Thursday, February 26, 2015

In Bid to Cyclists, BART, Oakland Open Free, Secure Bike Parking Station

By Doug Oakley
doakley@bayareanewsgroup.com
OAKLAND -- BART and the city of Oakland opened a free, secure bike parking station Wednesday in downtown Oakland as a way to encourage more people to get on their bikes and out of their cars. 

The Oakland Bike Station, in a storefront at the corner of Broadway and 19th Street, has 130 spaces for free bike-parking from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. Overnight parking is $5. 

The secure attended station will encourage people, who might otherwise be deterred by a high rate of theft, to bike to the Uptown site, organizers said during Wednesday's grand opening. 

"This addresses some bicycle security issues and is a great alternative to bringing your bike on the train," said BART board director and bicycling advocate Robert Raburn. "Bike racks at BART stations are always full and ridership on trains has made it impossible for bicyclists to board them. So many bikes is a good thing, but we're behind the curve." 

Raburn credited Oakland Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan with securing a $500,000 grant from Safe Routes To Transit that seeded the station. The station will cost Oakland and BART about $100,000 a year to operate. 

The 2,400-square-foot station is the third aboveground, storefront bike parking station BART has helped open. Two others are in downtown Berkeley and at the Fruitvale station in Oakland. 

The Oakland station also sells bike accessories such as helmets and lights and has mechanics available for tuneups. 

Steve Beroldo, BART bike program manager, said the transit agency has other secure bike parking stations on the way. An unattended station where bicyclists use a key to access it is under construction inside the Civic Center station in San Francisco. A similar station is planned for the MacArthur station in Oakland. And attended bike parking stations are planned for the Pleasant Hill and Concord BART stations, Beroldo said. 

Kaplan, who rides her bike to City Hall from her home in the Temescal neighborhood, said the bike station will complement the growing Uptown area. 

"We have room to add thousands of people to this area, but we don't have room for more cars," Kaplan said. "So this will make it easier to bike because people have a secure place to leave their bikes, whether they are jumping on BART or coming down here to shop or go out to dinner." 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Investigation: Oakland VA Office Lost Thousands of Veterans Claims

By Doug Oakley
doakley@bayareanewsgroup.com
OAKLAND -- The Oakland office of Veterans Affairs improperly filed and then lost about 14,000 unprocessed veterans benefit claims, some dating back to the 1990s, according to a federal government investigation released Wednesday. 

No one will ever know the fate of those 14,000 informal applications for benefits found in a filing cabinet in 2012 because after they were discovered by a VA management support team, they disappeared, according to a report by the federal Office of Inspector General, which investigated problems at the office last summer. 

The Office of Inspector General was tipped off to the sloppy practices at the Oakland office by Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Oroville. He said as soon as he took office in January 2013, he started hearing from frustrated veterans who complained they were getting the runaround from the Oakland office. 

Later he started hearing from employees in the office about an "oppressive" working atmosphere and shoddy work practices. 

LaMalfa said he is gratified the investigation took place and that office director Julianna Boor, who took over early last year, instituted some new training, but he is still not satisfied. He said he would really like to hear from former office director Douglas Bragg, who retired in January 2014. 

"If those records are unfindable, ever, then someone needs to pay a price for allowing that to happen," LaMalfa said. "I'm hopeful they have changed in a new direction, and a lot of good work is coming out, but is it going to be sustained so that they that catch up on the backlog?" 

The Oakland office has more than 300 employees and handles claims for veterans throughout Northern California. It currently has about 30,000 claims pending for more than 125 days. 

According to the Office of Inspector General, a VA management team came to the office in 2012 to help sort out its problems and found about 14,000 informal claims -- those requesting initial assistance -- in a filing cabinet that had not been processed. Some were over 20 years old. 

But when the Office of Inspector General arrived for an unannounced site visit last July, nearly two years later, none of those records could be found. Investigators did find a spread sheet with a list of old, unprocessed claims. A sample of those found "staff did not maintain adequate records or provide proper supervision of trainees to ensure informal claims received timely processing." 

LaMalfa said he will continue to push for more oversight and investigations into management at the Oakland office. 

"We need the answer to where did they go and why," LaMalfa said. "This report cannot end here, and we won't let it." 

Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, piled on with criticism of the Oakland VA office. 

"Losing these letters and other records is completely unacceptable," McNerney said in a statement. "This report is yet another unfortunate example of mismanagement at the VA and illustrates the need for transparency at the department. 

A call to the Oakland VA office was not immediately returned. 


Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Pushing New Bill, Barbara Boxer Slams Anti-Vaccination Parents

By Doug Oakley
doakley@bayareanewsgroup.com
EMERYVILLE -- Sen. Barbara Boxer pummeled parents who refuse to vaccinate their children during a tour of a YMCA Head Start school Wednesday where she promoted her bill requiring children in the program nationwide to be immunized. 

