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Archive for March, 2010

Stupendous student scientists score invites to state and international fairs

By Theresa Harrington

More than a dozen Antioch, Concord and Walnut Creek students earned honors for their scientific savvy on Sunday at Contra Costa County’s fifth annual Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburg.

At the event, held at Los Medanos College, judges selected four students who will represent the county May 9-14 at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose. They included two Senior Division Grand Award winners and the top-ranked team.

Here is the complete list of winners, with grade level, school and project.

Senior Division Grand Award winners:

William Thornbury, grade 10, De La Salle High School, “Passive Solar Air Cooling/Heating Using Geological Insulation”

Alec Howard, 12th grade, Deer Valley High, “One Dollar Auction”

University of California ISEF Grant Award for the highest-scoring two-person team project:

Jasmine Gajeton and Jessica Chiang, 12th grade, Deer Valley High School, “The testing of the Zea maize, Carica papyaya L, and Avena sativa for genetically modified genes on a real time PCR system.”

Junior Division Grand Award Winners:

Greg Hudgene, 7th grade, North Creek Academy, “Can ‘Wii’ Make You Smarter”

Ningning Hu, 9th grade, Clayton Valley High School, “CO2: A Green Thumb?”

In addition, eleven students were selected to go to the state fair

 They were:

Greg Hudgens, 7th grade, North Creek Academy, “Can Wii Make You Smarter”

Jared Ericksen, 7th grade, North Creek Academy, “Yawnology: The Study of the Contagious Yawn”

Jake Forrester, grade 8, Holy Rosary School, “From Garbage to Energy”

Caroline Lamoureux, grade 8, North Creek Academy, “The Effect of Weight Distribution on Bridges”

Conner L’Hommedieu, grade 8, North Creek Academy, “Are Hybrid Cars really better for the environment”

Andrew Peacok, grade 8, North Creek Academy, “The Affect of Temperature on Magnets”

Ningning Hu, grade 9, Clayton Valley High School, “CO2: A Green Thumb?”

Kevin Bibera, grade 10, De La Salle High School, “White Tea’s Affects on Bone”

William Thornbury, grade 10, De La Salle High School, “Passive Solar Air Cooling/Heating Using Geological Insulation”

Matthew Wallace, grade 10, De La Salle High School, “The Effects of Organic Catalysts on Microbial Degredation of Petrolum in Saline H20”

Yasamin Haider, grade 11, Deer Valley High School, “The Relationship Between the Distance and Size of Globular Clusters”


Jasmine Gajeton and Jessica Chiang, grade 12, Deer Valley High School, “The Testing of the Zea Maize, Carica papyaya L, and Avena sativa for genetically modified genes on a real time PCR system.”

Alec Howard, grade 12, Deer Valley High School, “One Dollar Auction”

Allie Miller, grade 7, (school not listed), “Tap Water vs. Rain Water’s Effect on Plants”

Michael Baltz, grade 10, De La Salle High School, “Mitigation of Carbon Dioxide in Car Exhaust”

Brendan Bongi, grade 10, De La Salle High School, “The Effect of a Tailfin on the Efficiency of a Tidal Turbine”

Congratulations and good luck in May! If you went to the fair, what was your favorite project and why?

For more information about the county fair, visit

Posted on Tuesday, March 30th, 2010
Under: Contra Costa County, Education, Theresa Harrington | No Comments »

California needs much stronger buy-in to win Race to the Top funds


By Theresa Harrington

When California submitted its Race to the Top application, state officials were confident that sweeping legislation and promised district support gave them a fighting chance at winning the much-needed funding.

But today, they learned that California’s application ranked in the bottom half of the 41 submitted to the U.S. Department of Education — far below where it needed to be to make the first round of finalists — and woefully lacking enough statewide support to persuade federal officials to invest as much as $700 million for massive reforms in the state.

Like all the other states that lost out, California has the opportunity to reapply for a second round of funding by June 1.

But lukewarm support from teachers’ unions may doom any chance of receiving the funds. Little more than a quarter of teachers’ unions in the districts that signed onto the application endorsed the plan.

