This four-part series appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald from June 15 to June 18, 2003.  It reports anecdotally on many differences between two middle schools -- Havenscourt Middle School in Oakland and Harvest Park Middle School in Pleasanton -- in the East Bay area of Northern California.  The series probably also appeared in other ANG newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune.

Our public schools: Separate and unequal

A school day in the life of two middle school students


Staff writer

Sunday, June 15, 2003  - Gerry Silva walks past the F-word in bright red, 6-inch, upper-case letters scrawled eye-level on the wall as he trots down the Havenscourt Middle School stairway, the one at the far end of the hall from the main entrance. The tall eighth-grader wearing the unofficial school uniform of a T-shirt and jeans, stops halfway down the steps to glance back when asked about the expletive. He shrugs and says he doesn't know how long it's been there. He doesn't always take that stairway, he adds, a puzzled look flashing across his face -- an expression prompted by the question rather than the profanity. In a rough count, the F-word is scrawled or scratched onto more than two dozen surfaces at the two-story public middle school at 66th Avenue and International Boulevard in Oakland. Reducing graffiti isn't among the three goals of the elected student body officers at Havenscourt this year, according to Gerry, 14, the elected vice president who says he's really the acting president because the elected president doesn't do anything. According to the acting president-vice president, the three actual goals are: - "Make sure that nobody stays in the same grade two years in a row." - "And that everybody comes to school on time and nobody misses a lot of days." - "Try to stop the fighting." The path to those lofty goals is left unsaid. The bell for first period is ringing.

Just 20 miles away and a few days earlier, 14-year-old Alexene Farol steps out of her mom's white Nissan Quest minivan outside the black iron gates at Harvest Park Middle School in Pleasanton. The F-word was etched into the paint on those iron gates a year or so ago, but few students saw it. District workers were out that afternoon to blast it away and repaint. A few minutes before 8:30 a.m., Alexene heads past the entrance to the public school's inner courtyard where she takes a circuitous and angular route around manicured patches of grass via intersecting sidewalks to get to American history class. It would be faster to cut across the large sections of lawn -- lush and uniformly gardener green -- but no one does at Harvest Park. You can't walk on the grass, explains Alexene, the student body vice president. Even if you trip or accidentally step on the grass, the yard supervisors yell to get off, the eighth-grader adds, rolling her eyes in a conspiratorial teenage "whatever" look. Once inside her first-period room, Alexene sets her pink JanSport backpack on the blue carpet next to her second-row desk, which has a copy of the glossy faced state-sanctioned textbook "Call to Freedom" sitting on top. All the desks do. Alexene has another copy of the history book at home along with copies of all the textbooks for each of her classes. All the kids do. Just before the 8:35 a.m. bell, most of the students are seated in their desks, their backpacks on the floor. Alexene faces the back of the classroom as she huddles with a group of students to compare Internet sources for a class project. A television -- set into a multimedia wall unit that includes overlapping whiteboards and shelving -- is tuned to MSNBC before a student switches to the school's own channel, called HPTV -- Harvest Park TV. Suddenly, a picture of the American flag flashes on the screen, and Alexene and her classmates stand in unison and recite the "Pledge of Allegiance." The flag disappears, replaced by two students sitting behind a desk, their hands clasped on the table in front of them. They read the day's announcements -- a live broadcast from the school's media room -- advising students about the upcoming renaissance fair, some student fund-raisers and a handful of wrestling team victories. At the end of the broadcast, Gayle King, a teacher of 30 years, calls for the students to exchange homework on the pre-Civil War South. After reading the answers, King calls out student names to note their scores in her grade book, pausing on one girl to say, "I got your e-mail, but you need to come up and see me." King then tells the students to work on homework or their pending history report. Alexene opts for homework while King helps other students find and print Internet pages using the iMac and color printer on her desk -- a technological combination all the teachers have, compliments of the PTA. The PTA also ponied up $32,000 this year for 32 white eMacs for computer teacher Bill Ragsdale's classroom. Those computers replaced 32 colorful and bulbous iMacs that teachers and students now use on a drop-in basis in two nearby classrooms. Alexene doesn't take computer class, although she does carry a laptop in her backpack, along with her brown-bag lunch and her flute. She's not, however, one of the 180 students who also carry their own Apple iBook laptops each day to Harvest Park and who voluntarily participate in a program that incorporates the laptops in the curriculum -- a feat made easier with the school's wireless Internet access.

On the way to first period, Gerry heads outside the main building and into the inner courtyard at Havenscourt. There's a waist-high patch of weeds adjacent to the building and two scruffy areas of patchy grass in the middle. Across the courtyard is the locked door of the school's new computer lab, housed in an old shop classroom. Inside the narrow, dark room, 32 newly unpacked and smudge-free CompuServe computers line the walls. They have sat unused since the school got them with district funds more than a year ago because school officials discovered mold in the room. It's taken months to eliminate the mold and rebuild the classroom. A sign on the main office's counter says, "Computer lab coming soon." With about a month of school left, Vice Principal Ramon Honea says he's hoping to open the lab up before school lets out. Gerry was one of a few students selected to help install the computers in the lab, as well as the individual CompuServe computers each teacher received earlier in the year -- although some teachers are still waiting for Internet access in their classrooms. Gerry continues past the computer lab, through the doors of another wing of classrooms adjacent to the main building and into the double-sized room for first period. The seven students there, including Gerry, are "resource" students. Resource means special education. Gerry has a learning disability. He repeated third grade, but his reading skills are below his grade level, and the resource class is supposed to give him the focused attention he needs. As Gerry drops his backpack and sits at his desk, teacher Kamila Weaver writes "geography" in purple erasable marker on the whiteboard. She asks the students to find words within the word. She starts a list on the board from student suggestions. Rap. Rag. Graph. Pay. Hog.

Then she stops writing, her marker poised in the air as her attention turns to a light tapping sound about five feet away. Water is dripping from the seam of an exposed ceiling duct and hitting the pock-marked tiled floor 12 feet below - an irregular drip that contradicts the constant and quiet drizzle outside the window.

Class instructional aide Ruby Clifton puts a piece of white binderpaper under the drops to soak up the water while Weaver and the students go back to staring at the purple "geography." Hag. Harp. Page. A total of 43 before giving up 15 minutes later.

