Seventeen-year-old Phillip Poe starts his days early. He gets up at 5:45 a.m. so that he can catch a ride to BART with a family member. Then he takes a train to catch a bus, arriving at school just before 8 a.m.
His days end late, too. He often doesn’t return until 10 p.m., sometimes taking a long bus ride home after evening varsity basketball practice. After finishing homework, he gets to bed by midnight, catching less than six hours of sleep before doing the same routine all over again the next day.
Poe’s long days stem from his long commute. He’s a senior at Pinole Valley High School but lives about seven miles away, in central Richmond. He and his mom, Tishana Poe, recently moved in with extended family in the city after the landlord of their San Pablo apartment unexpectedly raised the rent this summer.
Phillip Poe has now joined thousands of other Richmond students who commute out of their neighborhood for school. With test scores stagnant and a reputation for violence marring the attractiveness of many of Richmond’s traditional district schools, students and their families look elsewhere. Many consider other schools with better reputations within the district, including Pinole Valley High or El Cerrito High School. In recent years, these schools had better scores on Smart Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests, used to measure English and Math progress, than Richmond schools like Richmond High and John F. Kennedy High.
A 2015-2016 study conducted by the West Contra Costa Unified School District considering schools’ population noted that nearly one fifth of the students going to El Cerrito High School were from outside the school’s boundary. In contrast, more than 40 percent of high school students whose local district school was Kennedy High, in central Richmond, chose to go to another high school. For the 2018-2019 school year, according to data emailed to Richmond Confidential from district transfer office, more than 1,500 students, or just under five percent of the district total, requested to go to a different district school from the one closest to them.
Others go outside of the district entirely, including to Oakland and Orinda. The transfer office said that for the 2018-2019 school year, 1,500 students—comprising another 5 percent—requested to leave the district, choosing instead to go to a school in another district.
Reflecting a national trend, charter schools have proliferated in the city over the last decade, offering other options. There are now 14 operating in and around Richmond, a city of just over 100,000. By comparison, nearby Berkeley, with approximately 120,000 people, has just one charter school. Charters in West Contra Costa serve about 15 percent of the district’s nearly 35,000 students.
In many ways, Poe’s story is unique. He was already enrolled at Pinole before he and his mother moved to Richmond, so he didn’t have to apply for a transfer out of the city or consider other options like charter schools. But in other ways the family’s story mirrors dozens of others told to Richmond Confidential, which spoke to over a dozen students and parents about how they choose the school that was right for them. Many shared stories of being scarred by Richmond’s traditional district schools. They spoke of bullying, overcrowded classrooms, chronically absent teachers and unresponsive administrations.
How families deal with these issues vary. Some parents are fighting to better Richmond’s traditional district schools, and others are getting their kids out of the district system. All, driven by desperation, reflect a highly informed citizenry painfully aware of the failings of the local schools, an awareness that forces pro-active decision making.
Poe likes Richmond. Many of his family members have lived there at different times, and he’s proud that one of his uncles is part of a rap group that focuses, in part, on daily life in the city. He also knows a lot of fellow teenagers in the city through basketball.
But when Poe moved to Richmond, he was clear that he didn’t want to go to one of its high schools. “If I went there, I know I’d be in the wrong crowd,” he says. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
Poe and his mom decided he should stay at Pinole Valley High, not only because they think that academics and extra-curricular activities are better there, but because they’re both weary of Richmond’s high schools’ reputation for violence and gang affiliations. It’s a reputation that some, like school board member Tom Panas, say is unfair and outdated but that has nonetheless persisted. “It’s like a cloud just hangs over that school,” he says, referring to Richmond High.
But there’s a fresh memory that keeps the reputation alive. At a 2009 Richmond High homecoming dance, a female student was gangraped. Police weren’t called to the scene for two hours, according to news reports. This seemed to prove, for many, what they had always believed: that schools like Richmond High are not safe for students.
