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children at the Maritime Development Center Grand Opening

A World War II preschool rings again with children’s shouts

on September 30, 2011

A Mexican folk dance, an African-American gospel song, a restored World War II era school building, and a happy principal.

“There are two things you can give to children, in general: roots and wings,” said Peppina Chang, the principal of the Richmond College Prep Schools. And today her preschoolers are getting their wings in a building whose roots dig deep into the heart of modern American history — although those roots had almost crumbled.

After years of fundraising and planning, the rooms of the Maritime Child Development Center in Richmond, where “Rosie the Riveters” sent their children night and day as they worked in the Kaiser shipyards of Richmond during World War II, again have preschoolers in them.

And National Park rangers.

Thursday, the building was dedicated as part of the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park. Both a public park interpretive center and a two-year, roughly $8-million-plus restoration of the school were celebrated.

The building had sat empty for seven years and “was falling apart — it was actually wood on dirt. There was no foundation,” said Jane Bartke, board president of the Rosie the Riveter Trust, the historic preservation organization that now owns the school property.

But the school is again full of preschoolers. They attend the Richmond College Prep Schools, a nonprofit that also operates a charter elementary school for underserved children in the city’s Santa Fe, Coronado and Iron Triangle neighborhoods.

And the Richmond Community Foundation has moved its offices into the building.

Neighborhood residents had told the city they wanted to renovate the old building, so after years of planning and searching for funds, Contra Costa County gave the property to the Rosie the Riveter Trust last year, and the renovation, thanks to a combination of local, state, federal and school district funds, began. It was part of a joint city-county-nonprofit neighborhood revitalization effort called NURVE.

The school was restored according to a plan largely by Catherine Landreth, a home economics professor and head of the nursery school at the Institute of Child Welfare at UC Berkeley, whose advice industrialist Henry Kaiser relied on when he decided to build childcare facilities for the women working at his shipyards.

“In 1943, Kaiser testified before Congress, arguing that essential services for women in war industry, including child care facilities, shopping centers, and recreation, were essential to improve the [manufacturing] manpower situation,” according to National Register of Historic Places documentation about the building. “By June 1944, women made up more than 27 percent of Kaiser’s shipyard labor force. These were not, for the most part, middle-class housewives, but local working class and mid-to-low income migrant women.”

And now, again, it is working-class and immigrant families whose children attend the school. Until this year, they had been attending classes in nearby portable buildings.

“I feel like I’m in a palace,” Principal Chang said. “After being in a portable, I’m in a palace — I have a beautiful bathroom, I have a clean, well-lighted office. … And, above all, I’m a part of history.”

Almost 350 students, 70 percent African-American and 30 percent Latino, attend the Richmond College Prep Schools. The preschoolers now study in the renovated Maritime Center and the elementary school students in a building nearby. About a block away, the city has renovated the Martin Luther King Jr. soccer, football and track fields.

Many of the schoolchildren come from neighborhoods where serious violence has been a problem, but Chang said she believes the racial integration at the school will, like the building renovation, improve the city. At the celebration yesterday, African-American students danced with Latinos in an old Mexican folk dance, and Latinos joined in a gospel choir performance.

“The more you know about others, the more you understand,” Chang said. “And the more you understand, the more peaceful you become.”

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin attended the ceremony along with other city officials. City Councilmember Tom Butt, who played an active role in the restoration, said the school building is well-known throughout Richmond. “It was an active childcare center from 1943 until 2004, and … kids went to preschool there for 60, 70 years,” he said.

And today, they’re back.

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