A five-minute debate ensues as the class decides which movie to watch for the party scheduled the next day. It's down to Disney's "The Emperor's New Groove" or the Adam Sandler comedy "Mr. Deeds." They agree to decide the next day.

A lesson on prefixes, suffixes and root words follows.

"What is a pedestrian?" Weaver asks. No hands raise. Silence. Gerry stares at the word his teacher has now written on the board, a complete lack of recognition on his face.

Uncredentialed, Weaver is teaching at Havenscourt while she attends the University of San Francisco to get her teaching credential and a master's degree. That means she is an intern - not yet fully qualified to teach by state standards, but teaching full time in the meantime.

Three of Gerry's four teachers don't have teaching credentials. The fourth, his physical education teacher, is the only one who does.

"A pedestrian is a person that's walking," Weaver finally answers, her voice devoid of impatience or boredom.

Water continues to plop onto the soggy binder paper nearby.

At the bell, Alexene grabs her backpack and walks another right-angled route to second-period band class at Harvest Park. She takes her front-row seat with the other six or so flute players. As dozens of students file in after her, the room fills with a cacophony of musical notes - the high-pitched peeps and squeaks of flutes and clarinets competing with the warm-up honks and toots of the trumpets, saxophones and a tuba or two.

Band is one of Alexene's two chosen electives. The other is leadership class, but she could have chosen French, Spanish, yearbook, two- or three-dimensional art, journalism, speech and drama, media, computers, community service, consumer skills, word processing, "exploring technology" or "teens and family."

A lot of Harvest Park kids pick band. Each school day, six classes of award-winning bands file through teacher Paul Perazzo's acoustically modified classroom - with more than 225 students playing one instrument or another.

"Music is really big," eight-year teaching veteran Perazzo says of the school's program. "They're totally into it here.

The instrumental music parents are the biggest lobby in the district. If the district tried to cut music, I don't know. There'd be a huge backlash."

In the school chorus room is a testament to Perazzo's words: a new $4,000 Yamaha upright piano. The Harvest Park PTA bought it for chorus teacher Diana Sprague - a surprise gesture sprung on her the day before spring break.

After first period, Gerry walks by the art classroom at Havenscourt.

Only sixth-graders take art.

And Gerry isn't among the 15 students in band class at Havenscourt.

The district requires all students who read at two years below grade level to take reading intervention class instead of an elective.

About 80 of the 738 students are allowed to take an elective - a choice of Spanish, chorus, band or woodshop.

On his way to second period, Gerry walks past a spigotless drinking fountain, outside and back into the main building.

Through the halls, he is barraged by hellos and hand slaps from boys and girls from all grades, all ethnicities.

One seventh-grader, short for his age, goes out of his way to slap Gerry's hand with a rowdy, "Hey, Gerry!" It is the first of what will be a dozen such greetings from this same boy during the day. Gerry shakes his head, rolls his eyes in mock frustration before his face breaks out into a broad smile as he returns the greeting, with a hand slap and a hello before walking into his second period class.

The younger boy looks to be about half Gerry's size, the kind of small middle school kid that typically is the butt of cruel jokes and taunts unless he establishes an alliance with a guy like Gerry.

At the bell, Gerry walks into his core English and history class, where teacher Adam Rosenthal is prompting students to get to the task of fixing grammatical and spelling errors in a sentence projected onto a piece of construction paper taped to the whiteboard.

A semi-truck idles at the red light down on the street below - a sound repeated with nearly every light cycle.

A girl sitting near Gerry stares into space, flicking her pencil on her desk.

"Just try," Rosenthal says to her in a barely audible voice. "That's all I ask."

This is Rosenthal's second and last year teaching. He is a Teach for America teacher - one of a few thousand fresh college graduates who make a two- to three-year commitment to teach in rural and urban schools across the country. He's going to law school next year.

There are nine Teach for America teachers at Havenscourt. They are among the 15 teachers at the school who don't have teaching credentials.

On the walls of Rosenthal's classroom are student-made posters of colleges and universities they researched - Spelman, Yale, Stanford, all the University of California campuses. In the corner, Rosenthal has hung his diploma from UCLA along with a school pennant.

On another wall are posters that read "Bill of Rights," "How to Get to College" and "How to Be an Artist."

Gerry says he wants to go to college to study technology and business.

Maybe at UC Davis or the University of Miami.

He faces long odds.

Of the nearly 500 Latino males like Gerry who entered an Oakland high school in 1998, just 29 graduated four year later with the credits and classes that would qualify them to attend a University of California or California State University campus.

Alexene "of course" wants to attend college.

Stanford University, she says.

The odds are against her. She must maintain through high school the perfect grades she now gets at Harvest Park Middle School, then score near perfect on the SAT. She must participate in community service,leadership and extracurricular activities - and there's still no guarantee Stanford will take her.

Her role as vice president and fourth-period leadership class is a head start toward that goal, though.

Leadership students at Harvest Park are active in many areas outside the classroom, helping with fund-raising, school events, dances and the like. The student body government had a goal of hosting a district-wide middle school dance this year, but it didn't work out.

Alexene also has a head start on her college applications with the classes she's taking, including honors math and English - which means plenty of homework. "If I'm not staring off into space, I can get it done pretty quickly,"

Alexene says of the daily at-home assignments. "Like two or three hours.

Sometimes more, especially if she has to study for a test.

In third-period science class, teacher Aileen Parsons is grilling students on endothermic and exothermic reactions - which will be on a test the next day.

"An example of an endothermic reaction?" asks Parsons, a teacher for 17 years.

"A cake baking," Alexene answers from her chair at one of the classroom's lab tables equipped with a built-in faucet and gas burner, used a few times a week for hands-on experiments.

"I want you to get comfortable with this so when you get to highschool, you won't say, 'I've never seen this before,'" Parsons says, smiling.

"You guys, you're all going to be living in a van down by the river unless you learn this."

Gerry lives with his mother and twin brother in the new public housing across the street from Havenscourt - rows of burnt sienna, turquoise and cream-colored buildings that look like suburban townhouses.

These apartments replaced the old, gray barrack-like buildings from the now boarded-up housing project down the street.

The new housing startles the neighborhood with its bright splashes of color, straight angles, new pavement, perfectly spaced plants and overall sense of tidiness.

