School Board Seeks Public Input on Portola Tonight

The West Contra Costa school is holding a special meeting tonight, Wednesday, to hear community ideas on improving Portola Middle School in El Cerrito and reducing the number of students from feeder elementary schools who now avoid Portola.

The school board of the West Contra Costa Unified School District will hold a special meeting tonight, March 27, to gather community input on improvements for Portola Middle School in El Cerrito.

Portola historically has been seen as an academically challenged school with periodic discipline problems, and a large number of students from district elementary schools that feed Portola go to middle school elsewhere, including private schools or public middle schools in other school districts.

And though there's a widespread recognition among the staff and parents at the school now that significant improvements have been made, the quality of what the school can offer remains a key concern.

"It's time to look at what our community really wants in its middle school," said school board member Todd Groves, who initiated the meeting.

The timing is opportune, he said, because the 525-student school is being rebuilt. Portola, which serves seventh and eighth grades, currently is housed in temporary buildings at its old site on Moeser Lane across from Cerrito Vista Park. The former school buildings were torn down after being deemed unsafe in a major quake.

A major problem for Portola, and afterward for El Cerrito High School, is the loss of potential students from the elementary feeder schools.

"There's a lot of outflow to other districts and private schools," said Groves, who was elected to the five-member board in November and is one of three board members who live in El Cerrito. He noted the relatively large number of private middle schools in the city, for example.

Board member Charles Ramsey, who also lives in El Cerrito, said between 100 and 150 students are siphoned off each year from the six elementary schools that feed Portola: Fairmont, Harding, Kensington, Madera, Stege and Washington.

School board President Madeline Kronenberg, also an El Cerrio resident, said the focus of tonight's meeting is on Portola because each school has distinctive needs that need separate attention.

"Each school has its own unique personality," she said.

One of the most distinctive challenges for Portola is that the schools feeding Portola cover a wide spectrum from the district's highest-performing schools in affluent communities to lower-performing schools in less affuent neighborhoods, she said.

"It's time for the board to address the Portola dilemma," Ramsey said.

The main purpose of tonight's meeting is to hear from the community, Groves said.

A message about the meeting also is posted on the Go Portola! website.

The meeting takes place at 6:30-8 p.m. in the multipurpose room of Lovonya DeJean Middle School, 3400 Macdonald Ave. in Richmond. (The entrance is on Harry Ells Place.)

Also on the board agenda is awarding the contract to build the new Portola at the site of the former Castro Elementary School in El Cerrito.

The meeting agenda is attached to this article.


