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Unrest at Hercules Middle High School raises questions about the responsiveness of West Contra Costa school district leadership

Hercules Police School Resource Officers patrol Hercules Middle HIgh School

Hercules Police School Resource Officers patrol Hercules Middle HIgh School

In response to a story published Saturday about unrest at Hercules Middle High School, I was copied on the following e-mail from West Contra Costa district resident Georgio Cosentino to Ken Whittemore, the district’s assistant superintendent for Human Resources. I am posting the e-mail with Cosentino’s permission to allow West Contra Costa school district students, parents, educators and community members the opportunity to comment on the issue of teacher exit interviews and whistle-blowing, as well as the larger issues addressed in the story.

“Hi Ken,

Recently, I asked you about the status of teacher exit interviews, whether or not they were being performed and what was being done with the information. You said that they are conducted, that you, as Director of Human Resources, have the results. I think this information needs to be made public to the taxpayer on a quarterly or yearly basis. I read the CC Times article today about the situation regarding Hercules Middle High School and it mentions a teacher resigning because of being mistreated by kids (and staff?). We need to know with what frequency this sort of thing is occurring. If possible, I will seek to have such interviews also given to a parent oversight committee.

I also think a review of the teacher whistle blower procedure/policy is also in order. The current whistleblower policy directs the teacher to report complaints to the WCCUSD district office. This is very risky for the teacher as the WCCUSD is the employer of the teacher. This same policy does mention the County and State Department of Ed as options, too. These entities are more appropriate, that the option of district office should be eliminated. As a state employee, I am told to report my complaints and concerns to the Bureau of State Audits, not to my employer.

Please consider developing a mechanism that will provide us with the exit interview data, Ken. I also ask that you have all exit interview documentation in order for audit via the Public Records Request mechanism. Although such interviews are confidential, names and other personal information can be redacted. The voice of the teacher must be heard by all of us. I will share this suggestion at the next board meeting in observation of teacher appreciation month.

Thanks for giving my suggestions any consideration you can, Ken. Take care.

Giorgio Cosentino”

Do you believe the West Contra Costa school district is adequately addressing issues raised at Hercules Middle High School?

Posted on Monday, May 5th, 2014
Under: Education, Hercules, West Contra Costa school district | 11 Comments »

Congrats to 46 East Bay California Distinguished Elementary Schools!

California Distinguished School Certificate received by Hanna Ranch Elementary in 2012

California Distinguished School Certificate received by Hanna Ranch Elementary in 2012

Congratulations to the nearly 50 elementary campuses in the East Bay that have been named 2014 California Distinguished Schools!

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson announced this week that 22 Alameda County schools and two dozen Contra Costa County schools are among 424 elementary campuses statewide designated as distinguished, based on innovative strategies for narrowing the achievement gap.

“I applaud these strong, thriving schools that are making such impressive strides in preparing their students for continued success,” Torlakson said in a prepared statement. “This award is well-deserved by these school communities for their enduring dedication to high standards, hard work, and unwavering support.”
Here is a list of East Bay 2014 California Distinguished Schools by county and district.


Alameda Unified: Edison Elementary

Dublin Unified: Harold William Kolb Elementary (also award for Exemplary Physical Activity and Nutrition Program)

Fremont Unified: Ardenwood, Fred E. Weibel, James Leitch, John Gomes, Joshua Chadbourne, Mission San Jose, Mission Valley and Niles elementary schools

New Haven Unified: Pioneer Elementary

Newark Unified: James L. Bunker and John F. Kennedy elementary schools

Oakland Unified: Achieve Academy, Montclair Elementary and Think College Now

Pleasanton Unified: Donlon, Henry P. Mohr, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, Vintage Hills and Walnut Grove elementary schools

Sunol Glen Unified: Sunol Glen Elementary


Lafayette Elementary: Lafayette Elementary

Mt. Diablo Unified: Mt. Diablo, Sequoia, Silverwood, Strandwood, Valle Verde and Walnut Acres elementary schools

Orinda Union: Del Rey, Glorietta, Sleepy Hollow and Wagner Ranch elementary schools

San Ramon Valley Unified: Bollinger Canyon, Coyote Creek, Golden View, Greenbrook, Hidden Hills, John Baldwin, Live Oak, Neil A. Armstrong, Rancho Romero, Sycamore Valley, Tassajara Hills and Vista Grande elementary schools

Walnut Creek School District: Walnut Heights Elementary

The “signature practices” that helped earn these schools their recognition will be posted online later this year. Signature practices of past campuses named as California Distinguished Schools are at

Each school is visited by a team of local educators to see how the signature practice have been implemented. In Contra Costa County, a team of 19 educators from the Contra Costa County Office of Education, along with 18 school district administrators and four retired district administrators visited the sites, according to a news release.

