Politics Change, Neighbors Don’t: How Parents in Richmond Are Bridging the False District-Charter Divide

Tana Monteiro and her sons. (Photo courtesy Tana Monteiro)

As a parent in Richmond, California, I have watched in recent years the politics surrounding public charter schools change. It now seems that public charter schools have become the enemy of traditional public district schools.

The problem with this is that the narrative of the hated charter school is coming from people who are not from our community. They are not our neighbors, yet they expect district and charter parents to hate each other. How can I hate my neighbor or my neighbor’s child? A few of us parents said “no” to this. We said that we believe what the African proverb says: “It takes a village to raise a child.” And if that village is made up of a charter public school and a district public school, it is still our village.

Richmond College Prep, a charter public school where I have been a parent for 13 years, is right next door to Nystrom Elementary, a traditional public school. The two schools have been next-door neighbors for 16 years, and 16 years ago we were friends. We planned events together. We shared a garden and a multipurpose room. The Oakland Symphony performed a joint assembly for both schools. We did an annual peace march together and a literacy festival. It was a beautiful partnership. There was no competition or division. Families had students attending both schools. Today, there are still families with students in both schools. Nystrom and RCP families are neighbors, and Nystrom and RCP kids are best friends.

Sixteen years ago, families and students could walk through the two school campuses very easily. Parents could drop off their kindergarten students at RCP and then go through the wooden gate to take their fifth graders to Nystrom. Now, a big black metal fence divides the two schools.

RCP and Nystrom are located in Richmond, California, in South Richmond. Our two schools are low-income; both schools have more than 80 percent of their students receiving free and reduced-price lunch. Richmond is a desert — a food desert and a resource desert. Our community is in greater need of resources and access than any other area in the whole city. There is no community center or recreation center, no health center, no youth program. You must take two city buses to get to the nearest library.

Our schools are the hubs for families to have access to health providers, youth activities, even fresh produce. Both schools are doing their best to fulfill those needs, but it will take more than school staff bringing in resources. It will take parent involvement and engagement. It will take parent voice. And, to be truly effective, it will take all the Nystrom and RCP parents working together.

A few of us parents have said we will work together right now to advocate for our children and our community. We decided to call our group the Nystrom Catchment Family Engagement Project (Nystrom is not just the name of the school, but of the whole neighborhood). We decided our first focus would be to get upgrades at the park that is adjacent to the two schools. Right now, no one uses the park because the playground is old and rundown. It has hypodermic needles in the sand and folks who self-medicate sleeping, smoking, and drinking on the slides. We know that if anything is going to change it will take a village — we are going to have to do it together.

On Saturday, November 4, 2017, we had our first joint parent planning meeting. At this meeting we wrote down on big poster boards our vision for the park, for the neighborhood, and for our children. We started our action plan to make our vision boards become a reality.

In the months that followed, we built up a group of 23 core members that, all together, have engaged more than 500 parents at the two schools. Our group has met with city officials and community organizations and asked for their support. We went to city council meetings together and let them know about our group. We talked to school district staff and school board members to let them know about our advocacy group and our plans.

We have come across many people who would not like to see us working together. Like the big black metal fence that divides the schools, these people want to keep us apart.

But we need more gateways, not fences.

We parents have decided that we will not be divided. In a few years, or maybe even a few weeks, politics might change and all those folks that are crying out against charter schools now could be focused on something else, or they might move out of Richmond. Where would that leave us? We will still live here, we will still be neighbors, we will still be looking out for our children.

We parents have shared hopes and dreams for our children and for our community. And we are pursuing those hopes and dreams — together.

Tana Monteiro is a proud mom of children educated in both public charter and traditional district schools. She is the family and community engagement coordinator at Richmond College Prep and a community organizer. She has been living, advocating, and working in the Nystrom Catchment Neighborhood for the past 13 years.

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