Changing Kids' Lives By Changing The School Environment

Civil Rights Activist
I met David Rosenthal, a retired criminal attorney from Berkeley, California, after hearing about his startup charter school. "At 17 or 18-years-old, for reasons that are still a mystery to me, I got involved in the Civil Rights Movement in 1959, beginning with picketing Woolworths lunch counter." David became a criminal and civil rights lawyer a few years later.

Tale Of Two Catastrophes
"I joined a law firm in Richmond, California run by Henry Ramsey Jr., the only African American in my law school class where we'd become best friends. My law practice was primarily criminal and civil rights cases."

Disaster 1
In July of 1988 there was a gigantic fire at the Safeway distribution center in Richmond, California, an economically and racially struggling community. The fire grew to the size of 11 football fields. The fire department couldn't put it out and decided to contain it and let it burn itself out. The result was smoke and debris that drifted over Richmond, and a large number of people became sick.

While other lawyers thought it was a worthless case, David filed a lawsuit for the 10,000 people of Richmond harmed by the smoke, and settled the case for $50 million on their behalf. Each individual named in the lawsuit received approximately $5,000. The minors' funds were sequestered until they were 18.

Disaster 2
Shortly after the Safeway fire there was a chemical explosion at General Chemical, a company that provided chemicals to Chevron in Richmond. After the Safeway settlement every eager lawyer in America descended on Richmond to exploit this explosion. There were local lawyers as well as the class action lawyers who were self-described experts in explosion cases.

Managed Crisis
David managed the 200 lawyers involved in the case and the number of clients reached 70,000. The final negotiated settlement provided for a community benefit fund, which eventually grew to $10 million.

A What If Scenario
This was when David remembered his original reasons for becoming a lawyer. In the 1990s he'd noticed that black families in Midwestern American cities, comprised of 60-year-old grandmothers, mothers around 30, and teenagers, were ubiquitous, and that many black men were either in jail, in the criminal justice system or on the street. David didn't believe this was how it had to be, even though the ravages of 300 years of slavery and American capitalism had taken their toll. He felt a shift in the paradigm was possible by improving the educational opportunities for African American children.

Changing The Paradigm
David concluded that black families were so destroyed, that by 9 or 10 children were already severely damaged. He felt the only way to change this paradigm was to create a school beginning with 4-year-olds or younger. David believed in his heart that if young children attended a high quality school environment eight hours a day they'd have the opportunity to grow. And if those children could remain for subsequent years the school could foster a mentality to succeed in American society.

The Goal
Richmond College Prep opened its doors in 2004. Could a rich kids-type school change the trajectory of poor children's lives? While this was David's belief, was it achievable? David used a portion of the $10 million from the lawsuit's community benefit fund to start Richmond College Prep after creating a nonprofit foundation.

There were twenty children in the first Kindergarten class, which grew to forty the next year, and the number of students has increased beyond original expectations with the addition of each subsequent grade. The current enrollment is 450 children, and there are 400 more on a waiting list. The student body is 100 percent black and brown children from a very underserved neighborhood of Richmond.

Richmond College Prep goes up to sixth grade. It recently won an award from the State of California as an outstanding school. In 2014 it had the highest academic scores on statewide tests of any school in the city of Richmond. There have been three graduating classes so far and nearly every graduate has continued on to a quality middle school. What struck me when I visited the school was the quiet in the classrooms and the degree to which the students were engaged. It was clear every teacher's agenda was to change the outcome,

Proof Positive
David wanted to prove that it was possible to educate poor children at a tender age in a healthy school environment, and that this would change their outcomes. Did the problem have to continue? Could the children's outcomes improve? He simply saw this as a problem that begged to be solved.

Proof Negative
He'd noticed that President Johnson's 1964 poverty program hadn't worked, and that the same problems existed decades later even after billions of dollars had been spent in inner cities. Sadly, 45 years of effort by the Federal government had accomplished little.

David had all the financial resources available to accomplish his lofty goal, but he poured much more than money into this project. He realized he'd spend the next 20 years, perhaps his last 20, proving that an impoverished environment is in fact the powerful influence that most social scientists have long believed it is, but that the outcome could be different with a creative commitment to change.

The Reward
David insists he did this work for self-serving reasons. He wanted to accomplish this specific goal. He wanted to achieve success for personal reasons, and he believed his strategy was the only possible way to make it happen. But his work turned out to be far more rewarding than he'd originally thought.

David draws a comparison between being a criminal lawyer and starting the school because he did both to accomplish difficult goals while fighting for the underdog. He also compares the feelings of self-satisfaction from getting a not guilty verdict and creating a successful school. He didn't know with certainty that either would work.

While David insists he's not a hero, the grateful parents of 450 Richmond College Prep students would disagree.

Richmond College Prep's website is

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