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Students’ voices can be powerfully persuasive

By Theresa Harrington
I was very happy today to see an Op Ed piece in the Times written by Valley View Middle School students in Pleasant Hill. In case you missed it, here’s what they had to say:

“Your Turn: Middle schoolers offer suggestions
Submitted by Christine Gerchow
For the past two weeks, we the seventh graders in Valley View Middle School’s communication class have been working on a public speaking and advocacy unit. We have learned about homelessness, harassment, drugs and alcohol and about the effects of budget cuts and the loss of after-school programming.
We talked about how many kids are bored after school and in need of challenging and exciting programs to keep them occupied.
We talked about how depression affects many of our peers because they feel lost and without guidance. We heard stories of our peers whose parents lost their jobs.
We are writing to tell you that middle-school students not only think of the challenges in our communities, but that we also have ideas of how to address them.
We believe that as thinking and feeling students we deserve to be listened to and acknowledged.
So here are some of our ideas: let’s set up the joint-use agreements first lady Michelle Obama talks about so the baseball and softball fields that sit unoccupied too many days of the week can be used.
Let’s ensure that students play a major role in designing the curriculum of after-school programming. Let’s also invite students to speak at school board meetings more often. Let’s imitate Florida and create community school cleanup days where painters, plumbers and contractors come and touch-up our schools. Other volunteers can pick up trash, design murals and plant flowers.
Finally, let’s tap into the knowledge of retirees so they can visit our classrooms and assist our teachers. It would be great if every classroom had one or two smart adult-volunteers to help our teachers for a few hours each day.
We hope that our ideas inspire community members and school district leaders to act. We can’t keep waiting for legislation to pass or Race to the Top funds to arrive. We are in school now and we are expected to learn now.
Thank you for printing our letter and acknowledging our voices.
This article was signed by seventh grade students at Valley View Middle School in Pleasant Hill. Those students are: Drew Anderson, Paul Andreini, Miguel Bahena, Isadora Barragan, Amanda Broyles, Deniro Arnold, Devin Davis, Josh deHaydu, Summerlin Dyckes, Julien Estrada Julia Fregoso, Jesse Guerra, Julia Hair, Rachel Henry, Lucas Hurley, Richard Kong, Michael Matthewson, Alan Munguia, Dillon Nordstrom, Trevor Nourie, Alex Stephenson, Rebecca Valdivia and Judy Wang.”

Kudos to these students for speaking up about issues that affect them.
The letter to the editor was a first step. But there’s more they can do to be heard.
No one prevents students from speaking at school board meetings. These students can take their suggestions directly to the Mt. Diablo school board at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and speak for three minutes each, if they wish, during the Public Comment portion of the meeting.
Trustees plan to vote on contracts for after-school programs, a new homework policy , student safety plans and athletic fees, which might interest the students.
I have seen students persuade trustees in the past with their impassioned arguments. Trustee Gary Eberhart said one student’s e-mail prompted him to change a vote regarding reducing the hours of a high school treasurer.
A former high school senior persuaded the district to allow students to apply for membership on the School Closure committee.
And at last Tuesday’s meeting, a Northgate High student told trustees that he wanted his school to get stadium lights so it could enjoy Friday night football games, like other schools. Trustees approved the lights.
Sometimes, trustees are unable to give students what they want. Many athletes were unhappy when the board cut funding for after-school sports and student musicians have argued against cuts to elementary music programs.
But the board does listen. And when students speak, their messages often elicit thunderous applause from the audience, because everyone knows the whole reason the district exists is to serve them.
Students at board meetings have the ability not only to persuade trustees, but to get their messages out to the community that watches meetings on-line or listens on the radio.
Sometimes, news reporters also quote them in stories or newscasts about the meetings.
Former students who have graduated from district schools also have compelling stories to tell. At last Tuesday’s meeting, one graduate pleaded with the board not to cut special education resources, saying they helped him to graduate from high school and pass a written firefighter’s proficiency test and to obtain an EMT certification.
“This was given to me because I was nurtured,” Adam Davis said. “If you are truly about the kids, show me and show everybody.”
He received heartfelt applause, as a district success story. Yet, trustees voted to cut many special education positions anyway, saying they had no choice because of state budget reductions.
Trustee Dick Allen said he voted for the cuts “with a heavy heart.”
“I just hate to do this,” he said. “But it has to be done…we do have to have a balanced budget.”
It’s difficult to make cuts, while analyzing staff recommendation on a piece of paper. But it’s even more difficult to make such decisions while looking into the faces of the students who are being affected.
When JROTC was on the chopping block, dozens of uniformed students marched into the meetings and told heart-wrenching stories about how those programs helped turn their lives around. In the end, their programs were saved.
Students also spoke up during a Bancroft Elementary meeting last Tuesday about Superintendent Steven Lawrence’s decision to transfer the principal. When Lawrence reiterated the messages he heard that day, he included the students’ strong statements that they wanted their principal to stay.
And a few months ago, two courageous Ygnacio Valley High students spoke up about money their prom planner took, without following through on her contract. This led many people in the community to step forward and try to help the students, while exposing the prom planner’s history of not not meeting obligations.
As I continue covering education in this community, I look forward to hearing from more students about how budget cuts and other district decisions are affecting them.
Students: is your school meeting your needs? What suggestions do you have for improving your educational environment?