In Tennessee, on the other hand, 93 percent of teachers’ unions supported the state’s application, which won up to $502 million in the competition. California teachers don’t like provisions that could tie teacher evaluations to student performance, jeopardizing their tenure.

State officials are still reviewing comments from five reviewers who praised some elements of the application, but criticized it in other areas. The complete results are at:

Here’s how California, which ranked 27th, stacked up against its competition. Applicants are listed by rank, state and score out of 500 possible:


1 Delaware: 454.6 — won as much as $107 million

2 Tennessee: 444.2 — won up to $502 million


3 Georgia: 433.6

4 Florida: 431.4

5 Illinois: 423.8

6 South Carolina: 423.2

7 Pennsylvania: 420.0

8 Rhode Island: 419.0

9 Kentucky: 418.8

10 Ohio: 418.6

11 Louisiana: 418.2

12 North Carolina: 414.0

13 Massachusetts: 411.4

14 Colorado: 409.6

15 New York: 408.6

16 Washington, DC: 402.4


17 Arkansas: 394.4

18 New Jersey: 387

19 Utah: 379.4

20 Minnesota: 375.0

21 Michigan: 366.2

22 Hawaii: 364.6

23 Indiana: 355.6

24 Iowa: 346

25 Connecticut: 344.6

26 Wisconsin: 341.2

27 California: 336.8

28 Idaho: 331

29 Kansas: 329.6

30 New Mexico: 325.2

31 Virginia: 324.8

32 Wyoming: 318.6

33 Missouri: 301.4

34 Oklahoma: 294.6

35 Oregon: 292.6

36 West Virginia: 292.4

37 Alabama: 291.2

38 New Hampshire: 271.2

39 Nebraska: 247.4

40 Arizona: 240.2

41 South Dakota: 135.8

Do you think California should apply for Phase 2 funding? If so, how can it improve its application? If not, why?


Posted on Monday, March 29th, 2010
Under: California, Education, Race to the Top, Theresa Harrington | No Comments »

Super spellers spend stressful, suspenseful Saturday


By Theresa Harrington

WALNUT CREEK — Two sixth-graders showed off their spelling prowess this afternoon, as they faced off for more than 17 minutes in the final round of the Contra Costa Spelling Bee.

For those who missed the action and wonder whether you’d be able to match the wits of winner Shilpa Rao and second-place finisher Celina Dioso, check out this rundown of their grueling go-rounds. To win, one of them had to spell two words correctly in a row.

Here’s how the competition unfolded:

Shilpa correctly spelled “rheological,” an adjective meaning “of or relating to the phenomena of flowing matter.”

To be honest, that would’ve stumped me.

Then, both girls misspelled “lecithin,” a food additive. (This appears a lot on product labels, I’ve noticed.)

Next, they each struck out on “xylophilous,” which means “growing or living in or on wood.” Do you think that includes people who live in wooden houses?

Celina also had trouble spelling “sapajou,” a long-tailed South American monkey. Shilpa got it right, then stumbled on “impetus,” which is a driving or impelling force. Celina also missed this word. Both spelled it with a “d” instead of a “t,” probably because it’s pronouced like “impidus.”

The pair also missed “ecesis,” which refers to the naturalization of a plant or animal in a new habitat.

Things heated up after that, with the girls spelling multiple words correctly, going back and forth with solid hits suggestive of a tense ping pong or tennis match.

Shilpa nailed “canape,” an appetizer. Celina aced “obelisk,” a monolithic pillar. Shilpa perfected “pinnacle,” the lofty top of a hill. Celina tipped the scale with “testudinal,” related to a tortoise. Shilpa countered with “crotalic,” relating to rattlesnakes. Celia punched back with “pugilant,” which is related to boxing.

This dizzying streak ended when both girls misspelled “unau,” a two-toed sloth. It figures a sloth would slow things down.

Celina was unable to recover. The word “quila” — meaning a grass from South America — brought her down.

Shilpa rose to the occasion, correctly spelling “quila” and then cementing her championship win with “iridescence,” a play of colors producing rainbow effects.

But no matter where they finished, everyone appeared to be happy after the competition. They all seemed to realize it was an honor to have made it so far.

The top 10 finishers received trophies for themselves and their schools.

