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Report Card: Academic Gains, Funding Woes for West County Schools

Public schools in West Contra Costa County have shown steady academic gains in the past eight years, but steep budget cuts continue to hamstring the school district's efforts, according to latest State of the District report.

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."

Jeffrey Boore September 03, 2012 at 04:54 AM
I don't understand why YOU would *encourage* Cal faculty to find alternative employment. Is that meant to belittle the view that they could do so? I assure you that even in "this day and age" that many UC faculty would have no trouble finding much better paying jobs elsewhere. Overwhelmingly, university professors accept their academic positions because of the freedom to pursue a scholarly life that it brings and all know that they are making a financial sacrifice in order to get this freedom. I did my own homework on university tuition costs and faculty salaries and I posted the specific data that support my conclusions. You make wild, unsupported, untrue claims and then object when asked where you got the information. I am not asking you to do my homework. I am telling you that you are wrong and challenging you to back up the falsehoods you are spreading. Again you then state the same thing that university administrators are responsible for all manner of changes in tuition. Again, I am telling you that they do not have the power to do that. That is a power granted to the Regents of the University, not the university president or the Berkeley provost.
Milan Moravec September 03, 2012 at 05:13 PM
All the info presented by yours truely are facts...unfortunately they do not align with your preconcieved notions....do your searches and you too can discpover insights that do not fit what you would like the world to be... Each campus senior management makes decisions on tuition: then the campus chancellor hide behind the Regents. Unfortunately Cal senior management startegy is to stick it to Californians with their charge Californians higher tuition: we are an elete PUBLIC university and we should charge Californians higher instate tuition. Cal subsidizes foreign and out of state students up to the tune of up to $60,000 per affluent foreign and affluent out of state students. And Californians are denied admission so that affluent foreigners and affluent out of state students can be admitted to Cal. Additional state tax funding should sunset. The sluggish economy and 10% unemployment devistate family education savings. Simply asking for more taxes to fund self-absorbed Cal.senior leadership, old inefficient higher education practices, excessive faculty staff compensation and burdensome bonuses, is not the answer. And sack Cal. Provost Breslauer. Chancellor Birgeneau resigned The facts are always friendly !
Milan Moravec September 03, 2012 at 06:49 PM
Boore...good by and remember that the facts are always friendly even though they do not fit your preconceptions Remove Cal Provost Breslauer. Birgeneau resigned
Jeffrey Boore September 04, 2012 at 06:00 PM
@Milan Moravec -- Here are some facts that you may not like: The tuition for in-state undergrads at UC Berkeley is $5,610 per semester. The tuition for out-of-state undergrads at UC Berkeley is $17,049 per semester. You can verify that I am right at http://registrar.berkeley.edu/feesched.html A year ago, the average in-state tuition at public four-year colleges was $10,747, pretty much the same as (the not at all average quality) Berkeley ($11,220). You can verify that I am right at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/30/education/30collegeweb.html Here are the tuition costs at a few other four-year public universities, none of which have the quality of Berkeley: Penn State: $15,250 ($4,030 more than Berkeley) University of Pittsburgh: $14,936 ($ 3,716 more than Berkeley) University of Vermont: $14,066 ($2,846 more than Berkeley) University of New Hampshire: $13,672 ($2,452 more than Berkeley) Saint Mary's College of Maryland: $13,630 ($2,410 more than Berkeley) Colorado School of Mines: $13,425 ($2,205 more than Berkeley) New Jersey Institute of Technology: $13,370 ($2,150 more than Berkeley) The College of New Jersey: $13,293 ($2,073 more than Berkeley) You can verify that I am right at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/12/most-expensive-public-colleges_n_1591976.html (see more below)
Jeffrey Boore September 04, 2012 at 06:00 PM
About 70% of all Berkeley undergraduates receive financial aid, which is primarily need-based. Of these, 17% have their total costs met, and the average financial aid package covers 82% of the total cost of attending the university. You can verify that I am right at http://www.collegedata.com/cs/data/college/college_pg03_tmpl.jhtml?schoolId=1090 In contrast to your claims, there is very little financial assistance for international students. International students are not eligible for federal financial aid or institutional aid managed by the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office at UC Berkeley. You can verify that I am right at http://students.berkeley.edu/finaid/home/international.htm In fact, financial aid is given only to those who are US citizens or, in VERY rare cases, to eligible guests to our country. You can verify that I am right at http://students.berkeley.edu/finaid/home/eligibility.htm

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