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'We Had a Mission': Longtime Richmond Teacher Reflects on Once-Stellar High School

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A white man with glasses in a black hoodie stands in a classroom with students seated at desk writing on pieces of paper.
Retired teacher Mike Peritz stands in Steve Mainini's art classroom at John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond on May 18, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

O

n any given day of the week, you can find retired teacher Mike Peritz on the campus of John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond. Peritz is 79 years old now, and he still speaks with the enthusiasm and optimism he had when he was a 24-year-old rookie on the founding faculty of the school back in 1967.

“I have to say that in my 35 years of teaching, I don’t think I ever had a bad day,” said Peritz. “I always had a good time and I tried to make sure everyone else had a good time. I still believe that enhances learning.”

More than two decades after he officially retired, Peritz is still on a mission to lift the sagging fortunes of a once stellar inner city high school where he taught English, social sciences and a pioneering food services training program. He isn’t paid anymore, but Peritz is still at Kennedy High as a volunteer, mentor, advocate, educational guru and fundraiser.

A white man with glasses in a black hoodie talks to a teenager wearing a gray hoodie with wired ear buds in his ear in a classroom.
Retired teacher Mike Peritz speaks with Jeffrey Lopez, one of the student shop assistants, in Benjamin Carpenter’s welding class at John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond on May 18, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Mike Peritz is Mr. Kennedy,” said Kibby Kleiman, the principal at Pinole Valley High School, who spent nearly 20 years of his own career previously at Kennedy High. “If anyone deserves credit for keeping the heartbeat and legacy of Kennedy High alive, then it’s him.”

So, what is that legacy?

A legacy of innovation and integration

Back in 1967, what was then called the Richmond Unified School District opened a brand-new campus designed as a model of innovation. They called it John F. Kennedy High to honor the young president who was assassinated four years earlier.

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Kennedy High was built like a college campus — each department had its own building and opened out to the fresh air. The school was designed for flexible scheduling, team-teaching and big chunks of unstructured time that students could use to work on projects. It was a model that encouraged students to use their non-classroom time wisely and to take responsibility for their own learning.

A look down a hallway with person accessing a locker in the distance.
Letters covering windows in a hallway spell out ‘Respect’ at John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond, on May 18, 2023. On the other side of the hall, a school employee removes graffiti. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Everything that was there had a certain creativity, a certain flexibility, a certain intention,” recalls Peritz.

Something else was happening too. In what might be considered a special moment in history, Kennedy High was fully integrated by race and class after a vote by the RUSD school board in 1968. A voluntary bussing program brought kids from all over the district to attend Kennedy. The children of professors went to school with the kids of pipefitters.

“We might have been the only school in the country where affluent white parents schemed of ways to get their kids into a school that had lots of minorities because we had some great programs and very good teachers,” said another retired teacher, David Dansky (PDF).

Dansky led Kennedy High’s nationally ranked speech and debate program. His graduating seniors were routinely admitted to some of the top colleges and universities in the country, including Harvard, Stanford, MIT and the UC campuses.

A vintage photo from a page in a yearbook of a white man with glasses wearing a tie, white shirt and vest.
A photo of teacher Mike Peritz in a John F. Kennedy High School yearbook from the 1970s. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Meanwhile, Peritz, a champion of vocational education, led the school’s Food Education and Service Training program known as FEAST. It was supported by federal and local grants, as well as the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.

To support the FEAST program, the school building’s architect designed Kennedy with a 24-seat restaurant laid out in a classroom with a specially designed kitchen. The FEAST program taught students the details of planning, cooking and serving meals, preparing and writing menus, shopping, shipping, sanitation, business English as well as accounting.

“We were so successful with our training program that by 1975, 100% of my senior students had some kind of job before they went out into the world,” said Peritz.

Kennedy High’s FEAST program became a national model, attracting visitors from around the country seeking to replicate its success.

A display of awards and trophies. One award in particular reads "Scholastic Journalist Award."
School trophies sit in a glass case in the office at John F. Kennedy High School. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Overall, Kennedy High proved that a racially integrated inner city high school with superb academics, athletics and vocational education could succeed. The school had sufficient funding and plenty of support from parents in the community.

There is a word that Peritz and his teaching peers at Kennedy High use to describe that period when everything seemed possible at the school. They invoke the myth surrounding President John F. Kennedy: Camelot. It refers to the mythical court of King Arthur as compared to the young President Kennedy’s administration, both periods of optimism and opportunity.

“Camelot is really a metaphor for perfection or idealism,” said Peritz. “The students who came together and weren’t supposed to get along, well, everybody was uplifted by each other. So that was our Camelot.”

But anyone familiar with the history of public education in California knows that that period of optimism and innovation would not last.

