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How restorative justice transformed this Oakland school

June 23, 2022 - Fremont High School in Oakland has seen its enrollment jump, and the number of students who qualify for college admission has nearly tripled.
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High school is over for most in California’s Class of 2022, and it couldn’t be soon enough for some graduates. After more than a year of distance learning and another year of Covid restrictions on campuses, many are looking for more independence.

“I’m mentally prepared to move out,” said Kayla Merkel, a recent Elk Grove High School graduate. “I’m ready. I’m the oldest sibling. I have four little siblings and I think it is time for some quiet.”

But will the newly minted adults, many who fell behind academically and socially, be ready for college and careers after a pandemic dramatically shortened their high school experience?  Of the 12 students EdSource is following this year, 5 are going to community colleges, six to universities and one is deciding whether to start a job.

Merkel wants to move into an apartment with her boyfriend as soon as she turns 18. Next fall she plans to study photography at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. She wants to attend a four-year university after community college, possibly to become a teacher.

Diego Camacho, 18, is excited about attending the University of California Los Angeles next school year, although it means he will sleep in his car most nights. Camacho will take the often more than two-hour commute to his family home in East Los Angeles a few times a week to do laundry and take showers.

He can’t afford to rent an apartment or live in the dorm, so Camacho doesn’t believe there is an alternative to sleeping in the car. He doesn’t think it is against campus rules or that it is uncommon.

Camacho, who will graduate from Collegiate Charter High School on Wednesday, is determined to graduate from UCLA in three years in order to cut down on college debt. He will work on campus and study after school. There won’t be a lot of time to battle LA traffic, he says.

“I want to save as much money as I can,” he said. “It is going to be hard. I understand it will be really hard. It’s not something easy, but I feel I can challenge myself. I feel I have the perseverance to accomplish that.”

Camacho, a member of a boxing club in East Los Angeles, missed a lot of matches during Covid but used the extra time to get a jump-start on his college education by taking community college classes online — something he would not have been able to do during the pandemic.

He is excited about the potential to meet new people at the university. The science communications major worked on the LA Times High School Insider and would like to be a science writer for a news organization in the future.

Recent Edison High School graduate Gannon Peebles also is excited, but nervous, about moving 3,000 miles away from his Fresno home to attend Columbia University in New York  City next school year. He is anxious about making new friends.

“I hope, as I move away, I can retain some social skills that were pre-pandemic and make long-lasting friendships,” he said.

Peebles selected Carman Hall at Columbia as his new home because the first-year residence hall is considered to be the most social, according to online accounts. He put his bio on an Instagram page for incoming freshmen, ultimately finding a roommate he believes will be a good match.

The self-proclaimed “math nerd,” who graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average, plans to study applied mathematics and computer science. He was awarded a scholarship by Columbia that pays almost all the $84,000 annual cost of his tuition, room and board.

Peebles doesn’t think he is behind academically because of distance learning. During the pandemic he took courses virtually at UCLA and a Fresno community college, earning A’s in each class.

“I think I’m a pretty motivated student and I feel like I’m doing well right now in my classes,” he said before graduation.

Payton Zarceno, who recently graduated from Mt. SAC Early College Academy in West Covina, is excited about studying biochemistry at UCLA but nervous about moving away from her family. She wants the college experience but isn’t too happy about sharing bathroom facilities and finds using a communal washer and dryer “unnerving.”

“I’m more nervous than I thought it would be,” Zarceno said. “I’ve really gotten accustomed to being at home and being with my family and having all my immediate friends around me. I’m not sure who I will be living with. I’ve never met these people before.”

Zarceno and Nicholas Harvey were still shopping for dorm roommates last month. Both were asked to fill out lifestyle questionnaires to help them find compatible matches. The forms ask questions about the time students go to bed, whether they smoke or drink, what room temperature they prefer and whether they turn on music or the television while studying.

Harvey also will be required to write an essay before he is matched with a roommate at Stanford University in Palo Alto. The California High School graduate plans to major in both history and a public policy-oriented major, although he’s not quite decided which one.

Zarceno, a self-proclaimed homebody, has never wanted to leave Southern California, but the pandemic solidified her decision to stay close to home. Despite only being 35 miles from UCLA, the LA traffic makes the family home in West Covina seem far away, she said. Getting home is made even more difficult by a common problem for many recent high school graduates – a lack of a driver’s license.

Zarceno isn’t concerned about her ability to manage academically, but she has concerns about navigating the school socially.

