In the eve before Tucson Unified School District's strategic planning kick off on Tuesday, Feb. 25, more than a dozen people sat inside the Pascua Neighborhood Center in the Pascua Yaqui Village south of Grant Road and west of Oracle Road asking TUSD governing board member Cam Juarez if the Richey Early Learning Center would be allowed to enroll students for the next school year and they also wondered why they haven't heard much from the district and its new superintendent.
During the meeting Juarez announced that he had good news for the mix of Pascua Yaqui community and school representatives, parents and members of an ad hoc committee who had previously worked with the district to form the preschool pilot project in 2012 in an effort to return a school presence two years after the district closed Richey Elementary School and shuttered the 2209 N. 15th Ave. building.
Juarez said when he saw a newspaper reporter in the parking lot waiting for that night's meeting, he called TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez to get additional information he could share. The last thing he wanted was a problem to contribute to the district's bad public relations, referring to a series of Arizona Daily Star stories on the strategic planning $92,500 contract with a company with personal ties to the TUSD superintendent.
TUSD Community Schools coordinator director Janet Castillo told Juarez that while other district schools have begun the annual registration process for returning and new students, she hasn't been given the paperwork for 2014-2015 or any direction.
According to Juarez, the good news is that there was a lack of communication between the district and the San Ignacio Tribal Council, who share a partnership with the school, that communication between the TUSD and the tribe is restarting.
However, the question everyone in the room wanted answered immediately—will TUSD continue the Richey Early Learning Center—went unanswered. Juarez did promise he'd meet with the committee and community again, and bring Sanchez with him. The meeting date agreed on was Monday, March 3, but ad hoc committee co-chair Ernette Leslie told the Tucson Weekly that she hadn't heard back from Juarez with a confirmation, so the meeting hasn't happened—yet.
Those who drive near the Richey neighborhood may not understand the historic context of the school or why the district's closure of the school was so heartbreaking (See "Neighborhood Heartbreak," May 10, 2010). However, the school has been the heart of the Pascua Yaqui Village where generations of Yaqui families lived long before the Pascua Yaqui were given reservation land southwest of Tucson in the mid-1960s, and federal recognition as a tribe in the late-1970s.
Richey was started in the 1930s, when Thamar Richey approached TUSD for help with a school for Yaqui children she had started in the village. Then-TUSD superintendent C.E. Rose reportedly visited the teacher and found her teaching in a tin-and-cardboard shack. He approved her school, and TUSD built a one-room schoolhouse not far from where the 1950s-era school building sits now.
Between the school's closure in 2010 and it reopening part of the building for the Richey Early Learning Center in 2013, the school sat empty and was in need of major repairs before teachers and students could reclaim it. For the district, it was part of a lesson on how to properly shutter closed schools when the second round of school closure started last year.
However, during the Monday meeting with Juarez, Leslie pointed out that what was troubling about the lack of communication from the district was that it was so different than what the ad hoc committee experienced when it began to work with the former TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone and former assistant superintendent Maggie Schafer were very involved, alongside TUSD governing board member Mark Stegeman, who used the success at Richey as part of his reelection campaign in 2012.
Juarez told the group that the lack of communication wasn't intentional and that the former administration dropped the ball in communicating to Sanchez's incoming new administration. The issue communicated to him was that there is a current lack of even more communication between the district and the tribal council on the agreement the two entities had when the preschool program started—namely around the care and maintenance of the building that the district reportedly spent close to $300,000 on in repairs.
With Sanchez now talking to tribal representatives, Juarez said it should become clear what will happen next and he reassured those in the room that closing Richey wasn't at the top of the district's agenda, but figure out what kind of partnership now exists between the district and the tribe.
During the district's strategic planning meeting, Sanchez made it clear that one challenge for the district was dealing with negative attitudes and media coverage. However, for the most part, some of those who attended—more than 200 people—including our own David Safier said it was a positive kick-off for Sanchez's strategic planning process. The Star's report, that the meeting basically shared information that was already known and discussed between the district and community in the past—diversity, performance, curriculum and funding.
Response online was largely in support of the district, including a response from TUSD parent and education activist Cesar Aguirre, who posted a criticism of the city's daily on the Casa Maria blog, Voces de Casa Maria.
"As I looked at today's headlines I could not help but feel somewhat discouraged and deflated, which was the total opposite of how I felt last night. Yesterday I spent my day at the Strategic Planning Session, an all-day discussion to begin the planning of the future of TUSD. Afterwards I felt full of hope and optimism because for the first time I felt that the broader Tucson Community was finally being asked to be part of the rebuilding of the district," Aguirre wrote.
However, Castillo and others at the Richey Early Learning Center are waiting to hear from Sanchez on what's going to happen to their students. Their students, who quality for programs like Head Start and PACE (Parent and Child Education), may find it too late to register by the time TUSD communicates it is closing Richey or restructuring to a fee-based program.
"These children need this program," Castillo told Juarez. "Where are they going to go?"