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Kate March 29, 2013 at 11:41 PM
It is a shame you were not able to attend the meeting Wednesday night. There was a whole presentation given by Dr. Harter, with demographics, statistics, and so on. I believe this will be posted on the district website. FYI, Kensington students are THE MAJORITY at Portola this year. I believe Madera is second in terms of student population.
Craig B. Wilson March 29, 2013 at 11:53 PM
As a data oriented person, Ira, please provide data to support your use of "a few" in your claim that "a few parents of Portola think the school is making great strides." Thank you.
Ira Sharenow March 30, 2013 at 12:08 AM
Mary, thanks. I was all set to walk over to the meeting but then I saw that it was not at Portola! I just went to the WCCUSD web site and could not find where they post the online videos of the board meetings, so please post a note if you find out that the meeting is posted online. Basically I am a supporter of local school districts. WCCUSD is a poorly performing/failing regional district that has committed itself to massive construction projects, so I do not know how Portola, which is part of WCCUSD, can possibly become a quality school. What is the district’s game plan for Portola? Is there an online action plan that spells out how Portola will get up to average and beyond? I went to public schools. I have a concern that highly capable students of parents of modest means (and so cannot afford private schools) will not be able to get a public school education that meets their needs. Instead of more construction bonds taxes, I support a parcel tax to fund a magnate middle school and a magnate high school for gifted students.
Kate March 30, 2013 at 12:21 AM
The meeting was not video taped, but there were two PPT presentations, one by Dr. Harter and one by Mr. Burnham. Dr. Harter's presentation included ample data about the feeder schools, Portola, and ECHS. Mr. Burnham's presentation was equally informative, and included not only demographics, feeder school data, Portola data, test scores, but also included a suggested action plan for improvement. We seek the district's support in helping to continue our momentum, further build teacher capacity and performance, and impact student achievement. We believe the district is behind us, but even if they weren't, we are not waiting. We have all worked very hard to move Portola forward for all children. We will continue to work towards our goal, and we are all quite confident that we will reach it.
Amy Kang March 30, 2013 at 12:57 AM
The meeting was held at LaVonya DeJean Middle School in Richmond because it was a School Board meeting; that's where all School Board meetings are held. WCCUSD parents are accustomed to going to DeJean for school board meetings... not a big deal.
Ira Sharenow March 30, 2013 at 01:36 AM
I wish those who are working hard to make Portola a better place the very best of luck. I believe that it is important to work effectively; otherwise, the efforts may be all for naught. Hopefully, the next time there is an important PR event it will be webcast live and then used for PR. I think it is important to have a step by step action plan. I also think there needs to be effective public relations with market segmentation – voters who would like to support an improved school; families whose children may be about to go to Portola (or outside the district); professional families that are about to take jobs in San Francisco and may be considering El Cerrito and the surrounding area for the purchase of a home. Perhaps if “Families for Portola” became a non-profit it might be able to attract funding from a real estate firm, a bank, or perhaps a construction company so that the organization can effectively promote its concept. If the nonprofit is successful, property values will rise, so it seems reasonable that it can attract some funding from private enterprise. So, good luck!
Giorgio C. March 30, 2013 at 03:25 AM
Portola is everyone's business, as all wccusd schools are. We learn from everyone's successes and failures. Portola is fortunate to have a principal who was supported and groomed for the job. Not all principals have received this support, so they need our help. Ira, I have started attending all site coucil meetings for all schools in my city. Did you know you can run for a seat as a "community member"? I just learned our ELD teacher does not have the resources she needs, so I will now help her get the $3000 that she needs. I have also requested copies of all WASC survey reports for our city's schools and all school site plans. The latter are on line. I am sharing what I learn at our city council and wccusd meetings. Ira, seriously, check out the ssc meetings which are under the brown act, then let's share notes here. You cover el cerrito and I'll take hercules. And most importantly, let's help them succeed.
Giorgio C. March 30, 2013 at 04:00 AM
Portola benefitted from the Middle School Math Initiative. The question I have is if it was so successful, why wasn't it been adopted for all WCCUSD schools?
Paul March 30, 2013 at 04:08 AM