“I am worried about the two years of socializing that I lost, but I’m confident that college will give me the time and space to make up for it,” she said.

Heritage High School graduate Tatiana Torres credits the pandemic and distance learning with helping her decide to go to college.

“Now that I was at home, I was able to think about my future and maybe I had a chance to go to college,” the East Bay resident said. “It helped slow down life for me and allowed me to think about how I would like my future to look like.”

Before that Torres worried that she would never go to college. She suffered a severe concussion during a basketball game in middle school. The accident left her with headaches and sensitivity to light and sound so severe she could only attend her Brentwood high school part time during her freshman and sophomore years. Much of that time was spent in the office being dispensed medication.

Torres was unable to get into any of the colleges she wanted to attend, so next fall she will attend community college with the hope that she gets a spot at UC Berkeley, UC Davis or UC Santa Barbara the following school year to study political science.

She isn’t worried about being behind academically because she missed so much in-person instruction. Her time at home taught her how to learn alone and to advocate for herself, she said.

“I’m actually better prepped for college than if I didn’t have these events happen to me,” she said.

Torres didn’t attend many of the senior class activities offered by the school because of concerns about Covid-19, particularly because she has an aunt with a chronic illness. She did attend homecoming, Senior Scholarship Night and her graduation.

“Being at home made me OK to not do the regular things in life because my priority was keeping everyone safe,” she said. “But, when Covid was dying down a little bit, I was excited to do more ‘normal things.’”

Torres created Calm4You, a website to help children struggling with mental health issues after hearing about children impacted emotionally by the pandemic. Torres plans to continue her mental health work, and also would like to play a part in ending gun violence.

“Advocating for mental health was the steppingstone to feeling like I can actually do something about these problems,” she said. “I think that is the worst part of being a kid; all you can do is feel bad, I guess.”

Jennifer Tran also would like to continue the advocacy work that she began during the pandemic. She wrote or advocated for more than a dozen legislative bills to aid California students as the policy director for GENup, a student-led social justice organization, while attending Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove. She also completed a term as the student member of the Garden Grove Unified School Board.

Tran will study public policy at UC Berkeley in the fall. That wasn’t her original plan. She wanted to attend an out-of-state school so she could gain a little more independence after two years at home. But she started to change her mind about moving so far away as things began to get back to normal, she said.

“I think that the first instinct that so many students are experiencing after Covid-19 and isolation for two years is to move as far away as possible,” she said. “While valid, it is a reaction that some may come to regret sticking to, and I realized that I would have regretted.”

The Covid pandemic impacted students socially in high school as well. Students often struggled to maintain friendships as their senior year ended, said Miles Fu, as he neared graduation at El Camino Fundamental High School in Sacramento last month.

“People start to understand they are breaking off from each other,” he said. “Some try to cling on. Some try to break it off early. No matter what, it is hard for both parties. The school year is very difficult to get through. Everything I’ve heard from every single senior is that if school ended right now they would cry tears of joy.”

Like many new high school graduates, Fu isn’t sure what career path he will follow. So, next year he will stay home and attend nearby American River College while he explores possible career paths.

The senior picnic, senior sunset, even graduation, didn’t quite stack up to graduation events of previous years, according to some seniors. They attributed this, in part, to constantly changing Covid-19 restrictions, which made it difficult for members of student government to plan the events.

Victor Contreras, a recent Cosumnes Oaks High School graduate, doesn’t think Covid played a part in his decision to move across the state to attend San Diego State. He always wanted to move away from his hometown of Elk Grove, near Sacramento.

But it did sap his motivation to begin applying to colleges, he said. It wasn’t until he was back in school and prompted by some of his teachers that he began applying.

A spike in Covid infections canceled the homecoming dance earlier this year, but Contreras was able to attend other school events, although he found them anticlimactic — even graduation.

“I was always thinking that day is so far away, and then it’s yesterday,” he said. “It’s never what you expected.”

High school graduates eager to move ahead to college and jobs, leaving Covid behind

The second class status of part-time faculty at California’s community colleges is a decades-long problem that demands novel solutions. With conditions worsening, state and local leaders need to find new ways to address the problem, panelists said Wednesday during an EdSource roundtable.

That could include agreeing on a master contract that sets minimum job requirements, pay and benefits; passing legislation to improve adjunct working conditions; and determining how to best utilize $200 million proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the 2022-23 state budget for adjunct health care benefits.

