It’s 9:10 a.m. and school started two hours ago. Antonio Medrano stands in Richmond High School’s foyer giving a slightly disapproving look to three students who walk in late.
“Buenos tardes,” says Medrano, smiling.
“Buenos tardes,” say the kids as they sheepishly grin back. He tells them to get to class and strolls into the front office.
He checks with the late students to see that they are making their way to class. Medrano’s easy demeanor with students shows a deep familiarity with the district and the school. Medrano considers himself a community activist, and recalls that in his 40 years of teaching in high schools and community colleges, social justice issues were always something he brought into lessons. He says now that he wants students to feel just as empowered to do good as he did —and he’s running for a second four-year term on the West Contra Costa County school board to continue his mission.
It starts in part, he says with a focus on the physical environment students learn in. Medrano says he believes strongly that students should have things like windows and colors, which older schools are often missing.
The newly opened Ford Elementary is lined with different colored walls, huge windows and ornate staircases. Medrano says he’s proud the school’s overhaul happened under his term and urges parents to use it as a model for school rebuilds scheduled for the future.
As he walks out through the Richmond High office and into the main high ceilinged student area, he is surrounded by more inspiring art: brightly colored murals cover almost every open piece of wall available. The murals are in pristine condition.
“The kids make it, so they respect it,” he says.
As part of a routine visit, he continues down a hallway off the great room, and peeks into a classroom. He looks around the English class, smiling at lined papers full of writing, walks to the front of the room and asks, “How many of you are Latino?”
The entire class smiles brightly and raises their hands. Medrano goes around the room and asks each student where they are from. Almost every student names Guadalajara, and the ones that don’t name other Central American cities.
Medrano, who is of Mexican heritage as well, smiles and says, “I think we have half of Guadalajara here,” drawing a laugh. He asks the students how they’re doing with their studies.
In another classroom he asks, “How many of you are going to take the Spanish AP exam?” and this time receives no response.
Medrano sighs, and says this is something he wants to work on —both getting more students to take AP exams and getting students to embrace their culture. One Latina student said, “We speak English here.”
Medrano responds with a frown. Medrano says he’s proud of his culture and knows what it’s like to live in a place where people can’t express themselves as freely.
Many of those lessons he learned as a community activist and human rights investigator while teaching. As a longtime summer volunteer for the Catholic Church’s human rights commission office in El Salvador and Guatemala in the summers, he says he has seen some “horrific incidents, just horrible.”
He was detained in El Salvador and jailed in Guatemala. But he always came back to teach and share the “raw footage” from his orally told stories. He says he wants students to understand what they have, and what they can make better.
Medrano was born in 1938 in Modesto. Growing up on a farm labor camp, he says, taught him strong values and to appreciate hard work. His parents were founding members of the Community Service Organization and Cesar Chavez, a family friend, weaved in and out of his life, something he tells his students to encourage them.
Following his long teaching career, and long life of activism, Medrano – now the incumbent in a four-candidate race — says he knew being a school board member was a logical and necessary step for him to continue working for positive change.
Medrano continues walking through the school, saying hi to staff and peeking through classroom doors. In almost every classroom Medrano looks in on, the students are writing. He smiles proudly at this and heads for the back doors.
Outside, he walks past the field adjacent to the school and glares at the large Canadian geese grazing their way across the fields — geese he says the school is at constant war with for territory.
He checks the fences lining the perimeter of the school to make sure they are covered – another project he fought for on the board as a way to make sure the school remained closed to the outside community.
Richmond High in the past had a problem with people dropping off “lunch” through the fence, Medrano says, leading to an increased presence of drugs in the school. By closing off the fences, Medrano says, the school has stopped the midday smuggling.
He continues on to the school’s garden. He chats with the students and the teacher. They all munch on figs from the giant fig tree in the corner, while he receives updates on how the class plans to move the garden to a space closer to the school, so more kids know it is there.
At each stop along the way, Medrano finds a reminder of his own past, or a reminder of work he’s proud of on the board, or a reminder of work he has yet to accomplish. And Richmond High isn’t the only school on his list today. The school day is short, and Medrano checks his watch and gets into his car, heading off to check on more schools before the last bell rings