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Archive for August, 2012

West Contra Costa district pumps up writing instruction to align with Common Core Standards

Now that I have started occasionally covering the West Contra Costa school district, in addition to the Mt. Diablo district, I will begin posting messages from WCCUSD Superintendent Bruce Harter on my blog, so that readers can comment on what’s going on there.

Here’s Harter’s August message to the WCCUSD community, which explains how the district is boosting its writing instruction to be align with the state’s recently adopted Common Core Standards:

“August 2012
Writing and National Common Core Standards

On August 2, 2010 the California State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards. Educational standards describe what students should know and be able to do in each subject in each grade. In California, teachers, parents and educational experts designed the California version of these standards that have now been adopted in 45 states.

Since California had some of the nation’s most rigorous standards, we’ll be able to build on what we already do and the transition to the Common Core Standards won’t as challenging as in other states. While testing on the new standards won’t start until 2014-15, there’s a great deal to do to align the content of what students learn and how our teachers teach to the Common Core Standards. About 400 of our teachers will be involved in a week-long training on the Common Core early this month.

One area of significant change with the Common Core Standard is in writing. The new standards bring a deliberate shift toward a focus on nonfiction writing with much more emphasis on persuasive and informational/explanatory text types. “For students, writing is a key means of asserting and defending claims, showing what they know about a subject, and conveying what they have experienced, imagined, thought, and felt. To be college-and career-ready writers, students must take task, purpose, and audience into careful consideration, choosing words, information, structures, and formats deliberately.”

In early grades, students begin opinion writing that gradually moves toward demonstrating command of composing arguments based on substantive claims, sound reasoning and relevant evidence. By the time students are in 12th grade, 80% of the writing that students do will be in argument and informational/ explanatory text, mirroring what matters most for readiness in meeting the demands of college and real-world application.

For the last 11 years, we’ve been implementing the federal law, ‘No Child Left Behind’ which didn’t have nearly the emphasis on writing that we’re seeing in the Common Core Standards. So the increased requirements for writing will be a significant change in our schools. To make sure that our students can meet the new standards, we’ll be asking students to write more in their history, social studies, science and technical classes than we have in the past.

The implications of moving toward more writing means that we’ll be de-emphasizing the almost singular focus on the once-a-year testing that has come to dominate the conversation about what constitutes quality schools. And that’s good news for our students and teachers.

Bruce Harter

Do you agree with the state’s decision to adopt Common Core standards?

Posted on Wednesday, August 29th, 2012
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | No Comments »

MDUSD superintendent welcomes students back to school Wednesday

Mt. Diablo school district Superintendent Steven Lawrence has sent out the following message to families. I am posting it below, since it is not yet posted on the district’s website:

“Mt. Diablo USD News Update
Where Kids Come First
August 27, 2012

Welcome back for another exciting school year. We hope that you had a great summer and created some great memories. While school was out we have been busy hiring new employees, working on Measure C facilities projects, and providing professional growth opportunities for teachers, administrators, and classified staff members.


First, I would like to thank all of the parents, teachers, support staff members, and administrators who gave up their summer time to help us interview potential administrative and teacher candidates.

Through this community effort we hired many great new teachers, support staff members, and administrators.

Overall we hired:
 81 Teachers
 16 SDC Teachers
 4 Resource Specialists
 3 Teacher Coaches in the areas of English Language Development and Math
 3 Speech Therapists
 4 Psychologists
 2 Behavioral Health Specialist
 6 Elementary Principals
 1 Middle School Principal
 1 High School Vice Principal
 1 Student Services Coordinator
 2 Program Specialists

We welcome these new team members to Mt. Diablo USD. We look forward to working with them to serve the children of our district.

Measure C
 We have completed the solar installation at 41 of our sites. The remaining 10 sites are scheduled to be completed, commissioned and fully operational by mid‐September. You can observe how much electricity is being created at each site by:
1. going to
2. clicking on “Schools” link in the left hand column
3. clicking on the school name
4. clicking on “solar performance”

 HVAC work has been completed at Phase 1 schools: Foothill Middle School, Valley View Middle School, Ayers Elementary, Sun Terrace Elementary, Sequoia Elementary, and Mt. Diablo Elementary
 Opteman fiber optic backbone has been completed at 19 sites with five additional sites to be completed by October 1, 2012
 Classroom additions at Meadow Homes
 Concord HS – HVAC replacement, surveillance camera installation, classroom technology enhancements, white board installation
 Ygnacio Valley HS – exterior painting, girls’ locker room locker replacement, wireless internet installation, computer lab upgrades
 College Park HS – stadium infrastructure improvements, interior campus drainage improvements, tennis court renovation
 Mt. Diablo HS – interim housing placed, Department of State Architect approval of new science classrooms, design work for science lab up‐grades
 Northgate HS – Project Lead the Way remodel of auto/metal shop, pool/classroom design team selected

Adult Learning Opportunities
As a community of professionals, the adults in the Mt. Diablo USD are committed to continuous learning to improve our skills and better serve your children. This summer, over 900 teachers, administrators, and classified staff members participated in over 5,000 hours of summer growth opportunities focusing on:
 Singapore Math Strategies
 Agents of Change‐iPads
 Being a Writer
 Hands‐On Equations
 Board Math and Language
 Systematic English Language Development
 Advance Placement Course Training
 Expository Reading and Writing
 California State University (CSU) Early Assessment Program
 Public Relations and Customer Service
 Response to Intervention

We would like to thank the teachers, administrators, and classified staff members who attended these powerful learning opportunities.

Again, welcome back to the 2012‐13 school year. We look forward to working with our parents, guardians, and community members to support all our students.”

It looks like this was written before Monday night’s board meeting, so it does not include the very important appointment of Kerri Mills as interim Superintendent for Pupil Services and Special Education.

It also doesn’t mention the elimination of some overflow busing approved by the board Monday night or anything about Measure C money going toward Clayton Valley Charter High projects.

Still, back-to-school is a happy time for some, nervous for others. Here’s a Storify Oakland reporter Katy Murphy compiled using tweets, photos and videos from the first day of school:

I would love to do a similar Storify for MDUSD. If you would like to contribute, please tweet with the hash tag #MDUSD or email me at

Do you believe the district is ready to work with you to support all students?

AUG. 29 UPDATE: Here is a link to Lawrence’s welcome back phone message, which he sent out to parents last night, reminding them to expect traffic congestion:

AUG. 30 UPDATE: Here is a link to some cute pictures of students on their first day of school at El Monte Elementary in Concord, including some 4-year-olds entering the district’s new Transitional Kindergarten program:

Posted on Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district | 75 Comments »

MDUSD 8-27-12

[NOTE: I am updating this Tuesday morning, based on information from the superintendent’s secretary regarding the consent calendar.]

Here is the link to the board agenda:


Board unanimously passed all items on the consent calendar.

Item 9.10 — AIS Interpreting — was pulled for discussion. General Counsel Greg Rolen excused himself, saying he was married to the vendor. Attorney Deb Cooksey sat in his place during discussion of this item.

