‘60s,” Brown said. “The high school exemplifies the importance of diversity and the road that was taken years ago by Mr. Colley — and how it’s come to fruition.”

A School For The ‘Resilient’

Matt Perry, an Assistant Superintendent for Court and Community Schools, says Nathaniel Colley High School was originally founded as Gerber Junior-Senior High School in the basement of an Elk Grove adult school. The school operated out of that space for over a decade. The original location was half a mile east on Gerber road.

On the first day of school, Perry said one new male student looked around at the new campus and exclaimed, “I get to go to school here? Are you sure? I’ve never been to a nice school.”

“Many of our young people, they never had a chance to have a stable engagement in education and so here they are, they get to go to a brand new campus, a state-of-the-art campus — it’s a nice way to finish a K-12,” Perry said.

He outlined the enrollment process for Colley High. At the campus there are two specific programs, one of which is called the Community School Program. That’s for young people who have not found success at the school district and their parents have requested that they come to school at the new SCOE site. 

The Community School Program has a long history of serving students facing those challenges. The district and the school collaborate  and if they agree, then the student can attend the program. 

The other young people that can enroll at Colley are those that are expelled, Perry said. But that number has dropped considerably as districts do a better job of not expelling students. So now Colley functions as more of a collaboration with the school districts to provide a small, highly supportive program for students who need some extra support to catch up or finish up their diploma, Perry said. Currently, there are 15 students enrolled in the program. The program can support between 30 and 45 students.

In two separate classrooms, are Senior Extension classes for young adults who have not finished their diploma within a traditional four years. Colley provides a flexible environment for those students to finish their secondary education. 

The school builds each student’s school schedule around their particular situation and need. There are more than 100 students currently enrolled in the senior extension program. Most students come to school for at least an hour a week from either the Elk Grove Unified School District or from the Sacramento City Unified School District by way of referral. That referral can be initiated either by a parent or school district request.

The construction program is run by professionals in the field. There is a Career Technical Education Program that is looking at high labor market careers, including information technology and drone careers, Perry said. The school also partners with a number of nonprofits in the community.

The school has a full-time mental health clinician and transition specialists that help shepherd students and young adults into the next phase of their education or into the workforce, Perry said.

Legacy of “Mr. Civil Rights of California”

Nathaniel S. Colley was one of the most significant Sacramentans in the second half of the 20th century. 

“He made a great impact on Sacramento and the nation,” said Brown, who is married to Colley’s daughter Ola Marie. Brown said the naming of the school “would allow people that want to understand the history of where we came from — from segregation to integration —  to understand his role and impact in the community.”

After graduating from Tuskegee University — where he would meet his future wife, Sacramento native Jerlean “Jerry” Jackson — Colley enrolled in the United States Army. It was while he was enlisted that “the evils of segregation” led him to go to law school. After he was rejected by the University of Alabama because of his race, Colley applied and got into Yale Law School. He would go on and graduate with honors.

When Colley arrived in Sacramento in the late 1940s however, he could only get a job at the State Board of Education —- packing textbooks into boxes and lifting crates. But that did not deter him. In 1948, Colley became the first Black attorney in private practice in Sacramento. He would go on to achieve many “firsts” during his distinguished career.

Colley’s legal work was critical in ending housing segregation, earning him the nickname “Mr. Civil Rights of California.” 

According to the Online Archive Of California, in the case of Ming vs. Horgan, a hallmark in the fight for fair housing, “Colley persuaded the Court that those receiving federal funds could not engage in discrimination. Colley also fought for the repeal of Proposition 14, and against housing and educational discrimination in California.” 

“The fair housing act that we live with today was started here in Sacramento,” Brown said.

Colley also owned a horse farm in the late ’60s in Elk Grove and was the first African American appointed to the California Horse Racing Board.

In 1960, Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown would appoint Colley to the State Board of Education, for whom he had once packed boxes. Colley was the first African American to serve on the board. He would go on to make lasting changes, including insisting that the accomplishments of African Americans be added to the textbooks he had once lifted and packed.

Colley’s Historical Footprint

The Sacramento County Board of Education isn’t the only organization to recognize the accomplishments of the civil rights titan. In February of this year, unanimously, The Sacramento City Council adopted an ordinance placing Colley’s midtown office on the Sacramento Register of Historic and Cultural Resources.

Former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson spoke of Colley’s contributions in 2012 while being interviewed by Chris Lango for the Emmy nominated PBS Documentary “The Time Is Now” about the life and work of Nathaniel Colley. Johnson said that people forget police, fire, schools, housing, and employment were not integrated before Nathaniel Colley. “When you think about the second half of the century in Sacramento, I can’t imagine anybody having a greater footprint.”

Lango came to know of Colley and his consequence through his volunteer video production work with the Center for Sacramento History. It was during the time when the Colley family was donating his papers to the Center.

“I walked there, over to the papers, and sitting on top of this pile of papers there was this telegram from John F. Kennedy, urgently calling Nathaniel Colley to the White House in June of 1963 — the summer of ‘63 was a flashpoint in the Civil Rights movement.”

Longo and Brown, who met during the making of the “The Time is Now,” are both currently working with the Colley Civil Rights Coalition, a group whose goals include the establishment of a location for a memorial near the historic New Helvetia housing complex at 5th and Broadway, to honor Colley’s work in fair housing. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: A.V. Benford is a Report For America Corp Member and an Education Reporter for Cap Radio News and The Sacramento Observer. Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.