Theresa Harrington / EdSource
West Contra Costa Unified Superintendent Matthew Duffy, right, and United Teachers of Richmond union president Demetrio Gonzalez chat before a video shoot at De Anza High in Richmond on April 27, 2019.

In many school districts, teachers’ union presidents and superintendents don’t always see eye to eye.

But in one Bay Area school district, the top representatives of a California Teachers Association-affiliated union and a Contra Costa County school district are teaming up to show their community the good things happening on their campuses in the hopes of attracting more families to public schools. At a time of increasing labor strife, what is happening in West Contra Costa Unified can be seen as a different way to get things done.

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“We want to start this tradition of once a month taking a whole day from our schedules to go and sit in classrooms, speak to students and staff and showcase in a short video some of the amazing things they’re doing,” said Demetrio Gonzalez, president of the United Teachers of Richmond union in the district, which includes Richmond and surrounding communities.

“We want to show our parents that there are fabulous local options in our community, despite some negative messages that sometimes get put out,” Superintendent Matthew Duffy said.

Their unusual partnership offers a model for management-labor cooperation and collaboration, at a time of mounting tensions and conflicts in several California school districts. Duffy and Gonzalez both started working in West Contra Costa Unified three years ago, after the previous superintendent retired amid controversies related to the district’s construction bond spending program.

Gonzalez said he suggested the idea for the videos to the superintendent about a year ago to help the district “tell our story” in an effort to help change the negative views some people have about the schools, increase staff morale and build on campus pride. In recent years, the district has escaped the threat of a labor strike experienced in other districts, including nearby Oakland, because the board supported a cumulative 17 percent salary increase for teachers from July 2017 to July 2020 aimed at helping recruit and retain educators. The last time the district came close to a strike was in 2009, but it was averted when teachers narrowly approved a tentative agreement that included no pay raises.

Putting a focus on what West Contra Costa has to offer is critical for a district where many students and their families are choosing charter schools, private schools or transferring to neighboring districts. Since 2014-15, enrollment in charter schools in the district has grown from 1,451 to 3,639 while enrollment in district schools has dropped from 29,145 to 28,121 students.

The difference in numbers stems from the fact that students move in and out of schools. Some have graduated, new students enter. This year, charter schools are attracting 11.5 percent of students in the district. 

This isn’t the first collaboration between Duffy and Gonzalez. Last July, they successfully negotiated a teacher contract with significant raises that increase the entry-level salary from $44,152 on July 1, 2017 to $50,922 by July 1, 2020. The two leaders continue to work together as part of a district “Solutions Team” that includes two members from each bargaining unit, two school board members, the superintendent and the assistant superintendent of human resources. Duffy is supportive of the union’s suggestions to offer teacher stipends to attract and keep experienced teachers at Stege Elementary, which is undergoing a redesign due to low student academic performance and declining enrollment.

The videos, which are about 2 to 4 minutes in length, will “also show how sometimes the unions and the district are not in agreement,” but they are all working to support students, families and staff, Gonzalez said.

The pair visited Helms Middle School in San Pablo in February, Lincoln Elementary in Richmond in March and DeAnza High in Richmond in April. In the debut video, available on the district’s YouTube website, Duffy introduces viewers to the Helms campus, saying: “Helms is a fantastic school. It’s safe. It’s happy. Great things are happening. We want everyone to know about this amazing place right here in our community.”

The school serves about 864 students in grades 7-8, including 95 percent who are low-income, 37 percent who are English learners, 11.2 percent who have disabilities and 6 percent who are homeless. Next year, it plans to open the first “newcomer” middle school for immigrant students on the West Coast. Its Physical Education teacher Doug Silva was named a district teacher of the year last month.

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

Helms Middle School PE teacher Doug Silva was named a West Contra Costa Unified Teacher of the Year in April, 2019.

But Helms is still working on improving student achievement. Last year, 20.3 percent of students met or exceeded standards on the state’s English language arts tests which is below the state average of 49.9 percent. In math, 7.2 percent met the standards, below the state average of 38.7 percent.

