Firebrand: How a San Pablo Mom Became an Education Advocate


By Edgardo Cervano-Soto

On Jan. 6, 2015, Petronila Fernandes’ son, a kindergarten student at J.O. Ford Elementary, felt ill during school. When she checked in on him during the day, Fernandes noticed the milk carton the school had given him. The expiration date said Dec. 31, 2014. The next day, Fernandes says her child was again served milk with a Dec. 31 expiration date, despite the food services staff saying they had no inventory of milk from the end of December.

“I felt bad because my son is only five years old. He doesn’t know how to check a milk carton for the expiration date. I asked myself, ‘Why would they serve expired milk again? Was it intentional?’ I believe we have the right to see what is being served to our children,” said Fernandes in Spanish. “That’s when I took action.”

What she did next is what any parent would do. She started asking questions.

Fernandes wrote letters to the principal and food services staff, asking why her child had been served expired milk. When she didn’t get a response, she enlisted the help of the Building Blocks for Kids Collaborative in Richmond, an initiative that supports healthy development and quality education for kids and leadership for parents. The group helped Fernandes form an oral presentation, and Fernandes presented her story during the open comment section at a school board meeting.

“Just because we are humble, it doesn’t mean we don’t have the right to ask questions and advocate for our children’s education,” said Fernandes.

It wasn’t the first time Fernandes had spoken out. Since August 2014, Fernandes had been volunteering at the school. She noticed that the K-5 school had no consistent or formal parents’ committee, and that staff had very little engagement with parents. She also observed that very few materials were translated into Spanish, despite the fact that 83 percent of the 491 students are Latino, and 68 percent are English Learners, according to 2013-2014 School Accountability Report Card.

Most importantly, Fernandes saw that there was no clear structure for parents to give their input on school decisions, including student support services and budgets.

“I appreciate the education they provide our children. They make an effort,” said Fernandes. “But more communication is lacking. Realistically, every school needs to engage staff, directors, parents and families – that’s key.”

Troublemakers or concerned parents

Dulce Galicia, a lead organizer for families in the Iron Triangle, facilitated the Building Blocks for Kids workshops that Fernandes took.

“I’ve witnessed how schools label well-intentioned moms advocating for their children, like Petrolina, as a nuisance,” said Galicia.

Galicia says it takes a lot of preparation to empower parents to break through a culture of conformity when it comes to engaging with the school district.

“A lot of the parents we work with, they don’t know how to get better classrooms, better teachers, an improved school- so they take it as it is,” said Galicia. “The number one thing that is difficult for parents to do is write a letter in English, and that’s the number one way that this district reviews complaints.”

Parents are also more powerful when they work in groups, said Galicia, which is one of the main reasons that Petrolina has been fighting to create a parents’ meeting group at her son’s school.

Changes at school

Fernandes was able to meet with the food service director of the school district, Barbara Jellison. As a result of the incident, Jellison says a memo was sent to all food service staff to reinforce an existing spot checking procedure for the district that requires food staff to not only check the exterior date on boxes when opening food, but check each item for expiration and quality. In addition, every member of the food services staff must pass a Serve Safe test, and the Food Services Department will revisit policy and procedural issues at all school sites, utilizing Fernandes’ case as an example in trainings.

“We want to be even more diligent and aware of everything that goes on. It becomes routine and it’s something that shouldn’t be routine,” said Jellison in a phone interview. “We really have to make sure the quality and food safety is there.”

West Contra Costa Unified School District served 5.5 million meals last year, according to Marcus Walton, the school district communications director. He said one of the steps the district is taking with the food vendors is to include more clear text detailing expiration dates on the food boxes. “While we are sorry the student received expired milk,” Walton said, “the food services department has taken steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

“I’m glad she [Petronila] is involved. We need more parents like her involved in the education of their children,” said Walton.

The fight continues

A second case at J.O. Ford made it clear for Fernandes that her advocacy work was not over. In April, her son’s kindergarten teacher called in sick. Instead of dispersing the class of 25 kindergarten students to other kindergarten classrooms, J.O. Ford elected to combine the kindergarten class with a sixth grade class. Fernandes believes this was an uninformed decision from staff.

