By John Crowder
On Wednesday, May 7th, the Contra Costa County Board of Education heard from members of the teaching staff of Dozier-Libbey Medical High School (DLMHS). The teachers were petitioning the board to convert the campus to a charter school at the beginning of the coming school year. Following their 10 minute power point presentation, representatives of the Antioch Unified School District (AUSD), which currently operates the school, voiced their arguments against the move. Once both presentations had concluded, members of the public were invited to share their views. Almost one hundred speakers did so, with slightly more comments in favor of the conversion petition.
The public hearing, held at a middle school auditorium in Pleasant Hill in order to accommodate the large number of people interested in the issue, began just after 6:00 p.m. with Board Vice President Daniel Gomes opening the meeting.
Following a brief statement from Bill Clark, Associate Superintendent, Business Services, introducing the matter, Dr. Cynthia Soraoka, a health science teacher at DLMHS, introduced three of her colleagues who presented their case to the Board. The three teachers, Stacey Wickware, Lisa Kingsbury, and Kasey Graham, lead petitioners for the proposed charter school, each highlighted different aspects of the projected benefits of the conversion.
Wickware, a history and ethics teacher, began by detailing some of the benefits their charter proposal would provide to students. These included an ability to expand course offerings in the arts and the establishment of new courses, such as Medical America (a U.S. history course) and Forensic Pathology. One area that she emphasized was an enhanced Special Education program, which would include tailored credit recovery and the hiring of Instructional Aides, including those with the ability to speak Spanish.
Kingsbury, an English teacher, followed Wickware, continuing with the theme of student support. She emphasized summer programs the teachers planned to implement and the ability they would have to “use innovative technology to expand relationships with health care professionals around the world.”
Graham, also an English teacher, finished the presentation with a focus on student life and civic involvement. She discussed the implementation of an intramural sports program and assured the Board that the school would serve the students of Antioch, preemptively addressing two areas, sports and enrollment criteria, in which the petitioners have been repeatedly challenged by AUSD since the conversion proposal was introduced in February.
With the conclusion of the teachers’ remarks, AUSD representatives presented the Board with arguments against the proposed charter. First to speak against the conversion petition was Joy Motts, President of the AUSD school board. Reading a statement she said had been authorized by her peers, she called the charter petition “divisive,” and said the petitioners did not use an inclusive process in creating their proposal. She said the proposal raised “serious concerns,” and was “flawed.” She went on to say that there was “overwhelming opposition” to the proposal, concluding her remarks by stating, “Dozier-Libbey was created by the Antioch community, and belongs to the entire community.”
Motts was followed by Jack O’Connell, a long-time California politician who has served as a state Assemblyman, state Senator, and, most recently, as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction until January, 2011. An internet search finds him listed as a partner with Capitol Advisors Group, LLC, which bills itself as “a team of experts in California politics, education policy and finance, legislative strategy, and public affairs.”
O’Connell said that the original intent of the charter school law was to try and rid schools of over burdensome regulation from Sacramento, and “raise the bar.” He went on to say that [those proposing charter schools] should, “engage and involve all the parents in all the community,” something he believed had not been done by the DLMHS teachers. “I would strongly urge you to not approve this conversion,” he concluded.
Gomes called for public comments at this point, and speakers both for and against the proposal lined up to speak. While there was some crossover, speakers tended to fall into very distinct categories. Most of those speaking in favor of the charter proposal were teachers from DLMHS, parents of students attending the school, and the students themselves. Opposed were employees of AUSD and their relatives, and representatives of two special interest advocacy groups, the NAACP and Parents Connected. Antioch Mayor Wade Harper and Mayor Pro Tem Mary Rocha also spoke in opposition. Both sides had lawyers present and speaking on their behalves.
Those speaking in favor of the charter emphasized the quality of the education they expected under the plan presented by the teachers while complaining that, if left under AUSD control, the academic program at the school would continue to decline. April Padilla, whose stepson attends DLMHS, chided AUSD for “pushing [students] to reach for mediocrity.”
“You don’t have to stop at good,” she said, “You can be better, you can be great, you can be exceptional.”
Angela Lacy, another parent, complained that AUSD personnel had the mindset that, “having a darker skin color [was] being treated as a learning disability.” She went on to say that, “They [the independent charter petitioners] will have programs in place to help all students succeed.”
“The staff at Dozier-Libbey are simply trying to take something great and turn it into something outstanding,” said Jared Sarinas, a 2012 graduate of DLMHS. Countering an oft-heard point made in opposition to the charter, he said, “The staff have outlined that the students of Antioch will clearly be given attendance priority under the independent charter.”
Edgar Osario, past president of the DLMHS Parent/Teacher/Student Association, was particularly critical of AUSD in his remarks. He addressed arguments that AUSD personnel have been making against the proposed charter for the past two months.
“AUSD has made some inflammatory remarks,” he stated. “The statement that Dozier-Libbey cherry picks their students and that’s the reason for their success is absolutely false. The district controls the lottery process. I am further offended that it’s implied that minority students leaving Dozier-Libbey are being ‘forced out.’ My Hispanic/Filipino daughter left the school because we left the district, she was not forced out because she couldn’t handle [the] curriculum. Minority enrollment at Dozier-Libbey is 77%, at Deer Valley is 78%, and at Antioch High is 73%. Your numbers just don’t add up.”
People speaking in opposition to the charter were equally fervent in their statements, focusing primarily on what they viewed as a secretive and divisive attempt to, as AUSD Director of Student Support Services Bob Sanchez said, “hijack the school.”
Scott Bergerhouse, appointed in April as principal for the competing “dependent charter school” proposed by AUSD in response to the teachers’ petition, told the board that the independent charter proposal would mean a loss of sports programs for DLMHS students. He went on to say that it would place district employees at risk of losing their jobs.
Other speakers reiterated the themes that the petition was divisive and wasn’t inclusive, one stating that it “violated the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education,” the landmark Supreme Court case decided in 1954 in which the Court declared that separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.
In all, the board listened for about three-and-a-half hours to anyone wanting to speak on the conversion charter issue, then adjourned in order to return to the County Education office to discuss other matters, including the appointment of a fifth board member. The decision they must now make was perhaps best summed up by Jim Bonwell, a parent of a junior at DLMHS, who asked, “Whose vision will better serve the students?” The County School Board is expected to announce their decision within two weeks.