It's less than 3 miles from the Portola site to Lavonnya DeJean, the site of all school board meetings. In fact, DeJean is less than 1 mile outside the El Cerrito city limits. Good grief. I respect opinions that are different than mine, I think it's important to discuss lots of different ideas. But I find the comments about crime, taxes, and area of residence to be non-constructive. What's the point? If 100% of the kids at Portola were from Hercules, what then? Of course I want local kids at Portola (and trust me, they ARE - mine are), but other areas also feed into Portola, including Richmond Annex and some parts of Richmond. But I still don't see the relevance. If these were just "our" kids then we'd feel better about "our" school? Portola is a part of the WCCUSD. Students within the Portola feeder schools get first priority. If there are still open slots after the local kids are accounted for, then they take transfers from other areas of the District. Yes, there are El Cerrito children who do not attend Portola - but there are also a lot of El Cerrito children who do. I like Ira's idea of a non-profit booster organization. I also like Giorgio's idea of direct involvement to make sure the teachers get the resources they need. I think that's what many Portola parents are saying now - stop complaining about the Board, about the taxes, etc, and get involved NOW to help us make it better.
Paul March 30, 2013 at 04:30 AM
Giorgio - good question about the Middle School Math Initiative. What exactly was that initiative? I know that there is a "math club" at Portola that meets at lunch and has been sponsored by parents. My understanding is that it consists of volunteers and maybe one paid "teacher/tutor". The math team that competed in the regional MathCounts competition (and finished in the top 5) was a product of that math club. How much of that program is supported by WCCUSD? I have not been impressed by the classroom math teachers at Portola, and I think that was a part of the reason the parents helped to start/support the math club. Is the teacher's union doing anything to support innovative improvements in the classroom? How can we get better teachers, or at least improve the classroom environment? I know that the Portola Principal is trying, but I suspect there is only so much he can do with the teachers he has. As I've said before - Portola isn't perfect, but it's my local public middle school and I believe it is my responsibility to do all I can to make it better. If one isn't a part of the solution, one is part of the problem.
Ira Sharenow March 30, 2013 at 04:39 AM
I think open government is very, very important. Other government entities have been live streaming their meetings for more than 10 years. Amongst other things the WCCUSD board awarded a significant construction contract. I think that the WCCUSD needs to make its meetings far more open. Simply meeting some minimal state standard is not good enough. Moreover, on this thread Portola supporters indicated the meeting was a big success and the supe answered a lot of questions that the public had, so from a public relations standpoint it might have been quite helpful to have had a video available. Now days have passed and I still have not seen the slides. And so I get the feeling that WCCUSD is hopelessly incompetent. Portola is a small part of WCCUSD and so the district’s incompetence has consequences for Portola. Since WCCUSD is a regional district there is less a sense of local control and so for some there is less of a desire to help some huge bureaucracy. It takes a lot of tax money to run the schools. Right now the unanimous board and much of the voting public have provided overwhelming support for high taxes for construction. That has ramifications. Those who live near the school would like to feel safe and so school related crime is a relevant issue.
Heather Aquilino March 30, 2013 at 05:19 AM
The power point presentations are on the WCCUSD website under the headlines section labled Board Reports 3-27-2013.
Giorgio C. March 30, 2013 at 05:40 AM
Paul, I'll share some of my thoughts tomorrow about the role of the union. I had joked that Todd Groves was a union busting scab as a result of his volunteering efforts. It was tongue in cheek humor, but the issues are real. I just want to say congratulations to the Portola math team and to their parents and teachers and tutors and everyone else who helped.
Paul March 30, 2013 at 05:45 AM
Here's the link... although I'm not sure it will work in this format: http://www.wccusd.net/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&ModuleInstanceID=2193&ViewID=047E6BE3-6D87-4130-8424-D8E4E9ED6C2A&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=3101&PageID=1
Ira Sharenow March 30, 2013 at 06:11 AM