They were:

1. Shilpa Rao, grade 6, Charlotte Wood Middle School in San Ramon

2. Celina Dioso, grade 6, St. Francis of Assisi School in Concord

3. Sejal Jain, grade 8, Gale Ranch Middle School in San Ramon

4. Zoe Tacderas, Holy Rosary School in Antioch

5. Liam O’Neill, grade 4, Monte Gardens Elementary in Concord

6. Aileen Converse, grade 5, Homebuilders home school

7. Allison Koontz, grade 8, William Bristow Middle School in Brentwood

8. Vishal Jain, grade 7, Dorris-Eaton School in Walnut Creek

9. Felice Asuncion Lugos, grade 5, Murwood Elementary in Walnut Creek

10. Marnie Lowe, grade 8, Pine Valley Middle School in Concord

Shilpa will fly to Washington DC to represent Contra Costa County at the National Spelling Bee, which is June 2-4.

Sejal and Zoe will participate in the State Junior High Championships on May 8 in San Rafael. Celina and Liam will advance to the State Elementary Championships on May 15 in Rohnert Park.

If you want more  information about the National Spelling Bee, visit


Posted on Saturday, March 27th, 2010
Under: Contra Costa County, Education, Theresa Harrington | No Comments »

MDUSD may not chase “carrots” dangled by state

The Contra Costa Times “On Assignment” blog is now allowing Times education reporters to provide the community with background information on education issues in Contra Costa County, links to relevant stories and other details we can’t fit into the paper.

First up: “persistently lowest-achieving schools” in the Mt. Diablo district.

The board plans to hold a community workshop about its lowest-achieving schools in mid-May. Schools on the list are: Bel Air Elementary, Meadow Homes Elementary, Rio Vista Elementary, Shore Acres Elementary, Glenbrook Middle School and Oak Grove Middle School.

Trustee Gary Eberhart and teachers’ union President Mike Noce both expressed concerns Tuesday about the state’s selection of these schools. The district has not yet decided whether to apply for federal School Improvement Grants ranging from $50,000 to $2 million a year for three years to implement one of four interventions: close the school, replace the principal and at least half the staff, replace the principal and make other changes such as increasing instructional time, or reopen the school under new management, such as a charter.

“The board expects us to create a plan,” Superintendent Steven Lawrence told the Times. “I’m meeting with principals. Doing nothing isn’t an option. But there is an option of creating a plan that doesn’t exactly meet one of the four options given by the state.”

He said he has talked to officials in other districts who share Mt. Diablo’s view that replacing the principal may not be the best answer, if schools are making gains.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, teachers’ union President Mike Noce asked trustees to involve teachers in the plans for the schools. He pointed out that all six of the schools have a high percentage of low-income students and those whose first language is not English.

Noce said the California Teachers Association is asking to waive Meadow Homes Elementary and Oak Grove Middle School in Concord from the list because they are in the second year of reforms under the Quality Education Investment Act. Rio Vista Elementary in Bay Point and Glenbrook Middle School in Concord have each received new principals during the past two years, he said.

According to the state Department of Education, schools that have replaced principals in the last two years do not have to replace them again.

Trustee Gary Eberhart said it would be “silly” to close schools or replace principals that had recently assumed leadership of their campuses.

“We’re going to look at: What are the challenges at the schools? What are we doing already? And, what do we need to do to improve and do better?” he said. “It’s going to be a systematic approach. If our approach fits into (the state’s) requirements and that provides us additional dollars, that would be great. But if it doesn’t, I think we need to stop chasing carrots that are dangled in front of us.”

Although state law requires schools on the list to choose one of the four options, it doesn’t specify a deadline. Federal law requires schools that apply for grants to choose one of the options, but it doesn’t mandate that campus seek the funding.

Some parents don’t want to wait for the district to come up with a plan before voicing their opinions. Bay Point community leaders and parents are holding a meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 25 at the Bay Point Church, 2801 Camino Andres in Bay Point, to discuss their schools with district officials.

Elsewhere in the district, the parent advocate group MDUSD VOICE blogged March 18 about “A Serious Missed Communication Opportunity,” emphasizing the need for communication from the superintendent and board regarding plans for the six schools.