The bright Southwestern color scheme hasn't seeped into the neighborhood, where the streets are literally splashed with the red of human blood.

There were 15 murders within a mile of Havenscourt last year. Gerry saw two of them, both shootings.

Drugs, Gerry says with a shrug, because it's the most obvious answer to why. Going toward 70th Avenue there's a lot of drugs, he adds by way of explanation.

There was one incident in February when the uncle of a kid from Gerry's math class was killed a few blocks away and the whole school went into lockdown while police rmed the neighborhood.

Second-year and uncredentialed teacher Dove Granese teaches Gerry's fourth-period science class.

Sitting at a four-person cluster of tables in her class, Gerry pulls out his science book.

Granese, waves her arms, alternating between shouting, chastising, berating and encouraging as she paces the room. She's quizzing the students on the periodic table and the reason the elements have different atomic numbers.

A row of sinks and countertops line the wall, presumably for science experiments. The countertops, however, are filled with papers and student projects. The sinks are ted and covered with dust. >An Alhambra bottled water dispenser is in the back of the room.

Students chip in $1 per month or so to pay for the water. They do that because most of the school's water fountains don't work, Gerry explains.

Gerry hands $1 to Granese before packing his backpack and heading to lunch.

At lunch, Alexene sits at a table with seven other girls on the edge of the school's designated eating area, a large sheltered pavilion.

From her backpack, she pulls out a brown-bag lunch packed earlier that morning on the kitchen counter at her home in a nearby Pleasanton subdivision. A middle-class enclave, where the streets are named mostly after flowers, she lives there with her mom, stepdad and two younger siblings.

Alexene's mom made the roast beef sandwich in her bag, which also holds grapes, Capri Sun juice, and a bag of spicy trail mix.

Meanwhile, other students spill out of the meticulously organized cafeteria carrying Domino's pizza, hamburgers, soda, juice, chips and a variety of other snacks and meals.

Six of the eight girls at Alexene's table have braces.

Alexene isn't one of them.

"I get mine on April 30th," she says, pointing to a crooked upper tooth in her mouth.

After about 15 minutes laughing and chatting with her friends, Alexene, heads to the school library. She needs a book to read that night for English class.

More than a dozen students are in the library, working on one of 17 computers and milling around the book stacks.

Alexene heads to one of the computers, punching in her 10th grade reading level, which produces a list of books appropriate for her ability. Jack London, Jane Austin, George Orwell are among a long list of authors.

After narrowing the list, Alexene finally grabs "A Wind in the Willows," the English fantasy classic, off a shelf, checks it out at the front desk and stuffs it in her backpack ore heading off to the locker room for gym class.

At lunch, Gerry plays football on a narrow slice of sloping and cracked asphalt set between a chain link fence and the school gym at Havenscourt.

The boys call for Gerry to hurry up and he trots over to join the defensive line.

He doesn't always eat lunch even though he qualifies for a free lunch in the school's crowded cafeteria, where students often wait 20 minutes or more for their meal. Sometimes Gerry buys snacks at one of two windows outside the cafeteria.

Usually, he just plays football with a couple dozen other boys in the yard. Gerry wants to play football at Skyline High School next year.

Fullback and defensive line, maybe.

The Havenscourt lunchtime pickup game of football is fierce, with crowds of boys converging on the ball or whoever has the ball.

Other students mingle nearby, watching. Some eat cafeteria nachos served in clear plastic bags. One students asks a school administrator for permission to go inside to the library, but the request is denied. The student doesn't have a hall pass signed by a teacher.

After lunch, Alexene changes into gym clothes in the clean but cramped girls locker room. She then jogs, but mostly walks with her classmates around a soft running track circling grass at the far end of a spacious playground at Harvest Park. They are then set free to shoot basketball on one of 10 hoops, play field hockey on huge expanses of lawn, exercise on a variety of chin-up and monkey bar structures, or simply run around the litter-free yard.

The school rules prohibit eating or drinking outside the lunch area.

Alexene hits a volleyball against a wall while chatting with a small group of friends for the rest of class.

Three PE teachers monitor the more than 100 students spread out for various activities across the playground.

"I love being with kids," 13-year teaching veteran Esther Swyers says as she watches students play. "I'm set here."

When the bell rings, Alexene and the other girls sprint to the locker room.

Gerry grabs his backpack, discarded hastily on a concrete ledge for the lunchtime football game, and heads for the locker room to change for PE.

The graffiti in the Havenscourt locker rooms looks like it's been there awhile. Half a dozen "crackhead pimps" or "crackhead rules" scrawled in Sharpie black or whiteout litter the walls in the girls locker room. Several "bitches." One "RIP Mellia," a tribute to 15-year-old Tamellia Cobbs, a former student who died in a drive-by shooting about a mile from the school last November.

Dark splotches of old gum dot the floor. Standing water pools in the drinking fountain.

The girls locker room graffiti is more prolific than in the boyslocker room.

"It's a little bit frustrating," Vice Principal Honea says, standing in front of one of the walls filled with graffiti during a quick tour through the now-empty girls changing area. "It's one of many frustrations."

The students then go into the school gym, cast in blindingly yellow light, for roll call before heading out to the playground to run a few laps in lanes delineated by white painted lines on the cracked asphalt.

A 12-foot chain-link fence separates the yard from the city's athletic fields next door. Students are allowed on those fields only when a gym teacher opens the gate, but they aren't given access if the grass is wet or the ballfields are chalked for Little League or adult softball games.

After a half-hearted jog around the playground, Gerry heads back into the gym to play basketball and volleyball while other students play field hockey outside.

On the sidelines, gym instructor Antonio Gulley - a teacher for 17 years - watches students play.

"I like it here," he says. "There's work to be done."

Alexene's sixth-period class is algebra. The class already has finished the textbook with about six weeks of school left, so 14-year teaching veteran Randy Lomas gives the students a worksheet with various mind-bending word problems to solve in teams of four.

Alexene and her three teammates struggle to decipher the answer to one of the questions: "What two whole numbers that contain no zeros multiply together to yield 1 billion?"

"It's easy," Lomas says. "It will take you three seconds once you figure out how to do it."

After about five minutes, one of Alexene's tablemates figures it out.

It's 5 to the 9th power times 2 to the 9th power.