Heather, thank you very much. I appreciate your post! Unfortunately, the slides seem to present data in a deceptive way. The charts exaggerate the growth. Moreover the scores are not compared to the state growth. Importantly, no mention is made of the DECLINE in similar schools rank of Portola. I was actually about to post a note on enrollment woes. The enrollment for third and fourth graders is much larger than for fifth and sixth graders. And the sixth grade enrollment is much greater than the seventh grade Portola enrollment. I see that there are over 450 transfer requests for Albany. At an AUSD board meeting there was the comment that WCCUSD has been slow to process those requests. I didn’t see data on the transfers to private schools or the numbers of people who move or who use fake addresses or any estimates on the number of people who might have moved to WCCUSD but never did because of the poor school quality. I didn’t see anything on the impact on property values. Was there any mention of the cost of construction? The bar is set extraordinarily low. Portola is in the bottom decile amongst its peer schools. The Portola percent proficient and advanced is about the same as the AMS advanced percentage. I didn’t see anything about incentives for teacher improvement. Given that Portola is a bottom 10% school, I didn’t see a lot of realism or awareness of the need to make significant changes. The presentation slides were quite disheartening.
Greg March 31, 2013 at 12:17 AM
As a former Portola student from late '60's, I must say that Portola was not always "historically academically challenged". Our school was a class act, and a wonderful setting for learning for everyone. We were a part of the school integration movement, and students from the west side of Richmond were coming to Portola and ECH for the first time. In part due to the District's foresight to hire two "human relations counselors", the transition went amazingly smoothly. I applaud everyone's efforts to restore Portola back to its days of greatness. Those were some of the best days of my life. All kids should have such an experience.
Leslie Moore March 31, 2013 at 03:04 AM
Mr. Sharenow, I think it is important for you to see what is going on at Portola with your own eyes. Therefore, I am going to pay for you to get a WCCUSD volunteer badge and the required accompanying TB test. I'll facilitate this as much as I can, but you'll have to do some of the work. You'll have to fill out an application, get fingerprinted and see a doctor for the TB test and follow-up examination. You'll have to go to Richmond to pick up your badge when all is done. I'll absorb all the costs. Then, we'll find you a volunteer opportunity on campus where you can see close up what is happening there. You'll be in good company because dozens of community members and parents have gone through this process for volunteering at Portola this year alone. I think you'd make a fabulous writing coach. You'd work with students one-on-one. You'd be in the classroom and would develop a first hand account of what is going on there. This is a very serious offer. If you are willing, please contact me through Go Portola! and we'll get you on your way. goportola@gmail.com Information on the writing coach program here: WriterCoach Connection http://www.writercoachconnection.org/ With the hope of future partnership, Leslie Moore
Leslie Moore March 31, 2013 at 03:04 AM
Mr. Sharenow, I think it is important for you to see what is going on at Portola with your own eyes. Therefore, I am going to pay for you to get a WCCUSD volunteer badge and the required accompanying TB test. I'll facilitate this as much as I can, but you'll have to do some of the work. You'll have to fill out an application, get fingerprinted and see a doctor for the TB test and follow-up examination. You'll have to go to Richmond to pick up your badge when all is done. I'll absorb all the costs. Then, we'll find you a volunteer opportunity on campus where you can see close up what is happening there. You'll be in good company because dozens of community members and parents have gone through this process for volunteering at Portola this year alone. I think you'd make a fabulous writing coach. You'd work with students one-on-one. You'd be in the classroom and would develop a first hand account of what is going on there. This is a very serious offer. If you are willing, please contact me through Go Portola! and we'll get you on your way. goportola@gmail.com Information on the writing coach program here: WriterCoach Connection http://www.writercoachconnection.org/ With the hope of future partnership, Leslie Moore
Ira Sharenow March 31, 2013 at 04:19 AM
Leslie, you really made my evening! Thanks for the compliment, but I do not visualize myself as a writing coach. The only time I did something remotely similar is when I was a grad student and I helped some international students with their verbal English language skills. Writing is not my number one strength and in the past I typically limited my teaching to adults. I wish you the best of luck. I hope those advocating for Portola can come up with a winning strategy. However, I believe that the Albany school district is very interested in recruiting top EC and Kensington students, and right now Albany is considered way better that WCCUSD. I took another look at the data. I noticed that the average parental education for Portola is only 2.79 but the average for the feeder schools is 3.08. For AMS it is about 4.1. I enjoy using data for public policy objectives, and I think that right now it will take a considerable and effective effort to turn Portola into a top school. I hope that you have a strategy for retaining students who are moving towards middle school. Again I wish Portola the very best of luck.
Kate March 31, 2013 at 04:32 AM