Kindergarten children need more socialization and preparation in order to interact with sixth graders, said Fernandes. Some of the kindergarten children, including her child, were scared, according to Fernandes.

Fernandes collected signatures from parents to call on the school to revisit such policies.

Because of her advocacy work, in January 2015, Fernandes was elected president of the J.O. Ford Elementary School Site Council, a group composed equally of school staff and parents or students who are elected by their peers. Her goal is to increase communication between Latino parents and school staff, establish a parents’ meeting where parents can talk to one another, and to establish formal procedures that allow parents to become involved in decision making.

“Many parents don’t have the opportunity to get involved, not because they don’t want to, but because their work and their schedule doesn’t permit it,” Fernandes said. “But when my children were born, I realized I needed to inform myself. I thought, how could I educate myself to better support my children?”

Galicia said that parents like Fernandes are key to improving local schools.

“Those parents who are asking question are asking the best questions in order to make school the best it can be,” said Galicia. “In Petrolina’s case, she will grow into a much bigger leader and she doesn’t know how powerful she is yet.”

Documentary About Young Richmond Poets Premieres at El Cerrito High

Story and Video • Ann Bassette

Hundreds of people filled the El Cerrito High School theater on April 29 to watch the world premiere of the film “Romeo is Bleeding,” a candid and revealing documentary following the lives of a group of young, spoken word artists — known as Richmond Artists with Talent, or just RAW Talent.

Led by first time director Jason Zeldes, this deeply researched and eloquently edited film, includes multiple views and stories to give outsiders an accurate illustration of life in Richmond, California.

The film focuses on Donté Clark, 25, during 2012 and 2013 as he and the RAW Talent team wrote, rehearsed and performed his first play, “Te’s Harmony.” The play is a modern day remix of Shakespeare’s classic “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s loosely based on Clark’s own life growing up in North Richmond, and focuses on the feuds between the neighborhoods in Richmond and how they affect the lives of the people who live there.

But more than capturing the artistic process, the documentary examines the intersection of life and art in a city plagued with street turmoil.

“‘Romeo Is Bleeding’ explores the roots of violence in Richmond,” said Molly Raynor, RAW Talent’s co-founder and Arts Program Coordinator, “and documents the efforts of young artists to heal themselves and their community through spoken word poetry and theater.”

The documentary shows what it’s like to live in Clark’s world as he makes his first attempt at playwriting. We see Clark as humble, analytical, honest and funny. Interviews with Clark’s older brothers give insight into what the streets of North Richmond looked like during the height of feuding. It also shows the pain and turmoil Clark went through as he grieved the loss of a friend and a RAW Talent co-founding member, 19-year-old Dimarea Young, who was shot and killed in front of his father and brother in the spring of 2013.

“I feel like in Richmond, California we have two sides who are at odds,” Clark said, describing the parallels between the city he knows and “Romeo and Juliet.” “But the thing is, it’s not two separate families. We’re all family, and we are intermixing, and we’re having young children who have to straddle the fence on my daddy is from this side and my mom’s from that side — but both of my cousins are killing each other. So, what we try to do is just take that story and show you that this is a family. It’s not a gang. It’s not individuals just out here doing wild things. It’s people who are hurt.”

“What surprised me was exactly what Donté says in the film, art imitates life,” Raynor said. “During the year we were creating a film aimed at eradicating violence in Richmond, four young men Donté knew were shot and killed.”

“While the film initially was going to focus in more on the actual nuts and bolts of putting on ‘Te’s Harmony,’ the violence itself shifted the course of the film,” she added. “Life influenced art.”

Inside the theater, the diverse crowd reacted with laughter and finger snaps throughout the premier, and applauded as the end credits rolled. A question and answer segment featuring the director and cast followed, explaining how the film is meant to serve as a healing tools for the cast and the community.

