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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 »

Hands-on learning opportunities in high schools could grow in state

Students at DeAnza High in El Sobrante got to strut their stuff Tuesday, when state Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, visited the campus.

Student “ambassadors” led the legislators, press and business reps through the school to see classes that help prepare students for college and careers. Each student must choose between three “academies,” focusing on health, law or technology.

In the health academy, teacher Kenyetta Haynes explained the importance of strong communication skills to students. Student Romina Pelaez, 16, of Richmond, told me these skills will serve students well throughout their lives.

The senior wants to major in psychology in college, then become a neurologist. Last summer, Romina said she had an internship in a dental office where she did filing and prepped the room for patients.

Internships are a hallmark of “linked learning” programs that link what is being taught in the classroom with the real world, making the learning relevant to students and motivating them to explore a variety of career options. Steinberg and other officials visited the campus to generate community and business interest in competitive grants through a $250 million Career Pathways Trust set aside in the state budget to fund similar linked learning programs statewide.

Health academy student Brandy Phillips, 17, said she thinks it’s a good idea to offer career-oriented classes to more students so they can receive the same kinds of opportunities she and her classmates have had.

“Once they get into an area, they will find a calling in it,” she said. “I want to be a nurse practitioner because I feel like I have good communication skills and it’s something I would be good at. It wouldn’t be ‘work’ because it would be something I’d be happy to do every day.”

Brandy said the academy also offers students the opportunity to become Certified Nursing Assistants through Contra Costa Community College and begin working while still in high school.

Some health academy students are studying diabetes in an integrated curriculum that even includes their Spanish class, linking coursework so they can see connections in their community. Similarly, law academy students visit courtrooms to see justice in action, said Judge Judy Johnson, who works with the program.

“In an academic framework, we bring it home to them when they see a defendant in court being arraigned and told what the charges are against them,” she said. “Or sometimes they’ve seen people taken away and incarcerated for a crime they’ve been convicted of committing.”

Law academy senior Michael Reyes, 17, of El Sobrante, said he is learning valuable life skills such as public speaking, collaborating with partners and backing up arguments with facts. He plans to major in criminology and dreams of becoming a district attorney.

“I think the law academy really set me up to pick my profession,” he said. “We had a mentor program with 25 local lawyers and judges. I feel like I got a head start on my college career.”

Technology academy students build robots and participate in robotics competitions. The school also offers Advanced Placement courses, said Principal Bob Evans.

“You can’t give up on any kid,” he said. “Every one of our kids is going to be successful in some way.”

Yet, many DeAnza students must overcome challenges to stay focused on schoolwork, Evans said. Sixty percent are bussed in, many from the often violent Iron Triangle. Some have parents in jail or don’t have enough food for dinner.

“Most of our kids have lived in multiple homes and don’t know where their next home is going to be,” he said. “This is a safe haven for them. We have to look at every student individually and think: ‘How can I support them?’”

DeAnza High is in the West Contra Costa School district. Other East Bay districts with linked learning programs are Antioch, Mt. Diablo and Pittsburg in Contra Costa County, and Oakland and San Lorenzo in Alameda County.

More information about linked learning is available at http://linkedlearning.org.

Posted on Wednesday, November 6th, 2013
Under: Antioch school district, Education, Oakland school district, Pittsburg school district, San Lorenzo school district, Walnut Creek School District | 4 Comments »

A closer look at Academic Performance Index scores in Contra Costa County districts

Students work quietly in a Richmond College Prep classroom. The school received an API score of 828 this year, soaring 33 points.

Students work quietly in a Richmond College Prep classroom. The school received an API score of 828 this year, soaring 33 points.

When it comes to test scores, the Academic Performance Index, or API, is considered by many to be the most important rating a California school receives. Based on standardized tests scores taken by students in grades 2-11 in the spring, the API is a composite number between a low of 200 and a high of 1,000 that shows how schools throughout the state compare to each other.

Since the scoring system was created, schools and districts have tried to reach a score of 800, considered by the state to mean most students are working at grade level. This year, 11 Contra Costa County districts achieved this goal.

But the federal government’s No Child Left Behind law measures schools according to a harder-to-reach bar. This year, 90 percent of students were required to score proficient on math and English language arts tests to meet this standard.

Those who fail to meet the standard for two years in a row are placed in federal Program Improvement and required to implement interventions. This year, 10 Contra Costa districts were in Program Improvement.

Here’s a side by side comparison of county district API scores in 2012 and 2013, showing growth or decline:

DISTRICT 2013 2012 CHANGE PROGRAM IMPROVEMENT
Acalanes 904 908 -4 No
Antioch 740 746 -6 Yes
Brentwood 861 859 +2 Yes
Byron 846 836 +10 No
Canyon 874 876 -2 No
John Swett 745 751 -6 Yes
Knightsen 816 840 -24 No
Lafayette 934 938 -4 No
Liberty 794 785 +9 No
Martinez 836 844 -8 Yes
Moraga 955 964 -9 No
Mt. Diablo 791 794 -3 Yes
Oakley 799 816 -17 Yes
Orinda 958 967 -9 No
Pittsburg 733 738 -5 Yes
San Ramon 923 928 -5 Yes
Walnut Creek 906 915 -9 Yes
West Contra Costa 717 715 +2 Yes
CALIFORNIA 789 791 -2 N/A

Districts that failed to meet the state API score of 800 were Antioch, John Swett, Liberty, Mt. Diablo, Oakley, Pittsburg and West Contra Costa. Stephanie Anello, associate superintendent of educational services in Antioch, said the district’s dip in scores came as a surprise, after teachers had been assessing students every six weeks throughout the year and principals increased classroom observations.

