HERCULES -- Concerns about an achievement gap between students of color and others in the ethnically diverse West Contra Costa school district have been simmering for years.

The issue came to the forefront Thursday evening in the third of a series of six town hall meetings the district is holding in April and May to gather information from district stakeholders for a five-year strategic plan.

During the meeting at Hercules Middle School, about 65 parents, district employees and residents cited the district's "wonderful diversity" at the top of a list of its strengths and the "achievement gap" as one of its major weaknesses.

During his introductory remarks, Superintendent Bruce Harter told attendees that white, Asian and Filipino students in the district have performed equally well on state tests over the past 10 years.

But Latino students, who make up about half of West Contra Costa's enrollment, have scored significantly lower, with African-American students scoring lower still.

Earlier this month, the district received "F" grades for the achievement gap between white and Latino students and white and African-American students in a report from the student-advocacy group Education Trust-West.

Meeting facilitator Jay Schenirer of Capitol Impact LLC in Sacramento broke the attendees into small groups and asked them to brainstorm about what they would like to see the district accomplish by 2017.

Thomas Tremble, a San Pablo resident and a retired Vallejo school administrator, immediately brought up the academic performance of African-American students, saying the issue has been a major concern for him his entire career.

"I started teaching in 1971, and the same group is at the bottom of achievement now as it was then," Tremble, who is African-American, told his group. "There shouldn't be a gap, so what's the plan to bridge the gap?"

After the small group sessions, attendees responded using electronic tabulators to a series of questions about what the district's priorities should be.

Sixty-seven percent cited "closing the achievement gap" as "absolutely critical," while 31 percent said it was "extremely important."

Schenirer, whose consulting firm will be writing the plan, said the purpose of the meetings is not to provide immediate answers but to gather information "to produce a plan for the future the district can follow, one that it can keep coming back to with fidelity."

The first two town hall meetings, in Richmond and El Sobrante, drew about 200 people combined, said Schenirer, a former state education official and a current Sacramento city councilman.

Hercules attendees cited friendly and encouraging teachers, safety, teacher-parent involvement and progressive values as district assets.

They gave West Contra Costa thumbs-down on funding, classroom technology, improving outcomes for underperforming students and communication with the community.

Reducing class sizes and more accountability for achievement were also at the top of their list of highest priorities.

Petria Black said she and her family recently moved to Hercules, in part because it's her husband's hometown.

Black, who has two children in Hercules schools, said she's trying to become involved in improving the schools because her family is "invested in being here a long time."

"I see holding this kind of meeting as a strength (in itself)," she said.

Another Hercules parent, Diane Hernandez, said she was impressed by the way the town hall was organized and the questions people were asked.

"I like what I'm seeing tonight. It's educational for us," Hernandez said. "I want to see test scores go up here compared with other districts."

if you go
Here is the schedule for the final three West Contra Costa school district town hall meetings:
  • 10 a.m. April 27, El Cerrito High School multipurpose room, 540 Ashbury Ave.
  • 6:30 p.m. May 9, Pinole Middle School multipurpose room, 1575 Mann Drive
  • 10 a.m. May 11, Kennedy High School library, 4300 Cutting Blvd., Richmond