Lamont Carter's family made a beeline for Alameda when they moved from New Jersey to the Bay Area five years ago. Carter said his parents liked the safe, small-town feel of the island city abutting Oakland, but one factor rose above all else: the fine reputation of its public schools.
Carter had a lot of catching up to do, and his teachers at Wood Middle School devoted extra time to help him. It wasn't just him. He remembers his algebra teacher hovering over each student's desk at the end of class to make sure everyone understood the work.
Now 16, the Alameda High School student is on the advanced placement track with plans to apply to top universities on the East Coast. But he believes it will soon be much harder for kids — especially those who are behind, like he was — to succeed.
Carter is preparing for a senior year with bigger classes, fewer advanced placement slots, and one week chopped from the school calendar. Some of his favorite teachers will be gone; they left because they were laid off or thought they might be. To balance a shrinking budget, the district is considering a plan to close up to five of its 16 schools.
If he was a struggling seventh-grader today, he said, "I think I would have fallen behind even more. I do not think I would have been able to catch up."
There was a way out of Alameda's budget predicament: a school parcel tax that would have shielded the district from the most severe cuts. The ballot measure narrowly failed in June, causing many to wonder how the prized school system will weather the economic crisis.
Three years of relentless state cuts have hit California's public schools, in rich and poor neighborhoods alike. The wealthiest areas are able to plug some of the gaping holes through aggressive fundraising and local tax measures. Other school communities — even those in middle-class areas, such as Alameda — can't shield their kids from the brunt of the state budget fallout.
The financial strain on the system is widening the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. It also threatens to push schools from one side of the spectrum to the other.
"We've built this fabulous district, and a lot of it's going to go under," said Barbara Siegel, president of the teachers union in Castro Valley. The small, high-achieving district in Alameda County has made nearly $7 million in cuts in the past two years, according to district bulletins. The changes have brought reduced preparation time for teachers, employee furloughs, larger class sizes and a shortened school year.
In the Contra Costa County city of Orinda, one-third of the school district's budget consists of parcel tax proceeds and local fundraising — more than 10 times the state average. With that cushion, the elementary school district has been able to preserve its 20-to-1 class sizes and avoid teacher layoffs.
Class sizes will stay small in Berkeley schools, too, thanks to parcel tax revenue; local funds make up 27 percent of the district's budget.
"Berkeley has a model right now that continues to work, even during these tough times," said Superintendent Bill Huyett. He added, "So far, we've been able to weather the storm without losing too much."
The PTA at Montclair Elementary, a popular school in the Oakland hills, is a well-oiled machine. It helps out in countless ways, from boosting morale and coordinating field trips to building gardens and grading papers. Parents logged a jaw-dropping 23,000 hours of volunteer work last year, an amount equivalent to at least 12 full-time school employees. They also raise money. The extra funds helped pay for computer, art, library and music teachers, among other positions state funding alone can't buy.
"The music is important, the art is important, and I can't pay for that out of my budget," Montclair Principal Nancy Bloom said last year, after observing a music class.
While teachers at most schools rely heavily on online donations — or their own pocketbooks — to purchase supplies, Montclair parents gave each teacher $700 last year to help stock their classrooms.
Most Bay Area schools don't possess the manpower, the organization and the capital of Montclair's PTA. In fact, many don't have organized parent groups at all. In 2008-09, the last time it collected the data, the Oakland school district counted 35 PTAs for its more than 100 schools.
In Mt. Diablo, another district with a vast socioeconomic divide, class sizes shot from 20 to at least 30 in grades 1-3 last year after voters rejected a parcel tax. Soon, they might grow even larger. The effects of that change, however, have been felt unevenly. Parents in affluent areas raised money for teacher aides, which eased the workload for teachers and allowed students to receive more individual attention. In other schools, such as El Monte Elementary in Concord, students and teachers had to do without.
"My parents have been exceptional in their rallying financially and physically to support the kids," said Carolyn Kreuscher, before she retired last month as principal of Valle Verde Elementary in Walnut Creek. "When assistants were cut from a state-funded program, they picked those salaries up."
Parents also paid for aides at Walnut Acres Elementary in Walnut Creek — and for classroom sound amplification systems that "are very good at helping students to feel like the teacher's right beside them when they're speaking," said Principal Colleen Dowd.
El Monte Elementary, a working-class school with 455 students, can't afford teacher aides or special audio systems. The teachers and the principal say they have tried to deliver the same quality of instruction as they did with 20 students in the room.
"Whether I have 20 kids or 30," said third-grade teacher Kim Chamberlain, "it's my job to be sure they're getting the best education."
Often, Chamberlain and other teachers at the school believe they have been successful in meeting students' needs. They broke classes into smaller groups for part of the day, enlisting the help of Principal Christina Boman and student teachers from Cal State East Bay. Sometimes, a teacher would work with English language learners, while Boman would supervise other children working at their own pace using educational computer programs.
But less money and more students has meant a lot more work for teachers — and less help for students.
"I have very high standards, and I want 100 percent of my class to do well," said first-grade teacher Amy Abele. "I want to work with each child every day. With 20, I could definitely do that and give them a lot more individual attention."
Sometimes, Abele and Chamberlain said, they haven't been able to reach students as much as they wanted to — or as much as they have in the past.
"It's a lot harder now to reach every kid every day," Chamberlain said. "I don't think they're making the same progress as they did in the past. I'm not able to get to them as quickly. They're just not getting the one-on-one attention they deserve."
To help 72 students catch up over the summer, El Monte is using one-time federal stimulus money to teach reading, even though the district eliminated summer school because of budget cuts.
Carissa Sugden, who has been laid off from her regular position at the school as an English language development teacher, leads the summer program.
"I feel like we've been kind of playing catch-up for kids who are falling behind," she said.
The program won't continue next summer, Sugden said. There's no money for it.