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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.”


  1. Gimme Abreak on December 22, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    ” the adult-student ratio is 1 to 15 in the classroom. Each classroom has a second instructional aid for assistance.”

    If this type of teacher/adult to student ratio was mandatory in every school, there would be vastly different results in EVERY school. Not just the one school that is able to make it happen.

  2. Marklee on December 22, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Sounds like the school is doing great things for kids, but boy did I have to read carefully to find out whether or not this is a Charter School. With all the controversy in this district about whether Charters are good or bad, savior or satan, this article sure could have been more upfront about the fact that this wonderful school, the best school in the district with the lowest disciplinary problems that is not just kicking-out the difficult kids, is a Charter.

  3. Michael on December 22, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    Nobody is more supportive of the good things happening in Richmond than me. But this article really needs some context. I taught for twenty-six years in elementary schools. I want every student to have a great education. But RCP is a charter school and charter schools, however well intentioned, are the thin end of the wedge for for-profit EMOs (educational management organizations). Do we really want to turn over the education of our children to the free market? I wish the writer had probed a bit more. For example, RCP may have the highest score in the district, but Peres Elementary is just a few points down and it has none of the benefits that money can buy, no longer day, longer year, aides, etc. Let’s level the field and see what public education can do.

    • Giorgio Cosentino on December 23, 2014 at 6:15 pm

      Great point about Peres.

  4. Giorgio Cosentino on December 22, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    This school can afford to have a 15 to 1 student to teacher ratio. How did they make this happen? This is a charter school. Have they done away with after-school sports programs? Is that the problem with the WCCUSD, that we are paying to have EVERYTHING, when instead we should be focusing on class size? Maybe it has always been about priorities, that the WCCUSD as a whole has failed to set priorities, spreading itself too thin. This school appears very focused. I am for sports programs, but not at the cost of academics.

    • Marklee on December 23, 2014 at 9:15 am

      So many questions raised by this article. They have all-day school, more days, and smaller class sizes. Is the Richmond Community Foundation still providing extra funding for this, or are they doing it all on the same amount of per-student money that the District gets?

  5. Tana Monteiro on December 23, 2014 at 9:14 am

    I am a parent of two RCPS students. I also worked at RCPS as the parent organizer for 7 yrs. RCPS gets the same money that the district schools get. It is a Title 1 school. RCPS uses that money very wisely, not for paying for school board members exuberant legal fees (half a million dollars!) and not for paying for a big fancy school. RCPS invests in their students and their staff. People Power!

    • Marklee on December 23, 2014 at 9:19 am

      Thanks Tara, I see you answered my question. Which raises a bigger question: With its current funding, could the entire District have every school look like RCPS? With all of the complaints from this District about Charters taking away students and money, has the District every looked at what successful Charters like RCPS are doing and then brought those things to District schools?

    • Marklee on December 23, 2014 at 1:11 pm

      Here’s part of the answer, RCPS costs $12,000 per student. That is about 50% more than what WCCUSD has to spend. And their teachers are all brand new to the profession, so probably have pretty low salaries .

  6. Peppina liano on December 23, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Actually RCP spends less money per student than the district, and NO it does not receive funds from the Richmond Community Foundation anymore. RCP is not interested in comparisons but rather in performance and service. Commitment, dedication, austerity and humility will do the job.

    • Greg on December 24, 2014 at 6:41 am

      How much annual salary do the principal and staff make compared to the average public school?

      • Peppina on December 24, 2014 at 9:33 am

        Teachers have one hour daily of prep time and one hour of lunch. They respond to accountability and receive constant support.
        A small school can do that when all the team work together. That is why we do not like comparisons unless they are fair.
        Thank you for your comments and questions, feel free to visit the school.

  7. Giorgio Cosentino on December 24, 2014 at 7:08 pm

    The suspension rate went from 3 (2011-12) to 31(2012-13) in just one year. Is that the answer? More suspensions? The average teacher salary is $41,000.00. This means less experienced teachers. Is this why the suspension rate has increased? To help less experienced teachers succeed, ramp up the suspensions? I would like to see all of the SSC meeting minutes for the past couple of years. Also, if Bruce Harter is listed as your Superintendent, then why don’t you have to share the cost of the school board’s legal fees like the rest of us?

  8. Louisa on December 30, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    I don’t want to bash them. I commend them for doing an outstanding job. But there are a number of areas that Richmond Confidential needs to address. First and foremost, money spent per student. On RCP’s website, they say they spend $12,000 per year per child and raise $600.000 a year. So, we see a combination of public and private funds that seems way in excess of what surrounding schools, who do not have the private fundraising machine spend. Surrounding schools spend somewhere around $7,500 per student. Each school varies slightly, but you can see the spends on their SARC reports. So, when you have 40-60% or more per student, I’d expect to see dramatically better results.

    Second, they offer a test prep academy . It is called the Accelerated Achievement Academy. Kids use past STAR tests as curriculum. So, if you are offering a test prep academy, once again, I’d expect to see better results.

    Third, the WCCUSD school year is 180 instruction days. Not sure where you get 175, and you should quote real statistics on suspensions and expulsions. Not “better than others.”

    Finally, if you want to see a real success story – creating a miracle on a shoestring, then write about Coronado.

    • Chris Roeske on January 14, 2015 at 1:53 pm

      Thank you for bringing up Coronado Elementary. I have worked at Coronado since 2005, and I am proud of the many achievements we have had there. For whatever reason, we haven’t had the attention paid to our success that schools like RCPS have gotten. But yes, “miracle on a shoestring”, sadly, could be our motto.

  9. Giorgio Cosentino on January 18, 2015 at 8:23 am

    Can someone provide clarification about the discrepancy regarding the suspension data provided in this article. It does not match the suspension data on the SARC document on the schools website, which states 31%.

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