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Three Contra Costa County districts struggle to prioritize construction projects

Three school boards in Contra Costa County are deciding how to prioritize construction projects to complete with remaining money from their districts’ voter-approved bond measures.

The Martinez school board’s discussion of about $17.3 million left from its $45 million Measure K bond passed in 2010 made the news last week when an edited video of Trustee Denise Elsken’s comments about air conditioning proposed at two schools went viral. Elsken said she supported air conditioning at John Swett Elementary, but not at Las Juntas Elementary, in part because she believed Las Juntas students are more “acclimated” to heat than students at John Swett.

Elsken based her conclusion on the assumption that about 95 percent of John Swett students have air conditioning at home, while about 95 percent of Las Juntas students do not. However, the video did not include Elsken’s further comments explaining her position.

Unfortunately, the Martinez district’s audio recording of the meeting is of such poor quality that Elsken’s comments about air conditioning cannot be clearly heard. It appears the district placed microphones in front of some trustees and public speakers — but not all — resulting in a recording that is not an accurate record of what happened.

However, based on another recording obtained by a colleague, Elsken reminisced about attending Las Juntas herself and sitting under shady trees on the “eight to ten hot days a year.” She also pointed out that Las Juntas did not rank air conditioning as a high priority.

Elsken said staffers instead preferred other upgrades, including “teaching walls.” The Martinez agenda report listed field renovation at Las Juntas as the only staff priority for the school, with a note from the principal stating: “Field/track has holes that are major tripping hazards.”

Besides discussing specific projects, the Martinez board spent considerable time discussing values, including safety, integrity, education and communication. Trustees plan to continue discussing “equity” on Monday, along with the projects they informally agreed to support March 30, including air conditioning at John Swett Elementary, which was listed as a staff priority.

Equity has also been a hot topic in the Mt. Diablo and West Contra Costa school districts. The Mt. Diablo school board may vote April 20 on several different proposals for issuing $77 million in remaining Measure C bonds voters approved in 2010.

At two study sessions last month, several Mt. Diablo trustees who were not on the board in 2010 said they needed to see updated project lists before they would agree to spend the money. A consultant suggested the board might also want to consider issuing less than $77 million now and waiting until 2016 to ask voters to pass a new bond measure.

The Martinez and West Contra Costa school boards have also begun talking about asking voters to approve new bond measures to finish additional projects.

In an email to some community members after she was widely criticized for her comments, Elsken said that she believes Las Juntas should be torn down and rebuilt within the next 10 years, which would require a new bond measure.

Similarly, the West Contra Costa school district is planning to rebuild several schools, even though the remaining approximately $592 million from $1.6 billion approved by district voters in six bond measures will not be enough to complete them all. The school board recently agreed to update its Facilities Master Plan and to set up a committee to rank projects based on factors such as age, condition and enrollment.

Although the West Contra Costa district has told voters in the past that it wanted to pass new bond measures to provide equitable facilities for all students, it still has a long way to go to meet that goal after 16 years of construction. It has spent millions to provide top-notch facilities for some, while others are still waiting for their turns.

How do you think school boards should prioritize projects?

Posted on Friday, April 10th, 2015
Under: Education, Martinez school district, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | 16 Comments »

Contra Costa County Teachers of the Year share secrets of success

I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the classrooms of Elizabeth Lanfranki and Brian Wheeler, named 2014 Contra Costa County Teachers of the Year on Thursday.

During phone interviews with them Friday, I conjured up images in my head of kids screaming vocabulary words in Lanfranki’s English classes at Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High in Pittsburg and teens tinkering with automotive technology in Wheeler’s classes at Alhambra High in Martinez.

At 24, Lanfranki is only about a decade older than her students. The Las Lomas High graduate (class of 2008), who grew up in Walnut Creek, said she uses her voice and body language to engage her students.

For example, students in her sixth grade English class have no trouble remembering the difference between “mood” and “tone” in literature.

“I have the students form an M with their hands and we say: ‘Mood affects me.’ And they point to themselves.”
This helps them to understand that mood is related to how the reader feels after poring over a piece of literature, she said.

Tone, on the other hand, reflects the author’s attitude. To drive this point home, Lanfranki and her students demonstrate a bit of attitude themselves. They change their voices and move their heads back and forth, saying “tone,” with an attitude, she said.

“So, when they come to the test, they’re going to remember tone versus mood, because they have the gestures in their heads,” she said. “It’s whole-brain teaching when you throw in a gesture with a word.”

Lanfranki also encourages her students to scream vocabulary words to help them remember them. A reading comprehension technique she uses teaches students to break down texts into smaller chunks and analyze the words and paragraphs to better understand them. This is especially helpful for English language learners, she said.

