The fourth-grade students in teacher Cheri Olmstead’s classroom at Korematsu Elementary hosted a special guest on Wednesday morning — Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who came over from Sacramento to chat about topics ranging from acid rain to the pupils’ college plans.
Olmstead tapped a family connection to bring in her celebrity guest; her daughter, Tracy Austin, is involved with Newsom’s current re-election campaign.
Korematsu has earned a reputation for paying particular attention to social justice issues. The school is named for Fred T. Korematsu, who waged a long legal challenge to the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, and the students celebrate him each year with special events relating to civil liberties and the Constitution.
The school’s website prominently features one of Korematsu’s trademark phrases: “If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.”
The students in Olmstead’s class greeted Newsom with a colorful poster showing the lieutenant governor dressed in a Superman-style outfit, with the phrase “Social Justice Superhero” in large letters. (The poster referenced Newsom’s early support for marriage equality in 2004, when he was mayor of San Francisco.)
The kids also sang the Korematsu school song for Newsom; it features the repeated refrain “What can one little person do?” and cites historic examples like Nelson Mandela and Korematsu, who challenged their governments and prevailed after long and sometimes lonely battles for justice.
Newsom talked with the fourth-graders about their college plans, and expressed surprise at how many said they wanted to attend well-known private universities. Newsom reminded the students that as lieutenant governor, he is a member of the University of California Board of Regents, and urged them to consider UC Berkeley, UC Davis and other campuses in the renowned system. He mentioned that he graduated from Santa Clara University.
Newsom also spoke about the challenges he had experienced with dyslexia during his years in elementary school, and that he “did poorly on the SAT” exam when he was preparing for college. He reminded them that “a lot of people are unique in the way they learn.”
The lieutenant governor also addressed the topics of acid rain and climate change, which Korematsu science teacher Sarita Cooper had been discussing with students as he arrived.
Wednesday’s visit was also a glimpse into the personal family future for the 46-year-old politician: Newsom is the father of a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son who will become fourth-graders over the coming decade.
While Newsom is running for a second term as lieutenant governor, it is widely anticipated that he will be a candidate for governor in 2018. (Gov. Jerry Brown would be termed out in 2018, assuming that Brown wins re-election this year.)
Parent Jackie Legg, whose daughter Laura is in Olmstead’s class, said Newsom’s visit was “a great surprise” for the students, who were clearly excited to be hosting the high-ranking politician.
Olmstead told The Enterprise she began her teaching career in Arkansas in 1971, when tensions were running high in the community because of a court-ordered desegregation program. She observed that she is concluding her career (she will retire in June) at Korematsu Elementary, “so I’ve done the school circle of civil rights” through her 30-plus years in the classroom.
Parent Madhavi Chilamkur, whose son Siddhartha is in Olmstead’s class, credited “Ms. O for making great readers out of her students.”
— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.