When I arrived a bit late, Carmen Terrones, Local 1 CST rep was critical of the AIS contract, saying it was a conflict of interest because Greg Rolen is married to Marisol Padilla. It passed anyway, 5-0. (I did not hear her testimony, but this is what she told me after her comments.)

Former MDHS teacher Jessica Preciado spoke about how disheartened she felt after being ignored by MDHS administrators when she asked them to consider allowing her to work part-time, after her son nearly died of a rare condition. Making matters worse, she said payroll has made repeated mistakes and she was told she was not entitled to the 3 percent bonus and then was told by Bryan Richards that she owes the district $2,500.
“If you really want to keep good teachers,” she said, “I guarantee making an effort to really listen and care would be greatly rewarded with teachers who are loyal to our district, and students who receive a better education.”

MDEA President Guy Moore said Preciado’s experience was not an isolated incident and he encouraged the district to treat its employees with respect. For example, he said new teachers were not paid for their two days of training.

Steven Lawrence presented CAHSEE results and said solar info is now available online.

14.1 Board voted 4-1 to appoint Dr. Kerri Mills as interim superintendent of pupil services and special education, after first voting 1-4 against eliminating item 12 from contract. She is replacing Mildred Browne, who requested a leave of absence after the board failed to extend her contract, when it extended the contracts of many other top administrators until 2014. Browne’s contract was set to expire in June.


Superintendent’s Report, continued (due to late arrival of presenters): Windemere reps make donation to HOPE project, which serves homeless students.

14.2 Board unanimously approved nonpublic school contracts.

14.3 KVHS
After much discussion (which I’ll post to YouTube/tunedtotheresa), the board unanimously agreed to allow KVHS to operate a county ROP class at KVHS through the end of the 2012-13 school year. The board further agreed that no sale or disposition of KVHS FM shall be considered until the conclusion of the MDUSD 2012-2013 academic school year. In addition, trustees asked staff to continue investigating the value of the station, should it decide to sell in the future.

Three former KVHS students spoke in favor of keeping the station: Rick Bartlett, Matthew Boggs and Karen Klaizynski.

14.4 Elimination of some “overflow” busing
After much discussion, the board unanimously agreed to provide overflow busing for students from Title 1 schools who must travel 1.5 miles or more from their home schools, if their neighborhood schools are full; and to eliminate overflow busing for students whose home schools are not Title 1 campuses, if they will travel 5 miles or less to their new schools.

This was Trustee Lynne Dennler’s idea because she didn’t want to continue making cuts that hurt low-income communities in the district.

Lawrence presented a 6-page Excel spreadsheet that showed available space/overflows for 29 elementary schools:

Unfortunately, the spreadsheet did not show the total number of students affected or any cost estimates for savings. It also did not show which schools were Title 1.

Based on questions from the board, Lawrence said his staff recommendation to eliminate busing for all overflow students who would be moved to schools less than 5 miles from their home schools would require about 8-10 bus routes at a cost of about $20,000 per route, or a total of about $160,000-$200,000. He never gave a cost estimate for the amended motion, which the board approved.

Lawrence said he didn’t present this to the board sooner because he wanted to wait for the FCMAT report. Yet, he didn’t present any information from that report.

Trustee Linda Mayo asked staff to work with cities to suggest they apply for Safe Routes to Schools grants to provide sidewalks and improve school access.

14.5 The board discussed the superintendent’s evaluation targets extensively. Unfortunately, my Flip cam was full by this point, so I had to download my videos and I missed the first portion of the conversation, in which Trustee Cheryl Hansen said she walked out of two closed sessions regarding the superintendent’s evaluation because she didn’t believe they were properly noticed and she didn’t receive any information about them ahead of time. There were some very testy exchanges between Hansen, Board President Sherry Whitmarsh and Trustee Gary Eberhart. I did catch some of it on my Flipcam, which I’ll post to my YouTube account.

Trustee Linda Mayo said the board needs to work on communicating better. Eberhart said trustees need to come to meetings better prepared.

Eberhart said he thought it was appropriate for the board to discuss the superintendent’s goals in closed session, but he agreed it was also appropriate to present them to the public for input. He said he didn’t think the board violated the Brown Act in its closed sessions.

Hansen asked what happened to the strategic plan. She said she had asked that it be placed on the agenda, but it wasn’t. Eberhart and Rolen said the board couldn’t discuss that, since it wasn’t on the agenda. Hansen said she has submitted it again and wants to see it on the Sept. 10 agenda.

14.6 The board discussed Hansen’s proposal regarding agenda dissemination to the public. She asked that it be brought back to the board for action.

Eberhart said she should work with staff and that item 6 seemed very hard. Mayo said she wasn’t interested in discussing something so prescriptive. She said she believed the superintendent and Loreen Joseph could work out a system for alerting the public when agenda items have been revised.

Dennler had no comment and Whitmarsh said three board members didn’t want this brought back for action.

14.7 The board discussed Hansen’s idea to create a Mayoral Council. Whitmarsh and Mayo said they had discussed the idea with five mayors at a recent mayor’s gathering and that none of them wanted a mayoral council. Mayo said some of them were interested in less formal ways of communicating with the district, however.

Hansen said she had spoken to some mayors who were in favor of the idea. But, she said any ideas for better communication between the district and its city leaders are welcome.

14.8 The board discussed Propositions 30 and 38.
Three speakers urged the board to support Prop. 30 and not Prop. 38: Mike Langley, MDEA President Guy Moore and MDHS teacher Dan Reynolds.
Mayo said the PTA has endorsed Molly Munger’s Prop. 38. She passed out two handouts to trustees: “Prop. 38 benefits every Mt. Diablo District student” and “November 2012 2012 Funding Initiaves” from CSBA. She asked the other trustees to join her in supporting Prop. 38.
Dennler said she wanted to read through the documents before making a decision. Lawrence suggested bringing them back as separate agenda items.

14.9 The board discussed the idea of creating a Public Information Officer position. Hansen said she was against it, saying it was not a good use of money, especially when the board just cut busing for some students.
Mayo supported the idea and asked the superintendent to create a job description.
Whitmarsh said the County Office of Education, San Ramon Valley district and West Contra Costa districts all have PIO’s. Lawrence said the county has added duties to its PIOs, due to budget cuts.
(This is true. Peggy Marshburn oversees QEIA compliance and Williams Act complaints, I believe. Also, the WCCUSD PIO is in charge of community outreach and engagement.)
Whitmarsh said she has heard from at least three board members that they would like to move forward with the creation of a job description.

14.10 The board discussed revising its cell phone policy to allow students to use their cell phones during the school day. Mayo said that the district might need to come up with alternatives for students in low-income areas who may not have cell phones, if teachers plan to use them in classes.


Hansen said she attended the new teacher orientation and Dennler said the district needs to let teachers know that they’re appreciated.

