PITTSBURG -- When Rajnesh Naicker started teaching physics at Pittsburg High School seven years ago, his advanced placement class had just 16 students.
Today, he teaches two periods of AP physics, with a total of 60 students enrolled. And in 2015, the school will offer AP chemistry for the first time.
The school's science offerings are just one example of the ways the Pittsburg Unified School District and local educators are focusing on curriculum with real-world applications, Naicker said Wednesday during the 2014 Pittsburg State of Education address.
"If we look at the way jobs are being created in science, engineering, technology and math, it's growing exponentially," Naicker said. "(Education is) moving in the right direction thanks to some very good leadership."
The growing importance of science education was a frequent theme during the Pittsburg Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event, where local education leaders touted progress in their K-12 and community college districts while also highlighting areas ripe for improvement.
"Pittsburg's schools are doing phenomenally well," said Contra Costa County Superintendent of Schools Joseph Ovick.
Ovick noted that the overall dropout rate for the county's 173,000 K-12 students is lower than the California state average, and its graduation rate, at 80 percent, is higher than the state's.
Part of that achievement, Ovick said, results from recalibrating to play to students' interests and to arm them with the skills to thrive after high school -- whether that's in the workforce, trade schools or traditional higher education.
"Not all kids need to get a bachelor's degree, but all young people have to be lifelong learners," Ovick said. "They need to know, they need to explore, they need to dig deeper."
Pittsburg Unified Superintendent Linda Rondeau echoed Ovick's thoughts, noting that the national transition to the common core curriculum means that "all public schools are in a new era."
"Flexible communication and collaboration along with innovation are skills that absolutely translate into the workforce," Rondeau said.
That being said, she also proudly noted that the number of Pittsburg High graduates who go on to four-year universities has more than doubled in the past four years.
But along with that success is also room for improvement in areas such as student engagement and shrinking the achievement gap between different ethnic groups, said Los Medanos College President Robert Kratochvil.
To that end, LMC has been adding student clubs, outreach efforts and mentorship programs aimed at helping retain students who may be discovering for the first time that a post-high school education is within reach.
Kratochvil said the importance of diversity in education is now accepted as a given, and that "the word equity is even more important today than the word diversity."
From a bricks-and-mortar standpoint, LMC hopes to build a new student activities building where students could study or participate in activities in between classes. Kratochvil cited research that shows students' academic success rates climb as they spend more time physically on their campuses.
That project would hinge on the passage of Contra Costa's $450 million community college property tax bond, Measure E, on June 3.
To cap off Wednesday's event, several of Naicker's science students, just back from the Contra Costa Science and Engineering Fair, demonstrated their winning projects.
Among them was a solar-powered, smart lighting system designed to increase safety and conserve energy in parks and other outdoor spaces. In addition to snagging a second-place award, the project was recognized by the Yale University Science and Engineering Association as the best engineering exhibit.
This year was the first time in 24 years Pittsburg students had entered the fair.