In a written statement, Matthew Duffy, the superintendent for the school district, argued that the environment at the school has improved in recent years. He told Richmond Confidential, “we work hard to make sure all of our schools are safe. At Richmond High we have added Assistant Principals to make sure the school runs smoothly. In recent years, suspensions and referrals have decreased dramatically at Richmond High and extracurricular activities have dramatically increased.”
Still, violence across district schools remains a key concern for parents.
Yolanda Lopez is a member of the West Contra Costa Parents’ Council, a self-organized advocacy and support group that includes parents from both traditional district and charter schools. She says she realized that her son was being bullied in kindergarten at his local district school when they were watching a movie together. As one character was being pulled and choked on the screen, her son told her, “that’s what the kids did to me yesterday,” she says. By the time her son got to first grade, Lopez says, half of the students in her son’s class bullied him.
Students interviewed describe similar problems. “I’ve been bullied by the same kids since third grade,” says 18-year-old Nyree McDaniels. “Teachers saw this and didn’t do anything about it.”
McDaniels says she’s also “been bullied by teachers.” Her experience, she says, “was so bad that one of my really good teachers paid for me to go to a private school.” McDaniels has since left Richmond’s school system and is taking GED classes instead.
Addressing these allegations in a written response to Richmond Confidential, Duffy said that he is, “very sorry to hear this,” and that he, “would love to talk to this student to learn more.”
The struggle to find a safe and appropriate school is particularly acute for parents of children with special needs. Shakira Reynolds says she has moved her eldest son, who has autism, to a new school every single year. He has been subjected to physical violence from other students in his classes for children with severe handicaps.
The boys’ struggles have prompted Reynolds and her husband to make a tough decision. They’ll move to North Carolina, which has more dedicated funding and programs for children with autism, before their children reach high school. They lived there before, when their eldest son was born, but moved to Richmond because much of Reynolds’ immediate and extended family lives in the city.
“Moving back to North Carolina means leaving everybody. My siblings, everybody is here,” Reynolds says. “But we’re going back for the boys. My children cannot be guinea pigs.”
As he did in response to 18-year-old McDaniels’ case, Duffy wrote to Richmond Confidential that he is, “very sorry to hear this,” and that he would like to learn more, adding, “I don’t believe this is a common issue for all Special Education students.”
Other parents express different complaints. Several Latinx parents interviewed by Richmond Confidential say that children of Spanish speakers are treated differently, either as a result of not receiving language support or because they are perceived less favorably by administrators.
A mother, who goes by the name Luz and asked not to have her last name used because she is active within the school district, says that her son fell behind in reading twice while he was at Highland Elementary School. He repeated second grade, but she says was not given extra support to catch up. By fifth grade, he was still reading at a second-grade level.
“I decided to move him to a charter school. He hates it, and he hates himself for being behind,” she says.
Her son recently told her that he’s so miserable, he’s considering cutting himself and that he’d prefer to go to work with his dad than go to school, she says.
“A 13-year-old, saying he’s going to cut himself,” sighs Luz. “Imagine that.”
Asked to respond to the comments from Luz and the Latinx community, Duffy noted in an email that, “three Latinas were recently elected to the school Board.” He added that, “the district is deeply invested in supporting the Latino community as it is with all communities.”
Panas, who’s been a member of the district school board for two years, readily admits that teacher retention is poor, that the achievement gap between white students and students of color is too large and that there aren’t enough auxiliary staff like counselors and nurses to support students. Fixing the problems, though, remains difficult with limited funding, he says.
“We have to have a balanced budget,” he says. “If we add one thing, we have to cut something else. It’s a simple issue of funding.”
Richmond and the school district are not alone in struggling to make ends meet.
“The biggest issue with education in California is that it’s underfunded,” says Rigel Spencer Massaro, a lawyer specializing in education at the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates in Sacramento.
Massaro and other education advocates say that one of the biggest causes for underfunding is Proposition 13. Passed in 1978, the law limits property taxes to no more than 2% of a property’s value, based on a 1976 assessment, unless the property is sold. That means that big companies with long-term properties, such as The Walt Disney Company and Chevron Corporation, haven’t experienced significant property tax increases for decades. This has severely limited the state’s revenue generation, thereby starving public services like education.
