College-Going Dreams in West Contra Costa

Over the past two years we have held hundreds of meetings with families, educators, community partners, and youth. The one theme we hear universally is the desire for our young people to have every opportunity available to them to be successful in life. Often, that dream is summed up by the desire for our children to be ready and able to attend college. Superintendent Duffy, likewise, named increasing College Readiness rates, as measured by A-G eligibility, as one of his top three priorities from now until 2022.

In the winter of 2017, we began a journey to engage with, and learn from, our young people, families, and educator partners throughout the community. We completed a series of house parties- using root cause analysis- to explore the current data and possible solutions around college eligibility. To date, Over 100 people have joined us on this journey.

Our hope was to create an opportunity for participants to learn about the current status for students, give input and feedback, and voice concerns. We worked to build community and identify potential pathways to changing the current data we see and the realities our students experience. All information from these meetings informed the work of the College Readiness Study Team that conducted a deep research cycle on key strategies to increase college eligibility.

Each house party started with a review of the data. Using our 2017 West Contra Costa Kids Can Report, attendees poured over the current progress of our students with facts such as:

  • 44% of all 9th Grade students have one or more “D” or “F” setting them on a path to college ineligibility
  • Only 18% of high school juniors are on or above level in math (1.6% of English Learner juniors)
  • At seven high schools, there is a significant gap (40 percentage points or more) between graduation rates and eligibility for a four-year college
  • Less than ⅓ of our kindergarten students complete their first year of school on level in reading
  • Only 8 out of 537 8th Grade English Learner students are on or above level in math

This data led to many concerns and questions. Through the 5 Whys Protocol, a root cause analysis strategy, participants identified an initial problem or question and then journeyed through five cycles identifying why a challenge might be true.

Through rich conversation and honest dialog we heard many things from the community. The image below captures some of the themes from the sessions.


There were many questions about the power of low expectations, bias, and the belief gap. Concerns were raised about the inconsistent expectations for graduation versus college eligibility, and the risk that this difference creates conditions where certain children are allowed simply to pass through. Groups also discussed the impact of school culture in creating a climate of low expectations.  

There were also wonderings about access to information; whether it be students accessing counselors, high school families navigating the college eligibility course sequence, or parents understanding the impact of early learning on post-high school choices.

Unavoidable was the issue of a lack of academic progress in the early years (K-2) and the persistence of these performance levels across all grades. If a child leaves kindergarten behind, it seems likely they will remain behind for the remainder of their K-12 academic career. Many groups wrestled with hypotheses about early intervention and missed opportunities to improve a student’s path early on.

Every session ended with a desire to learn more, explore more data, and come back together to take a collective step forward in service of our children. Thirteen parents, educators, and community leaders committed to the first phase of our College Readiness Study Team to deeply research ways to improve policies and practices to improve college eligibility. This focuses on the high school experience and places where policy is a barrier to success. Look for initial findings from this team in the coming weeks.

We are eager for phase two, next fall, to deeply explore college readiness and opportunities to enhance early learning to ensure that more children exit second grade on level.

As we continue this work, we know that authentic community engagement, grounded in data and working towards solutions, is essential. Your voice is so important to helping to determine a path forward. If you would like to attend an upcoming house party please email Sheila Ramirez:

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