Bay Area: Marching 70 Miles to Protest Run-Down Schools

Revolutionary Worker #1241, May 23, 2004, posted at

Spring break is usually a time when students escape the daily grind of classrooms, chill with their friends, and have fun. This April, a group of students from West Contra Costa County--a poor, working-class area on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay--gave up their spring break to march 70 miles in eight days from Downer Elementary School in San Pablo to the state Capitol in Sacramento. Joined by parents, teachers, and community activists, the students protested the outrageous conditions in their schools.

In February hundreds of parents, students, teachers, and other school workers marched from Downer to a school board meeting after the board went back on a promise to provide $28 million to repair the crumbling school. Downer lost 90% of the promised funding from two school bonds.

Built in the 1950s, Downer needs massive renovation. 72 preschoolers and kindergarteners are packed into a single room in one wing. They have one bathroom that floods at times, forcing children to step through sewage. Teachers can barely teach due to the noise from adjacent classes. The building is not protected from earthquakes. The furniture is decrepit, and classrooms have asbestos and lead paint.

"They treat us like a Third World country," one Downer parent said.

Of Downer's 1,100 students, 86% are Latino, 7% are Asian, and 7% are African-American. 99% of Downer students qualify for free lunches, and 70% are "English language learners."

Conditions at other West Contra Costa schools aren't much better. In March the S.F. Chronicle reported on an area high school: "John F. Kennedy High School provides only one bat, no baseballs, and no bases for its varsity baseball team. The Richmond school's field would shame most Little League squads. The grass is mowed, but that's it. The 18 players have practiced for two months without bases. Instead, the players take their positions on the edge of muddy ditches where bases are supposed to sit. Drainage is so bad that the base paths are mud ruts even though it hasn't rained for three weeks." The coach of the team said, "We still call them bases-- even though we don't have any. It just doesn't sound right to say `first ditch' instead of `first base.' "

The school board announced in March that starting next school year, all athletics programs would be eliminated, all counselors would be fired, and all libraries would be padlocked. Over one-fourth of all teachers have received layoff notices.

The school district has a $16 million budget deficit. $1.8 million a year goes to loan repayments to the state of California. The loan was made years ago at interest rates that are almost four times what they are today. Governor Schwartzenegger refuses to allow the refinancing of the loan at current rates. The state is acting like a loan shark, benefiting from the high interest rates to help solve its own budget crisis.

Students organized protests in front of high schools the day after the cuts were announced. Hundreds of angry people from the community held meetings and decided to march to Sacramento. Over 50 people marched the whole way, and many marched for a day or two.

Kaleah, a high school student, told the RW, "It was exciting but extremely tiring. My legs hurt, my feet hurt, but I was determined to make it here so I just kept pressing on." About the cuts, she said, "It says that they don't care. It's like oppression all over again. They're trying to keep us down."

"In terms of education, there's no equity. There's a big disparity between people who live in the privileged communities and people who live in the ghettos and barrios here in California," Sergio, a S.F. State student who works with students in Oakland high schools, told the RW .

The march went by Solano State Prison. A fourth grader who was in the march commented, "This prison looks a lot better than my elementary school."

A teacher from Downer told the RW, "The children I teach in San Pablo have a much greater chance of ending up in prison than they do of going to a university. Out of a class of 450 students [at a high school in the area] only 10 go to four-year colleges. That to me is a crime."

In Sacramento the marchers and supporters rallied on the steps of the Capitol. Schwartzenegger refused to meet with representatives of the group. Not a single legislator showed up to hear what the marchers had to say.

"I gave up my spring break to march 70 miles to prove something that we should already know--that there should be equal education for everyone," Roberto, a middle school student, said. "And now these legislators won't even come to meet with us to hear what we have to say."


"First Things First: Why we must stop punishing students and fix California's schools" by the Californians for Justice Education Fund, May 17, 2003.

"Separate and Unequal 50 Years after Brown:California's Racial `Opportunity Gap' " by UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, May 6, 2004.