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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 »

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

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

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 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

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

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

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

How do you think districts should help struggling students?

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

West County Community High charter denial leaves more than 100 students scrambling to find alternatives

The Contra Costa County Board of Education’s denial of the West County Community High School charter’s renewal petition on Wednesday leaves more than 100 students scrambling to find new schools.

Board President Cynthia Ruehlig said the decision would allow the charter students to attend “better schools,” but some teens, parents staff and community members said afterward that they disagreed.

Although the charter’s test scores were not as high as those in some other district schools, they pointed out that the charter served a high percentage of special education students and others who felt they didn’t fit in on larger campuses.

“A lot of these kids are really scared of where they’re going,” said history teacher Andy Wolverton, before hugging one student goodbye. “A lot of them have been bullied. A lot have been in gangs. They’ve done the public schools. That’s why they came to our school. I just hope they don’t go back to their old lifestyles at their old schools. And that’s the scary thing — keeping them out of gangs. Every student at our school has a story.”

Student Dante Spruit, 17, said he would try to take a high school equivalency test, then attend Contra Costa Community College, with the goal of eventually enrolling in the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. He told me last week that he still had vivid memories of a violent fight he witnessed between two teenage boys when he was in sixth grade at Hercules Middle and High School.

“One had on a white T-shirt and it turned red with blood,” Spruit said. “Everyone was looking. At West County Community High School, I haven’t seen any fights.”

Parent Suzanne Camp said she planned to meet with other parents to discuss options such as online learning.

“We’re facing a situation that’s a crisis for our kids because these students are either too small for their age or there’s some difficulty for them being able to work with these other students at these big schools,” Camp said. “I am, as a desperate parent, looking for solutions for these students who can’t adapt to these congested schools. It’s really difficult to put your kid into a school that’s not safe.”

During the renewal hearing, three parents praised the school’s “loving” environment, in which their students thrived.

“There are kids that need that school that feel welcomed, feel loved and feel safe,” said parent Carlos Casares.

Theresa Padilla echoed these sentiments, saying her son struggled in algebra as a freshman at another school.

“Thank God for West County Community High School,” she said. “With the help of loving staff, he brought his grade from a D to a B. He chose not to return to his first school. ”

Sue Britson said her family selected the charter over El Cerrito High because of the caliber and dedication of teachers, parent involvement, safe environment and staff’s commitment to helping students like her son.

“Richmond is a large community,” she said. “We need places for students who are smart, but have challenges.”

Although trustees were sympathetic to students and parents, they said they could not overlook insufficient budget and curriculum materials submitted in the charter petition. Trustee Pamela Mirabella said she brainstormed with some parents after the meeting about how to meet their children’s needs.

“It is our fear that when a charter goes under like this, you have kids that have to be sent back to the district,” she said. “It disrupts their lives. They just have bonded. You have families that feel they have a loving relationship.”

In response to some who complained about difficulties reaching agreements with the West Contra Costa school district, Mirabella suggested the county could see whether it could provide an avenue for appeals regarding disagreements.

“I let them know that this is a learning experience,” she said. “It’s very sad, but we can do it better next time.”

Camp — who took over as treasurer for the school in February and was unable to attend Wednesday’s meeting — told me Thursday that she filed a police report in April regarding discrepancies in the financial reports that could indicate some money was missing. Richmond Police Lt. Bisa French said police were investigating, but no arrests have been made.

Here is a link to a downloadable version of the County’s staff report:

Video clips from the meeting are at and

What alternatives do you think parents should explore?

Posted on Friday, August 17th, 2012
Under: Contra Costa County Board of Education, Education, Richmond, West Contra Costa school district | 3 Comments »

Student killings hit Richmond community hard

Last Sunday, 16-year-old Ulysis Grijalva was shot and killed in Richmond. It was the city’s 13th homicide of the year and hit Grijalva’s classmates and fellow football players at Kennedy High School hard.

Coach Mack Carminer told the Times the teen was not involved in gangs and was a good son to his parents. West Contra Costa school board President Charles Ramsey said he was concerned about the dangers of living in Richmond.

Three years ago, he said, the district had a record 11 students killed in during one school year. That’s a record no district wants to break.

Such deaths weigh on the minds and hearts of students, teachers and community members. In March, Giorgio Cosentino — a science teacher on leave from Richmond High — wrote an essay describing his reaction to the death of one of his former students. With his permission, I am sharing his essay below, in which he has changed the students’ name.