Lanfranki has also started an after-school intervention program and is involved in several clubs including the Builder’s Club, which focuses on “building community through service,” she said. She said she is excited to have received top recognition as an exemplary teacher in the county at such a young age.

“I’m a product of Contra Costa education and I know how many great teachers there are out there,” she said. “I’m just honored to be recognized among them and for my peers to think that I’ve achieved this feat.”

Although Wheeler is 30 years older than Lanfranki, he has only been teaching a year longer. For three decades, he worked as a collision repair technician, fixing crashed cars.

He said he decided to pursue teaching on the advice of his wife, who is an elementary school principal in Fairfield, where they live. His relationships with his wife and his adult sons, he said, have taught him the importance of building strong connections with others.

“It’s my treasure in my life,” he said. “That’s the thing I want to pass on more than anything else — is to show kids how to have great relationships. I’ve been married for 33 years to the same woman. I have great relationships with my three kids.”

Wheeler’s former student, James Bailey White, said Wheeler’s life lessons were an important part of his classes.
“Mr. Wheeler was without a doubt the single most influential and effective teacher I have had in my collective learning career,” Bailey White said. “He sees no student as an enemy, and has always built excellent rapport with pupils, even with the most difficult ones.”

Wheeler praised the Alhambra High community, which has supported him in his teaching career.

“It is an incredible privilege to teach in Martinez,” he said. “When I came to work here, the people wrapped their arms around me and have helped me. This is an incredible place to work.”

But his real secret to success, he said, is his wife, who taught special education in elementary and high school and was also a first and second grade teacher, before becoming a principal.

“My wife is my secret weapon,” he said. “My wife is an incredible teacher, so I got trained every night when I went home.”

What do you think are the secrets of successful teachers?

Posted on Friday, September 12th, 2014
Under: Contra Costa County, Education, Martinez school district, Pittsburg school district | No Comments »

Nearly 100 candidates seek school board seats in Contra Costa County

As the election filing deadline neared in Contra Costa County on Friday, nearly 100 candidates had taken out papers for more than 20 school board races.

The filing deadline will be extended to 5 p.m. Wednesday in 11 districts where some incumbents are not seeking re-election. These include: The Acalanes, Brentwood, Byron, John Swett, Lafayette, Moraga, Mt. Diablo, Orinda, Pittsburg, Walnut Creek and West Contra Costa districts.

Just before the filing deadline, it appeared that nearly all of the races would be contested, with most incumbents facing challengers. Here is a list of the races and candidates who had qualified for the ballot by 5 p.m. Friday, followed by potential candidates who had taken out papers, but had not yet completed all the ballot requirements.

County Board of Education, Area 2: Incumbent Christine Deane and Ray Andersen.

County Board of Education, Area 4: Incumbent Richard Asadoorian and Mike Maxwell.

County Board of Education, Area 5: Incumbent Cynthia Ruehling and Jeff Belle.

Community College, Ward 1: Incumbent John Marquez and Cheryl Sudduth.

Community College, Ward 3: Tim Farley and incumbent Matthew Rinn.

Community College, Ward 4: Incumbent John Nejedly (unopposed).

Acalanes: Incumbent Susan (Susie) Epstein, incumbent Nancy Kendzierski, Kristen Correll and Robert Hockett.

Acalanes (short term): Incumbent J. Richard Whitmore (unopposed).

Antioch Unified School District: Incumbent Joy Motts, Incumbent Gary Hack and Debra Vinson and Walter Ruehlig.

Brentwood: Incumbent Emil Geddes, incumbent Heather Partida, John A. Fjeldstad, Scott S. Dudek, Susan Wallace, Johnny Rodriguez, Christina Bell and Marci Lapriore.

Byron Union: Incumbent Jill Marlene Sprenkel, Felicia Schweller and Tania Salinas. Not yet qualified: Karri Jo Murayama.

Byron (short term): Incumbent Betty Sanchez. Not yet qualified: Gina Larmar Parish.

Canyon Elementary: Incumbent David James Smith, incumbent Ian Llewellyn and incumbent Geronimo Bernard.

John Swett: Incumbent Brian Colombo, Michael Kirker and Deborah A. Brandon.

Knightsen: Incumbent Liesel Williams, Patrick Hulleman and Kristen L. Fuller, incumbent Ralph Adam McMeans and Robin Denise Pastor.

Lafayette: Incumbent Teresa Gerringer and incumbent David Gerson and Suzy Pak.

Liberty: Incumbent Roy Ghiggeri, incumbent Daron Spears, incumbent Joanne Louise Byer and Pauline Allred.

Martinez: Incumbent Deidre Siguenza, incumbent Roberta “Bobbi” Horack and Ronald Skrehot.

Moraga: Incumbent Parker Colvin, Heather O’Donnell and Jonathan Nickens.

Moraga (short term): Not yet qualified: Heather o’Donnell.