A challenging decade

Starting in the late 1970s, a series of cascading events over a decade slowly changed Kennedy High and not for the better.

In 1978, California voters approved Proposition 13, which cut property taxes thereby decimating a main funding source for public schools. As local property tax revenues dried up, a long series of teacher and staff cutbacks began. The school district also eliminated the voluntary bussing program that brought students in from affluent neighborhoods.

Another economic earthquake occurred between 1980 and 1983: a loss of manufacturing jobs that sustained working class African American and Latino families. In conjunction, the crack epidemic swept through neighborhoods (PDF) like South Richmond. President Ronald Reagan called it “an uncontrolled fire.”

By the late 1980s, student enrollment in Richmond public schools declined as the baby boom kids graduated. And many more affluent parents, often white, stopped sending their kids to Kennedy High, instead using their privilege and knowledge of the system to transfer their children to El Cerrito High. Waking up to the fact that everything they had built was in jeopardy, Peritz and other teachers wrote an open letter to parents residing within Kennedy High’s boundaries in hopes of staunching the exodus. The letter, written in 1987, told parents:

This year we are delighted that five students have been accepted to Stanford, three to Harvard, three to M.I.T., many to Cal and others to Princeton, Cornell, Yale, UCLA, et al…If positive learning were not taking place at JFK right now, these successes in educating our college bound would not have happened. Stanford and Harvard demand performance, not myth.

But their plea didn’t work. A few years later, the district, now known as West Contra Costa County Unified School District, fell into bankruptcy. The state stepped in to manage the district. Kennedy High never really recovered. By the end of the 1990s, budget cutbacks, bureaucratic meddling and a demoralized faculty led to the end of the speech and debate and FEAST programs.

Peritz refuses to give up on Kennedy High

After his retirement in 2001, Mike Peritz shifted into another gear as a champion for Kennedy High and its feeder schools, many of which serve a population that often could use more support than the district provides. Many students are English-language learners, many families are struggling to make ends meet and test scores are often some of the lowest in the district.

Peritz co-founded the Eagle Foundation to raise money for Kennedy High. The foundation later folded into a college scholarship program for needy students all over Richmond.

In 2010, when the district threatened to close Kennedy High due to declining enrollment, Peritz led a community campaign to keep the school open, arguing that it was still a vital institution in South Richmond. (The school remained open after the city of Richmond agreed to give the district approximately $7 million over five years.)

It is sometimes difficult to keep up with all of Peritz’s projects. In 2013, he co-created “the Music at Kennedy Committee” to revive musical instruction at the school. He conducts semi-regular tours of the school, especially for city leaders, to make sure the community understands what is happening on campus. He also arranges tours for elementary school students to familiarize them with the high school they hopefully will attend. Peritz is also a fierce opponent of charter schools, which he says are expanding within the district at the expense of students in schools like Kennedy High.

“We love Mike around here,” said Principal Jarod Scott. “Sometimes you have to be concerned about somebody’s agenda [working inside the school], but with Mike he’s always transparent. He comes to me and says, ‘Here’s what I’d like to do; let me know if it conflicts with what you want.’”

A white man with glasses in a black hoodie talks with a Black man in a collared shirt at a desk with trophies behind them.
Retired teacher Mike Peritz speaks with Principal Jarod Scott in the office at John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond on May 18, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For the past four years, Peritz has devoted much of his attention to Kennedy High’s welding classes, a key component of the school’s Career Technical Education program. When a former welding instructor passed away, Peritz led an effort to recruit his replacement. The new teacher, Ben Carpenter, had never taught in public schools before. He said of Peritz, “This guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, I’m taking this math class so that I can help your students with the math.’ And I kind of looked at him and was tilting my head like a dog, like what?! What?!”

Carpenter says Peritz has been a mentor and huge source of support as he’s learned the ropes of teaching at Kennedy.

A white man with glasses in a black hoodie talks to another white man in a black beanie hat and black hoodie in a welding classroom.
Welding teacher Benjamin Carpenter talks with retired teacher Mike Peritz in the welding classroom at John F. Kennedy High School. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“He said, basically, ‘I’m working for you. You tell me what you need,’” said Carpenter, shaking his head at the memory. “Mike is a character. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as dedicated to anything as this guy is to this school in this community and these students. It’s incredible.”

As for what keeps him going long after all of his peers have settled into retirement, Peritz slaps his forearms.

“I have a thicker skin than most people,” he said. “You know, same house, same woman, same kids, same car. I try to maintain things and hang with it.”

He pauses, then adds: “No, seriously speaking. I hang with it because we had a mission when I came here and I’m still flying that mission.”

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Richard Gonzales is a member of the JFK High Class of 1972 and a retired NPR correspondent.

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