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Walnut Creek Magazine

Getting Schooled

Jan 13, 2017 01:55PM ● By Lou Fancher


Community Group Leads Charge for New District and Teachers Weigh In


By Lou Fancher


At the heart of the increasing division over school districting in a Walnut Creek community is a common purpose–the parties involved want to provide children a high quality education. The ever-widening gap between them centers on selecting the best path to achieving this goal.
Proponents of the Northgate Community Advocacy for our Public Schools (Northgate CAPS) have mounted an all-out effort to create the Northgate Unified School District (NUSD). The new district, separate from Mount Diablo Unified School District (MDUSD), would consist of approximately 4,600 students, 425 employees and five schools: Northgate High, Foothill Middle, and Walnut Acres, Valle Verde and Bancroft elementary schools. CAPS supporters say MDUSD is too large to effectively serve its student population and unresponsive to teachers’ needs and parents’ input.
Opponents to the plan–MDUSD teachers, staff, parents and local community members–argue that CAPS supporters are campaigning on out-of-date information. While agreeing the district has struggled, they point to a new two-year teacher contract that includes a five percent salary increase and expanded health benefits, as signs of the improvements the current administration has brought to the MDUSD. They credit Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer and her staff with leading a turnaround which includes rehiring school counselors, new teacher development opportunities, improved graduation and college matriculation rates, higher test scores and expanded AP course offerings. “CAPS is reacting to the MDUSD of ten years ago. It’s radically different now,” says Meg Honey, a five-year Northgate High School history teacher and 1997 NHS alumni.
On her Facebook page, Honey posted a message expressing her views, “Northgate CAPS does not speak for me nor does it accurately represent the experience I have had in our district as a student, coach, or teacher.” Within hours, the post drew 146 likes and 52 comments, all but a few positive. Upon receiving a letter from CAPS inviting Northgate teachers to support the creation of a new school district, Honey says 50 of her colleagues voiced their desire to remain with MDUSD.
Jeff Hagerstrand, who leads the Northgate’s theater program and teaches English and Public Speaking says, “It’s a completely out of touch idea. The CAPS parents could be embracing the positive momentum in the district instead of spearheading this divisive issue.” He says it’s not just Northgate teachers who take this position. “I'm good friends with several teachers at College Park and drama teachers at the middle schools. The overwhelming feeling is relief that MDUSD has turned the ship around. No one is pretending that we've achieved perfection, but the responsiveness, the willingness to listen and to work together, is now the norm rather than the exception.”
But CAPS Co-Founder Alisa MacCormac says that while the group applauds increased pay for teachers, it does not change their position. Nor will they halt efforts to gather the 5,000 signatures needed for a petition proposing the creation of the new district. They plan to file in February with the Contra Costa County School Organization Committee and say they are three-quarters of the way to their signature goal. “We want teachers to be in an environment where they can determine what is best for them in their classrooms. Northgate is the only school in our feeder pattern that has that now. We’d like more of our schools to have what teachers think students need,” says MacCormac. Asked if the approximately 30 teachers at other MDUSD schools who support NUSD will provide public comment, MacCormac says, “We don’t recommend they go on record. They’re worried about their jobs. There’s no reason for us to ‘out’ them.” She suggests the signatures on the petition demonstrate widespread community support.
An open invitation from Honey to teachers at other district schools to provide comment drew immediate responses. Mt. Diablo High teacher Dan Reynolds says examples of a MDUSD on the rise includes bringing back counselors, providing professional development for teachers and updating 13 science classrooms to better serve the 21st-century needs of students. “Our district listens and communicates with us. Our district helps to provide students with meaningful curriculum.” College Park’s Jim Keck says, “Teacher morale in the MDUSD is the best I’ve seen in 15 years. Benefits have been restored, salaries brought to competitive levels and teachers feel respected.”
It’s not only teachers who support staying within the district. Leanne Owen, a counselor at Concord High says that by directing resources to programs recommended by counselors, district leadership is “moving in the right direction” to best serve all students in the widely diverse district. Parent Janine Payne says some children will face moving to new schools if their residence is not included in the new NUSD boundaries. She’s also concerned intra-district transfers will be disrupted. “These students bring a significant amount of diversity to our schools and I feel losing them would be detrimental to NUSD, causing student demographics to be more homogenous than they already are.” Honey and other teachers insist classrooms that reflect the multi-ethnic, multi-racial makeup of the world more accurately prepare students for global marketplaces and diverse communities.
Concerns on both sides about misinformation has added a layer of mistrust. CAPS supporters suggest people who criticize their financial and educational plans haven’t examined them closely or accepted invitations to attend informational meetings. Others, who want MDUSD to stay united, object to false promises about funding, loss of programs and services, and speculation about reduced real estate values.
Ultimately, the solution requires education. Ask questions, study the proposals, gather statistics, and do research. In other words, do the things taught to students for academic, social and career achievement in a diverse, global community where respect for opposing positions prevails.
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