Posted on Saturday, June 19th, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Pleasant Hill, Theresa Harrington, Uncategorized | No Comments »

PTA Rally for Education in Pleasant Hill

By Theresa Harrington
Parents, students, educators and community members plan to gather at College Park High School at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, April 15 to rally for education funding.
Speakers will include St. Mary’s basketball star Omar Samhan, Survivor veteran Yau-man Chan, DVC President Judy Walters, state legislators from Contra Costa County, state PTA President Jo Loss, county Teacher of the Year Joelle Marchese and county Superintendent of Schools Joe Ovick.
Districts throughout the county are facing massive budget cuts resulting in large numbers of pink-slipped teachers. In the Mt. Diablo district, about 422 teachers and other credentialed employees received preliminary layoff notices. Another 55 temporary teachers were told they may not be rehired.
College Park librarian Kit Hein spoke at Tuesday’s board meeting to mark National Library Week and invited trustees to attend the rally. She was one of five district librarians who received a pink slip, but she told me today she has learned that it will be rescinded.
The board has agreed to slash $229,712 a year by cutting 3.6 librarian positions starting in the fall. This likely means high school libraries will be closed three days a week and middle school libraries will be closed four days a week, Hein said.
“It doesn’t really make sense to any of us because we teach, we collaborate with teachers,” said Hein, who has worked in the district since 2006.
She currently works at College Park three days a week and at Riverview Middle School in Bay Point two days a week.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “There’s no consistency and then the teachers forget when I’m here.”
If the budget gets worse, she fears libraries could close altogether. Other librarians who received pink slips were Raychael Knighten, Ryann Brooks, Ruth Shumate and Barbara Torrres.
Layoffs are determined by seniority and credentials. The district will hold administrative hearings from 1-6 p.m. April 27-29 at the Willow Creek Center in Concord to sort out credential and seniority questions before final pink slips are sent out in May.
A complete list of teachers and other credentialed employees who received preliminary pink slips is on the district’s Web site in a legal document about the hearings, exhibits A and B, at
Hein said she hopes the rally helps raise awareness about how budget cuts are affecting schools.
“I’m kind of excited,” she said. “I hope lots of people show up and it hits the news so that people in Sacramento wake up. I think our local legislators are pretty supportive, but I don’t know what they do when they go up there behind closed doors.”
The high school is at 201 Viking Drive in Pleasant Hill, across the street from Diablo Valley College. More information is at
Do you think rallies like this make a difference?

Posted on Wednesday, April 14th, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Pleasant Hill, Theresa Harrington | No Comments »

Math competition fast breaks into learning

By Theresa Harrington
I visited teacher Sol Henik’s classroom at Prospect High School in Pleasant Hill today and watched the exciting Final Four round of his students’ “Math Madness” competition.

He models it after the NCAA basketball “March Madness” tournament, with students facing off against each other doing math problems. “Sweet 16” turned to eight on Monday and Tuesday. The “Great 8” was held Wednesday and the winners of today’s Final Four will compete for the championship on Friday.

This morning, semi-finalists Alexis Bunyard and Jake Jaramillo answered one set of questions, while Russell McKeown and Robert Banchero answered a second set of questions.

The person who answers the most questions correctly within 15 minutes wins. If there’s a tie, the person who finishes first wins.

Jake and Robert won today. Watch for the story in the Contra Costa Times this weekend.

Here’s a sampling of problems both teams were given. Each set of questions is similar, but most use different numbers.

If you’d like to have your own Math Madness competition, cut and paste each set of questions onto a separate page and print them out. Get a friend, set a timer for 8 minutes, then start doing the problems. (The actual competition included twice as many questions in 15 minutes.)

You’ll find the answers at the bottom of this post. Good luck!

Sampling of questions given to Jake and Alexis:

1. -y = -2x + 1: What is the y intercept and the slope?

2. Garcia borrowed $8,000 from his cousin Susan at the rate of 4.5 percent a year. He repaid the amount after three years. How much did he repay?

3. Jana bought a car for $6,300 and later sold it for a 15 percent profit. How much did Jana sell her car for?

4. What is the probability that you’ll roll a seven with a pair of dice? Reduce, if possible.

5. 1/4, 2/5, 3/10, 3/8. List from greatest to least.

6. A pair of Jordan’s shoes regularly selling for $145 is marked 20 percent off. What is the sale price?

7. Test 1: 91 percent, Test 2: 84 percent, Test 3: 92 percent. What is the lowest score you can get on the fourth test and still get an A (90 percent) in the class?

Sampling of questions given to Robert and Russell:

1. -9x + 3y = -18: What is the y intercept and the slope?

2. Garcia borrowed $4,000 from his cousin Susan at the rate of 8 percent a year. He repaid the amount after two years. How much did he repay?

3. Jana bought a car for $4,200 and later sold it for a 30 percent profit. How much did Jana sell her car for?

4. If you roll a number cube labeled 1-6 once, how likely is it that you would randomly roll a number more than 4?

5. A pair of Jordan’s shoes regularly selling for $135 is marked 20 percent off. What is the sale price?

6. Solve: 4y – 3 = 3y + 4

7. Test 1: 91 percent, Test 2: 84 percent, Test 3: 92 percent. What is the lowest score you can get on the fourth test and still get an A (90 percent) in the class?

To help relate his Math Madness lessons to basketball, Henik also had students shoot hoops and track how many baskets they made, compared to attempts.

They then converted these numbers into percentages, decimals and fractions. You could also do this with a friend. The one with the highest percentage of shots made wins.

Final Four Answers:

Jake and Alexis test: (1) y intercept is -1 and the slope is 2 (2) $9,080 (3) $7,245 (4) 1/6 (5) 2/5, 3/8, 3/10, 1/4 (6) $116 (7) 93 percent

Robert and Russell test: (1) the y intercept is -6 and the slope is 3 (2) $4,640 (3) $5,460 (4) 1/3 (5) $108 (6) y = 7 (7) 93 percent

How did you do?

Posted on Thursday, April 1st, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Pleasant Hill, Theresa Harrington | No Comments »