No worries, Ira! Leslie is right; this is a wonderful way to support Portola (you seem very interested in our school, and we would love to welcome you to WriterCoach Connection). In order to become a coach, you must do all that Leslie describes above, AND be trained to be a coach. Many members from the community (including grandparents, retired professionals, parents, and interested folks) are thoroughly trained before working one-on-one with the students. I am sure you would enjoy seeing the dozens of volunteers who come to the campus to work with the students (last year, we met most Friday mornings to tutor; this year the hours were a bit more difficult for those who work full time, as I do). It might also give you a new and refreshed perspective of our students and the many, many community members who dedicate their time to our students. If you are able, we would love to have you. It is a very rewarding experience, for the coaches as well as the students.
HillDweller March 31, 2013 at 04:42 AM
Leslie - While I appreciate your sincere offer to Mr. Sharenow, I believe you have mistaken him for someone who actually cares. He appears to have no interest in being a part of the solution, as it's much easier to sit back and endlessly criticize the efforts of others. It's a shame that more people don't take their civic responsibilities as seriously as you do Leslie. Too many people think it's somebody else's job to "fix the problem" and their job is only to point out the problems and how others are doing it all wrong. In fact, anyone who makes the effort and invests the energy to run for school board earns my respect - even if I don't agree with their ideas and don't vote for them, at least they are trying to make a difference. Just like Portola, our school Board isn't perfect, but it's what we have to work with. Although Mr. Sharenow frequently touts the success of the Albany school district (which is like comparing apples to oranges), I suspect he has had absolutely nothing to do with Albany's "success". Anyway, all this to say thanks to you Leslie for reaching out to Mr. Sharenow, unfortunately I suspect he has little to offer aside from criticism.
Ira Sharenow March 31, 2013 at 05:30 AM
As it turns out, I am the person who proposed that the Albany Unified School District replace its old swimming pool and I also volunteered for the Measure E campaign. I am also the person who proposed Albany’s smokefree ordinance which is probably one of the strongest in the country. The American Lung Association rated Albany an A on smokefree policies. El Cerrito does not have a decent smokefree ordinance, so I hope that you will join me by encouraging the El Cerrito city government to pass a strong smokefree ordinance. The potential for a comprehensive ordinance is mentioned in the city’s action plan, so there is a real chance for success. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and so I hope that many EC Patch readers will contact the council. In particular council members Mark Friedman and Jan Bridges have expressed an interest in sponsoring legislation and assistant city manager Karen Pinkos was also interested in my ideas. For example, I think that El Cerrito Plaza should be smokefree. http://www.el-cerrito.org/index.aspx?nid=113 Councilmembers@ci.el-cerrito.ca.us I agree that comparing WCCUSD to AUSD is an apples to oranges comparison even though the underlying EC/Kensington to Albany demographics are quite similar. That is why I support EC and Kensington forming their own district or merging with Albany (hundreds of their students are already going to school in AUSD). Finally, I tend to be informal, so please call me Ira.
Giorgio C. March 31, 2013 at 02:38 PM
Ira, I don't give a hoot about Albany USD. Let me tell you about Albany. They are elitists who have no patience or compassion for children who have deviated from their plan. In the past (still?) they didn't let middle school kids walk across the graduation stage if they had flunked a course that quarter, even though they were eligible to graduate. Those kind of policies further alienate struggling children from the education process. What kind of message are they sending, Ira? You can have your elitist Albany school district because I have zero use for them. The WCCUSD might be dysfunctional and mismanaged at times, but it never lacks compassion. We'll get it right. It's always a process. For those who want to transfer, I support your choice to do so.
Ira Sharenow March 31, 2013 at 07:32 PM
Giorgio, I view K-12 education as a big business. And around here there is a lot of competition for customers (students). Top WCCUSD management has decided to invest in infrastructure instead of seeking to pay top teachers competitive wages. The shareholders (local residents/voters) have backed that strategy. Remarkably even the teachers’ union backed more construction. The consequence is WCCUSD will have significant debt and cash flow issues for decades to come. Normal business practice is to segment customers and potential customers. Unfortunately, many of WCCUSD’s most capable customers are leaving WCCUSD as they approach middle school. I do not think that name calling is very helpful. In any case I care about the very capable student who comes from a family of modest means. Can such a student expect to obtain a first class education at El Cerrito’s schools? Will families with exceptionally gifted children who want special programs to accelerate the growth of their children be put down and be called names such as “elitist”? Right now many hundreds of Richmond children go to school in El Cerrito and many hundreds of EC children go to school in Albany (or elsewhere). I do not think the current status is working well for El Cerrito residents. While I applaud those who are trying to help EC students, I think they are facing an uphill struggle. Consequently, I support a separate district for EC and Kensington.
