January 31, 2024
Contact: Sumeet Bal, Director of Communications, sbal@publicadvocates.org, 917.647.1952
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Civil Rights Law Firm Files Complaints to Address Educator Staffing Concerns in WCCUSD
Educators raise alarm on district inaction to address staff vacancies properly, failing low-income, African American students, and multilingual learners

SAN FRANCISCO–Today Public Advocates, a non-profit civil rights law firm, filed three Williams complaints with the West Contra Costa Unified School District. Three schools, Stege Elementary School, Helms Middle School, and John F. Kennedy High School, have failed to provide their students—low-income, Black, and multilingual learners—with qualified teachers they are entitled to under the law. Attorneys at Public Advocates have uncovered numerous teacher vacancies and a pattern of illegally filling vacancies with long-term substitutes by school administrators. Since 2005, as a result of Williams v. California, a landmark lawsuit brought by Public Advocates, the ACLU and other organizations in 2000, school districts are required to correct teacher vacancies and unlawful assignments within 30 days.

“Students are entitled to permanent and legally authorized teachers in each of their classrooms,” said Karissa Provenza, Law Fellow at Public Advocates. “The vacancies at Stege Elementary, Helms Middle School and John F. Kennedy High School reflect the district’s broader failure to provide students with the stability and support they deserve.”

“Filling classrooms with one or more long-term substitutes is flat out illegal under the Williams settlement legislation,” said John Affeldt, Managing Attorney at Public Advocates and one of the lead counsel on the Williams case. “Both Helms Middle and JFK High School were specifically identified in the Williams case as having challenging teacher quality issues. It’s sad to see that the district has again allowed some of those same challenges to reappear.”

While the teacher vacancies are undermining instructional quality for students, the failure is also placing additional burdens on educators throughout the district, by often relying on permanent staff to spend their free periods filling in for vacant classes and by subsequently passing along students who are underprepared. Research shows that teachers are the most important predictors of a student’s success in school. Having more experienced teachers increases success for Black and Latinx students.

“As a lifelong member of the WCCUSD community, it saddens me to see what the educational experience of my students has become. Some [students] have gone several years in a row being assigned to a class without a permanent, qualified teacher.” said complainant Jeremiah Romm, an educator who has taught at Helms Middle School for 16 years. “It becomes difficult to convince students that this district cares about their success, and I don’t know if I believe that myself.”

“Vacancies keep me from collaborating with other teachers and focusing on instructing our students. At times, ten or more students have been put in my classroom for multiple days because the school district can’t find a substitute or teacher for these kids.” stated Sam Cleare, a complainant and educator at Stege Elementary School for seven years. “Working over the contractual limit of students is unacceptable. It is impossible for students to learn or for me to teach with these conditions. I have had to speak with many parents and explain that their child hasn’t had a teacher for multiple years. These conversations leave me heartbroken. The inequitable learning opportunities are unacceptable. All schools should be a place where communities can gather and share a love for learning with all needed resources.”

According to state teaching assignment data compiled by The Education Trust–West, “districts with the highest concentrations of students from low income households have the most classes taught by misassigned or under prepared teachers.” Provenza added, “although this is a statewide issue, WCCUSD is facing far more teacher vacancies than its surrounding districts. If no fully prepared teachers are available, the district needs to take advantage of the numerous lawful options for filling vacancies with emergency year-long teachers instead of subs. Beyond the emergency fixes, the district and the state need to boldly invest in sustainable solutions to attract and retain teachers from within the community who reflect the diverse backgrounds of their students.”

Public Advocates is calling on WCCUSD to take immediate action to remedy these violations across the district that have led to a disruptive, unsafe, and unhealthy school culture and staffing instabilities.

“Ensuring that teachers are integral parts of our school communities is the key to unlocking the academic success of Black students—both locally and statewide.” said Zelon Harrison, a Black parent leader and advocate in the WCCUSD community. “Retaining and attracting dedicated educators is our commitment to building a brighter future for our children.”

Public Advocates Inc. is a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy and achieving tangible legal victories advancing education, housing, transportation equity, and climate justice.

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