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De Anza High teacher’s words of wisdom resonate after death

Retired De Anza HS teacher Karen Mason in Washington DC for President Obama's inauguration with former student Anka Lee.

Retired De Anza HS teacher Karen Mason in Washington DC for President Obama’s inauguration with former student Anka Lee.

During the past two months, I have been working on a Hometown Hero story about Karen Mason, a retired English teacher who worked at De Anza High in Richmond for 35 years and touched the lives of hundreds of students, their families and the surrounding El Sobrante community. Mason died Dec. 31, after battling cancer.

Although I only met Mason twice, I was touched by her selfless concern for others. In November, I interviewed Mason in her El Sobrante home. I saw her again Dec. 2 at a West Contra Costa school board meeting, where she spoke out against bullying.

On both occasions, I was impressed by Mason’s warmth and ability to connect with people. Her story will appear Tuesday in this newspaper, including quotes from many who knew her.

Below are excerpts from our interview that I couldn’t fit into the story, which reveal Mason’s caring spirit and determination to do what was right for her students and the world.

ON OPENING HER HEART TO OTHERS:
“You get to ‘adopt’ all kinds of people in your life if you’re open to it. My husband and I shared a mutual feeling that there were kids who needed safe places to come. One of the greatest gifts you can give is to listen.”

ON INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION:
“I don’t go on Facebook. I want personal communication. I’ve never texted. I think if you want to talk, come on by.”

“The gift of communication — the gift of humanity — is exchanged when you really can look somebody in the eye and say something truthful.”

ON THE DEATH OF HER SON, REID:
“The saddest story that my husband and I have is 12 years ago, our son was killed in an auto accident. There’s no milestone day when you lose a child. Grief is for the rest of your life. We feel blessed we had our son for 25 years. We’ve talked to other parents who have lost children to say, ‘You can get through it. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be great days of pain, and lots of it.’”

ON A POSITIVE ATTITUDE
“I’ve led my life saying, ‘Be positive today. Get up and reach out to others and stay focused on what’s really, really the best thing for you and for everybody else.”

ADVICE TO NEW TEACHERS;
“I taught a classroom management course for student teachers. I would say, ‘If you love your subject matter more than your students, don’t teach. You’d better walk into that classroom and say, no matter what, I love those kids.’”

ON STANDING UP FOR STUDENTS:
“I used to get up in the morning and say, ‘What are you going to do today that’s going to be good for kids?’ And if grown-ups got in the way, ‘Oh, well.’”

ON BEING VIEWED AS A ‘MOM’ OR ‘GRANDMA’ BY OTHERS:
“I feel really privileged that people would let themselves be vulnerable. What humanity needs more than anything is to recognize that we’re pretty much born vulnerable and it’s okay to walk your path with others — reach out to others.”

ON RELATIONSHIPS WITH STUDENTS:
“I would say, ‘I know this is hard. You can’t pass if you give up on yourself. I can invest in you, but if you don’t invest in yourself, then what’s going to happen?’”

“You never get more pressure than when you’re a teenager because everybody thinks they know what’s best for you — your teachers, your parents, your siblings — and they’re going to tell you. So, spend a little time figuring it out yourself. That’s hard work.”

ON HER LEGACY:
“I like to think that maybe God’s gift was to be open. My mom cultivated plants. I said, ‘Maybe I have the ability to cultivate people.’”

“When the end of life comes, I hope my legacy is that people always felt and knew that they were loved and that they could trust me that I had integrity. I like to think that — having stayed in the same old duck pond — that some of my fellow ducks remember that.”

“I don’t have a bucket list. I just pretty much tried to do stuff that was important. I’m really at peace. I’m going to get to the other side of the clouds and the view will be just as fantastic.”

It’s easy to see why Mason was so dearly loved.

To those who knew Mason: What memories of her stand out most for you?

Posted on Friday, January 3rd, 2014
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 2 Comments »

Story about foster youth in schools prompts fond memories from student’s former teacher

Foster youth Cookieey Ropati at Adams Middle School in Richmond.

Foster youth Cookieey Ropati at Adams Middle School in Richmond.

Earlier this week, I wrote a story about the state’s new emphasis on foster youth in schools that featured Cookieey Ropati, a foster child who graduated in June from Olympic Continuation High School in Concord and plans to attend Los Medanos Community College in the fall.