Although she didn’t specifically mention Preciado and Moore’s comments earlier in the meeting, Dennler’s message appeared to coincide with what Preciado and Moore said.

Mayo spoke about some nice comments she received from teachers about recent trainings.

NOTE: Video clips of the Superintendent’s Report, appointment of Kerri Mills, HOPE donation and the beginning of the overflow busing discussion are at Video clips from rest of meeting will be posted soon at

Here is the link to audio of the meeting:

Do you think the district’s teachers feel appreciated?


I have received the following email from Julie Braun-Martin, in response to my question regarding Mildred Browne’s employment status:

“The district has granted Dr. Browne’s request for an extended leave of absence to address some personal concerns. Notwithstanding her need for a leave, Dr. Browne has continued to work in her role as Assistant Superintendent until the Interim Assistant Superintendent is approved and reports for duty. Dr. Browne will remain available to the District to ensure a smooth transition of the Interim Superintendent. As her leave is a personnel matter, the district will have no further comment on it.”

I have also received the following prepared statement from KQED:

“KQED is not planning to make an offer to purchase radio station KVHS at this time. If and when the Mt. Diablo school board decides to officially put the station on the market, we will consider a possible purchase. We have heard from our KQED Public Radio listeners for years that we need to improve our broadcast signal in parts Contra Costa Country. We have taken a number of steps to improve reception over the years with some success, but we still hear regularly from listeners who have continuing issues with the signal strength of 88.5 FM. Our potential interest in KVHS would be to improve our service to KQED listeners in Contra Costa.”

When I asked if KQED is interested in purchasing the station and equipment — or just the frequency — I got the following email response from publicist Evren Odcikin:

“We have not had any conversations internally about the details of this possible opportunity, so I’m not able to answer any questions about specifics at this time.”

AUG. 29 UPDATE: I heard from Preciado that Julie Braun-Martin stopped by Crossroads school — where she is now working part-time — to apologize and set up a meeting with Bryan Richards to go over the discrepancies in her paychecks. Then today, Trustee Cheryl Hansen stopped by, offered a personal apology and gave Preciado a card. Preciado said she was encouraged by these actions.
However, it’s my understanding that a date and time for her meeting with Richards has still not been finalized.

Posted on Monday, August 27th, 2012
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district | 130 Comments »

MDUSD special education update

Mt. Diablo special education administrator Carolyn Patton has posted a special education update on the CAC blog, reiterating the district’s previous commitment to hold parent meetings in September to discuss transportation changes. However, the update still does not list any times, dates or locations for these meetings.

The post also links to updated Frequently Asked Questions at:

Here is the first question and answer regarding the FCMAT transportation report:
Q: “When will the final report be available?”
A: “We have received and released the draft report. We do not have a final report, but it will be released when received.”

This is very interesting, since the district has not publicly presented the draft report to the CAC or board. In fact, Trustee Cheryl Hansen said she has not received it. Although Superintendent Steven Lawrence inadvertently sent it to me, he has not mentioned it to trustees during board meetings since then. Neither has Patton. So, it’s unclear what is meant by: “We have received and released the draft report.”

Here is the final question and answer, along with an email address where parents can send additional questions:

Q: “What are the next steps in the changes to transportation?”
A: “District administrators were provided training on transportation as a related service. The district is providing door to door for all eligible students. On January 7, 2013 the district plans to change to our cluster model. Before the change occurs, parents and school staff will be notified where and when the bus
stops will occur for each child. Cluster points is most cases will be at the child’s school of residence.

If your question was not addressed above please email with your question. Common questions and responses will be posted on this page.”

Unfortunately, the response does not say when parents will be informed about bus stops, except that it will be before they go into effect on Jan. 7.

On Tuesday, I received two emails from CAC Chairwoman Lorrie Davis in response to questions I had about how information is being disseminated to parents, after Patton told the board on Monday that she had spoken with the CAC about this.

Here’s what Davis wrote in the first email:

“I have been asking Carolyn a lot of questions and she said she would get back to me this week. This is what I know so far:
At the CAC meeting on September 4 Carolyn will recap what has occurred, as she did to the board members last night.
She requested a Transportation section be added to the district website but it hasn’t been done so we are going to set something up on the CAC blog.
There is an email address that parents can use. She will email me the address.
She is going to update the Q&A that we posted on the CAC blog.
We were waiting for the FCMAT report to be presented before the parent meetings were set up because, until procedures/policies are approved, how do you know what to tell parents? We have now decided to set the dates so parents have ample time to arrange childcare. We will definitely have the dates by the September 4 CAC meeting.
I keep stating to Carolyn and staff that parents just need to be informed.
When Carolyn provides me with the info, we will send it out as quickly as possible.”

True to her word, Davis posted the information promptly when Patton provided it today.

I also asked Davis if she knew when the final FCMAT Transportation Report would be completed. Here’s what she wrote in an email:

“I asked the Superintendent again on Monday and he explained there were still corrections to be completed on the Transportation draft report. He could not give me a defininte answer as to when the reports would be distributed.”

In the meantime, here is another document I received from my PRA, which shows staff-student ratios for special education programs at each district site:

Do you believe that the district has “released” the draft FCMAT Transportation Report?

Posted on Friday, August 24th, 2012
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, special education | 18 Comments »

Contra Costa County sophomores varied widely in performance on California High School Exit Exam

The state’s release of California High School Exit Exam results this week marked the beginning of test score season.

On Friday, the state expects to release STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) test results, which show whether students in grades 2-11 were proficient in math, English and other subjects last year. In October, the state will release Academic Performance Index and Adequate Yearly Progress reports, which will show whether schools and districts met state academic growth targets, as well as federal targets under No Child Left Behind.

Some schools and districts in Contra Costa County consistently score above state averages on these tests, while others tend to score below.

Here’s a look at the percentage of sophomores that passed the English and math portions of the California High School Exit Exam in 2011 and 2012, along with the change, in Contra Costa County and the state:

District 2011 Math 2012 Math Change 2011 English 2012 English Change
Acalanes 97 97 Same 96 98 +2
Antioch 78 77 -1 80 81 +1
John Swett 79 78 -1 76 78 +2
Leadership* 91 91 Same 81 80 -1
Liberty 84 87 +3 87 89 +2
Martinez 89 89 Same 89 87 -2
Mt. Diablo 81 84 +3 82 84 +2
Pittsburg 73 79 +6 77 80 +3
San Ramon Valley 99 99 Same 99 98 -1
West Contra Costa 68 69 +1 69 74 +5
West Community* 52 68 +16 38 74 +36
Countywide 84 85 +1 84 84 +2
Statewide 83 84 +1 82 83 +1

*Note: Leadership and West Community are charter high schools in Richmond.

Based on this data, the Acalanes, Liberty, Martinez, Mt. Diablo and San Ramon Valley districts surpassed the state average this year, along with the Leadership charter. The Antioch, John Swett, Pittsburg and West Contra Costa district results fell below state averages, along with those of students at the West Community charter high school.