“Prop 13 drastically cut the money available for schools in the state, which went from being one of the top spenders in the country to one of the lowest spenders in the country,” says Jesse Rothstein, professor of public policy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and director of the California Policy Lab.
“And it’s been the issue ever since,” he says.
The result is that California ranks 46th out of the 50 states in the amount of school funding per student.
This lack of funding affects nearly all aspects of education. California provides fewer general physical health and mental health services than almost any other state, according to the education website EdSource. The state ranks 39th of the 50 states for the number of school nurses per student, and last for the number of school counselors per student.
EdSource also notes that since 2015, 80 percent of the state’s school districts have, “reported acute shortages of teachers, especially in special education, mathematics and science, with growing shortages of bilingual teachers as well.”
A study done by Jesse Levin and other researchers at the American Institutes for Research for EdSource estimates that the state needs nearly $92 billion to meet its educational needs. Doing so would require that state to increase spending by nearly 40 percent over what was spent in 2016-2017.
Some cities and school districts have taken matters into their own hands, instituting fundraising mechanisms like parcel taxes, property taxes and bonds to raise money that can be spent locally. But, “those are easier to pass in high-income places where people have more money,” says Rothstein, noting that cities like Richmond—historically low-income, with a relatively low tax base—are least likely to do this. And given that the city remains largely low-income, even when taxes are instituted, the revenue generated remains low.
Even in higher-income areas, these measures, “just give little extra bits around what is fundamentally a stingy system,” Rothstein says.
In the early 2000s, voters had allowed the West Contra Costa school district to use bonds to fund renovations for schools. But voters rejected a bond measure in 2014 amid claims of corruption and poor fiscal management.
In 2013, Governor Jerry Brown tried to make a dent in the well-known funding crisis by implementing the Local Control Funding Formula. The funding model gives schools a set amount of money per student, with additional funds for each student who has extra needs, such as those from low-income families and English learners.
Districts with over 55 percent of students from low-income families receive an extra boost. The formula is meant to give more control to schools and districts over how to spend money and provide additional funds to schools in cities like Richmond with a large majority of high-needs students.
With the local funding formula, school funding statewide is now just above what it was before the 2008 recession. But Rothstein says it’s far from enough.
“It’s extra money on what remains a very low base,” he says. Until the deeper problems created by Proposition 13 are addressed, Rothstein says, programs like the local funding formula will only be able to provide, “small fixes.”
There are efforts to amend Prop 13 in the 2020 election to make commercial properties pay updated tax rates. The group Evolve, which advocates for this change, estimates that the updated tax rates could increase funding for schools by $4.5 billion, still far short of what is needed.
Without a serious change in overall school funding, Panas, the Richmond school board member, doesn’t see the district’s coffers growing larger anytime soon, limiting the district’s ability to change things.
“We already know through 2023 what will come in from the state in terms of state grants. There’s no significant prospect for money on the horizon,” he says.
In fact, more cuts are on the way. Earlier this year, the school board voted to increase salaries for the district’s teachers in an attempt to increase retention and performance, catapulting them from being some of lowest paid in the county, to the highest. But since the district is mandated by the state to have a balanced budget, other programs will have to take cuts to pay for the teachers’ raise. The school board anticipates the need to cut $12 million from programs in the 2019-2020 budget, and an additional $4 million in the next year.
No final decision has been made on how the cuts will be made. But cutting funding from the dual immersion program, grad tutor program and special education programs, among others, were discussed at a recent school board meeting.
Duffy, the superintendent, said in an email to Richmond Confidential that the increase in teacher compensation is an attempt to, “recruit and retain the best” teachers, and that the district has, “stepped up training efforts for our teachers and leaders.” Duffy also noted that the district is, “working with unions to improve absenteeism” and is also trying to raise more funds by, “working to increase enrollment, increase attendance, partner with philanthropy, seek grants and reduce expenditures.”
