Sheila Jordan spent two years grooming a hand-picked successor to replace her as superintendent of the Alameda County Office of Education, but now that protege is confronting an increasingly competitive 2014 election.

Karen Monroe, Alameda County's assistant schools superintendent and a former Oakland educator, launched her campaign for superintendent in the spring with Jordan's glowing endorsement. Also entering the countywide contest in the spring was San Leandro City Councilwoman Ursula Reed, a longtime educator and administrator in Hayward and Oakland.

Now, a third candidate has emerged: Pleasanton School Board President Jeff Bowser. He filed campaign paperwork at the end of August and plans to formally announce his candidacy Monday in Hayward.

The rare competition for the countywide seat comes because Jordan, who held the job since 1999, plans to retire by the end of 2014. But before capping a 25-year political career that included stints on Oakland's city council and school board, the 68-year-old superintendent has been trying to craft a changeover on her own terms.

"I've been working on a transition for two years now to build a strong, secondary leadership," Jordan said.

When she hired Monroe in 2011, "I had been looking for somebody I could support," Jordan said. "It didn't take me long to realize that, yes, this was a person I could support for my position."

Although Reed has worked as a school principal and human resources director and Bowser as an assistant principal, Jordan noted the fact that no school superintendents are vying for the position, signaling the strength of Monroe's candidacy. With $14,000 in her election account during the last reporting period this summer, including $1,000 donated by Jordan, Monroe also had the most campaign cash.

Play sets open again at San Leandro elementary schools

The last of the San Leandro elementary school play sets that were off-limits to students since the beginning of the school year reopened last week, according to Superintendent Mike McLaughlin.

New play structures were installed at each of the district's eight elementary schools this summer, but district officials discovered before the start of school Aug. 21 that two of them were installed poorly, and installation of the rubber fall zone needed to be completed on the others.

The district originally hoped to have them all reopened a month into the school year. Play structures began reopening in mid-September, and the last two -- one at Roosevelt Elementary, the other used by Jefferson Elementary kindergartners -- reopened Nov. 11.

Additional playground supplies were purchased to keep kids active during the closures, McLaughlin said. No extra construction costs were incurred by the district.

"The fences were taken down around the facilities, and the students jumped right in," McLaughlin said. "They are all very excited about their new play structures. ... It was a difficult situation for all parties, and I am proud of all my staff."

Union City students to get new Chromebooks as part of federal grant

Thousands of Union City students will receive Chromebook computers before winter break next month, thanks to a $29 million federal grant.

The New Haven Unified School District was one of just 16 nationwide to receive the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top Grant, which will be distributed to the district over a four-year period.

Those funds are being spent, in part, to purchase the computers, with the goals of personalizing student learning, closing achievement gaps, and improving student achievement and educator effectiveness.

Lisa Metzinger, New Haven Unified's Race to the Top director, said teachers whose students will receive Chromebooks got training over the summer and will get another day of training Dec. 2.

Students and their parents are being asked to attend a meeting to learn how best to use the computers. The first meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 10, at the Decoto School for Independent Study. Other meetings are scheduled at James Logan High at 6 p.m. Dec. 11; 6 p.m. Dec. 12; and 11 a.m. Dec. 14. At Alvarado and Cesar Chavez middle schools, meetings are slated at 6 p.m. Dec. 17; and 6 p.m. Dec. 18.

"We're excited to see Chromebooks being used in classrooms as another tool in implementing the Common Core State Standards and 21st-century learning," Metzinger said.

Hayward students write to Japanese pen pals

Fourth- and fifth-graders at a Hayward school are exchanging old-fashioned letters with pen pals in Japan.

Earlier this week, about 180 letters written by Southgate Elementary School were sent to students at a school in Funabashi, Japan, a Hayward sister city.

Fourth-grade teacher Peggy Peabody started the exchange last year, and fourth- and fifth-grade teachers expanded it this year to six classrooms.

"It's going really well," said Peabody, who has been involved in the city's cultural exchange program with Funabashi since its beginning in 1986.

"My husband and I have been over there several times and have made many friends," she said.

In October, the Hayward school received about 75 letters, along with some photos, from the Japanese students responding to letters sent last school year.

The Funabashi students write most of their letters in Japanese, and their teachers send translations. The Japanese teachers are using the letters from the Southgate students to help teach English.

Homeroom is a weekly roundup of news from schools in Alameda County.