Neighborhood Heartbreak

TUSD considers closing a Yaqui community's school to save money

Jordan Olvera opened his heart to tell TUSD to keep Richey open.

There are no bullies at Richey Elementary School, according to 8-year-old Jordan Olvera, and that's enough of a reason to keep his school open.

"If we go somewhere else, there might be bullies," Olvera told attendees of a Wednesday, May 12 meeting regarding the school's possible closure. "I feel safe here. ... If they are going to close it, I would feel very sad. I'll have to go somewhere, somewhere where it's not great, where I don't feel safe, and there will be bullies there. ... Bullies are not great. They make fun of you, call you fat, and call you names. All that stuff is bad, and if that happens to you, what will that mean?"

As Olvera continued to talk about the prospect that his school may close over summer break, tears welled up in his eyes and streamed down his cheeks. His father led him back to where his family was sitting, leaving other audience members wiping tears from their own faces.

Olvera and others who spoke at the meeting directed most of their comments to Tucson Unified School District board members Bruce Burke and Adelita Grijalva, who had been invited to hear community response to the school board's unanimous decision on April 27 to close and merge several TUSD schools, including Richey, to save money.

The school-closure plan includes several proposed mergers: Duffy Elementary students would go to Bonillas, Howell, Sewell and Robison elementary schools; Fort Lowell Elementary students to Townsend Middle School, which would become a preK-8 program; Jefferson Park Elementary students to Blenman or Cragin elementary schools; Reynolds Elementary students to Erickson and Ford elementary school; Roberts Elementary students to Naylor Middle School, which will become a K-8 school; Rogers Elementary students to Kellond Elementary; Van Horne Elementary students to Bloom Elementary; and Wrightstown Elementary students to Henry Elementary.

Currently, there is no merger plan for Richey, only closure, but according to the parents and community members who spoke at the meeting, Richey's unique history and community needs to be taken into consideration.

To most, the Richey neighborhood looks like a typical urban area, located south of Grant Road and west of Oracle Road. The neighborhood, however, is 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 has been at the heart of that community since 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.

According to Luis Gonzalez, a Yaqui Tribal Council member who spoke at the meeting, there are 1,100 Yaqui students attending TUSD schools. At Richey, more than half of the students are of Yaqui descent, and the school remains an important part of Yaqui community history. Many on the tribal council have ties to the school going back several generations, he said.

Jenny Romero, who lives in the neighborhood with her children and extended family, said she attended Richey and can't imagine sending her kids anywhere else. She said community members all know each other and help each other.

"I'm also the only one providing for my family," said Romero, who works at Casino of the Sun, owned by the Yaqui tribe. "My mom and dad are elderly. Transportation is an issue. If my daughter gets sick at school, and she is in a different school, who can pick her up? But also, once our kids leave here and go outside, what else is going to happen? In our culture, Yaquis stay together, no matter what."

Emilio Caiz, director of the San Ignacio Pascua Yaqui Council, which helps with social service programs at the Pascua Neighborhood Center a block west of the school, said he worries about families like Romero's and the impact that the school's closure will have on grandparents in the community, who walk their grandchildren to school because they don't have transportation.

But Caiz said a deeper issue is that many still feel the sting from the closure of John Spring Middle School. In the late-1970s, in an attempt to follow desegregation policies, the school was closed, and middle school students were bused to a school in midtown.

"That first day, I remember all the Pascua Yaqui kids getting off the bus and going into an all-white school. We were older, around 12 or 13. ... We like to say there is no discrimination when we talk about our kids going to other schools, but there still is," Caiz said.

Ernette Leslie-John is not Yaqui, but Navajo. While her family lives near downtown, her daughter attends Richey. John said she took her daughter out of a TUSD magnet school when they noticed she hardly talked about school.

"When we arrived at Richey, she was welcomed. ... She was embraced. Now we can't get her to stop talking about school and her friends. She feels like she belongs, and she's excited and interested in school. She's no longer that quiet little girl sitting in the corner of the room," John said.

According to Katrina Smits, Richey's vice principal, going through the closure process with the students, teachers and families is one of the hardest things she has done in her 28-year career. But she said she doesn't blame the school district or its board.

"No one wants to close this school or any of the other schools," Smits said. "If there are bad guys in this situation, it is the state Legislature."

Caiz, along with parents and other community supporters, have asked the Yaqui tribe to intervene in negotiations with TUSD. They'd like more time to better plan for closure, or perhaps figure out a way to keep the school open.

"(We'd like to) at least to keep it open for another year so we can better plan and figure out other uses for this building that will help the community," Caiz said.

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