Whatever the solution, panelists agreed that something must be done for the part-time faculty, also known as adjuncts, who make up two-thirds of the instructors at California’s 115 brick-and-mortar community colleges. The pandemic-driven loss in student enrollment is costing them jobs. Often, they work semester-by-semester with little or no job security, and those difficult conditions often trickle down and diminish the student experience, panelists said.

“As an adjunct, there’s always that feeling of, will I be needed this next semester? You’re always kind of waiting for that email or that conversation with the department chair,” said Kenneth Brown, a panelist who was recently the president of the board of California Community College trustees. An aerospace engineer, he teaches physics as an adjunct at California State University Dominguez Hills.

Nearly 37,000 adjunct instructors are the backbone of the state’s community college system, which is the nation’s largest higher-education system. Adjuncts often take gigs at multiple college districts to cobble together something akin to full-time work, but at pay rates vastly lower than full-time professors.

Since the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020, enrollment has plummeted at the community colleges, resulting in fewer jobs for adjuncts. Enrollment declined significantly during the 2020-21 academic year: The community college system reported its enrollment at 1.8 million, down about 15% from before the pandemic. Many colleges have continued to lose students over the most recent 2021-22 academic year.

Even though problems facing adjuncts have been exacerbated during the pandemic, the issue is not a new one. Community colleges have long relied on part-time faculty to balance their budgets and give them the flexibility to hire faculty as needed. Whether they get health benefits depends on which district employs them.  As EdSource revealed in a three-part series in February,  33 of the 72 community college districts offer no health benefits.

Adjuncts grossed an average of less than $20,000 per district, according to 2020 salary data for 41 of the 72 districts that listed titles for part-time faculty. The data was obtained by EdSource under the state’s Public Records Act.

Often, it is students who pay the price for the poor working conditions of part-time faculty, panelists said. For example, there is wide variation across California’s community colleges when it comes to compensation for office hours, which are often as crucial to student success as regular classroom instruction. Some adjuncts don’t get paid at all for office hours, and some refuse to put in that time for no pay. Full-time faculty typically are compensated for office hours and any work outside the classroom.

John Martin, a panelist and an adjunct faculty member at Shasta and Butte colleges, said he no longer meets with students outside the classroom because he doesn’t get paid for those hours.

“Why should I work for free? I meet with them right after class, right before class, but I’m not going to hold office hours unless they are paid,” said Martin, who is also chair of the California Part-Time Faculty Association, an advocacy group for adjuncts.

Another panelist, Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, pointed out that adjunct “working conditions are our student learning conditions” yet students attending California’s community colleges are often among the lowest-income students.

Part-time faculty are asked to help lift those students out of poverty and into the workforce, even though the faculty themselves aren’t fairly compensated, creating a difficult situation for both students and faculty, Brill-Wynkoop said.

“You’re asking those who are unfairly compensated to lift others out of poverty,” she said.

At the same time, part-time faculty have essentially been pitted against full-time faculty, said Jose Fierro, president of Cerritos College and a roundtable panelist.

“Years of policy have led to disparity, and this disparity often puts two groups in competition,” he said. “So in a state like California … oftentimes you have contracts that give priority of assignment to full-time faculty.”

The solution lies beyond individual campuses, he added. “The way to talk about working conditions and employment for part-time faculty is to look at the larger system issues rather than what we find in 115 different colleges, because there are 115 different ways in which that will be addressed. And we’ll see that that’s not working.”

Another panelist, William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York City, said there are several routes California can take to improve the realities of part-time faculty.

One option, according to Herbert, would be to establish minimum standards at a statewide level that would set a baseline for issues like compensation and benefits for adjuncts.

Another option would be to create better conditions through collective bargaining and even come up with a master contract that could be applied to campuses across the state.

“It could create a better playing field for everyone,” Herbert said. “A part of those negotiations could be creating a pathway towards full-time employment.”

Adjuncts told EdSource that they don’t feel that they get a fair shot at full-time jobs given their teaching experience.

Martin said his organization, which does not negotiate adjunct contracts, is finally getting attention from the state’s unions. “They are listening to us. However, there are a group of people in power that are dragging their heels, and they are in strong opposition to amend our working conditions.”

There have been several proposals this year at the statewide level that could improve the circumstances of adjunct faculty. On Thursday, one bill affecting adjunct faculty cleared a key committee while another was shelved.

Assembly Bill 1856 would allow adjuncts to teach up to 85% of a full-time teaching load in a single district, something that would provide them more stability and lessen their need to cobble together jobs across multiple districts. The bill was passed Thursday by the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. However, Newsom vetoed similar legislation last year. 