The day the story was published, I received a touching e-mail from Jason Lau, one of Ropati’s former teachers at Adams Middle School in Richmond, recalling her participation in his 7th-grade pre-algebra class, when she lived in the West Contra Costa school district. With the permission of Lau and Ropati, I am excerpting his e-mail:

“ … She always sat near the front (her choice) because she wanted to have as much interaction with her teachers as possible. She was an incredibly kind, extremely intelligent, and caring individual who literally brightened my day every time that I talked with her. She was also an amazing athlete. I remember her tenacity on the basketball court and how she embarrassed the boys when she proved that she could throw a football farther than them. What I remember most about her was her ability to stay positive and her relentless pursuit of life. She was never shy about talking to me about her situation and never allowed it to dictate the goals she set out for herself.”

Lau expressed happiness at learning that she will attend community college and asked me to let Ropati know that he is very proud of her.

“She was such a memorable student and was an inspirational story of perseverance even back in her middle school days,” he wrote.

When I told Ropati about Lau’s e-mail, she was surprised that he would take the time to send it, along with a photo that he found of her. Yet, Lau’s concern for Ropati’s welfare demonstrates what she said in the story about the importance of nurturing relationships for foster children: “It takes a village to raise a child. This is my village and I’m their child.”

When Ropati moved to the Mt. Diablo school district, she initially enrolled in Concord High, but transferred to Olympic after falling behind in credits. There, her support team included transition specialist and social worker Vivica Taylor, along with James Wogan, who oversees the district’s foster youth services.

“I met Vivica on my birthday three years ago and this woman brought me a cake and she didn’t even know me,” Ropati recalled. “So, I’m like, ‘Thank you, but who are you? I don’t understand.’”

As she began to open up to Taylor and the rest of the staff about the challenges she faced, Ropati said she realized they were providing stability in her life.

“I’m not sure what a regular parent does,” said Ropati, who has been in the foster care system since age 10. “But I’ve known them for so long that they’ve become basically my family.”

Taylor and Wogan said they provide “wraparound” services to foster youth to help meet all their needs, including food, housing, academic and mental health support. Although the number of foster students has decreased, they said the severity of the trauma and other issues with which these children are coping has intensified.

Many were abused or taken away from their parents for other reasons. Yet, the help they get from district staff — and from each other in student support groups — helps them gain confidence and thrive, Wogan said.

One girl in foster care recently spoke up after a teacher passed out papers and asked students to bring them to their moms, he said. The student asked the teacher to instead tell the class to bring the papers home to parents or guardians, since she doesn’t live with her mom.

“To me, it was really great to hear her say, ‘I’m in foster care,’” Wogan said. “We’ve seen kids go from being ashamed of being in foster care and not wanting their teachers to know, to overcoming that. But, not all kids are at that point.”

Ropati was one of several foster youth who lobbied the state to keep “categorical” funding for foster youth services intact and require school districts to track the academic progress of foster students and plan programs to help them.

Do you agree with the state’s new emphasis on helping foster youth in schools?

Posted on Friday, July 19th, 2013
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | 42 Comments »

West Contra Costa Public Education Fund Scholarship finalists announced

Ed Fund Scholarship Finalists

Ed Fund Scholarship Finalists

The West Contra Costa Public Education Fund (Ed Fund) has announced its 2013 scholarship finalists, who will be awarded a total of more than $230,000. The finalists may be honored at a future WCCUSD Board meeting, according to a news release.

Here are the names of the finalists, along with background information on the scholarship program, from the release:

“Between 2005 and 2012, The Ed. Fund awarded $724,000 to 225 scholarship winners from WCCUSD. In 2013, thanks to generous support from donors, including the College Access Foundation of California, the Chevron Corporation, the Irvine Foundation, the Schroeder Family Fund and others, the Ed Fund will be awarding over $230,000 in scholarships.

The 89 finalists for our scholarships hail from 9 different public high schools located in West County. A list of high schools represented and the number of scholarship finalists from each school is as follows:

DeAnza High School: 9

El Cerrito High School: 10

Hercules High School: 5

Kennedy High School: 6

Leadership Public Schools-Richmond: 12

Middle College High School: 8

Pinole Valley High School: 8

Richmond High School: 30

Vista High School: 1

Finalists will be informed of their award amount by July 2013 following confirmation of their eligibility and a review of their financial need. Scholarships will range from $1,000 to $5,000 depending on the finalist’s individual need.