“March 10

The Death of Ricky

The headlines of the West County Times described a brazen daylight ‘rolling shootout’ on a street in west Richmond. Gunshots and roaring engines shattered the morning calm at 10:45 AM at the same time geese were flying south overhead on this sunny, but chilly, winter day. People were scattering, ducking and taking cover. ‘Just like the wild, wild, west!’ as some children of Richmond would say. Shootouts were nothing new to Richmond, but this one stood out from all others which usually took place in the dark shadows of a poorly lit street sometime after midnight. At 10:45 a.m., stores were open for business, kids with rumbling stomachs sat in classrooms, eagerly awaiting the lunch hour. Mail was being delivered, and dogs barked behind fences to anyone who would listen. Jackhammers nearby loudly busted through cement.

On this day, I was working in a laboratory as a microbiologist in a highly secure compound for the California Dept. of Health less than a couple of miles away from the battle, after taking a leave of absence from teaching science at Richmond High School. And Ricky Clark, one of my dearest former students (teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but we do), was in the process of dying in a hail of large-caliber bullets fired from a Soviet-made rifle more commonly found in war-torn countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

I wish I could preserve Ricky’s innocence by telling you that he was just a bystander, but that was not the case, as evidenced by the AK47 assault rifle found on his lap in the crashed Plymouth at the cordoned-off yellow-taped ‘crime scene.’ On another street somewhere in Richmond, the same yellow tape still dangled from a lamp post, evidence of the previous day’s prequel—another shooting that started the clock ticking for Ricky’s final 24 hours of life.

In the news, Ricky would be a mere statistic. He was 19 years old — an age when an African-American male homicide victim is nothing more than a number added to the yearly Richmond homicide tally. Judging from the New Year’s Eve style countdown of reporting this number, I believe some perverse readers are cheering for Richmond to beat the previous high of 62 homicides, a Richmond personal best set in 1991. Richmond cannot compete with the large neighboring cities of Oakland or San Francisco for total absolute number of homicides, but Richmond does win hands down on a homicides per-capita basis as some of my students have boasted when making their point that ‘Frisco and Oaktown is for suckers!’ The 1991 record translated to 67.2 per 100,0000, 7 times the then national average of 9.5 homicides per 100,000.

When the victims are still children, as defined by the arbitrary ‘under the age of 18 criteria,’ there is usually written a short story about their brief life. Often included is a picture of a smiling young boy, taken at a time in his life when the violence of his surrounding environment has not yet robbed him of his innocence, including his inalienable right as a child, to smile. The fact that Ricky was armed also added to the cool, even unsympathetic, nature of this piece of journalism. No one would ask questions about the short life of this young man. Only those blessed to have known him would see Ricky as a victim as opposed to just another ‘gang-banger,’ ‘hoodlum,’ ‘angry black man,’ or worse.

No one would read about how hard his single-parent mother worked to keep him on a path that did not include guns, gangs, drugs, and violence, in a neighborhood saturated with all. From our phone calls and meetings, it was clear to me that she wanted the best for Ricky, and as a new, inexperienced teacher, I certainly did not merit her approval. I tried. New teachers in low-performing schools are just expected to try—results come later after years of experience, assuming the teacher does not leave for an increase in compensation and or better working conditions. We do not tolerate inexperienced mechanics who cannot solve our car troubles, but we do allow and excuse inexperience and failure with those playing a vital role with respect to the futures of our neediest children.

From the first five minutes of the first day of class, Ricky began his clowning antics, taunting me when I instructed the class to prepare to work. Eager to establish order, I quickly locked my eyes on this medium-black skinned young man with braided hair sitting in the second column of chairs from the right, third row back. With an average build, wearing a white T-shirt, black slightly baggy work pants, he spread out in his seat like a giant amoeba, both of his legs outstretched in the aisles with the soles of his construction-style work boots facing me. I casually strode over to where he sat, slapped my hand down on the table top and gave him my hardest ‘Let’s get with the program’ stare. He flinched, quickly straightened up, shot a brief look of fear, then relaxed and smiled. I then explained the rules of my classroom to him. I believe after a quick assessment of me, he realized that I was not a ‘hater,’ just a teacher doing his job. We had an understanding from that day onward.