The Contra Costa County Board of Education recently denied the West Community charter’s renewal request, based on in part on questions about its academic achievement. However, the results show dramatic improvement from one year to the next, with the school’s 2012 sophomores performing virtually the same as their West County district peers.

West Contra Costa school Board President Charles Ramsey told me he was happy with improvement students in the district have made over the past six years, since the state began administering the test. However, he said the board was so unhappy with student achievement at Kennedy High in Richmond that it has put in a new administrative team there. Fifty-one percent of Kennedy’s sophomores passed the math portion of the high school exit exam and 58 percent passed the English portion.

“Kennedy’s got to get better,” he said. “It’s not working.”

You can see how your school and district did at

How do you think districts should help struggling students?

Posted on Friday, August 24th, 2012
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 33 Comments »

MDUSD 8-20-12 meeting

President Sherry Whitmarsh announced the board agreed in closed session to enter into negotiated agreements with four employees related to discipline, dismissal, release, complaint.

Trustee Cheryl Hansen removed items 8.2, 8.19 and 8.23 from consent calendar.
Trustee Lynne Dennler pulled items 8.35-8.38.

I apologize for not keeping up on this tonight. I’ll update later. Please visit my Qik and YouTube websites for video clips.

11:50 p.m. UPDATE:
Board unanimously passed all items on consent calendar that were not pulled for discussion.

8.2 Hansen requested revisons to 6-25-12 mins. Board voted 5-0 to approve 6-4-12 minutes and await revisions for 6-25 mins.

8.19 Hansen requested more information about how district is trying to bring back students from outside programs. Brian Cassin said the district spends $100,000-$125,000 or more per student in out-of-state residential programs, but the district is trying to bring more back.
Passed 5-0

8.23 Salas O’Brien: YVHS field lighting
Hansen asked about status of a public hearing regarding an environmental report. Pete Pedersen said the original plan did not require a public hearing, since there was a negative mitigated declaration. It only needed board approval. However, now that the scope is being increased, a new environmental study is being conducted.
Hansen asked Pedersen to make agenda items more specific so the public knows what the contract pertains to.
Board unanimously approved contract.

I’ll add more updates later.

AUG. 21 UPDATE: Here is a recap of the rest of the meeting. Please note that I have uploaded several videos to my Qik account and am in the process of uploading the rest to YouTube. Unfortunately, I ran out of space on my flip cam and had to erase some of the earlier videos to catch the lively discussion at the end of the meeting regarding future agenda items.

8.35-8.38: Trustee Lynne Dennler removed these items to discuss concerns about how they will be implemented (see Qik videos). Board unanimously approved policies.

CVCHS teacher Neil McChesney, a Concord High student and a CVCHS student urged the board to allow CVCHS to offer a radio class using KVHS. McChesney said he understands this will be on next Monday’s agenda. (See YouTube video)


MDEA President Guy Moore talked about rebuilding trust between teachers and district leaders.

Mona Ricard, a Sequoia Elementary teacher and Mt. Diablo Council of PTAs rep — and a district Teacher of the Year — talked about Prop. 38 and an upcoming meeting regarding PTA at 7 p.m. Sept. 17 in Dent Center.

Superintendent’s Report: Superintendent Steven Lawrence talked about recent Response to Intervention training for administrators.

13.1 Board unanimously appointed Thom Kwiatkoski as principal of Riverview MIddle School.

13.2 Board unanimously appointed the following elementary principals:

Beverly Tom — Valle Verde
Angela Hotchkiss — Pleasant Hill
Jenny Cronan — Woodside

13.3 Board unanimously appointed Sandra Bradley as Vice Principal of the Alliance special education program at Olympic HS.
(NOTE: This appointment is on YouTube/tunedtotheresa. Unfortunately, I erased videos of the previous appointments due to lack of space on my FlipCam. However, this video shows some of the other principals leaving.)

13.4 Board unanimously appointed Melissa Brennan as a Student Services Coordinator at MDHS.

13.5: Board unanimously appointed Maurice Burman as a Student Services Coordinator at MDHS.

13.6: Board unanimously appointed Mika Arbelbide as an accounting supervisor.

13.7: Board unanimously appointed Janelle Commins as a supervisor in Food and Nutrition Services.

13.8: Board unanimously appointed Terri Porter as Coordinator of After-school programs.

13.9: Board unanimously appointed John Willford as Assistant Project/Program Manager for Measure C

13.10: Board unanimously agreed to create new Measure C construction management positions.

13.11: Reclassification of some classified positions:
Julie Braun-Martin said there was a typo and salary for one position is lower than stated in staff report.
Board unanimously approved reclassifications.

13.12: Board unanimously approved renewal of CAC members.

13.13: Board unanimously approved Measure A tax levies.

13.14: Pawar Transportation contract
There was considerable discussion of this item (see videos on Qik and YouTube).
Trustee Linda Mayo noted that the numbers on the staff report did not add up to the total amount listed. At first, Angie Goakey said there was another $100,000 because it included some summer school services in the 11-12 fiscal year. But after Lawrence asked whether it was a typo, she said it was a typo. So, Trustee Gary Eberhart amended the motion to reduce the total by $100,000.
Carolyn Patton referenced the FCMAT report, without saying when it will be publicly presented.
“We’ve had the FCMAT review,” she said. “We’ve had an outside agency that’s reviewed our transportation.”
At Greg Rolen’s request, she also elaborated on the “clustering” plan.
Mayo mentioned other transportation reports previously presented to the board (but not referenced in the current staff report).
Patton talked about the letter sent to parents informing them of transportation changes, adding that IEPs will be necessary to address students’ needs. She said there was a special education parent meeting before the summer and there will be three more. She said 191 students who were being transported to their home schools will no longer receive that service, effective the first day of school.
Patton said the parent letter did not include many details about clustering. IEP teams will determine who is eligible, she said.
Patton added that Goakey has found other districts that use clustering and said the district is compiling information about what they are doing.
Eberhart said he has met with Goakey and the general counsel and he is very comfortable with what the district is doing.
“It sounds like we’re doing a good job,” he said. “And it sounds like we’re doing a good job of communicating that to the families.”
When Hansen asked about bus drivers, Goakey asked if she was referring to the FCMAT report. Hansen said she didn’t have the FCMAT report. Hansen said it was important to communicate well with the community regarding transportation changes.
Board approved contract as amended 4-1, with Hansen voting no, due to lack of information about the students being served and the lack of a clearly stated long-term plan for reducing outside transportation contracts and cutting costs.

13.15: Board unanimously approved AA Med Trans contract

13.16: Board unanimously approved Maxim contract

13.17: Board unanimously approved Consolidated Application

13.18: French Honors Course: Info only. Board was advised to direct questions to Rose Lock.

13.19: Creation of Administrative Regulation 5131.2 regarding bullying: Info only, to be approved at next meeting.

