Around 5:30 p.m. on a chilly Wednesday evening in late September, Monica Ortiz and Jesus Felix were knocking on doors in Richmond’s Pullman neighborhood, canvassing and encouraging residents to vote in the upcoming election.
Ortiz, a Richmond High alum and current UC Berkeley student, and Felix, a senior at Richmond’s Leadership Public School, are fellows in the Richmond chapter of the Students for Education Reform Action Network (SFER AN), a group of high school seniors and college students working to improve local public education.
“I really wanted to be engaged with the community,” Ortiz said of her decision to become a SFER AN fellow.
SFER AN is the political action arm of Students for Education Reform (SFER), a national nonprofit organization focused on raising the quality of public K-12 education. SFER has chapters at colleges across the country and locally at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, San Jose State University and Contra Costa College. SFER AN launched in Richmond in 2014 with a focus on that year’s school board elections.
This year’s Richmond-based SFER AN fellows began their work in the summer, learning about the political side of public K-12 education so they would be prepared and knowledgeable when speaking to potential voters, said SFER AN Richmond program director Tom Cruz.
The SFER AN fellows researched everything from the role and duties of a school board to what a parcel tax is and presented their findings to each other, Cruz said. Now that school is back in session, they regularly attend West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) Board of Education meetings. The experience is eye-opening for many of the students who are WCCUSD alums, said Cruz.
Fellows also studied up on the seven candidates in the race for two seats on the WCCUSD Board of Education this year. Back in June they sent a questionnaire to each candidate, asking about their reasons for running, views on closing the achievement gap, and ideas for better serving special needs students, improving the district’s academics, and boosting teacher effectiveness, said communications director Debbie Fine Edelberg. The students also followed up with in-person interviews with the candidates before choosing to endorse Tom Panas and Miriam Stephanie Sequeira.
The process of endorsing candidates was a new experience for Ortiz. “I’m not just thinking about my own values,” she said. She had to keep in mind what’s best for the community of Richmond and the nearly 30,000 students of the school district, she added.
As the election draws closer, fellows have shifted their focus to getting out in the community and knocking on doors. Groups of fellows work roughly five-hour shifts each evening from Tuesday through Friday and on Saturday afternoons. They meet in the SFER AN office on Harbour Way in downtown Richmond at 3:30 p.m. to gather campaign materials, then split into groups of two and head out into the field.
Each pair of fellows knocks on up to 70 doors per shift, and so far the fellows have reached 18,000 doors in Richmond, Cruz said. They don’t focus solely on the candidates SFER AN has endorsed—they also talk about the importance of voting in local elections.
“Just to get the word out feels really good,” Felix said.
Many students involved in local SFER chapters are WCCUSD graduates, Edelberg said. They come from a variety of both traditional and charter public schools in the district.
“These are people that are deeply, deeply invested in this community,” SFER California managing director Mirabel Gonzalez said. “Their families are here, their friends are here.”
Local SFER chapters organize community events to raise awareness for issues in K-12 public education. Last February, the UC Berkeley SFER chapter hosted a screening and discussion of Teached Vol. 1, a three-part documentary about the failings of public education in America and possible solutions. Last spring, the UC Davis SFER chapter organized a two-hour community workshop to share stories and discuss K-12 education policy change.
SFER members also attend public education meetings, locally and afar. Last April, they attended a California Committee on Education hearing in Sacramento.
SFER is “the voice of the community, in a sense,” UC Davis senior and Richmond High School graduate Eduardo Martinez said. The Chicano studies and community and regional development double major said that as a high schooler, he didn’t picture himself going to college. Now, he regularly makes the nearly 60-mile drive from Davis to Richmond to attend WCCUSD Board of Education meetings, because improving education for students in Richmond and WCCUSD as a whole is important to him, he said.
Nearly 85 percent of WCCUSD seniors graduated in 2015, but only about 42 percent of graduates met the A-G requirements necessary to attend a University of California or a California State University school, according to the California Department of Education. This is an improvement from 2005, when only 14 percent of graduating seniors met the A-G requirements—but the problem is still “something that’s very real,” Martinez said.
Martinez said he’s focused on strengthening the district’s “college-going culture” and quality of teaching. “I had a handful of teachers that were really good, and they’re the reason I made it to college,” he said.
UC Berkeley senior and Richmond Leadership Public School graduate Daniela Felix, the first in her family to go to college, said she wants more Richmond students to have those opportunities.
Like Martinez, Daniela said bringing quality teachers into WCCUSD classrooms is one of her priorities. School safety and climate are also important to her. After graduating this coming spring, Daniela will return to Richmond as Teach for America fellow.
“I know the opportunities that education has brought me,” she said. “I want parents to feel comfortable sending their children to school every day.”