RAW Talent began as a school-based spoken word group but has gone on to create stage productions and a documentary film. “Romeo is Bleeding” is part of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. It will be showing next at 2:00 p.m. on May 3 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

Art Center Event Turns Trash Into Treasure

Story and Photos • Sonya Mann

Richmond Art Center Upcycle 4-24-2015 best shots (4)Is one person’s garbage another person’s art?

You could find the answer at the Richmond Art Center’s Upcycle event April 25, in which local artists — rather than recycling trash — focused on upgrading throwaway materials into new and beautiful creations.

Volunteers at the event, now in its third year, staffed arts-and-crafts stations where they encouraged more than 300 attendees to fold-form copper pendants, make wild paper hats or crowns, paint old vinyl records, decorate a sidewalk trash can with pottery shards, weave rugs out of rags, turn T-shirts into quilts, and more.
“The idea behind Upcycle is using recycled material to create original works of art,” said Richard Ambrose, executive director of the art center. Free and kid-friendly, Upcycle hosted activities appropriate for various ages. Parents and children milled around, moving back and forth from outdoor tables to indoor workshops at the event.

“It’s an opportunity for parents to do interactive activities with their kids,” Ambrose said.

Local artist Bre Gipson staffed one of the outdoor stations that specialized in assemblage — a three-dimensional form of collage. She displayed her fantastical, ocean-evoking sculptures, fashioned from industrial foam, plastic, and miscellaneous doodads, as examples of the Upcycle ethos: using trash headed for a landfill to create something new and exciting, whether practical or simply visually pleasing.

Gipson’s sculptures demonstrated the joy of the form; bright, shimmery colors and knobby bumps that appealed to curious fingers. She encouraged participants to touch her creations, and children working at her table were quick to take advantage of the opportunity — a significant departure from the museum rules that they might have encountered at a less interactive event.

Inside the building, artist Ed Lay instructed the copper jewelry workshop. Lee Micheaux and her fourth-grade daughter Mariella used popsicle sticks to work the thin metal into leaf-shaped pendants.

“The volunteers are so wonderful — they work so hard,” said Micheaux, who had attended every annual Upcycle event since the first in 2013. She praised the consistent creativity of the art center’s activities — echoing the sentiment of many other parents, who said they were excited to have their kids taught how a little effort and enthusiasm can give easily discarded material a second life.

Richmond Art Center Upcycle 4-24-2015 best shots (5)According to its website, the Richmond Art Center aims to “deliver exciting arts experiences to young and old alike who reflect the diverse richness of our community.”






Students Weigh In On School Spending Priorities

Compiled By David Meza

At a recent town hall meeting, West Contra Costa Unified School District students had the chance to give their direct input into how educational money should be spent for the upcoming 2015-2016 school year.

The April 16 meeting at Helms Middle School in San Pablo, also gave students information about the Local Control Funding Formula, the new state law put into effect in 2013 that dramatically reformed the way California funds its schools — focusing on high-need students, such as those from low incomes, English learners and foster youth.

As part of the new law, school districts must develop a Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), which requires school districts to engage parents and students before finalizing plans for spending priorities.

Richmond Pulse asked students at the town hall about the needs of their schools and how they would like to see money spent. Students said they want more engagement with their schools and more effective ways of learning.


DSC_0004“I think the money should go towards training for teachers. Teachers have their credentials, but professional development can teach them how to teach their students better.”

Darell Waters, 17, Gompers High School


DSC_0005“I’m a community person, so I think that we need to mix the community and school together. I want to see programs and clubs that get funding so students can go out and volunteer and represent our school and our district.”

Francisco Ortiz, 17, Kennedy High School


DSC_0024“I definitely think the money should go towards the academies. They help students prepare for careers they want to seek in the future. They are trying to close the ROTC academy, so I’m working with some students to make sure it stays open.”

Dayjah Burton, 16, DeAnza High School


DSC_0007“A lot of the money should go to more clubs and after-school activities that would get us interested [in] getting work done but having fun at the same time. Something like combining sports and a science project. I know my generation is lazy, so I feel if we use social media, or technology, and tie it into our schoolwork, that would help us concentrate more.”