13.20: Elimination of overflow busing for students who live less than 5 miles from overflow school (Revision to board policy 5116 – School Attendance Boundaries):

In response to questions from Mayo about students who would be affected by this proposed policy amendment, Lawrence said he would have updated information Wednesday. He said last year, the district had 79 routes and attempted to pick up overflow students on special ed routes or overflow routes. He said the district is looking at establishing a 5-mile rule, which would reduce the number of students served. He said the board received a presentation about this in March. (However, this was not referenced in his staff report for this item.) He did not mention the FCMAT findings and recommendations related to overflow busing.
For the next meeting, Hansen said she wants a list of overflow schools, the number of overflow buses per school and the number of overflow students per school. She said she has heard concerns that this policy might affect socio-economically disadvantaged students and schools hardest.

13.21: Future board action agenda items:

Board candidate Brian Lawrence said he hoped the district would measure the success of principals by how many are still principals rather than by how many have become district administrators. He mentioned district PowerPoints, then said some have suggested the public doesn’t ask enough questions. He asked the board: “Are we providing enough information and are we informing the public?”

Whitmarsh said the board president and superintendent set the agenda. However, this agenda item was being presented to get an idea of whether other board members would be interested in seeing items presented this way for consideration on future board agendas. She said there would be no discussion of the individual items listed.

At this, Hansen raised a point of parliamentary order.

Rolen said the item was being presented to achieve some sort of transparency to agenda-setting.

But, Hansen said this should not be a casual, informal proceeding. Instead, she said it should be written up as a bylaw amendment.

Eberhart said it’s perfectly appropriate for the board president and superintendent to set the agenda. He noted, for example, that board benefits had already been discussed at a previous board meeting.

Rolen interjected that Whitmarsh had admonished the board not to discuss individual items.

Hansen questioned Rolen about the need to amend a board bylaw or policy, if trustees are going to change the way they identify future agenda items.

Rolen said his previous comments stood on their own and he declined to elaborate on his position.

Hansen said it appeared that the board was being asked to vote on future agenda items, therefore this new procedure needed to be formalized in writing.

Eberhart said it was an attempt to try to appease the board member who was trying to bring the item to the agenda. However, he said he thought the attempt to honor other board members in this way had failed.

“My recommendation is to move the agenda,” he said.

Mayo asked if his recommendation was to not discuss this item at all.

Eberhart repeated that he wanted to move the agenda.

Mayo said this agenda item was her idea.

“I was the one that suggested that we place the items on the agenda in this manner because a board member has felt that their agenda items were being thwarted,” she said. “I felt we needed to treat all items equally.”

She said the idea was intended to be a pilot.

“It was an attempt to honor your request,” Mayo told Hansen. “You obviously disagree with that process. So if we don’t have your agreement to try it out, that leaves it up to the president and superintendent.”

Hansen said she was not saying the agenda procedure should not change.

“Yes, my items have been blocked,” she said. “And no, I haven’t repeatedly tried to put the same item forward.”

She criticized the current procedure because agenda items are omitted. She reiterated that the proposed procedural change should be a written amendment to the current bylaw. In the absence of of a formal change, she said it appeared the board was being asked to be an advisory body to the president and superintendent.

Mayo said she recalled that Hansen had previously suggested adding “future agenda items” to agendas.

Hansen said she had suggested that, citing CSBA, but the rest of the board had rejected the idea. Although she said Rolen disagreed with her, Hansen repeated that the new procedure should be brought forward as a bylaw change.


Hansen mentioned attending an administrator training. She also said she has had continued discussions with CCTV regarding televising meetings and has suggested that MDHS Digital Safari students might be able to operate the cameras.

Eberhart said: “I can’t imagine who would want to see our meetings on TV.”
He praised the air conditioning installation. He also praised district administrators.
“Our staff continues to be accessible and informative when we have questions for them,” he said. “I get answers.”

Mayo said she attended the district’s “Leadership Institute.” She also mentioned that Comcast is offering cut rates for families of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches. Lawrence said he has sent information about this to some sites, but will get it out to all campuses.

Whitmarsh thanked staff for work to get schools ready for students, who will return next week.

Dennler did not make a report.

Here is a link to the meeting audio:

Here’s a link to my story about the meeting:

Do you think the district should pursue televising its meetings?

Posted on Monday, August 20th, 2012
Under: Education | 142 Comments »

MDUSD may overhaul transportation and special education programs

Through a Public Records Act request, I have received several emails and documents from the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT) related to the Mt. Diablo school district’s contract for two studies:
1) providing findings and recommendations related to the district’s transportation programs; and
2) providing a review of the district’s special education program.

As noted in recent blog posts, these findings and recommendations have not yet been presented to the school board or the public. However, the district sent a June 20 letter to parents informing them of transportation changes it claimed were recommended by FCMAT.

I have previously pointed out that some of the ideas for these changes came from the district itself, instead of from FCMAT. This came to light after Superintendent Steven Lawrence inadvertently sent me a copy of FCMAT’s draft transportation report, which did not directly support some of the changes being implemented by the district.

After Lawrence sent me that report, he followed up with an email saying that he expected the final report to be presented to the board Aug. 13. Subsequently, the Aug. 13 meeting was postponed to Aug. 20 (tonight), because two trustees were unavailable last Monday.

Contrary to Lawrence’s assurance, however, no FCMAT reports appear on tonight’s agenda. Instead, the board will consider three transportation-related staff recommendations, without any backup material from FCMAT.

The first is a contract for nearly $1.7 million to transport 132 Non Public School and County students to and from school. Neither the staff report nor the contract reveal to the board or the public how many students are in-district, how many travel outside the district or how many use wheelchairs.

According to the contract, the district pays $40 per day for ambulatory students sharing rides within the district; $120 for students in wheelchairs within the district; $70 per day for ambulatory students sharing rides outside the district, and $140 per day for students in wheelchairs traveling outside the district. In addition, the district may pay $25 per hour for ambulatory students and $40 per hour for students in wheelchairs. The board and public deserve to see a breakdown of these costs. Absent such a breakdown, it appears that the district intends to spend an average of $12,743 per student per year on this contract.

The second transportation-related item is a $307,500.00 contract with AA Med Trans to transport 24 medically fragile students. This averages $12,812 per student per year — or about $69.50 more per year per student than the Pawar charges.

Although FCMAT specifically addressed outside transportation contracts in its draft transportation report, the district is not presenting FCMAT’s findings and recommendations.

Here is what the report said: “…the district should closely evaluate the need for a third-party transportation provider. This transportation is generally provided in a one-on-one fashion and may be less efficient than transportation on a school bus.”

In addition, FCMAT recommended: “…improve transportation request forms and checklists and cluster stops for students who can reasonably get to their local school or nearby bus stop. These changes should be clearly communicated to parents well in advance.”

As has been noted in previous blog posts, the idea for clustering students came from a third-party legal analysis provided by the district to FCMAT, which both FCMAT and the district are refusing to publicly release, citing attorney-client privilege.

The third transportation-related item up for discussion tonight is the elimination of “overflow” busing for students who must attend a school that is not in their neighborhood, because there is not enough space at their home school. This would apply only to students who are traveling to schools that are less than 5 miles from their home schools.