Mt. Diablo: Incumbent Linda Mayo, incumbent Cheryl Hansen, Michael Langley, Herbert Lee, Debra Mason and James Ryan Egnor-Keil.

Oakley: Incumbent Gloria Jean Lott, incumbent Mark Jordan and incumbent Arthur Fernande.

Orinda: Incumbent Juliane Rossiter, Hillary Shayne Weiner, Carol Brown and Jason Kaune. Not yet qualified: incumbent Christopher Clark Severson.

Pittsburg: Incumbent Joe Arenivar, incumbent Duane Smith and De’Shawn Woolridge. Not yet qualified: Daniel Borsuk.

San Ramon Valley: Incumbent Ken Mintz, incumbent Rachel Hurd, incumbent Denise Jennison and Jerome Pandell.

Walnut Creek: Incumbent Barbara Pennington, Stacey Schweppe, Aimee Moss, Heidi Hernandez Gatty and Sherri McGoff.

West Contra Costa: Incumbent Madeline Kronenberg, incumbent Elaine Merriweather, Elizabeth (Liz) Block, Chester Stevens, Raquel Donoso, Otheree Christian, Mister Phillips and Peter Nicholas Chau. Not yet qualified: Charlene W. Harlan-Ogbeide, Valerie Cuevas and Giorgio Cosentino.

Which candidates do you support?

Posted on Friday, August 8th, 2014
Under: Contra Costa Community College District, Contra Costa County, Contra Costa County Board of Education, Education, Election, John Swett district, Lafayette school district, Liberty district, Martinez school district, Moraga, Mt. Diablo school district, Oakley district, Orinda, Pittsburg school district, San Ramon Valley school district, Walnut Creek School District, West Contra Costa school district | 14 Comments »

Pleasant Hill Education initiative hosts Wednesday Career Night at College Park High

The Pleasant Hill Education Initiative will present a Career Night for College Park High students Wednesday at the school.

The free event is from 6:30-8 p.m. in the multi-use room at 201 Viking Drive in Pleasant Hill.

Professionals in the engineering, manufacturing, construction and architecture industries will discuss the education and training needed to work in their fields.

More information is available at http://www.ci.pleasant-hill.ca.us/Calendar.aspx?EID=2577.

Do you think this event should be open to students from other schools, including middle schools in Pleasant Hill?

Posted on Tuesday, November 19th, 2013
Under: Education, Martinez school district, Pleasant Hill | 3 Comments »

Contra Costa County school districts prepare to implement Common Core standards

In case you haven’t heard yet, there are big changes coming to your child’s classroom in the next two years.

Just when everyone was used to STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) assessments that cover hundreds of curriculum standards in math and English language arts, California jumped on a nationwide bandwagon to implement standards and tests that will be consistent from one state to another.

Called Common Core Standards, the new curriculum requirements are being eagerly embraced by many educators, who say they are the answer to complaints they had with No Child Left Behind.

Instead of whizzing through numerous lessons at breakneck speed without delving into any deeply, educators will soon be freed to slow down and encourage high-level discussions with their students about what they are learning. This is exciting to some, but scary to others, who aren’t sure how this will change they way they now teach.

To help educators sort all of this out, the Contra Costa County Office of Education hosted a two-day Common Core State Standards Summit earlier this week. About 400 people attended, including many hungry for information and a few dozen presenters who shared their early attempts at easing into the new standards.

“The shifts and issues associated with transition and implementation of the Common Core Standards are intertwined with all areas of instruction and assessment,” County Superintendent Joe Ovick wrote in his program introduction. “Implemented well, they give teachers the opportunity to reclaim their creativity in the classroom while strengthening the learning process and increasing outcomes for students.”

The key part of that sentence is: “implemented well.” And that’s the part teachers are struggling to accomplish.

Many experts came to their rescue, delivering presentations about how to implement the math standards, assessing literacy and designing lessons for the standards, facilitating close reading of complex texts, using creativity to engage learners, and effective teaching strategies.

Presenters also included several educators and administrators from local districts, who talked about what they’re doing to prepare teachers for the dramatic changes to come.

A Lafayette assistant superintendent, math coach and two literacy coaches shared lessons they’ve learned as they’ve begun to implement the new standards, along with challenges they’ve have faced. In a similar session, administrators from the Castro Valley, Pittsburg, San Ramon Valley and West Contra Costa districts discussed the first steps they’ve taken to introduce the standards to teachers.

But, some presentations dug deeper. A San Ramon Valley teacher and a reading specialist discussed ways to guide 4th and 5th graders to write like researchers and essayists, in a talk focused on “argument writing.” In another, a curriculum coordinator from San Ramon Valley showed teachers how to use texts to build students’ inquiry and critical thinking skills by exposing them to multiple perspectives.

