Inside Richmond’s highest performing school
on December 22, 2014
If you walk down the hallways of Richmond College Prep Schools (RCPS), it looks like many other elementary schools. But there is one key difference: it is the highest performing school in Richmond.
The school, located near the Iron Triangle, is ranked #1 in the city and #4 in the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) according to its 2013 Academic Performance Index (API) score. The majority of its students are Hispanic or African-American. 92 percent of students qualify for free lunch and 42 percent are English Language Learners. Despite having demographics often associated with low-performing schools, the students at RCPS have excelled.
RCPS began in 2004 as just a preschool with only five students. Today it is made up of a preschool and K-6 elementary school with an enrollment of over 500 students. Admission is by lottery.
What sets RCPS apart is a combination of intensive academic emphasis, supports for students and families, close attention to behavioral issues, and programs that bring students, teachers and families into cooperative efforts.
For example, RCPS is open 200 days a year instead of the district norm of 175 days. The school has longer school days in which students in the 2nd-6th grades attend classes from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Most of this time is spent in the classroom for core curriculum instruction, but in late afternoon students receive three hours of elective courses as part of the school’s After Program.
These extended days can make life easier for parents, many of whom are low-income and often work long hours with more than one job.
All of the school’s 15 teachers are credentialed and the adult-student ratio is 1 to 15 in the classroom. Each classroom has a second instructional aid for assistance. There is also a full-time Family Advocate to keep parents or guardians closely involved with a student’s classroom performance.
RCPS also has an intervention program and specialist in place to cater specifically to students who are struggling. Allie Welch, the school’s resident principal, said that it starts by looking at the data from various assessments and seeing where gaps are. Once these gaps are determined, a team comes together to decide what that child needs specifically. Students are often placed into special groups for extra support depending on the subject matter.
“It’s the culture and the leadership of the school that is going to make it work or not work,” said David Rosenthal, lawyer and founder of RCPS said. “Richmond College Prep is a school that works.”
He says this leadership is embodied by Peppina Liano, the CEO of RCPS. Liano is a successful former preschool and elementary teacher.
According to Sharon Folgelson, retired coordinator of state preschool program for WCCUSD, Liano brings educational expertise and “an extraordinary ability to communicate with all types of people where parents trust her in a way that is very unusual.”
Liano, who stands just under five feet, is never short of a bright smile. She said, “My goal has always been that when students leave here, they have a set of skills that are not only academic but also moral so that they can function in any other environment. The environment we create here sets the tone for their future success.”
RCPS began its life in 2004 as Nystrom College Prep and funded by settlement money resulting from the General Chemical explosion in the early 1990’s that affected more than 20,000 Richmond residents. Out of that settlement, $13,000,000 was leftover in false claims. This money was placed into a community benefit fund administered by the Richmond Community Foundation, to be used for investing in education. It was this seed money that sprouted RCPS.
Rosenthal, founder of RCPS, wanted to create a school focused around early interventions that would change the trajectory of children in poverty.
“David Rosenthal said to me you have only two things, an idea and money,” Liano said. “It was a dream to have a school in which my only limitation was my imagination.” After the school’s first year a charter position was submitted.
The environment Liano created is one that she describes as “nurturing” and of “high expectations.” Throughout the halls and classrooms, there is a sense of discipline and accountability among not only the faculty and staff, but also the students.
Jasmine Johnson is one of the third grade teachers. Upon entering her classroom, you can see this year’s theme of the “Freedom Fighters” illustrated on the walls with pictures of Cesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela. The students are quiet and attentive.
For behavioral management, the school uses a six-color system. The best color to be is pink with blue being the lowest; Johnson’s students start the day at green. This method is used to help hold students accountable; those students whose color is on the bottom have their parents and the office notified.
“When you have systems like this in place, you have to keep in mind that its not about framing a student as bad but instead its about giving students the opportunity to reflect on what they are doing well and not so well,” Johnson said.
Liano said that many find it surprising that for the amount of children the school has there are very little discipline problems. She believed this is a result of the environment the school has successfully created.
“We don’t yell at our students or believe in humiliating,” Liano said. “When something is done in the classroom then the whole community/class pays.”
This same approach is used towards low-performing students who have difficulty in areas such as reading and math.. Liano said that one common misconception heard about charter schools is underperforming students are kicked out. She says this will “never” be the case at RCPS.
In the 2012-13 school year, RCPS had a suspension rate of 6% and a truancy rate of 35%. Typical district elementary school suspension rates can be triple that of RCPS, and truancy rates up to 56%.
“It has always been refreshing for me to see the very healthy relationship Peppina’s school has had with the district,” Folgeson said. “It’s a realization that the district and charters aren’t adversaries but instead we are all here for the same purpose which is serving children in the district just in different venues.”
As a former employee and a parent who saw all of her children graduate from schools in the WCCUSD, Liano believes district support has played a big part in her school’s success.
In 2014, the Board of Education recognized RCPS with the Award of Excellence. This award was followed by the Title I Academic Achievement Award from the California Department of Education for the school’s high academic standards and its’ doubling of the achievement targets for its socioeconomically disadvantaged students.
“We give them the roots so that they can have their wings when they leave,” Liano said. “It is our expectation that when they go outside our doors that they will fly.”
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