Isaiah Noel Johnson, 16, Gompers High School


DSC_0012“For my school, I think books and after-school activities like clubs. For example [in] my chemistry class, we never have enough books for everyone. After school, I think we have an extra credit program, but I think more things to do after school would be good for us.”

– Ashley Raylene Samano, 17, Gompers High School


Helping Foster Care Youth Succeed

By Malcolm Marshall and Dameion King | Photo, Dameion King

In California tens of thousands of children are part of the foster care system, and according to experts those who “age out” face an uphill struggle into adulthood. Without financial support or assistance from family many of these young adults fail quickly.

According to a study on youth who age out of foster care, more than one in five will become homeless, less than 60 percent will graduate high school by age 19 and within two years of leaving foster care 25 percent will be involved in the justice system.

Amongst these stark numbers, officials from Contra Costa County, Alameda County and Solano County came together in March at Richmond’s Lovonya DeJean Middle School for a roundtable discussion with former foster youth from around the Bay Area to discuss how experiences in foster care shape individuals and to talk about how policy makers can help young people in foster care.

As part of the “2015 Road to Your Future Foster Youth Conference,” held on March 21, Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus moderated the roundtable. Many of the former foster youth attributed part of their success to the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, Assembly Bill 12, which they said helped them transition into adulthood.

AB 12 was implemented in January 2012 and among other changes, it extended support to foster youth up until age 21 to help them transition into adulthood.

Sherion Arnold, a panelist, said that many of the programs and opportunities presented by AB12, including the extended age limit, taught her how to “live independently,” and inspired her to become a advocate for other foster youth.

Along with Magnus, the roundtable included Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, Solano County Supervisor Erin Hannigan and members of Richmond Mayor Tom Butt’s office.

This year, the conference was expanded to include Alameda and Solano counties because youth from Richmond often end up in these surrounding areas.

“A lot of our youth are placed in other families,” said Michelle Denise Milan, a crime prevention manager for the Richmond Police Department and member the conference planning committee. “They may have started out in Richmond but they ended up in Solano or Alameda County. It’s a very close-knit, connected community so we felt it was important to reach out to the other counties in partnership.”

According to the most recent numbers available from, in 2013 there were 1,164 children in foster care in Contra Costa County, 1,614 in Alameda and 446 in Solano County. These numbers have decreased over the last decade but it’s still a lot of kids to serve.

“One of the things that the youth said when they told their stories was how hard it is to find someone that’s going to be with them through the long haul, who can walk them through the whole process,” Milan said. “You go from system, to another system, to another system trying to look for that stability in your life.”

The conference also featured workshops focused on the challenges that foster and transitioning youth face such as homelessness, employment skills, planning for college, money management and health.

There were also workshops that focused on life skills, relationship and dating, music and fitness courses and haircuts and personal styling.

“This is a day about finding resources and letting them know they can have a road map to their future,” Milan said.

Malcolm Penton, 32, a former foster youth who now works as an advocate with California Youth Connection, took part in the panels and said that in addition to housing, having people to depend on for guidance and advice is a big challenge facing foster youth.

“We really talked a lot about those pivotal moments and how we sort of made changes in our lives,” he said. “The difference for me, and I think for some of the others that didn’t have the same outcome that I had, was that there were certain people there in my life in those moments.”

Over 130 youth attended the third annual conference, which was hosted by the Richmond Police Department Youth Services Division in partnership with Contra Costa County Health and Human Services Department, Foster a Dream, a organization that provides resources to Bay Area foster youth, Contra Costa County Independent Living Skills Program, an organization that helps foster youth prepare for adulthood and the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

Six Months Later, Family of ‘Pedie’ Calling for Officer to Be Charged

News Report, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

The family of 24-year-old Richard Perez III marked the six-month anniversary of his death with a protest March 17 at a Richmond City Council meeting, demanding that prosecutors charge the police officer who shot him, despite a conclusion by the District Attorney’s office that the officer had acted in self-defense.

