COMMUNITY PERSPECTIVES ON NORTHGATE UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
Aug 26, 2017 10:03AM ● Published by Pam Kessler
“I won’t pretend that Mt. Diablo Unified School District (MDUSU) is perfect,” says Peter Gaughan, a recent Northgate High School graduate and outspoken supporter of MDUSD. “But I’ve seen the growth, and I’ve seen the change. Things like music are coming back. More sports, more artistic outreach, it’s getting better,” he says. Gaughan attributes much of his academic success to the district’s size and flexible intradistrict transfer policy which allowed him to attend Meadow Homes Elementary, Sequoia Middle School, and Northgate. Although his feeder pattern high school — the school assigned to a neighborhood based on the resident’s street address — was Mt. Diablo, during open enrollment, Peter’s parents were able to register him at Northgate. “It’s really about having choices,” he says.
When it comes to district size, not everyone in the MDUSD shares the same point of view. As evidenced by the 6000 plus signatures on a recent petition, a substantial number of residents support Northgate CAPS—Northgate Community Advocacy for Our Public Schools— the grassroots movement formed to create a new school district in Walnut Creek. Northgate Unified School District (NUSD), would consist of approximately 4,600 students who live in the attendance areas for Northgate High, Foothill Middle, and Walnut Acres, Valle Verde, and Bancroft elementary schools.
With 56 schools and 31,000 students under the MDUSD umbrella, proponents of NUSD seek greater local control of their children’s education. According to a section of the proposal on the Northgate CAPS’ website: “we believe that the large size of MDUSD undermines the district’s focus on multiple student populations and reduces those students’ opportunities to reach their potential.”
Others consider the carve out of Ygnacio Valley High School and Oak Grove Middle School from the proposed NUSD feeder pattern as a secessionist movement designed to create a district for affluent students. Former Mayor Robert Simmons, who supports NUSD’s community-based education platform and a school board composed of local Walnut Creek parents, believes the use of words like “secessionist” rather than “district realignment” are fueling the debate. “With NUSD, you get five local school board members who are directly accountable to the community and its’ needs,” says Simmons. “Northgate is a small piece of the big MDUSD puzzle which has vast problems in other cities that require greater attention.”
Northgate junior Lucy Katina spoke at meetings and rallies in support of MDUSD. “The new district has to recognize that their intent is different than their impact. Segregation has no place in any educational environment.” Katina says her opinions have been silenced by supporters NUSD. “They are so willing to dismiss the voices of students and students of color. Teachers have encouraged me to speak. They’ve listened to my concerns,” she says. “It feels like they’re on my side fighting for me and other students.”
Meg Honey is one of those teachers. As an MDUSD parent, AP History teacher, and Northgate alumni, Honey has led discussions about the proposed district changes in her classroom. “Our young people are smart and want to engage,” she says. “They engage in thoughtful, fact-based conversations. As an educator, I’ve worked my entire career cultivating safe spaces for all viewpoints.” Honey is concerned about the financial impact NUSD will have on specialized student programs like music, art and technology, as well as special education.
Linda Loza, a leader in the NUSD movement says, "We can see that the district is devoting much energy toward indoctrinating students on this complex matter of district governance, so we are not surprised by vocal student supporters of MDUSD's status quo. However, we don't think it’s fair to use students as pawns in this matter.” Loza says. “The very loud voices of the opposition are drowning out the voices of community members and teachers who support NUSD, but who are afraid to speak out.”
Another parent requested anonymity because she doesn’t want her daughter singled out at school. “MDUSD’s priority is not the students or the community, it’s about their bottom line. The students were only shown one side,” she says. “It would be great to teach kids not what to think, but how.”
“What really concerns me most is the feeling of neighbor versus neighbor,” says Walnut Creek City Council member Kevin Wilk. “If this does go to a vote, I’d like for the rhetoric to be more subdued. The schools need community support.” Simmons agrees, “I’m disappointed in some of the rhetoric; it is not reflective of our community, identity, or our shared values.”
In a letter to the East Bay Times, former Mayor Gwen Regalia describes efforts over the years to create a new district. “From 1975-1982 a proposal was made to place all people with a Walnut Creek address into a new Walnut Creek Unified School District. A petition was signed by 12,000 voters from all five affected districts, but it failed twice at the State Board of Education. No reason given. At that time, the Concord side of Lime Ridge had not been developed, so no students would have been displaced. Population of minority students and parental income were not factors. A similar effort in 2003 did not receive even a full hearing. A great deal of effort and research has gone into the proposal now on the table. The main theme is still community identity and having a say in educational goals.”
At a public hearing on August 29th at 4:00 p.m. at Pleasant Hill Middle School, the County Board of Education, will listen to both the petitioners' and MDUSD presentations. Following the hearing, the Board will make a recommendation regarding the petition to the state. If the state board finds that the proposal meets the criteria, they will move it to a vote (most likely November, 2018) and decide whether the vote will be MDUSD wide or limited to voters in the new district’s boundaries.