With a few swift keystrokes on her graphing calculator, Alexene calls out the answer: 1,953,125 and 512.

The bell rings at the end of the 43-minute class, but Alexene and most of the other students don't stir. They are still punching numbers into calculators or scribbling equations with mechanical pencils. Eventually, Alexene gathers her papers and calculator before heading off to seventh-period English class.

Gerry's sixth and final period of the day is pre-algebra with teacher Dove Granese.

Granese again paces the room, asking students to solve equations and put the answer in scientific standard notation.

Gerry works at a problem projected on the board, his brow furrowed, his head hanging a foot over the table. Solve: (2.3 X 10[6] )(5X10[3])

Two students go through the answer on the overhead project: 1.15 X 10[8]

After a few more similar problems, the hour-long class is almost over.

Gerry rubs his eyes and yawns.

He'll have homework to do later.

"Sometimes it takes me an hour to do my homework," he says.

Homework will have to wait until after a quick trip to McDonald's with friends, Gerry adds, smiling.

But he'll do it. He says he doesn't want to be one of the hundreds of students around him who will drop out before high school graduation day.

"They don't think they have a life in front of them," he says. "I think that's why they drop out." Gerry isn't planning on dropping out.

Again and again and again he has watched the movie "Rudy," the story of Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, an undersized, blue-collar kid who realizes his dream of playing on the Notre Dame football team. The against-all-odds story with a happy ending is Gerry's inspiration.

Alexene steps into 30-year teaching veteran Janet May's English class - the homestretch of the day at Harvest Park.

Her vocabulary and grammar homework assignment is suspended on the room's television screen, which is connected to May's iMac computer on her desk.

May describes an optional assignment available to students who already have mastered punctuation. After about three weeks of research students will give an oral presentation to classmates.

"Last year, some students couldn't get their PowerPoint presentations to work and it took up too much time," says May, who will retire at the end of the year. "Make sure the technology works before giving your presentation."

Alexene will write her report on American author Pearl S. Buck, whose most famous novel explored the distinctions between the rich and the poor.

At 3:03 the final bell rings for the day, and Alexene heads back to the front of school for the ride home with her mom.

On her way, she passes Ragsdale's computer room. The door is still open.

"When people tell you that schools aren't as good as they used to be, they're wrong," Ragsdale says, glancing at the 32 eMacs in front of him.

"They're better."

Around the corner from Ragsdale's room is the school's administrative offices. In the far corner, past the desks of a few secretaries, is the door to Principal Jim Hansen's office. Inside, on a waist-high wooden cabinet, placed among other mementos, is a football.

It is signed by Rudy Ruettiger - the "Rudy" in Gerry Silva's favorite movie - autographed after he spoke to some of Hansen's former students.

It includes a simple inscription: "Yes I can."

  School disparities persist

Comparison finds stark contrast in campus quality between Pleasanton and Oakland middle schools

By Jill Tucker


Monday, June 16, 2003  - Public education isn't supposed to pick sides, but it does.

It favors Alexene Farol over Gerry Silva, two eighth-graders living 20 miles away, but worlds apart.

At Pleasanton's Harvest Park Middle School, Alexene's teach- ers are better than Gerry's at Havenscourt Middle School in Oakland. Her classrooms are better. Her textbooks are better. The library, the science and computer labs, the playground and the music programs are better, too.

And although Alexene is already considered socioeconomically advantaged, state tax-payers spend more money to educate her -- nearly $27,000 more on her teachers -- than we spend on Gerry.

Their public schools are separate and unequal -- a condition only getting worse as bud-get cuts in California leave kids like Gerry even more vulnerable in deteriorating classrooms staff-ed by teachers lacking credentials.

It was never supposed to be that way.

Public schools were supposed to be the great equalizer -- the one place where kids got an equal shot at the future regardless of what life was like on the streets outside.

But public schools have never been equal. California's schools -- like those across the country -- typically reflect the condition of their communities.

Students in poor communities enter dilapidated classrooms where uncredentialed teachers with inadequate materials await -- and where parent involvement is limited or nonexistent.

In better-off neighborhoods, sometimes just a few miles away, the schools nearly sparkle, sporting the latest facility upgrades, top-notch equipment and the most experienced teachers. With nighttime PTA meetings, weekend potluck fund-raisers and various festivities, these better schools lure upwardly-mobile homebuyers drawn to the first-rate education and other opportunities offered to their kids.

It's a two-tiered system maintained by a convoluted funding formula that doesn't spend money based on where it will really matter, and fails to place the best teachers -- or even simply qualified teachers -- with the children who need them the most.

While politicians have loudly touted expensive education reforms, they have lacked the real political will to reform the system. Instead, they simply raise the bar on the schools and the students.

"What's there isn't good enough," said Merrill Vargo, executive director of the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, who asks whether there's the political will to say: "The public school system is one of the cornerstones of a democratic society, we have to make it work and we have to make it work for poor kids, and it's not an option to say it doesn't."

In California, schools with the highest poverty and minority enrollment have on average 20 percent uncredentialed teachers on staff compared with 5 to 6 percent of teachers at the schools with the lowest percentages of poor and minority students, according to a 2002 study by The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit.

And because beginning teachers get paid about $40,000 less than a 20-year veteran, the state's poor and minority students are often getting a bargain-basement education when it comes to what taxpayers spend on their teachers.

Resources for facilities are equally unbalanced. A 2001 California Budget Project study found the schools with the lowest test scores got about 30 percent less state bond money than they should have -- because the state allocates the money on a first-come-first-served basis rather than by greatest need.

The current budget crisis is exacerbating the situation, as parents with monetary means step in at already high-performing schools to fill in the holes left by spending cuts, leaving lagging schools to fall further behind.

With the exception of the rural South, California's low-performing schools are among the worst in the nation, said Linda Darling-Hammond, of the Stanford University of education and a national expert on education reform.

"I personally had never seen kids receive as low-quality an education as I found in districts like Oakland, Ravenswood, San Francisco and Compton," she added. "It's just really tragic."

Funding is a mess

Money talks.

But money talks a lot louder for some California kids than others.

Across the state, the majority of education dollars are doled out to schools not based upon need, but rather 30-year-old formulas from pre-Proposition 13 property tax rates and subsequent legislative efforts to equalize funding, but nonetheless give some districts hundreds or even thousands of dollars more per child than others.