Perez, better known as “Pedie,” died Sept. 14, 2014 in an altercation with Richmond police officer Wallace Jensen, who shot him three times during a fight at Uncle Sam’s Liquors on Cutting Boulevard after what the officer described as Perez’s attempt to take the gun from his belt. Perez had been intoxicated, and according to investigators had told family members he expected to be killed by police by the age of 25.

But Perez’s family said that focusing on such statements amounted to an attempt to discredit their loved one and to divert attention from what they say were the officer’s lack of training and mistakes made during the fatal events.

“We don’t approve of their police brutality, we don’t appreciate their lies, we don’t appreciate their lack of training, their lack of accountability, and their lack of transparency,” said Perez’s father Rick, at an hour-long rally after the council meeting. “They sit there at the table and yet they hide so much, [and] they misrepresent the rest of it… it’s not right for them to do that, but they get away with what they want.”

A canine patrol officer with seven years on the force, Jensen said he had patrolled the liquor store even though it wasn’t on his beat because it had repeated issues with loitering. He said he entered the store when called out by a store clerk. Jensen testified he attempted to detain Perez for public intoxication — and that when Perez resisted, his calls for backup never went through. According to Richmond Confidential’s report of the inquest, Jensen’s calls for support never went through because he had mistakenly set his police radio to a private channel.

IMG_7184Perez’s grandmother Patricia, who picketed the plaza outside the council chambers with other family members and supporters, wore a black T-shirt with her grandson’s picture on it. “He deserves to be in jail,” she said. “He murdered Pedie, plain and simple. There is no way to explain it.”

A coroner’s Dec. 10 inquest to determine the manner and mode of Perez’s death took testimony from homicide detective Hector Esparza, president of the local police union, along with Contra Costa County District Attorney investigator Jeff Soler, who had interviewed Jensen after the shooting, and from Jensen himself. The prosecutor’s office in January declined to file charges against Jensen, who had re-entered the police force in early October after a two-week paid administrative leave.

“It is not possible to prove Officer Jensen did not act in self-defense,” Deputy District Attorney Barry Groves wrote in a letter to Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus. “The facts and circumstances indicate that the officer acted in lawful self-defense.”

At the protest rally, however, Perez’s family criticized the inquest for excluding eye-witness accounts. Furthermore, according to the Huffington Post, the inquest didn’t feature any video footage from a witness’s cell phone camera.

Rhonda Reeder-Perez, Perez’s aunt, also criticized Jensen’s lack of preparation and crisis training. “As a canine handler, wouldn’t it be your first nature to push that button on your lapel to let your dog out if you are in fear of your life?”

“But he didn’t do that,” Reeder-Perez said. “He just stepped back and blew my nephew away.”

Kris Kelly, sister of Mario Romero, a 23 year old Vallejo resident killed by Vallejo Police in September 2012, spoke at the rally in solidarity with the Perez family.

Kris Kelly, sister of Mario Romero, a 23 year old Vallejo resident killed by Vallejo Police in September 2012, spoke at the rally in solidarity with the Perez family.

Roberta Shriver, a family friend, spoke during the public-comment portion of the council meeting, and urged council members to take action.

“Something could get a white, conservative, FOX [News]-watching woman off her couch, and that’s when a friend of her son is killed,” Shriver said. “Pedie and his family are precious to us. I was also married 19 years to a police officer, have a degree in criminal justice and worked for the LAPD, so I know about the brotherhood of the badge. I sat in that coroner’s inquest and I listened to every detail.

“At several points that officer could have used non-lethal force, and chose not to,” she said. “It’s up to you to do the right thing.”

The Perez family has hired civil rights attorney John Burris and has filed suit against Jensen and the city, arguing excessive force and violation of civil rights. Police Chief Chris Magnus, in an emailed statement to Richmond Pulse, reiterated the District Attorney’s conclusion that Jensen had acted in self-defense.

“We realize the Perez family has experienced a huge loss and appreciate that Pedie’s death was incredibly tragic to those close to him,” wrote Magnus. “In fairness, however, I need to remind our community that following a lengthy and thorough investigation into this incident, the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office determined that the officer acted in self-defense and that the shooting was justified.

