Is it their Skills, Values, or Money
Is Chevron Branding Our Schools?
Has everybody noticed how Chevron is all over Richmond? It used to be just at the corner gas station. Chevron today is partnered with Safeway, stares from billboards, fills our mail boxes, pops up on our computers, and has a finger in almost every NGO and business in the city.
And now Chevron is flexing its Human Energy into yet another part of our life.
A vibrant school system is the backbone of any community's economic and social prosperity. If Chevron ("your neighbor for 104 years") had really cared, Richmond wouldn't need a "revitalization" initiative, we would have been vitalized a long time ago, and our school system would be the envy of the nation.
Because I taught elementary school for twenty-five years, I know a thing or two and disagree with the way Chevron is skewing our educational establishment, the West Contra Costa Unified School District.
Actually, Chevron never had qualms about using our school children for its own ends. For example, the school district for several years has held an annual conference "Parents as Partners and Leaders" at DeJean Middle School. Mostly Latino parents attend workshops to become more skilled at helping their children.
The district's department of Community Engagement organizes the event, but sure enough there is Chevron's logo on the program, and Chevron staff handing out tote bags. It's the Chevron Way of grabbing the spotlight in somebody else's event.
As the CEO of a worthy NGO once confided, "For every dollar that Chevron gives, they get three dollars of publicity."
But like its other incursions, this year saw a quantum leap in Chevron's influence over our schools. The West Contra Costa Unified School District needed to replace the outdated Five Year Plan. Warm-hearted Chevron stepped in to bankroll the process and with its cash, the district hired a firm of facilitators to lead the process and write the final report.
My problem is not just in that paternalistic capitalist way Chevron is becoming our boss, my problem is that, if it can't even run its refinery properly, what business does it have determining our children's education?
"If You Only Have a Hammer, You See Every Problem as a Nail"
I attended two "Community Forums" and could see that the emphasis was on getting more high school students to graduate and into colleges.Because the Chevron Corporation is a high-tech industry it views the world through that lens. Therefore, Chevron prefers to give its charity to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs; another case of Chevron wanting to shape our lives in its own image.
From everything in my experience, by the time students reach high school, they are already turned off to school. Emphasizing efforts to increase graduation is nice, but misplaced. The area to make change is at the opposite end, at the pre-school level. This is where children's brains are growing most rapidly.
At the Five Year Plan community forums, parents were given colored dots to put on their priorities, but somehow what really needs to happen was not among the choices. In an email to the Board of Education and Superintendent, I suggested the following list as priorities. I never received a reply from any of them, but I know that what West Contra Costa schools need are:
- Smaller class sizes
- An aide in every classroom
- A longer school day and school year
- A citywide in-house vibrant after-school program
- A well-trained pre-school program in every school
- More counselors, psychologists
- Alternative education for students who cannot sit in a chair
- Bilingual education
- Well-funded adult education
- Higher pay for teachers
- An evaluation procedure for administrators
- A return to vocational education with the addition of agricultural education
None of these priorities came up during the "community forums", despite the many parents and teachers who want their kids to really learn. Encouraging individual students to go to college is fine, but high college fees and slashed programs make it harder than ever to get a degree. Also, many college students will struggle for years to pay back student loans. Many graduates cannot even find jobs. In addition, many thinkers suggest that in the future, it's not specific skills that need to be mastered for they will become outmoded. What needs to be nurtured are attitudes like curiosity and values like critical thinking.
I volunteered for two years at the primary level in an Iron Triangle school. Young children are most talented at making up stories and making art, yet both of these subjects were absent from the curriculum. The arts and humanities are as vital as math and language arts, and it's about how they are taught not about how much. And with high-stakes testing, the teacher stress is palpable. In other words students are being rendered passive, inured to boredom, and tracked to becoming dropouts beginning in kindergarten.
Also, the teacher's union, UTR, seemed strangely absent from any of the discussions I attended although everyone knows that talented and dedicated teachers are the heart of an excellent school system, not ipads for every student.
At this point, Chevron creation, "ForRichmond" has become so enmeshed with the school district that it's a "Quick Link" on the WCCUSD website.
If "ForRichmond" is Chevron's Trojan Horse, the progressive community needs to quickly put forward a school plan something like the one I have proposed. This is especially urgent given the supposed failure of public schools to the benefit of EMOs (educational management organizations) and charter schools.
The only way to get that rich and program of humane energy is with more money at the state level. That means higher corporate taxes and an oil depletion allowance, something the oil lobby and San Ramon-based Chevron Corporation has fought for years.
Maybe I'm just a cynical guy. Maybe "ForRichmond" is our savior and will lead us into prosperity. Maybe Chevron has turned over a new leaf and become part of our community. Or maybe this is all shuck and jive and the Chevron Way of keeping control --"Richmond Today" (and Tomorrow the World), and Chevron as Benevolent Dictator.
Well here's my good neighbor test. Will Chevron respect us and our democracy? Will General Manager Kory Judd make a pledge not to give any corporate money to any candidate in any over or underhanded way? Will "ForRichmond"'s leadership take a pledge not to endorse any candidates?
Email me the minute you get those pledges, and in the words of the old spiritual I'll gladly sing, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we're free at last."