A Mt. Diablo district principal shared strategies for ensuring that English learners will be able to comprehend complex texts and read, write and research subjects such as history, science and technical subjects.

I sat in on a presentation by Audrey Lee, director of Curriculum, Instruction and Technology for the Martinez district. Educators there are already adapting their teaching to the new requirements in five ways, she said.

These are: reading more nonfiction texts; teaching academic vocabulary (such as “deduce” or “hyperbole”); increasing expository writing in all subject areas; using technology to connect, collaborate, research, explore, synthesize, and present information; and asking open-ended questions, such as “Why do you think that?”

Lee laid out the challenge to districts, as they try to build buy-in, with this quote from author Lucy Calkins: “You can view the standards as a curmudgeon or as if they are gold.”

“I hope,” Lee said, “that you will look on these standards as if they are gold.”

More information about the summit is at http://www.cccoe.k12.ca.us/edsvcs/commoncore/summit.html

Do you think Common Core Standards will benefit California’s students?

Posted on Friday, November 2nd, 2012
Under: Education, Lafayette school district, Martinez school district, Mt. Diablo school district, Pittsburg school district, West Contra Costa school district | 34 Comments »

MDUSD Bay Point mystery meeting explained

When I heard after-the-fact from a district parent that a Bay Point master plan meeting was held last week, I contacted Pete Pedersen to find out what it was all about.

In an email, he responded, in part:

“On Wednesday, October 10th we convened the first meeting of the committee exploring the Bay Point master planning exercise. This is not a Board-appointed committee but rather, is a committee that was formed at the request of the audience attending the last public master planning meeting at Riverview last year. The meeting was not publically noticed. All Bay Point sites as well as Mt. Diablo High have designated volunteer committee representatives and each of these participants was individually contacted/noticed…”

Pedersen added that the PowerPoint presentation from the meeting should be added to the Bay Point Master Planning website soon.

As of now, it still has not been posted on the site: http://www.baypointmasterplan.com/

The previous Bay Point meeting, held May 15, also was not publicly noticed. And although the PowerPoint from that meeting is posted on the website, there are no minutes from the meeting posted, so there is no public record that this committee was formed.

The website assures readers: “Your opinion matters!” But, if only a select group of people are informed about the committee and its meetings, it appears that many people who might have opinions about the Bay Point Master Planning process could be left out of the loop.

Do you think these meetings should be publicly noticed and that minutes should be posted on the website?

Posted on Monday, October 15th, 2012
Under: Bay Point, Education, Martinez school district | 24 Comments »

Martinez school board appoints MDUSD principal as special education director

The Martinez school board has appointed Janelle Eyet, principal of the Sunrise special education school in the Mt. Diablo district, as its director of special education.

Here is the announcement from CJ Cammack, director of Student Services in the Martinez school district.

“I am happy to report the Martinez Unified School Board has approved the appointment of Janelle Eyet as the Director of Special Education. We narrowed the very talented field to three outstanding finalists and ultimately selected Janelle Eyet to be recommended for the position.

Janelle has over 10 years experience in positions of progressive leadership supporting students with diverse learning profiles. Mrs. Eyet worked as a school psychologist for two years before being promoted to a manager position within Mt. Diablo Unified. During a four year span where she served as the Manager of the Behaviorist Program Janelle was responsible for coordinating and designing behavior services for students in Mt. Diablo Unified with outside vendors as well as professionals from within the District.

Based on her great work as a Behaviorist Program Manager Janelle was promoted to the position of Site Principal for Sunrise Elementary School. Over the last four years Janelle has served as the Principal at Sunrise, a special education school serving students with special needs. Sunrise Elementary is also a mental health collaborative program which allows the school to work in conjunction with County Mental Health to support the needs of students.

Mrs. Eyet holds credentials in the areas of Administrative Services and Pupil Personnel Services (School Psychology). She has earned her Masters of Science in Counseling from Sacramento State and a Bachelors of Arts Degree in Psychology from University of Southern California. Janelle is a state licensed Educational Psychologist and has experience in many important areas, such as being a certified “SEIS” trainer and a certified Building Effective Schools Together (BEST) trainer. Mrs. Eyet is also certified in Professional Assault Crisis Training (Pro-ACT) and Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS).

We are confident that Janelle will bring her many outstanding qualities to this position and to the administrative team in Martinez Unified. Our students, staff, special education programs and community will benefit greatly from her work as the Director of Special Education.”

As of today, Eyet is still working at Sunrise, overseeing STAR testing. She will assume her new position July 1, according to Cammack.

What qualities do you think the Mt. Diablo school district should look for in candidates to fill Eyet’s position at Sunrise?

Posted on Tuesday, May 1st, 2012
Under: Education, Martinez school district, Mt. Diablo school district | 3 Comments »