“It is understandable that Pedie’s family and friends are unable to accept this finding,” he continued. “We support the family’s right to pursue their case through the civil court process and believe a courtroom is the appropriate venue to reach a just resolution to this matter.”

Farewell, Ferrari: A Star Falls At Richmond High

By Joanna Pulido

It was a chilly night in February at the North Coast Section Division II boys soccer championship, and there was Richmond High School computer graphics and animation teacher Mario Ferrari, cheering the home team loudly, clenching the rails of the stands and pacing back and forth with nerves and adrenaline.

His enthusiasm was magnetic. As he jumped up and down, his eyes glowed with excitement. “I was there at the last NCS game they won in 1994,” he said. “I still remember!”

News of his sudden death in his sleep earlier on March 9 has left many at the school contemplating their own memories of him. This was the same man introduced to me five years ago, when I attended Richmond High. I first met him during a reading period, but it was when he attended a couple of my track meets and practiced with me a few times that we became friends. His high energy, optimism and creativity were things that made me happy to be around.

“He had an aura and energy that always impacted people,” said his sister Elena Evans, alternately laughing and crying as she remembered him. “I think he got that from our mother, because I sure don’t have it.”

IMG_6276While attending his memorial ceremony on March 15, it became clear how much Ferrari affected me and many others. He was a colorful character — spontaneous, youthful, noble, artistic and perhaps sometimes goofy. This reminded people to live life with great excitement, full-on force, strong emotion, curiosity and passion.

Of Italian descent but raised in England, he moved to the United States in 1972 as a teenager, Evans said. While here, he attended Contra Costa College before transferring to the University of California at Berkeley, where he obtained his undergraduate degree and two masters degrees in art and printmaking. He began teaching at Richmond in 1993 and never left.

“He spent half his life here,” said John Ohlmann, a fellow teacher in the Multimedia Department at Richmond. “He evolved and grew with the school through the rough times and the better times. He really loved his kids and always advocated for them to have the most current equipment, and he always wanted them to learn the skills that would help them in employment… I can’t see how anyone can replace him.”

IMG_6280When news of his death first reached the school, students gathered to create a large memorial outside his classroom, making drawings, writing letters and bringing flowers and pictures. Some constructed a huge poster that described him as majestic, friendly, energetic, remarkable and intelligent. Among the tributes: a drawing of the boys soccer team with a trophy and the words, “we won NCS for you”.

Both students and teachers continue to deal with their shock and sadness as his absence becomes more real.

“He was part of the Richmond High culture,” said school Principal Jose DeLeon. “It’s really sad.”

Jamey Jenna, another teacher at Richmond, described him as a person who never really had anything bad to say about anyone.

“He was a fun person that never stopped enjoying his job, he never got angry and continued his art life his whole life,” she said.

Ohlmann elaborated on Ferrari’s creativity, which didn’t stop with the visual arts.

“He was a painter, a drummer and a DJ for parties,” Olhmann said. “He would exhibit his art and was once a part of a punk band. We would have long conversations about music… he was always of high interest and new ideas, of how to make things better.”

My own favorite memory of Ferrari comes from 2010, when the school held a fundraising event in which teachers would get hit in the face with cream pies for money. My best friend and fellow Richmond alumni Liliana Ontiveros paid $25 to pie him, but Ferrari was the last teacher to get pied and looked a bit nervous. Ontiveros smashed the first one onto his face, and after three more he became unrecognizable, his face covered in whip cream. But, through that, you could still see a huge smile as he gave a thumbs-up.

“That’s what I remember most about him,” said Ontiveros. “That he had a great sense of humor, and even though he sometimes got upset he would quickly be happy again.”

In my high school yearbook, Ferrari described me as a star in the school universe. But, as I talked to the students and staff at Richmond High, I realized more how he was the star of the school’s universe, and whom many of us will forever remember, miss, appreciate and admire.


Uncle Sam Wants DACA Recipients to Avoid Tax Scams

DACA recipient Ana Alcantara, 22, was misinformed by her tax preparer and ended up paying an unnecessary penalty.

