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

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, August 17th, 2012 at 1:20 pm in Contra Costa County Board of Education, Education, Richmond, West Contra Costa school district.

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: https://efudd.cccoe.k12.ca.us/retrieve.php?key=003b48b1fdad5afd5ab0fc31730a74f9

Video clips from the meeting are at http://qik.com/tharrington and http://www.youtube.com/tunedtotheresa.

What alternatives do you think parents should explore?

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