Ricky’s warmth and vital disposition made a teacher only want to try harder at mastering the tricks of motivation. The other students also enjoyed his comedic, jocular nature. The boys appreciated and respected him for his cool and cockiness. All of the girls, irrespective of race, wanted to help him. Not missing a beat, I took advantage of their maternal quality and paired them with Ricky. Shy at first, but with a grin and eyebrows raised, I believe Ricky to have been most appreciative of this strategy.

The stale sweet smell of cigarettes and marijuana on his oversized jacket and his bloodshot eyes provided clues into the life that this 16 year old child led when he left the musty-smelling dilapidated ‘ghetto’ classroom, Room 655, out near the back parking lot of Richmond High School. Occasionally, Ricky would blurt out in the middle of my lectures, ‘Mr. C. I love you, man!’ Slightly distracted, I would calmly respond, ‘I love you too, Ricky,’ then quickly resume my lecture amidst the laughter of Ricky’s classmates. I never saw one hint of anger in Ricky, making it even more difficult for me to fathom any scenario that could have led to Ricky picking up an assault rifle. Maybe it was not about anger, but about self defense. Kill or be killed. Take it to the enemy before he does you. I choose to believe Ricky was just trying to survive the day he died.

The last time I saw Ricky was in a bike shop in the neighboring city of Berkeley, three years after I was his teacher, one year before he died. There was some commotion coming from the back of the store as Ricky and a few of his friends had put the store employees on a heightened state of alert. I recognized Ricky’s laughter. Again, wearing a white T-shirt and black baggy pants, he recognized me. ‘Mr. C!’ he hollered across the store, now drawing eye-raising attention of employees and shoppers alike. We gave each other a quick hug and slap of the shoulders while everyone, including Ricky’s friends, looked on, trying to comprehend what they were seeing take place on the store floor — an unlikely reunion of sorts.

We chatted briefly about what we had been up to and the good ol’ days of Physical Science class in room 655. We wished each other well, then laughing uncontrollably, Ricky and his buddies stumbled out the door, bouncing into the street, so full of life. I kicked myself for not treating them to lunch at the next door McDonalds. With some students, a teacher can predict such an ending. With Ricky, I never saw it coming.”

Staff writers Natalie Neysa Alund and Daniel M. Jimenez contributed to this report.

Do you think schools can help prevent such tragic endings?

Posted on Friday, August 10th, 2012
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 21 Comments »

WCCUSD 4th annual Getting Ready for College & Career conference is March 17

The West Contra Costa school district will hold its fourth annual “Getting Ready for College and Career Conference” from 9 a.m. to 2 pm. March 17 at Lovonya DeJean Middle School, 3400 Macdonald Ave. in Richmond.

Here are more details, from a letter sent to the WCCUSD community:

“Dear WCCUSD Family and Community Partners,

WCCUSD will be hosting the 4th Annual Getting Ready for College & Career Conference on Saturday, March 17th, 2012. This conference is designed to prepare students and their parents/guardians for their futures after high school.

Please help us spread the word and encourage all 6th to 12th grades students and their parents to participate.

Reserve your space for this great event by registering online. You may also RSVP by calling the Community Engagement Department at 510-307-4526 to RSVP!


Grand raffle prize this year:

· Kindle Fire!

This year’s conference is made possible due the support of The Ed. Fund’s West County College Access Network (WCCAN).

What: 4th Getting Ready for College & Career Conference

Who: 6th to 12th grade students AND parents/guardians

When: Saturday, March 17th, 2012 from 9am to 2pm

Where: Lovonya DeJean Middle School, 3400 Macdonald Ave., Richmond

Morning snacks and lunch will be provided”

Here is some more information from a WCCUSD flyer about the event:

“Join us at this FREE Conference for 6-12th grade students and Parents and learn the steps you need to take to get ready for college!

Concurrent workshops will be offered for 6-12th grade students and their parents on (but not limited to):

Middle School
 Discover your destination
 Preparing for your future
 Are you ready for High School
 Adventures into testing

9th & 10th Grade
 Holy Names University Early Admit Program!
 Writing Personal Statements
 High School- Linked Learning Academies

11th & 12th Grade
 Transcript Analysis
 Concurrent enrollment: WCCUSD & Contra Costa Community College
 Applying for Scholarships & Financial Aid

Workshops for Parents
 Preparing Your Child for College
 Paying for College
 Holy Names University Early Admit Program!”

Do you think other districts should offer similar conferences for secondary students and their parents?

Posted on Wednesday, March 7th, 2012
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | No Comments »