Duffy worried in his email that this story had, “no positives about our schools,” saying, “there are many beautiful things happening all over Richmond. There are many good schools. We are opening new schools such as Mandarin Dual Immersion, expanding current Spanish Dual Immersion, opening K-8 schools, increasing elementary sports and music, supporting our teachers with more professional development and leadership training and spreading the word!”
Charter schools offer an alternative for parents and teachers who remain concerned about Richmond’s district schools. Charters are schools that receive public money but are privately run, controlling day-to-day operations with limited oversight from the district. Their unique position—independently operating but still open to all of a district’s students—is attractive to many residents of districts like West Contra Costa, where beleaguered families want other options besides their district schools but want their children to stay close by and can’t necessarily afford private school.
Individual charters also often have a specific specialty, be it bilingual education or music, making them more appealing than catch-all traditional district schools. Many charters promise to turn graduates into high-achieving college-goers.
“Our mission is to send 100% of our students to and through college,” reads the top of the website of the Leadership Public Schools’ Richmond campus, one of the oldest and best performing charter schools in the district. Making Waves, one of the city’s first charter schools, “commits to rigorously and holistically preparing students to gain acceptance to and graduate from college to ultimately become valuable contributors to the workforce and their communities,” its website says.
Across the school district, charter schools did perform better than traditional district schools on the 2018 Smart Balance English and Math tests.
Thirty-four percent of students in district-run schools met or exceeded an acceptable score for the English language exam. That’s a lower proportion than at charter schools in the district where 46 percent of students met or exceeded the acceptable score.
But both the district schools and charter schools performed below the average statewide, where 50 percent of students passed the English exam.
A comparison of math scores on the same assessment was similar. 23 percent of students in district schools met or exceeded an acceptable score for math, a lower proportion than the 31 percent at charter schools. Both performed below California-wide statistics, where 39 percent of students passed math.
Asked for his response, Duffy, the superintendent, said that, “not all charters outperform our schools,” noting that the district has, “taken on new curriculum, assessments and teaching modules to improve our performance.”
Proponents of charter schools often say that their schools offer families a choice. But Janelle Scott, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, says that the idea of choice is, in reality, quite a limited one.
“Many families don’t have information about charter schools, so they don’t have options,” says Scott.
She also notes that the charter “schools still hold enormous power to choose students.” Not only do charter schools set their own priorities, she says, but they often look for high performing students who won’t cost a lot of money to teach and will improve their test results and overall profile.
Scott says that English learners and those enrolled in special education are not as likely to be chosen because they’re the most expensive, and hardest, to teach.
In district schools, 34 percent of students are considered English learners, compared to just 30 percent in charter schools. Twelve percent of all students in district schools have special education needs, compared to only 8 percent in charter schools. Reynolds, the mother of the child with autism, says that charter schools weren’t even a consideration for her family, as they “don’t support kids like mine.” Reynolds also says that charters weren’t an option for her, as she doesn’t see charters as the solution to the problems facing the public education system.
Critics of charter schools also point out that their proliferation actually means less money for traditional district schools, thereby worsening the underlying problem of underfunding. The school district’s funds are set based on the number of students they serve, so as more schools open up, the same amount of money needs to be shared between a greater number of institutions. Demetrio Gonzalez, head of Richmond’s teachers’ union, explains it simply, saying, “As district schools lose more students, they lose more funding.”
Gonzalez says that he would “never blame a parent” for taking a child out of a traditional district school, but notes, “a lot of families are only thinking about their own child and not the effect on the school when they leave it.
“It’s a vicious cycle, because as it becomes more challenging, you have more people who want to leave.”
Gonzalez also notes that charter schools have become popular in Richmond because there’s been too little money for local schools in the first place, with the city’s mostly low-income population unable to raise extra funds to fill the gap that Prop 13 created. “You don’t see charter schools opening in Walnut Creek,” he says. “You see them in Oakland, in Richmond.”