The result is a mess, according to state and local officials.

"California school finance is such -- somebody called it a Winchester Mystery House -- that the way it is put together makes absolutely no sense," said school board president Terry Thygesen, of Menlo Park City Elementary, where they get about $11,000 to spend on each child, including all public funding, parent contributions and a parcel tax.

In Dublin, where the standardized tests scores are among the state's best, the district received $7,839 in total revenue for each of its 4,421 students during the 2001-2002 academic year, according to the state-supported Education Data Partnership.

Over the hill in Hayward, officials received $7,180 to spend on each of its 24,199 students -- nearly $16 million less than if funded at the same level as Dublin.

Or head east to Manteca, where officials got by with $6,393 for each of 21,309 students.

The explanation for such differences?

"You can never explain it to a real person because there is no rationale about why a district will get a much higher level of funding than another," said state Sen. Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, a vocal advocate for education in the Legislature.

That means schools with the most disadvantaged students don't have any advantage when it comes to getting more basic education dollars to cope. The fact that Gerry can't take home a history textbook for homework -- because there's only one classroom set -- falls on deaf fiscal ears.

In fact, the system favors white and wealthy kids.

According to a 1999-2000 study by The Education Trust, a national nonprofit dedicated to closing the achievement gap, California spent $5,036 per student in districts with the highest minority enrollment, $369 less than low-minority districts, and $5,202 per student in districts with the highest poverty levels, $59 less than low-poverty districts.

That includes categorical state funding for programs often targeted to low-income students and low-performing schools.

Granted, it doesn't include the more than $1 billion in annual federal Title I money for the state's low-income students. Title I money pays for tutoring programs, classroom aides, materials, curriculum and some teaching positions, but it still hasn't significantly closed the gap, according to federal research.

Some say the money is spread too thin, others say it doesn't address the actual quality of teachers and facilities, focusing too much on aides and administrators.

More importantly, Title I money is supposed to provide additional resources for disadvantaged students and was never intended to make up for the short shrift in state school spending.

"Those kids need a heck of a lot more resources than the well-to-do, upper-middle-class, educated students," said Paul Goldfinger, vice president of School Services of California, a school finance consulting firm. "We have a system that does it on the cheap and hopes that it works out."

Money follows teachers

The financial inequalities, however, are magnified when tracked to the classroom. Although districts get a set amount of money per student, the money follows the teachers, not the kids.

This year, taxpayers spent$82,126 to teach Alexene for the six hours she was at school each day in Pleasanton. In Oakland, taxpayers spent $55,199 to teach Gerry for his six hours of classes. That's a$26,927 difference.

While that says nothing about the quality of their teachers, California schools don't allocate money for teachers based on quality. They pay teachers based on whether they have a credential and the number of years they've been teaching.

Alexene's teachers all have credentials, and almost all have at least two decades of experience, if not three. Only Gerry's gym teacher is fully qualified to teach. The rest lack a full credential and have one or two years of experience.

Yet, educators say, all schools are subject to the state's high-stakes accountability system.

And all children are subject to the same standardized tests, whether they get a $10,000 public education in high-ranking Menlo Park or a $6,400 version in middle-of-the-pack Manteca.

That means Gerry takes the same tests as Alexene.

The odds are his scores will be lower.

At Havenscourt, standardized test scores are among the worst in the state -- with an Academic Performance Index of 446 on a 1,000-point scale. At Harvest Park, test scores are among the state's best, with an API of 838.

"These scores are not imprinted on kids' DNA," said BASRC's Vargo. "They're a reflection of what they're taught. It's just tragic when that happens and it's happening every day in those schools."

Spending doesn't keep pace

After Proposition 13 passed in 1978 -- shifting property tax dollars and education finance to the state -- legislators set about boosting funding in districts whose local property taxes left them at a previous disadvantage.

Yet at the same time, California's school spending has failed to keep pace with other states. The overall quality of California's schools fell from among the best in the country to the bottom of the barrel.

Local school districts were forced to become creative or watch the quality of their classrooms continue to decline. Parents created nonprofit education foundations, pouring millions into district coffers.

And districts started to pass parcel taxes. Well, some did.

According to a 2001 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, parcel taxes are passed primarily in districts with high-income and highly educated parents -- raising an average $500 per student.

Of the 62 districts that passed parcel or assessment taxes between 1983 and 2002, nearly four out of five were in the Bay Area, with 14 in Marin County alone. Five have been in Alameda County, eight in San Mateo County and zero in San Joaquin County.

Emeryville, Burlingame, San Mateo-Foster City and San Carlos were among the few who got the minimum two-thirds vote to pass a parcel tax in a special election on June 3.

"The government is just not giving enough funds and paying for things to give a quality education," said Lynne Young, president of the Menlo-Atherton Education Foundation, where the district gets about $800,000 from parcel taxes each year.

What about the districts that can't pass a tax?

"'It's in high-minority, low-income schools that kids are basically being abandoned," Darling-Hammond said. "Increasingly, it looks like some kids are just being written off in terms of education."

Money not the answer?

There are those who say that even if we spent more money on the children who need the most help, it wouldn't matter much. They say socio-economics determine a child's future more than teachers, textbooks or comfortable classrooms, so we need to fix society rather than fix the schools.

"You can't say all you have to do is put the best highly qualified teacher in that classroom or the best principal or equalize funding or fix the bathrooms," said state facility director Brooks. "Kids ideally would come from families with adequate parent support. They would adequately be fed. Obviously, you can't fix it all. It isn't just an educational problem."

True, but that doesn't justify the disparity, education activists say.

"Changes in the system are just too hard if the adults responsible for the change in the end don't believe these kids can learn as much as the white and Asian kids," said Russlyn Ali, director of The Education Trust-West. "You have to change the way people think about poor and minority people. Everybody has the right to learn. Everybody can learn."

Fixing the system requires radical change -- changes in the way we fund schools and facilities and changes in the way we place teachers, say educators, activists and even politicians.

State Sen. Alpert is working to implement a state master plan for education, which among other things would establish what a quality education looks like and how much it costs.

On top of that, the state would then add more money to accommodate the extra needs of low-income students. "Believe me, I don't think this is going to be easy," Alpert said.

These changes would require extraordinary political will by state officials -- a factor often missing when it comes to creating true change for children like Gerry.