Boxer made the comments in the midst of a national measles outbreak that started in California. She criticized parents who are not vaccinating their children because of unfounded concerns spread by people outside the medical establishment. 

"All I'm saying is, we have doctors we can trust and you should listen to them and not some quack who comes up with a theory that is disproven," Boxer said. "I say to all those people who have a theory that has been disproven, you are not acting in the right way for your family or for society. People don't understand how dangerous this disease is. It blows my mind. You are not only endangering your child, but others and that is not right." 

Last week Boxer introduced the Head Start on Vaccinations Act with Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto. She chose the Emeryville Head Start program to advertise the bill she introduced Feb. 12 because of the program's 100 percent immunization rate, she said. 

"We're not forcing anybody to get vaccinated," Boxer said. "If you want to get into Head Start and you don't want to get vaccinated, bye, bye, go somewhere else." 

Head Start has about 1 million preschoolers in the federally funded program that gets kids ready for kindergarten. 

Boxer was joined by state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who will introduce a law Thursday abolishing the state's personal belief exemption that allows parents to avoid vaccinations when they enter public schools. 

This year, the measles outbreak has affected 113 people in California and 143 nationwide, according to the California Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, there were 644 cases of measles nationwide, a huge spike from the 200 or so reported in 2013. Officials are blaming the spike partly on parents who are afraid the vaccinations cause autism and other dangerous side effects and partly on parents who just don't know it's important to be immunized. 

While last year's measles numbers were a huge increase compared to the year before and 2015 is off to a fast start, the outbreak is small so far compared to a three-year epidemic that started in 1989. That one peaked in 1991 with 27,672 cases, according to the CDC. 

Pan, a pediatrician, said he was working in Philadelphia that year when 900 cases were reported and six children died, many because their parents did not believe in vaccinations. 

He also criticized those who are afraid of getting their children vaccinated. Since they have had no experience with the disease, they are not afraid of it, he said. 

"Vaccines have become a victim of their own success because people have not seen the lives they save," Pan said. "There have been people who have shared misinformation about vaccinations. You can look on the Internet and see someone who says 'look at all these dangerous things vaccines can do,' but it's not true." 

Pan said in the most recent outbreak, one in five have been hospitalized and 10 infants under age 1 have gotten it because they are not old enough to be vaccinated. The death rate, he said, is 1 in 1,000. 

The fear or ignorance of vaccines runs especially deep in the Bay Area. Almost 5,000 kindergartners enrolled in Bay Area schools are without proof they've been fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Public Health. 

And a study using Kaiser records found an East Bay cluster in El Cerrito, Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda in which parents rejected vaccines for 10.2 percent of children. 

By comparison, there was a 2.6 percent rate of vaccine refusal among Kaiser Northern California members outside of these clusters. 

Boxer said California should not have a personal exemption. 

"Refusing to vaccinate not only puts your own family at risk, but it endangers other families as well," Boxer said. 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Linked Learning: High Tech Shop Class Debuts at Oakland's Castlemont High School

By Doug Oakley
doakley@bayareanewsgroup.com
OAKLAND -- Castlemont High School junior Chris Arrington used a socket set to take apart a computer-controlled wood-carving machine and a vacuum cleaner to suck out saw dust jamming the machine's moving parts. 

The troubleshooting exercise was worth it: Arrington got to take apart a machine and fix it, and he got to create a medieval-looking wooden sword using its software. The CarveWright he used to make the sword is just one of several high- and low-tech tools in the school's new fabrication laboratory, or FabLab, which opened in January. 

"I decided to take this class for fun and to try something new," Arrington said while working on the machine in the lab. 

What Arrington may not realize, the lab's founder says, is that the carving machine, three-dimensional printer and other fancy equipment purchased for the new lab are not just for fun -- they also are planting seeds in students' minds for future careers. 

"This is part of our career pathway to design and engineering," said Castlemont teacher Timothy Bremner, who conceived the idea for the FabLab as part of the school's Sustainable Urban Design Academy, which he also founded four years ago. "The lab at Castlemont, hopefully, will prepare kids to be in the Laney College fablab." 

Danny Beesley, who teaches in the lab and helped Bremner set up the space at Castlemont in an abandoned R.O.T.C. indoor shooting range, is setting up a similar lab at Laney College. In addition to the computer-controlled tools, the Castlemont lab has electric saws, drills, work spaces and a huge wall of hand tools. At the end of the former indoor shooting range where targets used to be set up, there are hydroponic demonstration boxes filled with plants growing without soil. 

"It's a mix of traditional shop class tools with an infusion of technology," Beesley said. "We're trying to link the learning in this lab to literacy. We built book shelves to learn about volume and area. In shop class, what you read in a book or hear in a class makes sense now because you have your hands on it." 

He also has students working on furniture designs similar to what you might find at IKEA. All the pieces will fit together using dowels and notches. 