All Ed Fund scholars were chosen for their vision to succeed in college and dedication to community service and leadership. They are also involved in a wide range of extracurricular activities which have made them well-rounded individuals. The Ed Fund believes these students will return to our community to serve as leaders and role models in West Contra Costa County.

Ed Fund Scholarship Finalists

DE ANZA HIGH SCHOOL:
Jin-Won Kim
Keyannie Norford
Lawrence Luckett
Lilibeth Lopez
Rohitesh Mani
Sakeema Payne
Sonam Ram
Verntzoone Roger Pharn
Yesenia Aguilar

EL CERRITO HIGH SCHOOL:
Ajah Fredzess
Dzidi Djugba
Jessica Segura-Hernandez
Kimberley Bocanegra
Liam Studdiford
Malik McElroy
Qiqi Tang
Sandra Torres
Yingying Li
Zihao Kuang

HERCULES HIGH SCHOOL:
Darian Wong
Gurinder Rai
Marina Queiroz
Marjorie Gatchalian
Valeria Avila

KENNEDY HIGH SCHOOL:
Lavontae Hill
Muang Saephan
Oscar Smith
Sonia Perez
Susan Vilaiphone
Yaneiri Hernandez Ochoa

LEADERSHIP PUBLIC SCHOOL – RICHMOND
Alma Martinez
Andre Ernest
Barbara Maldonado
Daniela Felix
Elias Ortega
Gabriela Cervantes
Julianna Ponce
Katherine Orellana
Laura Horta
Lizette Covarrubias
Maija Arriaga
Samuel Mendez

MIDDLE COLLEGE HIGH SCHOOL:
Alexandra Cardenas
Asma Ayyad
Beverley Saechin
Edgar Valiente
Luis Serrano
Melanie Chao
Puja Dahal
Zubia Ahmad

PINOLE VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL
Blake Evans
Cristella Ho
Jachonet Hill
Jada Wyatt
Morvarid Mehdizadeh
Nora Vongsa
Tiffany Hurtado
William-Lea Newsome

RICHMOND HIGH SCHOOL
Abel Gallardo
Angel Hernandez
Bety Escobar
Brenda Valadez
Chaidy Lam
Christian Rodriguez-Bojorquez
Danielle Miguel
Diana Diaz
Genesis Fabian
Ingrid Serrano
Jennifer Valtierra-Rojas
Jesica Cuervo
Jessica Castro-Chavez
Jessica Maciel
Jillian Ortiz Cruz
Kelly Saefong
Kerry Viengvilai
Kissarria Johnson

More information about the Ed. Fund is available by calling 510-233-1464 or by visiting www.edfundwest.org.

Posted on Monday, May 13th, 2013
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | No 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 »

WCCUSD resident pushes for city reps on board

Giorgio Cosentino, a West Contra Costa school district resident and former teacher, thinks the district should elect trustees from each city instead of electing all trustees citywide. Here’s a copy of an email he sent to trustees about that today:

“Dear WCCUSD school board,

As a result of the Measure K fallout, I have been giving much thought to Mr. Ramsey’s comments about Hercules and Pinole seceding from the district. There was no one to defend Hercules and Pinole, that we had no one advocating for us or explaining our position. We had no voice. I believe the secession option is not even a choice as the County BoE had ruled previously against it when Hercules sought secession. So let’s address the cause of the problem. Perhaps Hercules and Pinole feel that they have no voice.

We can change that. I believe it is time to do away with the at-large elections. It is time for each city to have a representative on the WCCUSD board. El Sobrante, Hercules, Pinole, San Pablo, El Cerrito, Kensington, and Richmond should each have a member on the WCCUSD board. This will result in more buy-in. Currently, there are 3 board members from El Cerrito and one each from San Pablo and Richmond.

In fact, Education Week just published the following article last week, so my thoughts are on the same wavelength as the rest of the nation.

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/02/27/22schoolboards_ep.h32.html

I shall submit a letter to the media for the purpose of seeking to establish an exploratory committee to review this option in greater detail. If you have any thoughts on this, please feel free to share. Thanks.