This item is somewhat hidden on the agenda under the title: “13.20 Revision to Board Policy 5116 – School Attendance Boundaries.”

The agenda attachment does not provide any rationale for the proposed change in policy. Instead, it merely proposes that one paragraph in the policy be changed.

Currently, it states:

“Occasionally the district cannot serve a student at the neighborhood school because a particular grade level is full. In this case, the student is assigned to a nearby school with available space, thus becoming an ‘overflow’ student. For middle and elementary school students, TRANSPORTATION SHALL BE PROVIDED TO THE CLOSEST AVAILABLE SCHOOL. If such a student is assigned to an impacted school, the student shall be able to continue at the impacted school through the remainder of the school year. At the beginning of the next school year, each ‘overflow’ student assigned to an impacted school shall return to the neighborhood school.”

Lawrence is recommending that the above language that is in all caps (my emphasis) be deleted and replaced with: “transportation will only be provided if the closest available school is more than five miles away from the student’s home elementary school.”

Lawrence is not providing the board or public with any information about how many students this would affect or how much this would save the district. He is also not providing information related to overflow busing that is included in the FCMAT’s draft transportation report.

FCMAT wrote that the district’s current board policy and administrative regulation require elementary students to live 1.25 miles from their schools to be eligible for home-to-school service and middle school students to live 3 miles from their schools to be eligible.

“Over the years,” FCMAT wrote, “the district has increased regular home-to-school transportation walking distances, but has not amended policies to reflect those changes. Therefore, some students technically qualify for transportation according to policy, but service is not provided. In addition, the policy does not mention providing transportation to NCLB (No Child Left Behind) or overflow students.”

In 2010-11, FCMAT wrote, 272 overflow students were transported to schools other than their home school. It’s unclear why no data from the 11-12 school year was included. FCMAT recommended limiting the schools that students could choose to attend to reduce transportation logistics and costs.

However, FCMAT did not specifically recommend increasing distances for transportation eligibility. Instead, it made two recommendations related to overflow busing:

“1. Review and amend board policy and administrative regulations to reflect the district’s desired service level.

2. Limit the number of eligible schools that students can choose to attend for NCLB and overflow reasons.”

Emails that I received from FCMAT show that FCMAT sent a second draft of the transportation report to Lawrence for review July 27, seeking comments by July 30, “so we can proceed to finalize the report.” It’s unclear why it is apparently taking so long to finalize.

Here is a link to the emails related to the transportation report:

Note that FCMAT sent the first draft transportation report July 18, saying that it would be finalized after it received corrections or suggested changes. That email did not mention a second draft.

Before FCMAT sent its draft report to Lawrence, it had sent Lawrence a June 5 “exit letter” outlining its preliminary transportation findings and recommendations. Here is the link to that letter:

Although this letter had been privately provided to the board and to the CAC Executive Committee, it has not been presented to the public. After I requested it from Lawrence, I posted it on my blog so readers could get an idea of possible upcoming changes in transportation.

Similarly, FCMAT sent a June 19 letter to Lawrence outlining its preliminary findings and recommendations related to special education. This letter was also provided to the board, but not to the CAC. I obtained it as part of my PRA. Here is a link to that letter:

Here are the emails I received from FCMAT related to the special education report:

Note that the first set of emails also includes some information related to the special education review, including May 14 and May 15 emails from Bill Gillaspie to Bryan Richards mentioning the need to do a parent morale survey. The first set of emails also includes a May 4 email from Richards to Gillaspie about the superintendent’s concerns about the special education study and timeline.

The second set of emails — specifically related to the special education review — includes one dated July 26 to Lawrence, which states that the draft special education report is attached. It asks for corrections or suggested modifications, then states: “Upon receiving this information, we can finalize the report.”

It has now been nearly four weeks since that email was sent. It’s unclear why the report is taking so long to finalize.

The second set also includes a May 17 email from Lawrence reducing the scope of work. “I will ask that Bill included (sic) the CAC parent leaders as a group to interview,” he wrote, “but we are not going to do a full blown parent survey at this time.”

Here is the revised scope of study:

“FCMAT Study: Special Education Mt Diablo Unified School District
June 4, 2012

Scope of Study: Provide recommendations to address the necessary balance between providing a full continuum of services required by law for students with special needs while providing full consideration of the financial effects that the funding has on the district as follows:

1. A review of the special education administrative structure and compare with single district SELPA districts of comparable size with recommendations for cost savings, if any.

2. Analyze the internal operations of all administrative positions in special education and make recommendations for greater efficiency and cost effectiveness, if any.

3. Analyze the classified support positions within the administrative structure that support internal special education operations.

4. Provide an analysis of staffing ratios, class and caseload size using statutory requirements for mandated services and statewide guidelines. Must include FTE and caseload as of May 1.

5. Provide an analysis of all staffing and caseloads for designated instruction providers: speech therapists, psychologists, occupational/physical therapists, behavior specialists, adaptive physical education and others. Must include FTE and caseloads as of May 1.

6. Review the use of resource allocations for nonpublic schools and agencies and mental health services, alternative programs and make recommendations for greater efficiency.

7. Review the costs of due process, alternative dispute resolution and mediations for the past three years.”

Here is another document I received regarding information requested from the district by FCMAT:

“May 4, 2012




Eric, based on the scope of this study, these are the documents we will need to have prepared in advance of, or for our arrival at the district. There should be two sets of documents (three if you want them as well).
• Last 2 years TRAN Report
• Budget elements showing Transportation revenue and expenditures for last year (actuals or unaudited actuals), and this year’s budget.
• School transportation fee information if district charges fees for home to school transportation.
• Map showing district boundaries, school sites, and the bus routes. Include the bell times.
• District calendar indicating student days of attendance.
• Detailed bus routes (including right and left turns) showing driver, bus number and student load for each run (Both home to school and special education). Student names and addresses for special education.
• Information on any contracted home to school or special education transportation service including transportation provided by taxis or non-public schools. This would include most recent invoices and formal contracts, if any. Include any service provided by the County Office of Education or SELPA.
• Detail of any revenue to be transferred by the CCCOE to district for special education transportation.
• Field trip detail to include the average number of trips scheduled each year and the rate charged to district users. If student transportation is provided in non-school district vehicles, include any published district practices on their use and any district requirement for drivers.
• A fleet list showing buses and all district support vehicles (year, make, model, passenger capacity, wheelchair capacity, current mileage).
• District Organization Chart and Transportation Department Organization Chart.
• Transportation Department roster of employees, job classifications, and their regular work hours (hours per day, months per year).
• District Policies and administrative regulations relative to pupil transportation: walking distances, pupil transportation fees, field trip policies and procedures, policies and procedures relative to parent driven trips or trips in district vans or automobiles other than school buses.
• Last two year’s CHP Terminal Grade reports (we will review on site random records to include vehicle maintenance histories, 45-day/3000 mile inspections, purchasing procedures and inventory control).
• Collective bargaining agreement with all representative units in the Transportation Department.
• Current Salary Schedule.
• Transportation Department handbook
• Transportation Safety Plan
• School bus evacuation records for home to school and special education for the 2011-12 school year.