DACA recipient Ana Alcantara, 22, was misinformed by her tax preparer and ended up paying an unnecessary penalty.

A new scam targeting immigrants has gotten the attention of Uncle Sam.

Health advocates are concerned that tax preparers have been misinforming, and some even outright scamming, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiaries by making them pay a penalty for not having health insurance. On Wednesday, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) released a statement clarifying that there is no such penalty for undocumented immigrants or for DACA recipients. DACA is a program announced by President Obama in 2012 that gives temporary protection against deportation to undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children.

“Advocates have been asking [the Obama administration] for a month to provide [tax preparers] some clarity,” said Angel Padilla, a health policy analyst at the Washington, D.C. office of the National Immigration Law Center. Up until now, he said, “there was not something official we [had that we] could point to from IRS that makes this clear. Now we do.”

The IRS website now reflects the clarity that advocates have been pressuring it to spell out:Individuals who are not U.S. citizens or nationals and are not lawfully present in the United States are exempt from the individual shared responsibility provision. For this purpose, an immigrant with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status is considered not lawfully present and therefore is eligible for this exemption. An individual may qualify for this exemption even if he or she has a social security number (SSN).

The confusion arises from a policy under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that requires nearly all Americans to have some form of health insurance, or face a penalty. That coverage could come from job-based insurance; an individual health plan bought through government-run health care exchanges or elsewhere; Medicaid (known as Medi-Cal in California), a government-funded health insurance program for low-income people; or Medicare, a health insurance program for those who are over 65 or have a disability.

For 2014, the first year the policy went into effect, the penalty for failing to get such coverage was $95 per adult and $47.50 per child, or 1 percent of taxable household income, whichever was greater. The penalty will increase in subsequent years.

But the requirement to have health insurance does not extend to undocumented immigrants or DACA beneficiaries. That’s because they are not lawful residents. DACA is only a benefit eligibility category, not an immigration status.

It is a distinction that neither the Department of Health and Human Services nor the Internal Revenue Service made clear on their websites until now, Padilla said.

“That lack of clarity trickled down to tax preparers,” he said.

Brenda Ordaz, a representative of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and a health navigator for the state’s health insurance marketplace, has seen the confusion first hand. A DACA recipient herself, Ordaz says other DACA recipients have been coming to her, asking why their tax preparers were making them pay penalties for not having health insurance.

She said one tax preparer asked a DACA client to pay her the penalty directly and in cash, rather than asking the IRS to deduct it from his refund.

“I’m sure some preparers are doing this to undocumented people as well,” Ordaz said.

Los Angeles resident and DACA beneficiary Ana Alcantara, 22, says her tax preparer told her she had to pay the penalty when he discovered she didn’t have health insurance. She reluctantly agreed to have the $95 deducted from her nearly $850 tax refund.

Alcantara didn’t know she was exempt from the requirement. She also didn’t know that she could have enrolled in California’s state-funded Medi-Cal program as soon as she received DACA in 2013. Even though DACA recipients are banned from accessing any federal programs, they qualify for state-funded Medi-Cal – something that many aren’t aware of.

Meanwhile, tax preparers themselves say they don’t always know if their client is a DACA recipient. One tax preparer acknowledged that she had filed tax returns for a number of clients that included the penalty because they had failed to tell her that they were DACA beneficiaries.

“It’s hard to know because a lot of clients don’t open up,” explained Azucena Lopez, co-owner of Gonzales Tax Services in Madera, Calif. She said she had assumed they were lawful residents when they told her they had a work permit and social security number.

Since she became aware that her clients were DACA recipients — and were exempt from the penalty — Lopez says she has been filing amended tax returns. Alcantara’s tax preparer also has agreed to file an amendment so Alcantara can get her $95 back.

Read more about health care and DACA on the National Immigration Law Center’s website,

Art Center Tours Unveil its Possibilities

Photo Essay, Malcolm Marshall

Children and families explored their creative spirits together by seeing and making art at a bilingual art tour hosted by the Richmond Art Center March 7.