"I think the middle class doesn't know how bad the Havenscourts are," said John Affeldt, a managing attorney of San Francisco-based Public Advocates Inc. "And I think if they did, there would be more political will."

The state has undertaken massive education reform efforts in the last several years, but many programs -- like some teacher recruiting and retention efforts -- have fallen by the wayside in the lean budget times. Or, like class size reduction, they are offered to everyone, thus sustaining or even widening the gap in quality.

Forcing the issue

Frustrated with state inaction, civil rights activists sued the state in May 2000 to force elected officials to address the disparity. The Williams v. State of California lawsuit hopes to force the state's hand in fixing Gerry's school and thos in similar straits.

"We have a system where some schools are getting funded more than others," said Affeldt, who helped file the lawsuit in state Superior Court. "I don't think the public wants those conditions to continue either. If we're not educating those kids, we're not going to be able to maintain the level of economic prosperity we have."

In the meantime, vast inequalities in public education will continue to be the norm in our public schools.

And that will have repercussions not only for students like Gerry, but for every taxpayer in the state.

"We will continue as a state to get sued by people who argue there is no equity," Alpert said, referring to the pending Williams case. "Sometimes (a lawsuit) seems to be the only thing that gets people going. It's an awful sad reality."

Contact Jill Tucker at

Not all teachers are created equal

By Jill Tucker and Robert Gammon


Tuesday, June 17, 2003 - CALIFORNIA taxpayers routinely spend thousands of dollars more teaching each of the state's already advantaged students than on the low-income, minority kids who are most likely to post the lowest test scores or drop out of school. Elementary school teachers in the tony Oakland hills, for example, earn $60,000 per year on average, compared with about $50,000 for their inner-city flatland counterparts, according to a salary comparison of Oakland teachers conducted by ANG Newspapers.

Add up those dollars over six years of an elementary school education and it means the state, on average, spends at least $60,000

more to teach one Oakland child than to teach another just a few miles away.

Across the Bay Area and the state, the wide disparities of tax dollars spent on teachers -- arguably the most important publicly provided factor in a child's education -- are commonplace from one district to another and within individual districts that have steep divisions of wealth.

In truth, how much teachers make tells little about how good they are. A lower-paid teacher isn't necessarily inferior, just less experienced.

And that means billions of California's education dollars don't follow the students, they follow the teachers.

Yet none of the state's decade-long attempts at education reforms has tackled what it means in sheer dollars to have lower-paid, uncredentialed and inexperienced teachers with poor and minority students.

"What we haven't done is an all-out effort to alleviate the maldistribution of teachers in the state," said Russlyn Ali, director of The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit dedicated to reducing disparities in schools. "Everybody is entitled to high-quality teaching. The kids who have the least, we provide them less of everything we know that matters the most."

The main cause of the gap stems from how California pays for its schools, along with rules-laden union contracts signed by individual districts and the lack of incentives for experienced teachers to take jobs in the least-desirable locations.

The disparities come into focus at the local level, where individual schools don't have their own budgets for teacher salaries. Instead, schools are assigned teachers based on enrollment. Two schools with the same number of students, for instance, typically have about the same number of teachers.

But teacher salaries play no role in that equation.

Teachers with seniority -- and therefore the biggest paychecks -- get preference in assignments, and they overwhelmingly choose schools in well-to-do areas, with high parental involvement and college-bound kids.

Not surprisingly, the low-performing schools tend to have high teacher turnover rates with a new crop of beginning teachers every fall.

In California's poor and minority communities, one out of five teachers is not fully credentialed, compared with about one out of 20 in whiter and wealthier schools with higher test scores and lower dropout rates.

A credentialed teacher in California with 20 years experience makes upwards of $90,000 including benefits, depending on the district. An uncredentialed teacher makes around $45,000 with benefits.

That means the state ends up spending untold millions less teaching poor, minority kids.

Even when you include all state, federal and local funds spent on teachers, even money dedicated to low-performing and low-income students, districts still spend less on poor kids.

In Hayward, for example, the district spent an average $2,894 on teacher pay per low-income student during the 2001-2002 school year, compared to $2,934 for the students above poverty level, according to an ANG analysis.

Under current union contract rules, leveling the funding playing field appears to be next to impossible. Contracts typically prohibit paying teachers more to work in specific schools. They also stop administrators from requiring veteran teachers to transfer into low-performing schools.

Teaching no picnic

Teaching in the state's lowest-performing schools is not easy.

English and social studies teacher Adam Rosenthal has been at Havenscourt Middle School in Oakland for two years -- a Teach for America intern teacher two years out of college.

Every day over the last two years he has faced students who arrive at school hungry, tired or plagued by personal problems. He doesn't have enough textbooks for all his students. Most of his students can't read at their grade level.

"You're the teacher, the therapist, the social worker, sometimes the parents, the mentor," said Rosenthal, who is leaving the classroom for law school in the fall.

In short, it seems to require a measure of altruism for teachers who choose low-performing schools.

"How many people can afford to be a Mother Teresa?" asked Jim Hansen, principal of Pleasanton's Harvest Park Middle School. "It means that your total focus is making change for (low-income, minority students). I wouldn't have three kids and a wife in that environment. It would be all-encompassing. There aren't many people who can do that, but that's what it needs."

Incentives offered

Over the past few years, Gov. Gray Davis introduced numerous programs designed to help lure and retain fully qualified and experienced teachers to the schools that need them the most: student loan forgiveness, home loan help, university fellowships, mentoring and professional development, among others.

Several have fallen by the wayside with the budget deficit soaring -- including the $20,000 fellowships for future teachers who want to work in low-performing schools.

In the meantime, the percentage of uncredentialed teachers in numerous East Bay schools has increased in recent years, according to an ANG Newspapers analysis of school staffing data from the state Department of Education.

Fremont, San Leandro and Hayward districts, for example, each saw an increase in the number of schools with 20 percent or more uncredentialed teachers.

In 1997-98, there were four Fremont schools in that category. By 2001-2002, there were nine. During that same period, Hayward went from eight schools with at least 20 percent uncredentialed teachers to 12, while San Leandro jumped from one school to five.

"If you have a budget crunch, you hire the least costly teachers," said Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University professor of education and a national expert on teacher reform efforts. "It's a mind-set in California that is just quite remarkable -- a mind-set that just does not put children first."

