Parents protested and teachers demonstrated Wednesday against the West Contra Costa Unified School District, expressing frustration at how the teacher shortage is being managed and communicated to the community.
A few dozen parents, children and teachers gathered at Memorial Park in Richmond, just across from WCCUSD headquarters, to demand answers after a shortage of teachers has forced some schools to merge classes, hire temporary staff or reassign teachers to compensate for this lack of staff.
The protesters held signs that read, “Let’s fight for what’s right,” “Help us,” and “Where’s my teacher?/Donde esta mi maestro?”.
“I’m just really disappointed in the district’s lack of communication,” said Annette Gregg, parent of a third grader at Stewart Elementary School in Pinole. “We only found out on the first day of school that our children don’t have a teacher.”
Gregg’s daughter said she was “nervous” for the school year because her parents are having her transferred to a new school because she didn’t have a permanent teacher in Stewart.
Some students held signs that read “Keep Ms. Baker” in reference to fourth grade teacher Cathy Baker, who has taught at WCCUSD for nine years and has been at Ellerhorst for four years. She said she was being transferred to Peres K-8 because there was a shortage of teachers.
“I moved to Ellerhorst because I know there are students who don’t have black teachers, especially black students, and I moved into a community similar to where I grew up and I can make a positive impact on.” wanted my black students as well as my students who are from different communities than me,” said Baker, who is black.
William Beh, a parent of two Ohlone elementary school students, said the situation is affecting many in the community.
“Kids cry, some even say, ‘We don’t want to go back to school,'” Beh said. “One of the parents when she spoke about it I can see tears in her eyes.”
Shallon Santiago, a parent of two in Stewart, helped organize the event to unite parents, hoping it would motivate the district to be more responsive to community concerns.
“We recognize and have heard the concerns of our parents and staff, and understand the frustration at our recruitment and retention efforts,” the district said in a written statement Wednesday. “There is a statewide teacher shortage and school districts, particularly districts like ours, are managing the best they can with a small pool of clearly accredited teachers across the state, and WCCUSD is no exception. However, we remain committed to providing high-quality learning experiences for students in every classroom in our district.”
On Wednesday night, the protesters took their concerns directly to the school board and attended a rally outside of the staff meeting hosted by United Teachers of Richmond. Many then spoke about the district’s poor response to the teacher shortage during the public comment period.
John Zabala, WCCUSD school psychologist and UTR president, noted that the district still faces many teacher and paraprofessional shortages, despite $128 billion in government funds being paid to school districts in July to stave off inflation and counteract the continuing shortage of teachers.
“I know board clerks and superintendents [Kenneth “Chris”] Hurst that you too are driven by the same spirit of public service,” Zabala said. “I believe your intentions are for the best of our students. But without staff we will not achieve anything.”
Hurst later acknowledged the staffing issues and the district’s obligation to do something about it.
“So we hear you and we understand that we are committed to addressing all of these issues,” he said.
Human Resources Director Sylvia Greenwood noted that 200 teachers resigned at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, including 55 retirements. The district now has 16 secondary school teacher vacancies, 14 elementary school teacher vacancies, and three counselor vacancies.
Associate Superintendent LaResha Martin said the district supports its students, staff and parents in a variety of ways, including providing counseling to students; providing meeting places for parents and new teachers; and offering $3,000 to teachers asked to change schools.
Board Chair Otheree Christian, who works for the Oakland Unified School District, said there is a teacher shortage across the Bay Area that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Needs weren’t met before we even entered the pandemic,” Christian said. “The pandemic just opened it up and made it even bigger.”