Lauren Ari, a teacher at the art center, led the group of about 10 on a guided tour of the center’s galleries, along with a hands-on art-making activity. Children’s ages ranged from 3 to 8.

“We go through all the different studios,” Ari said, “so they’re in the metal studio and the painting studio and the weaving and clay… and we talk about all the different ways of making art.”

The group consisted of all first-time visitors, said Ari, who noted that many Richmond resident still need to learn about the art center and all it has to offer. She said she hopes the monthly tours, presented in conjunction with the nearby Richmond Public Library, will bring more people to the center.

“People can get some books, then come over here and see an art show or take a class,” Ari said.

Local resident Rich Robb, who attended with his wife and daughter, said they had never been inside in the center until the tour, and found himself pleasantly surprised.

“The best part of today is seeing all the possibilities here, for classes and to be able to make things,” Robb said. “The fact they have free classes is excellent. It’s a good place for the community.”

Ari agreed.

“It can be intimidating,” she said. “The tour is a way to make art come alive for everyone. This is their art center, this is our community’s art center and it’s free. You can come and see a show for free. We have classes and scholarships. It’s a way to bring everybody in.”

For more information on the tours, visit


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New Charter Schools to Open in Fall

By Nancy DeVille

Two new charter schools focusing on technology, high graduation rates and college readiness will open near Hilltop Mall this fall, and are taking applications now.

Aspire Public Schools will open Aspire Richmond Technology Academy with an enrollment of 244 students in grades K-5 and Aspire Richmond California College Preparatory will enroll 280 students in grades 6-12 for the first year.

A 135,000 square foot building is under construction on Hilltop Mall Road, just across the street from Wal-Mart in Hilltop Mall.

“We like to go to places where families need some high quality options and we are really excited about being part of the landscape in Richmond,” said Kimi Kean, Bay Area superintendent of Aspire Public Schools. “We’ve been in communication with a lot of families who really want some different alternatives where they can send their kids. “We’ve gotten a great response so far.”

Aspire officials say their small class sizes, technology emphasis, variety of advanced placement offerings, high graduation rates and track record of 100 percent of graduating seniors accepted to four-year colleges are attractive to parents.

The school will use curriculum aligned with Common Core state standards and to earn a high school diploma students must pass five college courses. Aspire partners with UC Berkeley to connect students with mentors and provide opportunities to audit classes and summer sessions, which are held at the university campus.

“When we receive students in kindergarten we start talking and working with families about college as the end goal,” Kean said. “Our approach is that all of our students are going to college.”

Aspire received final approval from the West Contra Costa school board in December. The district currently has seven charter schools operating in Richmond.

The schools are under construction on a site that was once home to an Albertsons grocery store. Most recently there was a bank and a few businesses operating on the property before they were razed to make room for the school.

“Some were surprised it was not a grocery store, but a school,” said Cesar Zepeda, president of the newly formed Hilltop District Neighborhood Council. “But a lot of neighbors are glad to see something being built and not just vacant buildings because that area has been undeveloped for quite some time.”

Aspire Public Schools was launched in 1998 when longtime public school educator Don Shalvey joined forces with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reed Hastings. Nineteen years later, Aspire serves 14,000 students, predominantly from low-income backgrounds, in 38 schools throughout California and in Memphis, Tenn.

In the Bay Area, there are 10 schools in Oakland, Berkeley and East Palo Alto. Aspire holds about three more weeks of classes than a traditional district calendar.

“We believe kids need more time and support to really reach these high expectations around college readiness,” Kean said.

Since roughly 40 percent of the students at Aspire’s Berkeley campus commute from Richmond, school officials have decided to close that location when the Hilltop facility opens this fall. The Berkeley campus has an enrollment of 560 with 48 percent Hispanic and African American respectively, 1 percent Pacific Islander, 1 percent Asian American and 1 percent Caucasian, according to the school’s website. Eighty-four percent of the students come from low-income families, officials said.

Aspire is currently accepting applications and if the number of students who wish to attend exceeds the school’s capacity, attendance will be determined by a public random lottery drawing.

To learn more: For more information or to apply to Aspire Public Schools, visit