The following key staff members should also be scheduled for individual interviews (individual interviews to be approximately one hour for CBO, at least one half hour for all other positions, and approximately 3 hours for Transportation Director):

• CBO or direct administrator over school transportation
• Transportation Director
• Operations supervisors or driver supervisors
• Driver Instructors
• Dispatchers
• Routers/schedulers
• Shop Supervisor
• Several Mechanics
• Several drivers
• CSEA or Union President or job steward

Also on-site we will review the driver training function, driver training records, dispatch function and any other necessary elements.”

I also received a few other documents, which I haven’t yet uploaded to DocStoc. These are related to interviews and documentation regarding current special education programs.

Do you agree with Lawrence’s decision to eliminate the parent morale survey?

Posted on Monday, August 20th, 2012
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, special education | 6 Comments »

West County Community High charter denial leaves more than 100 students scrambling to find alternatives

The Contra Costa County Board of Education’s denial of the West County Community High School charter’s renewal petition on Wednesday leaves more than 100 students scrambling to find new schools.

Board President Cynthia Ruehlig said the decision would allow the charter students to attend “better schools,” but some teens, parents staff and community members said afterward that they disagreed.

Although the charter’s test scores were not as high as those in some other district schools, they pointed out that the charter served a high percentage of special education students and others who felt they didn’t fit in on larger campuses.

“A lot of these kids are really scared of where they’re going,” said history teacher Andy Wolverton, before hugging one student goodbye. “A lot of them have been bullied. A lot have been in gangs. They’ve done the public schools. That’s why they came to our school. I just hope they don’t go back to their old lifestyles at their old schools. And that’s the scary thing — keeping them out of gangs. Every student at our school has a story.”

Student Dante Spruit, 17, said he would try to take a high school equivalency test, then attend Contra Costa Community College, with the goal of eventually enrolling in the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. He told me last week that he still had vivid memories of a violent fight he witnessed between two teenage boys when he was in sixth grade at Hercules Middle and High School.

“One had on a white T-shirt and it turned red with blood,” Spruit said. “Everyone was looking. At West County Community High School, I haven’t seen any fights.”

Parent Suzanne Camp said she planned to meet with other parents to discuss options such as online learning.

“We’re facing a situation that’s a crisis for our kids because these students are either too small for their age or there’s some difficulty for them being able to work with these other students at these big schools,” Camp said. “I am, as a desperate parent, looking for solutions for these students who can’t adapt to these congested schools. It’s really difficult to put your kid into a school that’s not safe.”

During the renewal hearing, three parents praised the school’s “loving” environment, in which their students thrived.

“There are kids that need that school that feel welcomed, feel loved and feel safe,” said parent Carlos Casares.

Theresa Padilla echoed these sentiments, saying her son struggled in algebra as a freshman at another school.

“Thank God for West County Community High School,” she said. “With the help of loving staff, he brought his grade from a D to a B. He chose not to return to his first school. ”

Sue Britson said her family selected the charter over El Cerrito High because of the caliber and dedication of teachers, parent involvement, safe environment and staff’s commitment to helping students like her son.

“Richmond is a large community,” she said. “We need places for students who are smart, but have challenges.”

Although trustees were sympathetic to students and parents, they said they could not overlook insufficient budget and curriculum materials submitted in the charter petition. Trustee Pamela Mirabella said she brainstormed with some parents after the meeting about how to meet their children’s needs.

“It is our fear that when a charter goes under like this, you have kids that have to be sent back to the district,” she said. “It disrupts their lives. They just have bonded. You have families that feel they have a loving relationship.”

In response to some who complained about difficulties reaching agreements with the West Contra Costa school district, Mirabella suggested the county could see whether it could provide an avenue for appeals regarding disagreements.

“I let them know that this is a learning experience,” she said. “It’s very sad, but we can do it better next time.”

Camp — who took over as treasurer for the school in February and was unable to attend Wednesday’s meeting — told me Thursday that she filed a police report in April regarding discrepancies in the financial reports that could indicate some money was missing. Richmond Police Lt. Bisa French said police were investigating, but no arrests have been made.

Here is a link to a downloadable version of the County’s staff report:

Video clips from the meeting are at and

What alternatives do you think parents should explore?

Posted on Friday, August 17th, 2012
Under: Contra Costa County Board of Education, Education, Richmond, West Contra Costa school district | 3 Comments »

Questions surrounding MDUSD’s special education transportation plans remain unanswered

After reviewing a June 20 letter to some special education parents from the Mt. Diablo school district — along with preliminary transportation findings and recommendations and a draft transportation report provided to the district by the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) — I submitted several questions in July 31 emails to General Counsel Greg Rolen, Assistant Superintendent Mildred Browne and Special Education Administrator Carolyn Patton.

As of today (two weeks after I emailed them), none of them has responded.

Here are my questions:

1. What is the similarly sized district that has only two parents who are paid in lieu, which is referenced in the second paragraph (of the parent letter)? I have been told by FCMAT that they did not have this information.

2. How many special education students are in the above-referenced district and what percentage are transported?

3. As you may be aware, I received a copy of the draft transportation report from Superintendent Lawrence. The draft report attributes the “clustering” idea to a third party expert’s analysis, which I understand was provided to FCMAT by you. Who prepared this analysis? How much did the analysis cost and did the board approve of this expenditure?

4. Why does the letter to parents attribute the information about the similarly-sized district and clustering to FCMAT, when that information actually came from the district?

5. Why aren’t parent meetings being held before school starts?

6. What are the dates and times of the parent meetings? If they haven’t yet been established, when do you expect to inform parents of this information?

7. What is the website with information regarding transportation changes and frequently asked questions? If it has not yet been established, when do you expect parents to be able to use it as a resource?

8. What is the email address for sending specific questions regarding transportation? If it has not yet been established, when you do expect to inform parents that they can use it?”

So far, the only question that has been partially answered is: who prepared the third party analysis? Rolen revealed in a letter to FCMAT, which I obtained through a Public Records Act request, that the analysis was prepared by Matt Juhl-Darlington on or about April 6 — nearly two weeks BEFORE the district contracted with FCMAT for its transportation and special education studies. The district and FCMAT are refusing to provide the analysis to the press and public, citing attorney-client privilege.

Do you think someone from the district should answer these questions?

Posted on Tuesday, August 14th, 2012
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district | 41 Comments »

Student killings hit Richmond community hard

Last Sunday, 16-year-old Ulysis Grijalva was shot and killed in Richmond. It was the city’s 13th homicide of the year and hit Grijalva’s classmates and fellow football players at Kennedy High School hard.

Coach Mack Carminer told the Times the teen was not involved in gangs and was a good son to his parents. West Contra Costa school board President Charles Ramsey said he was concerned about the dangers of living in Richmond.

