The year is 1999. East Palo Alto has shed an infamous statistic from a bygone era. Marches, organizing, neighborhood watch groups, these were the tools available to a generation raised in the civil rights and Black Power movement to keep their community safe. But if the question of public security was resolved, at least for the moment, the economic question maintained the debates both in the street and at the town hall.
In a sense, this is an EPA-specific problem: an “inner city” in the heart of Silicon Valley that incorporated arguably one of the worst times in the state’s history. . To quote a former mayor in 2005, “For many years we had no tax base. McDonald’s was our biggest tax earner.”
And yet, it’s a uniquely American story, the story of majority-minority towns struggling to compete with their neighbors, of how to get revenue flowing here as easily as running water. Nowhere is this sense of catch-up felt more than in education.
From the time Bob Hoover and other community members turned bedroom garages into libraries and decided to start their own college in the 1960s, csity’s history has always been tied to education (particularly because its quality, as is in all American cities, is tied to property taxes). Bus desegregation efforts have proven to be one-sided. The belief then was that why be beholden to the outer districts to reform their treatment of our children.
That same year in 1999, faced with a teacher shortage, the Ravenswood City School District offered Marie Barragan an emergency teaching license for a kindergarten class at Edison Brentwood Academy. As she said, “I was so nervous because this was going to be my official first year.”
In a sense, it started from scratch. On the other hand, Ms. Barragan comes from a line of pedagogues. Her mother, Yolanda, spent decades as a para-educator in district schools, working with students classified by the state as having “special needs.” Her sister Martha would soon join her at Ravenswood, teaching there from 2000 to 2015. As educators, she and her sister were following in their mother’s footsteps.
There’s only one major caveat the Brentwood principal gave her new hire: “I was the only kindergarten teacher who got all the ‘non-English speakers’.”
Literally and figuratively, the city was in its teens. They were now faced with the question, “Where should my children be educated?” Some withdrew from the city through the court-ordered Tinsley scheme, then in its sixth year. While others, like my parents, have chosen for their children to go to school below us.
My generation represents one of the first groups of children who grew up in the city when it was officially a city. As such, I am young enough to have benefited from the work of city leaders, yet old enough to have seen these changes happen so dramatically and in such a short time.
Seeing the tumultuous changes experienced by children in the city, it was vital for her to create a sanctuary from the layers of violence – physical and economic – both within and beyond the school walls. . “I wanted to create a safe space that would inspire and spark interest in knowledge,” she said, “(for) children to walk through the door and forget about their family circumstances and thrive.” Mrs. Barragan built the English-speaking houses that we did not have, whose central objective was to become masters of our environment. As she said, “From 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., you became my children.”
Above all, she wanted her classroom to be “a temple of knowledge”.
And what a temple it was. Thanks to his creative design of the program, that same classroom, filled with immigrant children, would end the year with the highest test scores of any kindergarten class in Brentwood.
I look at these photos and I see a woman who exemplified a life of service to the public in my city, especially the most vulnerable, those without voting rights, whose mothers, like mine, relied on checks of the WIC program to feed them.
I see someone who embraced the children of East Palo Alto because in them lay his future.
And at this moment in history, that’s what we have to do.
Ravenswood teachers like Mrs. Barragan didn’t make progress with their students because of their environment, but in spite of it. They faced decades of disparities in opportunity that we children of color have inherited. More immediately, they faced the problem of insufficient funds.
When asked about the merits of ballot initiatives like Measure I, I think of all that Ms. Barragan sacrificed to build this temple. “Half my paycheck went back to the classroom,” she wrote, “so I could buy materials and create the right environment to learn.” If we are serious about retaining teachers like Ms. Barragan, we as residents must invest in the infrastructure necessary for them to do their job.
Today, we continue to learn from each other. Only now it’s a bit more bi-directional. Her daughter used my poetry book as part of her high school thesis. I keep her informed of all the events of a city.
And although she now calls me her council member, I will never bring myself to call her Mary. She will always be the woman I first met when I was 5, the woman in the black blazer and slacks who told us every morning to get up, push our chairs, and say the national anthem. , and in doing so , sought to remind us, before opening our books of the day, by this simple ceremony which too often turned into a myth, we too were citizens.
Antonio Lopez is a member of the East Palo Alto City Council