The good news for West Contra Costa public schools is that academic performance scores have been rising steadily for the past decade, and there have been substantial increases in the percentages of students completing college-prep courses and going on to college and technical schools after high school.
The bad news is that budget cuts have increased class sizes, curtailed employee compensation and threaten further damage to the district's progress.
Those messages were delivered recently by the West Contra Unified School District superintendent, Bruce Harter, in a special "State of the West Contra Costa Unified School District" presentation in El Cerrito Friday.
"Scary" economic roller coaster
"We really are in a whole new kind of gridlock," Harter said. "It's called political gridlock that we see across the nation and we also see here in California as well. And we all feel like we've been on a kind of economic roller coaster — sort of a scary ride rather than a fun ride, that's for certain.
The weak economy and continued high unemployment levels are having a direct impact on the 29,000-student district, Harter said.
The number of students on the free/reduced lunch has increased by about 1,100 over the past years, even though total enrollment decreased by about 5,000 in the same period, he said.
Changes is enrollment numbers, ethnic mix
Total student enrollment also could be compared to roller coaster, falling in a "slippery slide" from more than 41,000 in 1969 over the next 15 years down to a low of about 26,000, Harter said. It then experienced a steady climb over ensuing two decades to reach about 35,000 in 2003 before reversing again and falling steadily to the current 29,215, he said. (A graph showing the enrollment changes can be seen in the second slide of the group of attached slides from Harter's presentation.)
But the enrollment drop is expected to stop with a stable student population predicted for the next decade, Harter told the council at its Oct. 17 meeting.
"The good news is that our demographer says for the next 10 years we're going to be pretty stable," he said. "We're looking at about 29,000 students for the next 10 years. That means we're going to have stability in terms of our schools and that we are about right size to where we need to be for our buildings."
The ethnic make-up of students also has seen a significant shift in the past two decades, he said.
"Our population has changed a lot," he said, noting that the largest group, Latino students, make up 48 percent of the students today, up from 20 percent in the 1991-92 school year. The following table shows the changes for different groups:Year Latino African-Am White Asian Filipino 2011-12 48% 21% 13% 12% 6% 1991-92 20% 35% 26% 13% 6%
The language spoken at home by students also reflects the district's "enormous diversity," Harter said. "We have about 10,000 of our students out of the 29,000 whose home language in Spanish." The other languages I have there are all under a thousand. Among the several other home languages spoken by more than 100 students each range from about 750 for Filipino down to about a hundred for Hindi, with 65 other home languages spoken by smaller numbers, he said.
Steady gains in academic performance
"Our academic performance has gone up steadily over the last eight years," Harter said, displaying a slide showing the district's Academic Performance Score rising from 590 in 1992 to 710 this year. "We've very pleased at moving in the right direction even if we'd like the trend to be a little bit steeper than what it is in this graph."
"A lot of that has to do with our teachers," he said. "The quality of the teachers is seven times more important than any other factor in schooling for children."
He also reported substantial progress in college preparation among students, particularly in completing the so-called "A-G" courses with a 2.0 grade point average (GPA) required for admission to the University of California and California State University systems. Those completing the A-G classes upon graduation have almost tripled in five years.
"We relentlessly talk to students about 15 big classes that they need," Harter said. "These are the classes that are required for the UC/CSU. ... We're real delighted to see we've tripled the number of our graduates who have completed those basic A-G classes over the last five years. That represents about 40 percent of our graduates."
Current projections show the figure rising above 50 percent for the class of 2012, he said.
In the high school graduating class of 2011, more than 80 percent went off to two-year or four-year colleges or to technical schools, up from 46 percent five years ago, he said.
"We've really changed the college-going culture in our community, and our students really aspire to go on to college and universities," he said. He attributed the increase in part to the district's 21 , which combine core academic classes with skills in training in various fields, including health, engineering, law and justice, and hospitality and tourism.
He also singled out several other successful programs in the district, including the Junior Achievement Company Program, where students learn about starting a business, and improved school safety efforts. The district also believes strongly in preserving other programs such as the science fairs and performing and visual arts, and he expressed appreciation to community partners like Chevron for their support.
Attendance rate up
The district's attendance rate also has increased steadily over the past five years, Harter said. "This last year we finally cracked the 95 percent barrier."
A big reason, he said, can be found in the health centers in all high schools: "When students can get their health needs addressed, they're much more likely to be in school." The past five years have seen a decrease in teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as a decline in the dropout rate.
Another successful health story is the district's focus on food offerings, Harter said.
"We've really eliminated all the junk food in our schools. You can't buy it, you can't eat anything but healthy foods in our schools today, and the students are eating it.
Funding problems remain serious
The budget remains a major challenge, Harter said.
"It seems like we've done nothing but cut, to the tune of a total of about $40 million out of our $240 million budgets, so it's a very big constraint on our programs and services," he said.
The school board trying to keep smaller class sizes, and has been successful in the K-2 levels until now but not at the middle and high schools where classes of 38 and 40 students prevail, he said.
"We have larger classes, we have fewer teachers, we have fewer support services, and our employees have had to take furloughs and benefit caps as well, which makes it much more difficult for us to go out and recruit and retain employees, particularly highly effective teachers that we need," Harter said.
Harter also relayed the "really disappointing" news of a drop in advanced placement (AP) classes, which are college courses that students take in high school in high schools. The graph displayed by Harter showed the number of AP exams declining this year from last year, after rising steadily since 2003. "It fell off simply because we can't have the course offerings we use to be able to have because of the constraints that we have from our budget," he said.
He expressed apprehension about further reductions in state funding, saying that the district has set aside funds to cover a possible further reduction in state support this school year but would face even larger cuts next school year.
"Honestly I'm beginning to run out of places where we're going to be able to cut," he said.
State loan burden expected to lifted soon
Harter reported that the district hopes to soon be rid of the large, 21-year-old state loan, which he compared to a "Sword of Damocles" and "the albatross around our neck."
"We're about to finally put the loan to rest," he said, noting that the district how has enough money in its long-term debt fund to pay off the balance in the loan. He said the district hopes that the current state audit of the loan issue will be completed by December with board action in January, "and then, hopefully, have a big loan pay-out party in February or March next year."