“It’s very disappointing, we felt we were headed in the right direction,” she said. “We’re trying to look for patterns to see what happened, but we don’t see one. For now, we are just going to have to use it to strengthen our resolve and focus on the quality of teaching that happens every single day.”

No schools in the John Swett district surpassed the state’s target of 800. In the Liberty district, one of four comprehensive high schools met that goal.

Mt. Diablo’s API score dropped three points to 791. Interim Superintendent John Bernard sent a message to the community saying the district is continuing to train teachers and administrators in the new Common Core curriculum standards, which focus on critical thinking and problem-solving.

Oakley’s API score dropped 17 points and nearly all schools in the district also saw double-digit declines, with the exception of Vintage Parkway Elementary, which posted a 14-point gain to 831. Anne Allen, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services, said the district has assigned a second teacher to work as a full-time math coach at elementary grades and another to serve as a part-time middle school literacy coach.

The Pittsburg district’s score fell five points to 733, with only three of 12 comprehensive schools reaching the state’s proficiency target. The West Contra Costa district was one of four in the county to improve its API score, rising two points to 717.

“We’re happy to show improvement,” said Nia Raschidchi, assistant superintendent of educational services.

Here’s a link to the Contra Costa Times’ searchable database of API scores for all schools and districts in the state: http://www.contracostatimes.com/data/ci_23965432/2013-school-ratings?source=pkg

Staff writers Paul Burgarino and Rowena Coetseee contributed to this report.

What do you think lower-performing districts should do to improve student achievement?

Posted on Friday, August 30th, 2013
Under: Contra Costa County, Education, Liberty district, Mt. Diablo school district, Oakley district, Paul Burgarino, Pittsburg school district, Rowena Coetsee | 64 Comments »

A closer look at how well unified districts in Contra Costa County are educating low-income and minority students

Last week, the student advocacy group Education Trust-West released its third annual report cards for the largest unified districts in the state, showing how well they educate low-income and minority students.

Here’s a look at the Contra Costa County districts included, showing whether or not they improved between 2011 and 2012. The organization assigned overall letter grades as well as numerical rankings for categories, based on standardized test scores, academic improvement over five years, the size of achievement gaps, and college readiness. Note: This was the first year the report included college readiness and high school graduation data.

ANTIOCH: Overall grade: D+ (up from D in 2011)
Performance among students of color: C (up from D in 2011)
Performance among low-income students: C (up from D in 2011)
Improvement among students of color: D (same, but rank of 128 up from 135)
Improvement among low-income students: D (same, but rank of 127 up from 129)
African-American and white achievement gap: D (up from F)
Latino and white achievement gap: B (up from C in 2011)
College eligibility among students of color: F (rank 135 of 142)
High school graduation among students of color: D (rank 129 of 143)

MT. DIABLO: Overall grade: D+ (up from D in 2011)
Performance among students of color: C (up from D in 2011)
Performance among low-income students: C (up from D in 2011)
Improvement among students of color: C (same, but rank of 44 up from 63)
Improvement among low-income students: B (up from C in 2011)
African-American and white achievement gap: F (same, rank up)
Latino and white achievement gap: F (same, rank dropped)
College eligibility among students of color: F (rank 128 of 142)
High school graduation among students of color: C (rank 120 of 143)

PITTSBURG: Overall grade: C- (up from D+ in 2010) (No data from 2011)
Performance among students of color: C (up from D in 2010)
Performance among low-income students: C (same, rank of 107 up from 110)
Improvement among students of color: C (same, but rank dropped to 60 from 48)
Improvement among low-income students: C (but rank dropped to 61 from 48)
African-American and white achievement gap: C (up from D)
Latino and white achievement gap: B (up from C in 2010)
College eligibility among students of color: F (rank 134 of 142)
High school graduation among students of color: D (rank 137 of 143)

SAN RAMON VALLEY: Overall grade: B- (up from C+ in 2011)
Performance among students of color: A (same, but rank of 3 up from 4 in 2011)
Performance among low-income students: A (same, but rank of 5 up from 18)
Improvement among students of color: D (same, but rank of 136 up from 141)
Improvement among low-income students: C (but rank of 118 up from 119 in 2011)
African-American and white achievement gap: C (up from D)
Latino and white achievement gap: B (same, rank dropped)
College eligibility among students of color: B (rank 6 of 142)
High school graduation among students of color: A (rank 1 of 143)

WEST CONTRA COSTA: Overall grade: D- (down from D in 2011)
Performance among students of color: D (same, rank dropped to 148 from 145)
Performance among low-income students: D (same, rank dropped to 147 from 145)
Improvement among students of color: D (dropped from C in 2011)
Improvement among low-income students: D (down from C in 2011)
African-American and white achievement gap: F (same, rank up)
Latino and white achievement gap: F (same, rank dropped)
College eligibility among students of color: D (rank 69 of 142)
High school graduation among students of color: D (rank 130 of 143)

The complete report cards are at http://reportcards.edtrustwest.org.

How could districts improve instruction for low-income and minority students?

Posted on Sunday, April 7th, 2013
Under: Antioch school district, Contra Costa County, Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Pittsburg school district, San Ramon Valley school district, West Contra Costa school district | 44 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 »