As competition from charter schools grows, educators and parents at some district schools are speaking up about the positive programs they offer to local families.
In the Bay Area, over the past few years, the West Contra Costa Unified School District has expanded three K-5 schools to include middle school grades, has opened up a Mandarin dual immersion elementary school and expanded Spanish dual immersion and “newcomer” programs for immigrants. Immersion programs teach students in English and another language, with some lessons being taught entirely in English and some in the other language, to help students become fluent quickly. Newcomer programs help recent immigrants learn English and to adapt to California schools.
School officials touted these and other programs during the first-ever West Contra Costa Education Fair in Richmond on Saturday that included both charter schools and district schools handing out information to parents and answering questions face-to-face and side by side. The event, which was funded by the Chamberlin Family Foundation, a local nonprofit, reflected an unusual harmony among competing factions and a departure from the rancor between district and charter school supporters seen recently in the Los Angeles and Oakland Unified School Districts.
“This gives the district a chance to have access to any parent who thinks the better choice is a charter,” said Valerie Cuevas, board member in the district that includes Richmond and surrounding communities, as she walked among the tables for elementary, middle and high schools. She noted that many district schools are within walking distance for neighborhood students and offer health care resources, along with Transitional Kindergarten for 4-year-olds, which is a program that helps prepare young students for kindergarten. “We don’t get to tell that story often when parents are thinking about what choices they are going to make,” she said.
Controversy over charter schools has increased in the district as more have opened or expanded, with some school board members and teachers’ union representatives calling for a statewide cap or moratorium. Enrollment in charter schools in West Contra Costa grew from 1,451 students in 2014-15 to 3,192 in 2017-18, while enrollment in district schools dropped from 29,145 to 28,457 during the same time period.
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As district and charter school participants evaluate the success of the fair to decide whether to continue it next year, district board member Mister Phillips said he would like to see a larger district presence.
“It’s good for people to know what their options are,” he said. “But I would like them to have all of their options in front of them. We have over 50 district schools. If we’re going to do this, we should all be here.”
Queries from parents revealed that many don’t know the difference between charter and district schools.
Dave Bryson, who passed out a “Charter School Guide” that listed a dozen charter schools participating in a recent “Enroll WCC” initiative that allows parents to apply for any of the charter schools through a common application process, said he was getting a lot of questions about how charter schools and district schools differ.
“Hopefully, this guide can answer that question,” he said, pointing to the guide, which explains that charter schools in West Contra Costa are operated by nonprofit organizations that “have unique models and offer an option for families seeking a different educational experience for their children.”
Although tensions between charter schools and the district have often been evident at local school board meetings, Bryson said he did not feel any hostility directed at charter schools or his organization at the fair.
“I think it’s great to see all the schools in the district in one place where parents can come and learn about them,” he said.
Representatives from schools such as Shannon Elementary in Pinole created large poster board displays that detailed “opportunities for parent engagement” at the school including PTA, a Dad’s club, School Site Council, African-American Parent Advisory Council, English learner advisory group and a community outreach staff member dedicated to parent outreach.
A couple of years ago, a similar event was held that mainly highlighted charter schools, said Tom Panas, president of the district school board. He said the Saturday event was “healthy.”
“I don’t really see it as a competition,” he said. “I just see it as an opportunity to learn about different options.”
Parent Lisa Zhen, who lives in Hercules, said she chose to send her two children to the district-run West County Mandarin School in Richmond after first considering the Yu Ming Mandarin and Francophone French charter schools in Oakland, and looking at private school options.
“I knew I wanted them to learn a second language,” she said. “So, when this opened, we jumped on it immediately.”
The district plans to expand the Mandarin school to K-8. But Zhen said she and her husband are already thinking ahead to high school and are considering private schools or the district’s Pinole Valley High, if it offers an International Baccalaureate program. As she evaluates her options, Zhen said, “The more, the better!”
Nearby, a representative for the Caliber Beta Academy a K-8 charter school, which focuses on providing a high-quality education to “historically underserved” students in Richmond and Vallejo, said a lot of parents asked whether the school offers Transitional Kindergartenfor 4-year-olds. Its West Contra Costa campus does not, said Alyssa Wheeler, a program specialist who works with special education students and others needing additional supports at the school.
Although many charter critics say the schools don’t serve enough special education students, Wheeler said 13 percent of Caliber’s students receive special education services. This is higher than the district average of 12.1 percent of students with disabilities last year, according to the California Department of Education. Wheeler said Caliber provides “personalized learning” for all students, including small group instruction.
“Teachers are able to meet students where they are,” she said. “We provide academic, social and emotional and behavioral interventions.”
The school also offers a coding and robotics program, along with several after-school clubs, according to a flyer Wheeler distributed to parents.
Each of the 14 charter schools and 23 district schools at the event created flyers using a common template that included a chart showing the makeup of the student body, opportunities for family engagement, school programs, a mission statement and school contact information, in both English and Spanish. The Chamberlin Family Foundation provided funding for the templates, Richmond Memorial Auditorium space and a consultant to organize the four-hour event, which attracted more than 500 people, said Maddie Orenstein, event organizer.
“We need to lift up the good,” she said, explaining that the rationale behind the fair was to include as many district and charter schools and community education-oriented organizations as possible.
Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.
EdSource receives funding from several foundations, including the Chamberlin Family Foundation. EdSource maintains sole editorial control over the content of its coverage.