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West Contra Costa County school board discusses plans for new tech-heavy charter high school program

on April 11, 2019

On Wednesday, the West Contra Costa Unified Board of Education discussed a plan from staffers at Richmond College Prep, a longtime district charter school, to establish a new high school program with a career-focused, tech-heavy curriculum.

In addition, the board discussed a resolution that would support technical education and career development programs in district schools.

Richmond College Prep (RCP) was first granted its charter in 2006. The school initially covered kindergarten through fifth grade, and expanded to include middle school in 2016. Currently, RCP serves 570 students. The high school program would add an estimated 300 students.

The proposed high school program would aim to take advantage of the tech boom by settling its students into one of two job-training tracks: video game design or product design. Biotechnology and architecture were also noted as potential future career options for the program.  

The job training would require students to learn coding and participate in classes, learning labs, and an internship in 12th grade at a corporate partner—on top of more traditional class requirements. Game design internships would be with Electronic Arts (EA) or Take Two Interactive, while product design students would intern at Adobe and Autodesk.

Reactions from the public were mixed. Some attendees, including parents and a student at RCP, urged the board to let the plan go forward. Tanna Monteiro, the Family and Community Engagement Coordinator for the school, said her children had attended in the younger grades and would have gone on to attend the high school program had it existed. She said that, from her experience, the school ran a wonderful program.

But others criticized the plans, or more generally spoke about the negative effects that charter schools have on district funds. (When students leave district-run schools for charter schools, the district loses state per-pupil funding.)

Mike Parker, a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance steering committee, was among those who criticized charter schools. He said that to him RCP’s plan seemed like an example of corporate meddling in public schools, and he criticized the choice of game designer as a major career track. “I’d like us to consider whether that’s really what the society needs more of,” Parker said. “It also turns out that games programming, that area of work, turns out to be one of the classic jobs that are notoriously exploitive.”

But boardmember Mister Phillips praised RCP, and said he believed the school was what “charters were meant to be.” He said he appreciated that the school was funded from local money, and that it had consistently shown an ability to serve underprivileged students in Richmond.

“It is literally a school that was conceived, created, and built here,” Phillips said.

The board will take action on the item at a future meeting.

Later in the meeting, the board discussed a resolution supporting career education and development that was put forward by boardmember Consuelo Lara. The resolution is largely symbolic, as it currently stands, but it’s meant to signify the district’s intent to highlight it’s practical, career-minded education options, many contained within academies on topics like health, law and engineering.

Lara said that some of her motivation for advancing the item came from hearing Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (D-Richmond) say that students today are prepared to have six different careers—not jobs—over their lifetime.

“It’s a vision and it’s a direction that we want to go towards,” Lara said.

Boardmember Valerie Cuevas was supportive of the item, but cautioned the board to be careful, because she said that the history of vocational training in schools has shown that it can reinforce class divisions. She called for the training to be equally available at every school.

Ron Whittier, the founder of Techfutures ITA, a nonprofit which helps students build skills in digital art and computer systems management, was supportive of the resolution. He argued that the main problem with public school career programs is that they’re not advertised, especially in relation to high-powered charter school advertising.  

Charter schools “are much more vocal, much more public, they get more space everywhere,” Whittier said. “No one knows what’s going on in the public system, so they assume that there’s nothing in the public system—everything’s in charter so they’d rather do charter.”

The board will also vote on this resolution at a future meeting.

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