Greg Santiago, principal of Hanna Ranch Elementary in Hercules, was one of the district administrators on the site visits. Hanna Ranch was one of two West Contra Costa district elementary sites named as California Distinguished Schools in 2012.

Its signature practices were analyzing test data to provide extra support to low-performing students and trying to close the achievement gap between high-achieving Asian and Filipino students and lower-achieving African-American and Latino students by using culturally relevant teaching methods.

One such teaching methods is “call and response,” which allows students to chant responses to teachers’ prompts instead of raising their hands to be acknowledged. In reading the signature practices, it is clear that the principal keeps the staff, students and parents focused on them.

The school’s description of signature practices states: “The principal’s message about academics is simple, ‘You may not get it the first time, but you never give up!” Santiago heads up a school equity team, which walks through classrooms with a checklist that includes these questions: “Are students engaged? Are they participating? Is there bell-to-bell instruction?”

I met Santiago last month during a ride-along with Hercules School Resource Officer Greg Sanchez, who told me when we arrived: “This principal has got it down.”

What are the signature practices at your school?

Posted on Friday, May 2nd, 2014
Under: Alameda County, Contra Costa County, Education, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | 2 Comments »

School districts seek parent input for spending plans

MDUSD administrator leads parent discussion about engagement.

MDUSD administrator leads parent discussion about engagement.

Now that the state Board of Education has adopted emergency regulations and a template to help guide school districts in creating plans for spending their money, parents throughout the state should be hearing about community meetings asking for their opinions.

The Mt. Diablo and West Contra Costa districts started holding meetings in January to explain the state’s requirements for the plans, which must focus on eight priorities.

Nellie Meyer, Superintendent of the Mt. Diablo school district, told parents during a Tuesday meeting at Ygnacio Valley High that the priorities fall into three basic categories: conditions of learning, student outcomes and engagement.

Conditions of learning include: proper teacher assignments and student access to instructional materials; implementation of the state’s new Common Core standards; and student access to a variety of courses.

Student outcomes are: pupil achievement and other measures of student success, such as reclassification of English learners as fluent.

Engagement includes: parental involvement, student engagement, and school climate indicators such as suspension and expulsion rates.

Based on these priorities, districts must decide how to divide their money in ways that will best serve their students. The money includes base grants that can be spent on districtwide needs, along with supplemental grants intended to help narrow the achievement gap for students who are English learners, low-income or foster youth.

Districts with more than 55 percent of students in these categories receive concentration grants for their additional disadvantaged students.

Mt. Diablo does not qualify for a concentration grant because its percentage of disadvantaged students is not high enough, Meyer said. However, she said some schools have a much higher percentage of disadvantaged students.

“In my humble opinion, the formula is flawed,” she said. “It should be by school.”

Parents at the meeting broke into three groups and offered suggestions for improvement in each of the three basic categories, such as ensuring high-quality staff, providing parents with more information about students’ progress and inviting families to fun activities on campus such as potlucks.

Meyer gave a similar presentation about the spending plan Wednesday to the school board. But some public speakers said the presentation included too much hard-to-understand education lingo, while leaving out information about how much money the district is receiving in base and supplemental grants.

Resident Willie Mims said the district needs to ensure that supplemental funding will help the students for whom it is intended.

The Mt. Diablo district will hold more meetings before finalizing its plan in June. Community meetings are at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Ygnacio Valley High in Concord, at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 20 at Diablo View Middle School in Clayton, at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 25 at Northgate High in Walnut Creek, at 6:30 p.m. March 18 at Concord High, and at 6:30 p.m. April 8 at Mt. Diablo High.

The West Contra Costa district held four community meetings in January and plans to establish a special committee comprised of parent representatives that will vote on its plan. The district has posted notes from its meetings online, including suggestions for programs or services that could help disadvantaged students.

Suggestions from El Cerrito High meeting participants included: better promotion of district resources, hiring certificated teachers for after-school programs, hiring writer coaches, reintroducing music and art, lowering class sizes at all grade levels, creating newcomer programs at schools, offering full-day kindergarten and early intervention preschool programs, eliminating classes with split grade levels, providing more alternatives to suspensions, offering writing support to English learners and additional reading and writing programs for all students, year-round schools, and more counselors.