Across the country, other states have offered incentives -- smaller class sizes, merit pay or incentive pay -- to teachers who take the most difficult positions.

The programs are modeled on business practices that commonly use incentives to lure top talent to tough assignments.

"In contrast to the practice in many schools where weak teachers are assigned to the most vulnerable students, successful companies put their best people in 'turnaround' situations," wrote Susan Traiman, director of The Business Roundtable's Education Initiative, in the 2000 report, "Thinking

K-16," published by The Education Trust. "There are strong expectations and incentives for outstanding individuals to take on tough assignments."

The state's largest and most powerful teachers union, the California Teachers Association, eschews giving teachers financial or other incentives for a difficult assignment.

It would be "psychologically bad," said Wayne Johnson, CTA's outgoing president, adding teachers would resent colleagues with the same experience making more money. "The teachers in the hills would say we're doing the same job."

Johnson acknowledged that "poor kids are getting jobbed," arguing that smaller class sizes and more individual control over curriculum would attract more teachers to those neighborhoods. But Johnson wants those reforms for every school, which means low-performing schools would have nothing extra to offer teachers, other than some limited professional development programs.

Fully qualified, experienced teachers, therefore, have little incentive other than selfless sacrifice to take a job where they are needed most.

"That's not a strategy for systematic reform, to say it takes heroic effort by extraordinary people," said Merrill Vargo, executive director of the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that awards grants to help schools improve. "If we can't make the system work with regular people, working essentially a regular workday, then we really don't have a system of schools."

A student is lost

Earlier this spring, a small Hispanic girl kicked at the gravel on the asphalt playground at Havenscourt Middle School in Oakland as she explained why she had to repeat the sixth grade two years ago.

Midway through her first sixth-grade year, when about half the school's 35 teachers were uncredentialed, the girl's math teacher left and a series of substitutes took over the class.

"They didn't teach the same thing," the seventh grader said. "I didn't understand it. I got lost."

She flunked the class and the year. She will spend an extra year in middle school, costing taxpayers more than $8,000 extra to educate her.

If school districts can't convince credentialed, experienced teachers to take jobs in schools like Havenscourt, why not change the rules and force them to go?

"They'll quit," said CTA's Johnson. "They will just flat quit before they'll go." < p> New requirements

Nonetheless, the Bush administration, under the No Child Left Behind Act, is requiring high-poverty schools to be fully staffed with "highly qualified" teachers by the 2005-2006 school year or face financial sanctions. The requirement comes with $2.9 billion in federal funding nationwide to improve teacher quality at each school.

Critics, however, say the state's definition of a highly qualified teacher includes interns -- which means low-income students could still lack a fully credentialed teacher and yet still meet federal requirements.

Even so, simply requiring a highly qualified teacher in every classroom won't make it happen unless there is a far-reaching overhaul of how California schools spend tax dollars -- perhaps making sure schools of similar size, no matter where they are, get the same amount of money for teachers.

As it stands now, most school districts cannot afford to put veteran teachers in every classroom -- unless the class sizes get a whole lot bigger. California doesn't spend enough money on education to have universally small classes staffed with well-paid teachers.

In truth, districts typically staff schools with a mix of veterans and rookies. But in districts with divisions of wealth, the veterans more often opt for the high-performing schools, leaving the rookies the job openings in in the highest-poverty, lowest-performing and least-appealing schools.

"Parents in the hills band together and demand that new teachers have full credentials," said William Chavarin, a first-year teacher at Lowell Middle School in West Oakland. "As a result, inexperienced teachers and those without credentials end up in the flatlands. But that just means the students are guinea pigs of the new teachers who are transferred around."

School fund-raisers widen the gap

By Jill Tucker and Robert Gammon


Wednesday, June 18, 2003 - FORGET BAKE SALES. Menlo Park Elementary School parents have raised more than $900,000 for the district's four schools this year mostly from their annual auction -- the equivalent of about $450 per student.

In Piedmont, several fund-raisers bring in about $1.3 million each year, or about $500 per student.

Woodside parents also raise about $1.3 million -- a whopping $3,000 for each child -- through donation request letters and phone calls, as well as an auction.

Gone are the days when parents baked a batch of cookies for new band uniforms or more books for the library.

These days, a variety of fund-raisers, including glitzy auctions, charity races, local cable telethons, dinners, raffles and outright requests for cash mean big bucks for some school districts -- money that not only pays for the library books, but the librarians, too.

That discretionary money has meant the difference between keeping or cut-

ting art, music, textbooks or even teachers in those districts, especially when the economy calls for cutbacks.

But not all parents can pump millions into their local public schools.

The disparity in donations has resulted in students from higher income areas receiving a public education often worth up to thousands of dollars more than their low-income counterparts.

It also means that the real condition of public education is being masked in middle- and upper-class communities -- with parents and private money filling in the holes left by budget cuts and below-average state spending on schools.

"We're paying for math textbooks, we're paying for a science teacher, we're paying for the librarians," said Lynne Young, president of the non-profit Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation, which has raised more than $20 million since 1982. "We've really worked hard at letting our parent population know that a good public school is not free."

It's a situation that has the state's teachers union brass posing the impossible: Prevent parents from contributing to their schools so the real condition of public education is exposed, thereby forcing the middle class to direct its political pull at more public resources for everyone.

"It sounds almost un-American," said Wayne Johnson, outgoing president of the California Teachers Association. "But when you allow communities to subsidize a particular school ... it creates even larger inequities. You shouldn't be allowed to do that."

Luxury for some

In the Oakland Hills, at Redwood Heights Elementary School -- where just 8 percent of students are considered low-income -- the PTA raised $106,000 this year.

Equal to $380 per student, the money buys a librarian, field trips, office equipment, a lunch supervisor and classroom grants for teachers.

"We've had the luxury of being very flush with money," said Redwood Heights PTA president Anna Brekke-Yungert. "It's also totally a luxury to have parents who have the time to volunteer. Unfortunately, other schools don't have that luxury."

Down in the flatlands, at Horace Mann Elementary School in East Oakland -- where 63 percent of students are poor -- there is no PTA.

A school fund-raiser last fall brought in $900, or the equivalent of $1.77 per student.