And while charter schools promise a better experience, their students and parents also complain. They chafe in the unbendingly strict environments with limited transparency into school functioning and finances.
Mariella Cuellar is a mother of two daughters. She’s moved both girls from traditional district schools to charter schools.
She says she thought charter schools were going to be the solution, but after moving her daughters to two different charter schools, she realizes that she’s put them through too much transition.
“And as I learn more about both district and charter schools, I see it’s all a broken system,” she says.
Parents are organizing to help one another negotiate the complex web of school options within Richmond. The West Contra Costa Parents’ Council was started in 2015 in order to, “learn how the district works, how they make policies, how resources are used and how to navigate the system,” says Ada Bustamante, a leader of the group and mother of four children.
They share information on their Facebook page and among informal social networks, “since the community doesn’t know what’s happening,” Bustamante says. The group meets to discuss strategies for individual students who are struggling and to advocate for larger systemic change, both within individual schools and across the district.
Members are regular fixtures at school board meetings, and one sits on the Local Control and Accountability Plan, an advisory group which sets goals for the district.
“We have to use our powers as mothers,” says Luz, who’s part of the parents’ council. “These are our kids, and we are their voices.”
Public Advocates’ Massaro welcomes parent advocacy and says it produces results.
“If families are engaged, student retention increases, teacher retention increases,” she says.
But she’s skeptical about the district’s interest in changing.
“I’ve found reluctance around genuine parent engagement. The community is pushing for a better school climate, for restorative justice, even though the district should be carrying the torch on this,” Massaro says.
Richmond mothers agree with that assessment. Teresa Jenkins, a mother of six, says that the school board, “asks for input but doesn’t listen to it.” Patronila Fernandes, a mother of two, says that she doesn’t feel welcome in her child’s school because of her advocacy work.
Even as they have become better informed, some parents say they are also increasingly fatigued.
“Parents shouldn’t have to school shop around,” says Reynolds, the mother of two boys with autism. “We’re school shopping for mediocre. All schools should be required to have the same basic level of quality.”
Luz says every spring and summer are anxious times.
“It’s this constant challenge: ‘Where is my son going to go to next year?’ It’s really hard.”
Deciding where to go to school is just the start for most families. Like the Poes, families must then scramble to figure out how to get their children to schools that, with notorious Bay Area traffic and a weak public transportation system, are sometimes several hours away in a district that doesn’t have a school bus system.
“The concept of a neighborhood school, one you can just walk to, doesn’t exist anymore,” says Maddie Orenstein, former teacher and counselor at the Richmond campus of Leadership Public Schools, a charter school.
“Just getting kids to school is really hard,” she says.
The long commute puts stress on everyone in Phillip Poe’s family. They chat each evening to figure out who will help him get to school in the morning and then back home again in the evening.
Recently, his mom has hit some bad luck, which has, strangely, translated into a bit of good luck for her son. In September, she woke up with a numb shoulder. Her doctor diagnosed her with a pinched nerve, likely caused by repetitive motion at work, and she’s had to take time off from her job at a food server at UC Berkeley.
In between negotiating workers’ compensation and attending a slew of doctors’ appointments, Tishana Poe now drives her son to school in the morning, then goes back again to pick him up after classes end. She takes him home for a few hours to do homework before going off again to Pinole for an evening basketball practice.
She uses the few hours of her son’s practice to drop off some deliveries for the DoorDash, the food delivery app, which is her only source of income at the moment.
“It’s nice to have the extra cash, but it’s not enough to make rent,” she says. “But I figure if I’m out here, I might as well make the extra gas money, rather than just wasting gas.”
Phillip Poe isn’t sure what he’ll do after he graduates. His ideas range from playing professional sports to studying sound engineering or astrology, an idea his mom supports, noting that his great grandfather practiced astrology.
For now, though, he and his mother are just trying to figure out how to get him to school and make sure he sleeps enough to keep up his grades, so that he can graduate.