Antonio Lopez is a councilor for the City of East Palo Alto. From 1999-2008, he attended Ravenswood schools Edison Brentwood Elementary and Ronald McNair Middle School. He is currently finishing his second year of his Ph.D. in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford.
I still remember the smell of powder — not the kind that once flooded our streets, but the kind that filled our classrooms. The chalked hands of my school’s sole music teacher hovered over us. We sat “criss-cross applesauce” on the carpet, its thin layer of shag not much of a cushion between our cabooses and the floor. Huddled together, all thirty-two of us, we were trying to decipher the sheet music our teacher had just given us. A song? Tania cried out, What’s that got to do with the STAR test? Marcel seconds her dissent: Ayo, ain’t we supposed to be doing math problems or something?
But Ms. Parker would have none of it. “Back to the top guys, c’mon, we only got 40 minutes here. And don’t just say the words. Really listen to them. Understand the meaning.” Like a broken faucet, the words spill out in stutters, lumps of syllables that betrayed our confusion. But eventually, after endless loops of the song on the old Panasonic stereo, our voices flowed into a single stream of I’s.
I Know I Can
Be What I Wanna Be
If I Work Hard on It
I’ll Be Where I Wanna Be
If I had to encapsulate my experience as a K-8 student in Ravenswood School District, it would be this moment with Ms. Parker in Edison Brentwood Academy: her insistence, and the insistence of countless educators who stayed despite the low pay, that Black and Brown children are only captives to our imaginations. No zip code, no conservatorship by the state or a county grand jury, no one would determine our outcome in life but us.
“I Know I Can” by Nasir Jones. Throughout my whole career as a Ravenswood kid, I carried the Queensbridge poet’s words with me. But as inspiring as Nas’s words were and still are to me, my years in higher education and public service have made me realize that our public schools, like the cities in which they’re housed, can only flourish as much as we invest in them. Displacement, a high cost of living and a hyper-saturation of schools in our small city have taken their toll on our district. And in 2020, citing budget cuts and precipitous declines in enrollment, the school board closed Brentwood as well as Belle Haven Elementary School.
On the upcoming June ballot, residents of East Palo Alto and Belle Haven will consider a measure that would, if passed, provide 110 million dollars in bonds to the Ravenswood School District. The district plans to dedicate the majority of those funds to modernize Costaño Elementary School and Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School. Many of the aging portables have outlived their temporary use. Buildings have remained largely untouched since the 1950s. Beyond replacing these portables with permanent classrooms, Measure I seeks to upgrade the efficiency and technology of elementary schools in the area.
Some will argue that we shouldn’t give more to a school district that has already received measures in the past. “Antonio,” they say, “haven’t we given enough?” How may I adequately respond by summarizing the history of inequality in a single breath? How may I convince parents, who have perhaps attended Ravenswood themselves and had a less-than-memorable experience, that a single measure will not undo decades of redlining, blockbusting and white flight, on top of a weak tax base? We need decades’ worth of resources to repair decades of damage.
Others will be blunter in their assessments. “Why should I give to a district that’s mismanaged funds in the past?” The logic behind this statement seems almost biblical, arguing that children must inherit the mistakes of their predecessors. By that same logic, is our own city then ineligible for state and federal aid? Is the fact that our children were and will continue to be taught there not enough of a reason to support Ravenswood?
To the anti-reform skeptics, I wish to remind you that on the road to self-determination, even nations err. We are a young city that has had less than forty years to position itself on a par with centuries-old municipalities. As the great Bob Hoover said in an interview for “Dreams of a City” (a documentary filmed in the late 1990s about East Palo Alto), “Unfortunately, none of us are experts in the area of community development, of building a city, so we are kind of learning as we go along. This is on-the-job training.”
What value is there in continuing to point fingers? Let’s join hands. Yes, we must learn from the past, but why let it obscure the present? And that present is the fact that, over the years, Ravenswood leadership has taken countless steps to improve the quality of learning for its students. In 2008, the same year I graduated from Edison McNair Academy (now Los Robles), the district partnered up with concerned educational advocates and philanthropists to create Ravenswood Education Foundation (REF), whose private funds have increased instructional quality through coaching and collaboration time, enrichment in the arts, SEL support, and more. Just this past year alone, REF has raised over 9 million dollars for Ravenswood. Recently, REF has implemented a program that matches teacher pay viz. neighboring districts to ensure we hire the best and brightest educators. Just this past month, the Robotics team at Chavez went to the world robotics championship! And just the other day, as I distributed Measure I literature, I had a conversation with Liliana, a first grader at the Los Robles dual immersion program. She practically spoke better Spanish than I did. And in a city where two thirds of the population is Latino, in a state where Latinos are the largest ethnic minority, we must equip our children, regardless of their backgrounds, with the skills they need to tackle their tomorrow.
This is a school board with skin in the game. This is a district that believes a child should not have to travel outside their own community in order to receive a good education. As school leaders, parents and fellow elected officials, we are all on mission to make Ravenswood second to none.
This is not just the letter of a policymaker. This is a letter of appeal as an alumnus, as a born and raised East Palo Altan whose entire life was transformed due to education, including my time at Ravenswood.
This is not a showcase of poverty, nor is it a feel-good story of an alumnus who “succeeded.” This is one of many stories throughout the country of school districts that, like the cities they are in, struggle to retain the communities they serve.
This is a song that our children have been singing, but our bickering voices have muted theirs. This is a call for self-accountability, for us to recognize that so long as we as a community divest from our institutions of learning — our public schools — they will continue to struggle.
In spite of how the years have hardened me, I am still singing that song alongside our children. I hope that by voting Yes on Measure I, and through your donations and volunteering to canvas alongside us, you will too.