Three years ago, he said, the district had a record 11 students killed in during one school year. That’s a record no district wants to break.

Such deaths weigh on the minds and hearts of students, teachers and community members. In March, Giorgio Cosentino — a science teacher on leave from Richmond High — wrote an essay describing his reaction to the death of one of his former students. With his permission, I am sharing his essay below, in which he has changed the students’ name.

“March 10

The Death of Ricky

The headlines of the West County Times described a brazen daylight ‘rolling shootout’ on a street in west Richmond. Gunshots and roaring engines shattered the morning calm at 10:45 AM at the same time geese were flying south overhead on this sunny, but chilly, winter day. People were scattering, ducking and taking cover. ‘Just like the wild, wild, west!’ as some children of Richmond would say. Shootouts were nothing new to Richmond, but this one stood out from all others which usually took place in the dark shadows of a poorly lit street sometime after midnight. At 10:45 a.m., stores were open for business, kids with rumbling stomachs sat in classrooms, eagerly awaiting the lunch hour. Mail was being delivered, and dogs barked behind fences to anyone who would listen. Jackhammers nearby loudly busted through cement.

On this day, I was working in a laboratory as a microbiologist in a highly secure compound for the California Dept. of Health less than a couple of miles away from the battle, after taking a leave of absence from teaching science at Richmond High School. And Ricky Clark, one of my dearest former students (teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but we do), was in the process of dying in a hail of large-caliber bullets fired from a Soviet-made rifle more commonly found in war-torn countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

I wish I could preserve Ricky’s innocence by telling you that he was just a bystander, but that was not the case, as evidenced by the AK47 assault rifle found on his lap in the crashed Plymouth at the cordoned-off yellow-taped ‘crime scene.’ On another street somewhere in Richmond, the same yellow tape still dangled from a lamp post, evidence of the previous day’s prequel—another shooting that started the clock ticking for Ricky’s final 24 hours of life.

In the news, Ricky would be a mere statistic. He was 19 years old — an age when an African-American male homicide victim is nothing more than a number added to the yearly Richmond homicide tally. Judging from the New Year’s Eve style countdown of reporting this number, I believe some perverse readers are cheering for Richmond to beat the previous high of 62 homicides, a Richmond personal best set in 1991. Richmond cannot compete with the large neighboring cities of Oakland or San Francisco for total absolute number of homicides, but Richmond does win hands down on a homicides per-capita basis as some of my students have boasted when making their point that ‘Frisco and Oaktown is for suckers!’ The 1991 record translated to 67.2 per 100,0000, 7 times the then national average of 9.5 homicides per 100,000.

When the victims are still children, as defined by the arbitrary ‘under the age of 18 criteria,’ there is usually written a short story about their brief life. Often included is a picture of a smiling young boy, taken at a time in his life when the violence of his surrounding environment has not yet robbed him of his innocence, including his inalienable right as a child, to smile. The fact that Ricky was armed also added to the cool, even unsympathetic, nature of this piece of journalism. No one would ask questions about the short life of this young man. Only those blessed to have known him would see Ricky as a victim as opposed to just another ‘gang-banger,’ ‘hoodlum,’ ‘angry black man,’ or worse.

No one would read about how hard his single-parent mother worked to keep him on a path that did not include guns, gangs, drugs, and violence, in a neighborhood saturated with all. From our phone calls and meetings, it was clear to me that she wanted the best for Ricky, and as a new, inexperienced teacher, I certainly did not merit her approval. I tried. New teachers in low-performing schools are just expected to try—results come later after years of experience, assuming the teacher does not leave for an increase in compensation and or better working conditions. We do not tolerate inexperienced mechanics who cannot solve our car troubles, but we do allow and excuse inexperience and failure with those playing a vital role with respect to the futures of our neediest children.

From the first five minutes of the first day of class, Ricky began his clowning antics, taunting me when I instructed the class to prepare to work. Eager to establish order, I quickly locked my eyes on this medium-black skinned young man with braided hair sitting in the second column of chairs from the right, third row back. With an average build, wearing a white T-shirt, black slightly baggy work pants, he spread out in his seat like a giant amoeba, both of his legs outstretched in the aisles with the soles of his construction-style work boots facing me. I casually strode over to where he sat, slapped my hand down on the table top and gave him my hardest ‘Let’s get with the program’ stare. He flinched, quickly straightened up, shot a brief look of fear, then relaxed and smiled. I then explained the rules of my classroom to him. I believe after a quick assessment of me, he realized that I was not a ‘hater,’ just a teacher doing his job. We had an understanding from that day onward.

Ricky’s warmth and vital disposition made a teacher only want to try harder at mastering the tricks of motivation. The other students also enjoyed his comedic, jocular nature. The boys appreciated and respected him for his cool and cockiness. All of the girls, irrespective of race, wanted to help him. Not missing a beat, I took advantage of their maternal quality and paired them with Ricky. Shy at first, but with a grin and eyebrows raised, I believe Ricky to have been most appreciative of this strategy.

The stale sweet smell of cigarettes and marijuana on his oversized jacket and his bloodshot eyes provided clues into the life that this 16 year old child led when he left the musty-smelling dilapidated ‘ghetto’ classroom, Room 655, out near the back parking lot of Richmond High School. Occasionally, Ricky would blurt out in the middle of my lectures, ‘Mr. C. I love you, man!’ Slightly distracted, I would calmly respond, ‘I love you too, Ricky,’ then quickly resume my lecture amidst the laughter of Ricky’s classmates. I never saw one hint of anger in Ricky, making it even more difficult for me to fathom any scenario that could have led to Ricky picking up an assault rifle. Maybe it was not about anger, but about self defense. Kill or be killed. Take it to the enemy before he does you. I choose to believe Ricky was just trying to survive the day he died.

The last time I saw Ricky was in a bike shop in the neighboring city of Berkeley, three years after I was his teacher, one year before he died. There was some commotion coming from the back of the store as Ricky and a few of his friends had put the store employees on a heightened state of alert. I recognized Ricky’s laughter. Again, wearing a white T-shirt and black baggy pants, he recognized me. ‘Mr. C!’ he hollered across the store, now drawing eye-raising attention of employees and shoppers alike. We gave each other a quick hug and slap of the shoulders while everyone, including Ricky’s friends, looked on, trying to comprehend what they were seeing take place on the store floor — an unlikely reunion of sorts.

We chatted briefly about what we had been up to and the good ol’ days of Physical Science class in room 655. We wished each other well, then laughing uncontrollably, Ricky and his buddies stumbled out the door, bouncing into the street, so full of life. I kicked myself for not treating them to lunch at the next door McDonalds. With some students, a teacher can predict such an ending. With Ricky, I never saw it coming.”

Staff writers Natalie Neysa Alund and Daniel M. Jimenez contributed to this report.

Do you think schools can help prevent such tragic endings?

Posted on Friday, August 10th, 2012
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 21 Comments »