Assembly Bill 1752, meanwhile, died Thursday in the same committee. It proposed to bring pay equity between part-time and full-time faculty by requiring districts to pay their part-timers the same average hourly wage as the average hourly pay for full-time faculty.

At the same time, Newsom’s budget proposal includes $200 million to fund health care coverage for adjuncts at colleges across the state. The money would fund a pool to which local districts would have to apply for reimbursement for 50% of their cost of providing coverage. The fund has been badly underfunded in recent years. The terms would have to be negotiated at every campus. Still, the proposal is seen as an investment that would vastly increase what is currently available.

Fierro, the president of Cerritos College, suggested during the roundtable that the money for health care could be allocated at a statewide level, rather than at local colleges.

“This should be an opportunity for us to look at how we can enroll part-time faculty into a statewide system of benefits, utilizing the purchasing power that is in this year’s budget and that has already been given to the districts and maybe saying, we’re going to take back all that and this is going to be a big umbrella through the state in which we can affiliate community college employees that meet these specific characteristics,” he said.

“The power that we will have in numbers, not just in numbers of faculty, but the amount of money that collectively is spent, I think could provide something a little better than what we individually could,” Fierro added.

During the roundtable, panelists also addressed the racial makeup of faculty at the community colleges, which does not reflect the diversity of the students attending those colleges. Nearly 60% of faculty across the state are white, while 71% of students are from other racial and ethnic backgrounds, including students who are Latino, Black, Asian and Native American.

Brill-Wynkoop said it’s an “enormous problem” that is compounded by the poor working conditions for part-timers.

“So we’ve created a circumstance where we need to bring in new, fresh ideas, younger, diverse faculty, and it is very difficult when we’ve created a system where the chances of getting a full-time position and being able to sustain yourself are very small,” she said.

Fierro added, though, that it will require more than just higher pay and better working conditions to ensure that the faculty match the diversity of the students. One possible solution, he said, is making sure job hiring panels include diverse members.

“Panels tend to hire what they reflect,” he said. “And if we do not diversify panels, we will continue to hire in the same way we have been doing.”

How can California improve the working conditions of community college adjuncts?

State leaders need to recognize that learning to read is a civil right and must “get off the fence” and “take responsibility” for the fact that more than 60% of California third graders are reading below grade level, panelists said Thursday during an EdSource roundtable discussion on early literacy.

The state should ensure that teachers are offered research-based training on reading instruction, that K-2 students are screened for risks of reading failure and that reading curricula are tested for effectiveness, said Kareem Weaver, member of the Oakland NAACP Education Committee and co-founder of the literacy instruction advocacy group FULCRUM, Full and Complete Reading is a Universal Mandate.

Calling the failure to teach reading a long-ignored crisis that has been highlighted by the pandemic, Weaver called for action. 

“The state needs to get off the fence, and stop placating power,” Weaver said. “We need the leadership at the state level, both in the Legislature and in the Department of Education, so there’s clarity and resources available to teachers to get the greatest number of kids reading.”

Educators and advocates on the panel also highlighted the work of 72 schools across the state that are getting early literacy grants as part of a 2020 $50 million court settlement with the state. While the settlement qualified 75 of the state’s lowest-performing schools to receive funding, 72 applied for the grants.

The lawsuit, brought by the advocacy law firm Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law challenged the state to recognize the basic right “that all children had to be given the tools by which they would have the opportunity to learn,” said Mark Rosenbaum, the lead attorney in the case.

“Tragically, the state of California fought us. They said no such right existed. They said these kids did not have a right. They blamed the kids as opposed to the system itself. This is not a failure of children. It’s a failure of the state of California and the system itself. They fought us tooth and nail, but ultimately, we won in court that the right existed.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Gavin Newsom said the administration has, in fact, made early childhood literacy a “top priority” in recent years and pointed to his 2022-23 budget proposal for $700 million “to hire training coaches and reading specialists, expand multilingual school libraries, and improve early identification and screening for learning differences.”