Respectfully,
Giorgio Cosentino, Hercules”

Former WCCUSD trustee Antonio Medrano had also suggested this idea without success. This is an idea that could be tried in Mt. Diablo as well, perhaps with trustees from Bay Point-Pittsburg, Clayton, Concord, Martinez-Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek.

The Contra Costa County Board of Education elects representatives in this way, from different geographic areas called “wards.”

Do you think it makes sense for large K-12 districts such as MDUSD and WCCUSD to elect trustees according to geographic location instead of districtwide?

Posted on Wednesday, March 13th, 2013
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 4 Comments »

Mt. Diablo and Poway districts provide cautionary tales for school districts seeking to issue Capital Appreciation Bonds

Alarm bells are ringing throughout the state over the shockingly high costs taxpayers in the Poway district in Southern California are paying to finance $105 million in school construction bonds: $1 billion through 2051.

A recent Los Angeles Times analysis highlighted a growing controversy over the use of capital appreciation bonds, known as CABs, to finance school construction. In contrast to more traditional current interest bonds, CABs delay repayment for years or even decades, resulting in much higher interest and total costs to homeowners.

These concerns are not new in Contra Costa County, where many Mt. Diablo district residents have been alarmed about the potentially high costs trustees set them up for when they placed a $348 million bond measure on the June, 2010 ballot.

Poway provides a cautionary tale for trustees and district officials who may place a higher value on immediate school upgrades than on taxpayers’ pocketbooks.

The Mt. Diablo district provides a similar cautionary tale for district officials and boards who may be inclined to rely so heavily on bond campaign consultants, underwriters, financial advisers and their legal counsel that they forget to include the public in their decision-making.

Like Poway, Mt. Diablo officials promised voters that their tax rates wouldn’t increase over what they were already paying on a previous bond. But, in Mt. Diablo’s case, district officials failed to inform voters in a campaign poll — and at the board meeting where trustees voted to place their $348 million bond measure on the ballot — that the trade off for keeping the tax rate low could cost taxpayers as much as $1.8 billion over 40 years.

In fact, the board didn’t publicly discuss its financing plan at all. Instead, the superintendent and a few trustees met with campaign consultants, a financial adviser and bond underwriters (who contributed to the campaign) to hatch a plan they apparently figured no one would question.

It wasn’t until the Contra Costa Times’ editorial board asked to see a spreadsheet outlining the repayment plan that the potential exorbitant costs came to light. By that time, it was too late to change the way the bond was structured.

In 2010, the district issued nearly $3 million in CABs, with a repayment cost of about $9.7 million over 11.9 years, or about 3.2 times the amount issued. Then in 2010, the district issued $943,582 worth of CABs with better repayment terms — about twice the amount issued, or $1.8 million over 7.3 years.

Residents who had been watching closely — including members of local taxpayer groups — rose up to put the brakes on future CABs, which they feared could have much worse terms. So, they asked the board to reverse itself, increase tax rates and agree to issue only current interest bonds in the future.

This board was in a tough spot — essentially damned if it did and damned if it didn’t. If it broke its promise to voters, it would lower taxpayers costs. But, it could suffer political backlash from breaching the public’s trust regarding the tax rate.

Trustees could have avoided this dilemma if they had openly discussed the bond financing in the first place.

In a split vote, the board agreed to go back on its word, saying the tax rate extension had been a political promise, which wasn’t legally binding.

When the November board elections rolled around, one longtime incumbent decided to step down. The other incumbent, Board President Sherry Whitmarsh, was soundly defeated by two challengers.

Charles Ramsey, board president in the West Contra Costa district, said it’s possible the Mt. Diablo board’s flip-flop cost Whitmarsh the election. Although West Contra Costa has also issued two CABs, Ramsey distinguishes his district from Mt. Diablo and Poway, saying his board never promised to not to increase tax rates when they went out for new bond measures.

Instead, he said, West Contra Costa voters have been willing to pay higher tax rates, which will enable the district not to issue any more CABs in the future. He also pointed out that the district’s most recent bond campaign didn’t accept any money from bond underwriters or financial advisers.

“How many districts can say that?” he asked.

Here’s a Contra Costa Times editorial about the need for transparency in these types of deals: http://www.contracostatimes.com/twitter/ci_22099900/contra-costa-times-editorial-expensive-school-bond-maneuver

Here’s a link to our searchable database, which shows the seven Contra Costa County districts that have outstanding CABs: http://bit.ly/QxYx1b

Posted on Friday, November 30th, 2012
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | 47 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 »

School board elections are heating up in Contra Costa County

Election time means one thing for Contra Costa Times reporters: lots of candidate forums to let the public know about.