"If you live up in the hills, let's face it, a lot of mothers aren't working so they have time," said Horace Mann's principal Nancy Morganti. "But we live in a socioeconomic area where some parents may work a swing shift or at a time where they can't come to a PTA meeting."

And they don't necessarily have the ability to write a check to help cover school costs that state money can't.

Granted, schools with significant numbers of low-income students are eligible for significant public and private resources not available to higher-income schools, including technology grants, federal Title I money and taxpayer-funded teacher training.

But that money often comes with strings attached, leaving individual schools often unable to address the specific needs of their students.

This so-called categorical funding might provide computers for every classroom, for example, to a school that lacks updated wiring. Or it might provide money to buy library books when there aren't enough textbooks to go around.

Yet in higher-income areas, parent or community donations can mean computers, teacher salaries, building renovations, textbooks or even tubas, if desired, freeing up public money that would have otherwise been spent on those items.

Many of those schools end up looking like private schools with a public name. And the parents, who would otherwise be paying for private school anyway, get more bang for their buck by supplementing their publicly funded school instead.

"A lot of the families in our district could go public or private and they choose to go public for a lot of reasons," Young said, adding that a local private school in Atherton costs about $25,000 per year. "So writing a check for (the average donation to the nonprofit foundation) is a lot less.

Feeling the pinch

After 1978's Proposition 13 shifted the financial burden of educating children from school districts to the state, schools started to feel the pinch caused by the lack of local control. They could no longer raise taxes to pay the bills.

So parents started to step in.

They started forming nonprofit foundations -- allowing them to essentially hand over cold, hard cash to the districts to buy whatever the community felt the schools needed.

That money was on top of the traditional PTA contributions -- which typically do not pay for teacher or staff salaries and are usually tangible gifts, like computers, books, building renovations and art supplies.

Only about a dozen foundations existed before Proposition 13; there are now more than 500 such groups across California that raise an estimated $30 million each year.

"Foundations do bring in untapped resources," said Susan Sweeney, executive director of the California Consortium of Education Foundations. "The local community can decide what's really important to them."

In years past, that used to mean educational extras, maybe field trips, guest speakers or expensive art equipment.

But local parent groups are saying the foundations are increasingly paying for basics, such as librarians, facility upgrades or other teaching staff.

"Without the PTA, our kids wouldn't have access to art and music, and the library," said Patrice Fusillo, president of Oakland's Hillcrest Elementary School. "The sad reality is that as the state cuts more and more in what they're giving to schools, parents have no choice but to raise money if they want to have things."

In Menlo Park, Young said the foundation pays for librarians at each of the four schools, an elementary school science teacher, the middle school art program, math textbooks and materials, musical instruments and field trips, among other things.

"I think it's very unfortunate, but it's just reality that in California you have to contribute to your public schools," she added. "The government is just not giving enough funds and paying for things to give a quality education."

  Parents make a difference

So what does that mean if parents cannot pick up the slack?

Study after study shows that parent involvement at a child's school -- be that financial or personal time -- makes a difference in boosting student performance, reducing dropout rates and alleviating behavior problems.

Minority and low-income parents, as well as those with lower levels of education, are less likely to volunteer or to participate in back-to-school night, science fairs, parent-teacher conferences and school board meetings, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In Berkeley, for example, parents in some neighborhoods don't understand how to help their schools and so they do not try, said parent Trina Ostrander, who is also executive director the Berkeley Public Education Foundation.

In wealthier neighborhoods, however, families have personal resources and understand how to connect them to the schools.

"They have friends who own Pixar," she said. "Parents who have expectations, they know where to go to get extra support."

For those schools, that parent support produces a chain reaction:

The extra resources help create a strong educational environment.

Teachers are drawn to schools with resources and parent support.

Students perform well with good teachers and significant resources.

Parents with resources are drawn to the neighborhood because the school is good.

And the cycle continues.

The opposite is often true for schools without such resources.

Especially in lean budget times, schools without parent resources have to cut programs, layoff teachers and reduce overhead.

Music, art, small classes and librarians get the ax.

While they might still have computers bought with special public funding, they don't have anyone to help incorporate them into the curriculum.

Students already at a socio-economic disadvantage face even greater obstacles.

Teachers do not want to teach in such a difficult environment.

And the cycle continues.

"Schools are based so much on parent participation," said Anthony Hall, chairman of the Parent Teacher Club at Hoover Elementary School in low-income West Oakland. "You really need parents to be involved with the kids. But our parents -- most of our parents -- are just not available. Their life situations are more than they can handle. I know three kids who have relatives who were shot to death recently."

The Hoover Parent Teacher Club raised about $1,200 this year for the school, where test scores rank at the bottom of the state.

Hall is the club's only member.

PTA's pairing up

In some communities across the country, including Bethesda, Md., and Memphis, Tenn., PTA organizations in wealthier areas are pairing up with those in lower socioeconomic communities to sponsor fund-raisers together. The pairing has apparently helped schools with fewer PTA members to increase recruitment and share the time-consuming responsibilities of raising money.

Locally, in some of the larger districts, like Fremont, which has diverse demographics, the parent foundations are helping spread the wealth across all district schools, regardless of how much parents at each campus contribute.

"Every Fremont school has either a PTA or PTO (parent-teacher organization), but the amount of money they can raise and the amount of participation they have varies greatly," said Nina Moore, outgoing president of the Fremont Education Foundation and the district's school board president. "Our whole idea was to do something that we could do equitably across the district."

The foundation has raised about $80,000 each year since 2000 through a telethon and mailing campaign. The money buys an after-school band program in all 27 elementary schools.

Music in the those grades had been absent since the early 1990s -- cut during the last serious budget crisis.

About 1,000 students now participate in the program.

Moore said she left her job as a director at Sun Microsystems to concentrate on her children and their education. She has thrown herself into the task, multi-tasking through fund-raisers for the foundation and budget cuts on the board.

She acknowledged the schools that need the most resources for their students are likely to get hit the hardest because there will be no one to help fill the gaps.

"I really think it's so important to have people fighting for all the schools," she said. "If you are a single parent or if you're two working blue-collar parents, working split shifts, that doesn't mean you don't care about your child's education. It means you can't be as involved."

Contact Jill Tucker at< ;>< style= "mso-spacerun:yes">  and Robert Gammon at