However, the school has seen a drop in its suspension rates, from 8.9 percent in 2016-17 to 8.3 percent in 2017-18, which Gonzalez attributed in part to the school’s social justice program that teaches students alternative ways to resolve conflicts.

As the video portrayed, the school is a lot more than its test scores or any other statistics.

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

Helms Middle School music teacher Deven Holcomb directs a band class on April 20, 2019.

Accompanied by a jazzy instrumental soundtrack, the video — viewed 407 times so far — shows Principal Jessica Petrilli and her staff in the front office saying, “Welcome to Helms,” then cuts to Petrelli showing her guests around campus. They visit Deven Halcomb’s band class and Lisa Jackson’s advanced art class, then chat with a few students and staff members in the halls before heading into Dilan Pedraza’s English class.

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

Helms Middle School students (l-r) Iyana Buggs and Shanylei Hamilton display paintings they created in their advanced art class on April 20, 2019.

It concludes with Duffy recapping what they saw and Gonzalez adding his impressions.

“It was also so cool to see how happy teachers were and how excited the kids were to be in with them,” Gonzalez said.

Duffy said Helms has “a great many needs,” but the district is “honored and privileged to serve” its student population that includes a high percentage of “newcomer” immigrants and students with “severe special needs” who are not likely to attend local charter schools.

During an EdSource visit to the Helms campus, students Cassandra Alvarado and Edna Villasenior in Pedraza’s English class said the teachers make learning enjoyable and the staff helps them feel cared for.

“I like the way teachers try to have fun while teaching us,” said Cassandra, 14, who lives in San Pablo.

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

Helms Middle School student Cassandra Alvarado, 14, works on an 8th grade English assignment on April 20, 2019.

Edna agreed.

“I feel loved here,” she said. “It’s a good school.”

Petrilli said electives such as art and music help keep students interested in school.

Several music students said they appreciate the helpful feedback they get from Halcomb and think the classes they are taking will help prepare them for high school. They hope the video will help turn around some people’s negative views of the school.

“Other people think less of the school,” said Yumiko Leon, 14, who lives in San Pablo and plays flute.

But Steven Ayala, a 14-year-old percussion player, said the video could help “prove them wrong.”

The Lincoln Elementary video was just completed. It focuses on the school’s ability to turn around its staff retention, going from very high turnover to 100 percent retention of all staff members over the past two years.

The third video, which was shot on April 27, will emphasize academic improvement at DeAnza High, where graduation rates have risen from 70 percent in 2011 to 89 percent last year.

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

A West Contra Costa Unified video camera records a De Anza High student presenting a mock union organizing pitch to students in a law academy class on April 27, 2019.

The percentage of students taking classes that meet UC and CSU requirements has grown from about 32.6 percent to 54 percent through the help of a robust college and career center and partnerships with organizations including UC Berkeley, which provide college advising.


Theresa Harrington / EdSource

Demetrio Gonzalez, president of the United Teachers of Richmond union in West Contra Costa Unified, listens to the pulse of De Anza High student Jaronje Clark during a medical academy class on April 27, 2019.

Gonzalez and Duffy sat among students during mock hospital and union presentations in the school’s law academy class, where students represented both sides and tried to convince their classmates — who took on the roles of hospital workers — to join the union or reject the union’s organizing offer. Afterward, Duffy and Gonzalez offered to visit a future class to demonstrate how they work out labor-related differences. They also joined students in a health academy class, learning how to take a pulse.

With 56 schools in the district, Principal Summer Sigler said the visits give the superintendent and teachers’ union president an opportunity “to understand what’s happening on the ground.”

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

De Anza High Principal Summer Sigler, right, chats with the school’s Community Outreach Workers during a West Contra Costa Unified video shoot highlighting the school on April 27, 2019.

“I can’t think of anything more important for making the district more supportive for students,” she said.

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

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