For candidates in Mt. Diablo, West Contra Costa and other school districts, the CCTV forum moderated by political reporter Lisa Vorderbrueggen is the kickoff for election season.

I sat in on the MDUSD and WCCUSD forums Thursday, where candidates sounded off on a variety of issues.

In the Mt. Diablo race, incumbent Sherry Whitmarsh faced challengers Brian Lawrence, Debra Mason and Barbara Oaks in a discussion that touched on Propositions 30 and 38, valuing district staff, resolving friction on the board, reigning in health and pension costs, and strategic planning. Candidate Ernie DeTrinidad was unable to attend the taped forum and incumbent Gary Eberhart is not seeking re-election in the race for two open seats.

In back-to-back tapings, all four West Contra Costa board candidates were on the hot seats next. They included incumbent Antonio Medrano and challengers Robert Studdiford, Randy Enos and Todd Groves, who traded opinions about Propositions 30 and 38, discontent in Hercules and Pinole, the district’s November parcel tax and bond measure, and pension and health care reform. Incumbent Tony Thurmond is not seeking re-election in this race for two seats.

You can catch the Mt. Diablo forum on CCTV Channel 27 at 9:30 p.m. Oct. 4, 7 p.m. Oct. 7, 9:30 p.m. Oct. 14, 7 p.m. Oct. 21, 9:30 p.m. Oct. 28, 7 p.m. Oct. 30 and 7 p.m. Nov. 4.

The West Contra Costa forum will air on KRCT Channel 28 at 8 p.m. Oct. 3, 1 p.m. Oct. 5, 10 p.m. Oct. 9, 9 p.m. Oct. 13, 10 a.m. And 6 p.m. Oct. 14, noon Oct. 16, 10 a.m. Oct. 22, 1 p.m. Oct. 26, 9 p.m. Oct. 29, 8:30 p.m. Nov. 2, 10 p.m. Nov. 3, 1 p.m. Nov. 5, and 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Nov. 6.

In addition, both forums — along with forums for most other school boards and city councils in the county — will be archived at http://www.contracostatimes.com/.

Both the Mt. Diablo and West Contra Costa candidates are also slated to participate in the following forums:

Mt. Diablo:

— The district’s special education Community Advisory Committee will host a Candidates’ Question and Answer Panel from 6-7 p.m. Oct. 2 in the district office at 1936 Carlotta Drive in Concord.

The candidates will be asked questions that are important to special education selected in advance, but the candidates will hear them for the first time that evening. Each candidate will be asked the same question and will have 90 seconds to respond. It is open to the public and will be followed by the committee meeting at 7 p.m.

— The Pleasant Hill Education Commission will host a forum from 7-9 p.m. Oct. 18 in the Pleasant Hill City Council chamber at 100 Gregory Lane in Pleasant Hill. Email mnelis@ci.pleasant-hill.CA.us to submit a question. The forum will be broadcast after the event on Comcast Channel 28, ATT U-Verse Channel 99 and Astound Channel 29.

West Contra Costa:

— The PTAs of Kensington, Hilltop, Madera, Harding, Portola and Mira Vista elementary schools are hosting a forum from 6:30-8 p.m. Monday in the Harding Elementary Auditorium at 7230 Fairmount Avenue in El Cerrito. Candidates for school board will answer questions from the public. To submit questions, email 4westcounty@gmail.com.

The League of Women Voters will sponsor two additional school board candidate forums:

— From 6:30-8 p.m. Oct. 11 in the El Cerrito High School cafeteria at 540 Ashbury Avenue in El Cerrito; and
- from 6:30-8 p.m. Oct. 16 in the Murphy Elementary School multipurpose room at 4350 Valley View Road in Richmond.

The League of Women Voters, West Contra Costa Chapter will moderate and keep time for these forums. More information is available by contacting the League of Women Voters, West Contra Costa Chapter at 510-525-4962.

What questions would you like the candidates to answer?

Posted on Saturday, September 22nd, 2012
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | 9 Comments »

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
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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
Superintendent”

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 »

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 www.contracostatimes.com/data/ci_21366891/2012-cahsee

How do you think districts should help struggling students?

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