Coronado Elementary School currently operates out of a maze of portables tucked away behind the high school parking lot in Richmond, California, as it awaits a new building scheduled to open next fall.
An East Bay city with a rich past and a troubled present, Richmond made national news in 2012 when a series of explosions ripped through its huge Chevron oil refinery. The Chevron plant, site of a string of such fires in recent decades, is one of the area’s largest private employers, a testament to the often problematic relationship between livelihoods and quality of life. Richmond is the largest city in the country with a Green Party mayor, who made headlines herself last year with a proposal to use eminent domain to stem residential foreclosures.
5,000 years ago, Richmond was home to Ohlone Indian communities. In the early 20th century, Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad had its Western terminus there, and the city was important in ship-building during World War II (Richmond is home to Rosie the Riveter Museum). The supply of industrial jobs made Richmond a magnet for immigrants from Asia, Mexico, and Central America, and a destination for black migrants from the south.
This week, I visited Coronado Elementary School to see San Francisco Opera Guild’s Opera à la Carte school version of La Bohème. We’ve worked with Coronado for over ten years, mainly through the tireless efforts of teacher Norah Moore, a literacy specialist, who spearheads the program at the school and prepares the student actors for their participation.
Almost half Coronado School’s diverse student population are English Language Learners and nearly all qualify for free or reduced fee lunch. Performances take place in the high school’s cafetorium, on a stage without curtains or lights. In spite of frequent interruptions – security alarms, PA announcements, construction noise – the student actors and the chorus, led by music teacher Julie Bruins, were among the best I’ve seen. But what impressed me most was the rapt attention of the student audience. By Act II they all seemed ready to jump up on stage to revel with Parpignol. During the final scene, one student covered his head to hide tears, and I wondered what in his young life might have provoked this response.
Ellen Kerrigan, our long-time Opera à la Carte coordinator, writes:
“Coronado is the perfect example of how a dedicated teacher can inspire not only her own students but the entire school population. Richmond can be a challenging place to grow up, yet this school thrives. Norah understands the value of the arts, and continues to be a part of it even though she is now retired. Talented students might never have the opportunity to shine were it not for these kinds of programs and teachers.”
As was the case during the performance, these students’ lives are engulfed in a cacophony of distractions and disruptions. But as Azar Nafisi writes in her inspiring new book, The Republic of Imagination, “If there is one thing that should not be denied to anyone rich or poor it’s the opportunity to dream…we need the pristine beauty of truth as revealed to us in fiction, poetry, music, and the arts.”
To preserve the ability to respond fully to the world, to cultivate wide-awake engagement with the full range of life’s experiences – this is a true common core for which we as educators must continue to fight.Note: If you are receiving this post in an email, you will need to open it in a web browser to view the video.