How do you think districts should spend money earmarked for disadvantaged students?

Posted on Friday, January 31st, 2014
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | 84 Comments »

Local school districts look forward to more money in 2014-15

School officials around the state will be spending the next several days reading through Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 2014-15 budget to see how it will directly affect them. For those that have a high percentage of low-income students and English learners, the new funding formula that gives them a greater share of the money is good news.

The West Contra Costa school district based in Richmond, along with the Oakland school district in Alameda County, are both looking forward to receiving additional funding expected to help them narrow the achievement gap.

Charles Ramsey, president of the West Contra Costa school board, said the money for low-income students and English language learners will make a big difference.

“There’s going to be a huge proportion of resources dedicated to assisting them,” he said. “It’s going to be a quantum change in funding for our district. We’re going to see a doubling of funding for those students over time.”

In the next couple of years, Ramsey said funding is expected to increase to $10,600 or $10,700 per student, with an additional $104 million total expected by 2021, after the funding formula is fully implemented.

The West Contra Costa school board has already decided to spend some of its new money on school resource officers, reducing class size in Transitional Kindergarten through third grade and creating “full service community schools” that include health centers. Ramsey said trustees are also considering allocating $1 million to $2 million more to athletics and setting aside additional funding for music and other programs that have been cut in the past.

“We want to be able to provide kids opportunities so they can learn,” he said. “We need to give more of our resources to the kids for the classroom. I give the governor a lot of credit to keep education at the forefront, because California has lagged.”

In addition, Ramsey said he would like to devote more funding to professional development to help teachers implement the new Common Core standards, along with the technology needed for testing. He was also pleased that the district has recently settled a contract agreement with teachers that included salary increases.

“We need to do more to really attract people to the industry and recruit and retain qualified teachers,” he said.

And Ramsey said the district is not shying away from its required accountability. The state Board of Education is fine-tuning guidelines that districts will be required to follow in developing plans for their spending.

“They want to see the kind of improvement we can have,” Ramsey said. “But, they’re not going to hold your feet to the fire right away. They’re going to give you a few years to show that it’s going to be successful.”

During the next month, the district is inviting community members to attend one of six meetings to get more information about state funding and discuss how it can be used to implement goals outlined in a recently-adopted strategic plan.

These meetings are: from 6:30-8 p.m. Jan. 15 at El Cerrito High; Jan. 16 at Ford Elementary; Jan. 21 at Pinole Middle School, Jan. 28 at DeJean Middle School, Jan. 30 at De Anza High, and Feb. 6 at Hercules Middle-High School.

Troy Flint, spokesman for the Oakland school district, said Thursday that he hadn’t had a chance yet to look at the governor’s budget in detail, but he pointed out that Oakland has been a strong supporter of the funding shift that gives more money to districts with disadvantaged students.

“Nothing’s perfect, particularly when you have to satisfy different constituencies in a diverse state,” he said. “This is a huge step forward for equity and for public education. This is the first time in many years, if ever, that funding has actually been aligned with student needs and that the value of equity has been placed front and center, with redistributed funds.”

Flint predicted that this approach would end up benefiting the state as a whole because struggling students will get the resources and help they need to succeed in college and the workforce.

“We’re very pleased with the direction the governor has taken,” he said. “We think this budget is going to produce great results for our kids and for kids around the state.”

Are you optimistic about the governor’s proposed 2014-15 budget?

Posted on Friday, January 10th, 2014
Under: California Board of Education, Education, Oakland school district, West Contra Costa school district | 30 Comments »

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.

“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.”

“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.”

“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.’”

“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.”

“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.’”

“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.’”

“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.”

“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.”

“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

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

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

Darian Wong
Gurinder Rai
Marina Queiroz
Marjorie Gatchalian
Valeria Avila

Lavontae Hill
Muang Saephan
Oscar Smith
Sonia Perez
Susan Vilaiphone
Yaneiri Hernandez Ochoa

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

Alexandra Cardenas
Asma Ayyad
Beverley Saechin
Edgar Valiente
Luis Serrano
Melanie Chao
Puja Dahal
Zubia Ahmad

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

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

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

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.

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.

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:

Here’s a link to our searchable database, which shows the seven Contra Costa County districts that have outstanding CABs:

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