Mr Eous April 01, 2013 at 04:16 AM
Ira do you have a horse in this race? You live in Albany but rent and do not pay property tax, am I right? You have no kids in AUSD or WCCUSD. Why are you so interested in Portola? Do you actually know anything about WCCUSD or are you just stirring the pot?
Ira Sharenow April 01, 2013 at 06:30 AM
I believe that the quality of K-12 education is a worthy issue of consideration for all Americans. Currently, American students perform poorly, especially in mathematics related subjects. I believe that the quality of a community’s schools significantly impacts the community. Unfortunately El Cerrito gave up local control of its schools. A large portion of the many hundreds of WCCUSD students that attend AUSD schools are from El Cerrito, so clearly the policies of WCCUSD and AUSD cut across boundaries. I have heard from multiple sources that some WCCUSD families rent apartments in Albany so that their children can go to school in Albany. This impacts the cost of renting. I think that landlords take into account the amount of taxes that they pay when deciding how much to charge for rent. At this moment I am looking at my Amazon Kindle which has lots of fun stuff to read in it, so I think I am going to take a break from EC Patch. I wrote all I wanted to write. Good luck to all who are working to make El Cerrito’s schools a better place.
Giorgio C. April 01, 2013 at 03:39 PM
Ira, Your unfulfilled requests for information is not uncommon. For the past 6 months, I have been unable to obtain an org chart from the WCCUSD staff. The WCCUSD policy states that the Superintendent shall maintain a current org chart. I ran into the same situation when I requested legally required information that was missing from the SARC documents, posted in February, 2012. June 21, 2012: I informed acting WCCUSD HR director of deficiency. No reply. June 22, 2012: I sought explanation from my local elementary school principal. No reply. July 2nd, 2012: At the "Special" WCCUSD board meeting in El Cerrito, I informed the board and Superintendent that they were in violation of the Ed Code. No reply. July 17, 2012: Email to board President (copied superintendent and board) requesting explanation regarding incomplete SARC documents. No reply. September 5, 2012: WCCUSD board meeting. I informed the board and Superintendent that this was a repeat violation, that in 2008, a lawyer from a public advocacy group previously cited this violation. No reply. Then, as I walked to my car, the HR Director met me outside and said I was correct, that this was a violation of the Ed Code and that it would be corrected. Why did it take so long to get a reply? An auditor in June attempted to audit the SARC documents, but reported them as unavailable. These are the sorts of things that leave folks scratching their head.
Analisa Harangozo (Editor) April 01, 2013 at 05:21 PM
Hey all, if you would like to share your input of how the meeting went, feel free to blog about it on our Local Voices platform. Anyone can do so, just log in and fill out this blog template: http://elcerrito.patch.com/blog_posts/new
Becca April 02, 2013 at 05:52 AM
Since you keep commenting on Albany schools, I just want to point out that there are areas of El Cerrito (particularly near Harding Elementary) and Kensington that are closer to Albany Middle School than to Portola. It makes sense that there might be a number of El Cerrito families asking for transfers to Albany even if the two schools were of equal quality, simply so that their kids could attend a middle school within walking distance of home.
Ira Sharenow April 02, 2013 at 07:06 AM
That certainly could be true for a few students, but there are also more than 250 transfers each to Berkeley and to San Francisco. I have a project idea; perhaps some students can do this and then write a report with the writing tutors and then publish it in EC Patch. Interview students who transferred to another district and find out why they transferred. I am sure that many Portola students have friends who transferred, so this should be easy to do and it would help inform the public. A quality business would have done something like this years ago, businesses need to fully understand why they are losing large numbers of customers, but as previously mentioned, I think that WCCUSD is a very iffy operation and it seems that management just likes to blame other districts for WCCUSD’s losses. In order to improve, WCCUSD needs to understand the dynamics of the transfers out rather than simply repeatedly saying they do not have enough money.


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