How do you think the district should address its lowest-achieving schools?

~ Theresa Harrington, education reporter


Posted on Wednesday, March 24th, 2010
Under: Bay Point, Concord, Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | 1 Comment »

NUMMI workers in Fremont overwhelmingly approve shutdown agreement

By George Avalos

NUMMI workers have overwhelmingly approved a shutdown agreement that gives an average severance package of $54,000 to union members and makes the Fremont auto factory’s closure within weeks a certainty.
The approval of the deal came Wednesday night, according to two top officials with the United Auto Workers Local 2244. The UAW unit represents 3,700 union workers at the 4,700-employee vehicle plant.
“The tentative agreement has been ratified,” Javier Contreras, chairman of the UAW bargaining committee, said in a text message.
The plant is scheduled to be closed by April 1. The New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. factory is a joint venture between Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp.
About 90 percent of the UAW members approved the severance package, while 10 percent rejected it, Sergio Santos, president of UAW Local 2244, said in a text message.
Despite the approval, some employees blasted a deal provision that provides only $21,175 of that amount for 300 employees who are on disability leave.
The top range of the severance package, typically for union workers who have been employed for 25 years at the auto factory, is expected to be about $68,500, according to information supplied by people familiar with the proposal.
The average settlement amount — based on 15 years of service — is roughly $53,500.
The minimum severance amount is $21,175, said top officials with the United Auto Workers.
“We are not happy with the package,” Santos said Wednesday during a news conference. “The money will never replace the loss of our jobs. We’re going to be thrown out on the street.”
Separate decisions to abandon the factory, first by GM and then by Toyota, condemned the plant to a shutdown. Toyota made the final decision in August to close the plant on April 1.
UAW leaders said they felt NUMMI management — primarily directed by Toyota — boxed them into a corner with few alternatives but to accept the deal.
“The workers don’t have much of a choice,” Contreras said. “This is either a do or don’t.”
Still, about 300 union workers who are on disability will receive a severance payment of just over $21,000 — the minimum in the deal.
“As soon as NUMMI found a loophole to screw people, that’s just what they did,” said NUMMI worker Sal Gomez of Oakland, who went on disability in September 2009 after a knee replacement. “Inside that plant, the company talked about how we’re a family, we’re one team, we will survive for a long time.”
The loophole that NUMMI managers exploited, in the view of some union workers, appears to be linked to the nature of the severance package — which Toyota trumpeted a few weeks ago as a “retention bonus.”
To be eligible for the biggest chunks of the $281 million package, the 4,700 employees at the factory were required to be on the job every day, producing quality vehicles.
For the workers out on disability, the problem has become that their ailments are preventing them from physically being present at the factory. If they’re not at work, they can’t get the bonus.
“To do this to people just because they were hurt is insensitive,” Gomez said.
NUMMI didn’t respond to a request for a comment about the disability situation. A Toyota spokesman, Mike Goss, referred questions to NUMMI.
Some injured workers are concerned that the package won’t be nearly as good as they were initially led to believe.
“The whole situation is even worse than I had expected,” said David Martin, an injured NUMMI worker. “It’s pretty bad. We are going to be filing a grievance with the union against NUMMI.”
The quality work bonus came out to about $285 a day per worker, Gomez estimated.
Union officials said they would not discuss the situation further following a news conference on Wednesday.
“The offer mandates a gag order that I believe violates our First Amendment rights,” Santos said in a prepared release. The order covers union leaders, not rank and file.
“NUMMI did not issue a gag order,” NUMMI spokesman Lance Tomasu said. “The UAW committed of its own accord not to further denigrate NUMMI or Toyota as a term of the shutdown agreement. In fact, the union negotiated and proposed specific language for that provision of the agreement.”
As the shutdown nears, workers said they would focus on high-level production.
“We have always built good quality cars here,” said Juan Carrera, a San Jose resident who has worked at the factory for 43 years, including 25 with NUMMI and 18 with the prior GM operation. “The people inside that plant have made NUMMI what it is.”
Contact George Avalos at 925-977-8477

Posted on Wednesday, March 17th, 2010
Under: Uncategorized | No Comments »