Newsom’s plan, unveiled in January, includes $500 million over five years for high-needs schools to train and hire literacy coaches and reading specialists, as well as a $200 million grant program for schools to create or expand their multilingual schools and purchase culturally-relevant texts for reading instruction. Newsom’s proposal calls for $10 million to support dyslexia research at UC San Francisco. Newsom himself struggled with dyslexia as a child. Since 2019, the state has invested $92.7 million in research, services, and professional development to improve literacy instruction and support for children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

Rosenbaum said state leaders should now look at how the schools getting funding following the lawsuit have improved their students’ reading performance as a model for how it can be done in the rest of the state. “If this is a pilot program, it has succeeded,” Rosenbaum said. “We don’t need a task force; we don’t need more studies; we just need a commitment to expand to every kid, every teacher, and every school where the need is, which is up and down the state of California.” 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond last fall set the goal of getting all third-graders reading by 2026 and created a task force of education experts to figure out how to achieve that goal. Thurmond is also calling on districts and charter schools to adopt that goal and offering them technical assistance.  His office released a statement noting that Thurmond supports Newsom’s literacy proposals and “from day one has dedicated himself to supporting the success of all California’s students, especially those who have faced disproportionate barriers in the educational system. He is on record time and time again saying, ‘Reading is a gateway skill. If you can learn to read, you can read to learn anything. When children don’t learn to read by third grade there is a greater chance they fall victim to the school to prison pipeline.'”

Panelists agreed that the research on how students learn to read should guide educators when helping children learn the skill.

Becky Sullivan, of the Sacramento County Office of Education, who is guiding the participating schools as they carry out their programs, emphasized that third grade is just too late.  Children must be taught how to read by the end of first grade, she said. “So we basically have 360 days to get it right. You have kindergarten and first grade, you have got to get it done. And then the journey is so much more successful and easier for kids.” 

For years, experts have identified third grade reading proficiency as an important benchmark in students’ overall academic careers. Research shows that students who aren’t reading at grade level by then will struggle to catch up throughout their educational careers and can be at greater risk of dropping out of school and ending up in the criminal justice system.

Panelists cautioned against focusing too much on the reading scores of third graders. The state used third grade reading levels to identify which schools would receive the grants because “that’s all we have,” said Jamie Allardice, principal of Richmond’s Nystrom Elementary, one of the schools getting the funding. The state’s Smarter Balanced test for English language arts isn’t given to earlier grades. Nystrom used some of its grant funding to conduct the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, assessments for its students.

The schools are only in their first year in the program, which provides just three years of funding. Sullivan, who leads the oversight, said the Sacramento County Office of Education developed a three-year plan for the schools to improve their literacy instruction. Each developed a unique “literacy action plan” that includes assessments and consistent data collection. Each school receives monthly professional development for not only teachers but literacy coaches, administrators and anybody else involved in teaching students how to read, Sullivan said.

The County Office of Education also introduced the schools to the “science of reading” approach to literacy instruction, which is based on research on how students learn to read, and puts a heavy emphasis on phonics. Nystrom continues to see growth across all grades after implementing this approach.

The science of reading differs from the “balanced literacy” approach to reading instruction, which limits the amount of time spent on phonics instruction in order to allow students to develop their own love for reading. 

The debate on which approach is better has been dubbed “the reading wars.” Panelists were in agreement that the wars are over, with research supporting explicit phonics instruction. Some educators still strongly believe in balanced literacy and getting them to break from that approach remains a challenge to spreading the science of reading to more schools, Sullivan said.

“How kids learn how to read is settled science,” Sullivan said. “We have this big implementation gap getting it into classrooms.”

Training teachers on the science of reading approach led to early literacy gains at Joshua Elementary School in Lancaster School District, especially in grades K-3, said principal Lorraine Zapata.

“One of the things that I think this grant brought to us was the shared, common understanding of what the science of reading is and that we do have the ability to teach our students in a way that is research-based and best practices,” she said.

Panelists also agreed that it was critically important for teachers to be trained in the science of reading as part of a comprehensive training plan for the whole school system.

The roundtable, moderated by Anne Vasquez, EdSource executive director, and Karen D’Souza, early education reporter, opened with a trailer from an upcoming documentary featuring Weaver titled “The Right To Read.”

In addition to Newsom’s proposals to increase literacy funding, legislators are also considering several bills aimed at improving literacy.  

Assembly Bill 2465 would create grant programs to provide library cards to every public school student, fund programs that would include home visits to engage families in their students’ literacy instruction, and pay for the development and credentialing of 500 new bilingual educators. AB 2498 would establish a three-year pilot summer literacy and learning-loss mitigation program next year based on the Freedom Schools programs. SB 952 would provide grants to school districts, county offices of education and certain charter schools to create dual language immersion programs. SB 237 would require the state to start screening all kindergartners, first graders and second graders for dyslexia starting in the 2022-23 school year.

An unmet promise: Early literacy for all in California

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