Both Beesley and Bremner said the lab looks similar to those on high school campuses 20 or 30 years ago, except that many of the machines are controlled by software. 

"Shops like this got cut from schools in the past because they were not specific to the mission that everyone in high school should go to a four-year college when they graduate," Beesley said. 

With the new push for linked learning, a singular focus on four-year colleges is changing. Educators are rediscovering shop classes that disappeared from high schools years ago, offering preparation for skilled trades that may take only a community college certificate or an apprenticeship. 

"A lot of teaching that happens in this space gives students a primer on how to use tools," Beesley said. 

Some of the careers relevant to inspiration students get from the lab could be electronics, carpentry, cabinet making and welding, Beesley said. 

The most popular machine in the FabLab is the computer-controlled laser cutter, which can etch images on surfaces including plastic, glass, metal and wood. 

Belem Gamuz, 15, used the machine to fabricate a copy of her church emblem on a small sheet of wood. 

"It's pretty cool what we get to do here," said Gamuz. "It's fun and interesting." 


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Troubling Trend in Food Waste Recycling

By Doug Oakley
doakley@bayareanewsgroup.com
OAKLAND -- Something strange has happened inside Alameda County garbage cans, and it has sounded an alarm for those working against climate change. 

Residents apparently hit a wall last year in separating kitchen food scraps from their garbage cans, seriously slowing a yearslong trend that became standard with curbside pickup across the county in 2008. 

It's strange because no one knows the reason the once popular program is wilting. 

"Green waste in garbage cans went up across the board, so we need to find out what caused that and reverse it," said Gary Wolff, executive director of StopWaste in Alameda County, whose organization compiled the data showing the decline in households that separate food scraps from garbage. 

What many residents may not know, recycling advocates say, is that the sometimes-messy task of putting food scraps into a different container and putting it in the green bin helps slow climate change. When separated, that food is sifted and tossed and turned into compost for farmers and gardeners. When people put food in trash cans, it goes to a landfill, where it turns into methane gas, is released into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. 

The data compiled by workers contracting with StopWaste, who randomly sample 3,000 residential and commercial garbage cans in 15 cities each year, show 2014 was a bad year for recycling food scraps compared with 2013. 

In Oakland, for example, about 16 percent of the trash in 2013 was food scraps. In 2014, that number rose to 38 percent. In eco-friendly Berkeley, those numbers rose from 15 percent in 2013 to 39 percent in 2014. Fremont's percentage went from 21 percent to 43 percent. 

Also in 2014, 47 percent of houses surveyed did not put out their green carts on pickup day, which was up from 28 percent in 2013, "indicating that fewer homes are participating in food scrap and organics recycling," StopWaste spokesman Jeff Becerra said. 

The big picture is a little more encouraging, Wolff said. 

In 2008, about 60 percent of the trash in Alameda County was food scraps, and now those numbers are down to about 45 percent. 

But last year's huge increase from the prior year is troubling, and there are several theories. 

People could simply be tired of doing it because it's too messy, they have forgotten the environmental reasons it's important, their incomes have risen and they are not as concerned about throwing away leftovers, or perhaps they are new to the area and don't know about the program. 

"It could be people are suffering from food waste fatigue," Wolff said. "They may think, 'I've been doing this for a year, it kind of smells, and I'm tired of it.'" 

Rebecca Jewell, recycling program manager at Waste Management's Davis Street Transfer Station in San Leandro, where food and green matter is turned into marketable compost for farmers and gardeners, said food scraps generally take up between 3 percent and 7 percent of the volume of green containers that the company collects. 

One of her theories about the reason the county food scrap recycling program has slowed is because the better economy has brought to the area new residents who are unfamiliar with the program and its importance in fighting climate change. 

"Putting food in a curbside container for pickup is not very common throughout the country, and we here in the Bay Area are ahead of the curve," Jewell said. "When people are transported to the Bay Area from other places, it's not part of the normal move-in message." 

That message, she said, should be that "putting food in the green bin is a very simple way of having your own personal impact on climate change. You don't need to go out and buy a composting toilet -- just put food in your green bin." 

In Berkeley, the city collects 120 tons of food scraps and yard clippings a day and ships it off to a commercial compost-maker. That's about the same amount of trash it collects each day. 

City Recycling Program Manager Andrew Schneider said the recent data compiled by StopWaste was surprising and reason for concern. But like others watching the trend, he couldn't say the reason, for sure, it is happening. 

"We hope all residents make an effort to turn their food scraps into usable compost instead of trash," Schneider said. "When food waste and other organics are put in the trash and landfills, it creates greenhouse gases and climate change." 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Attorney General Eric Holder Calls for Police Body Cameras at Oakland Meeting

By Doug Oakley
doakley@bayareanewsgroup.com
OAKLAND -- Attorney General Eric Holder reiterated his call for local police to wear body cameras during a round-table discussion in downtown Oakland Thursday that brought local police chiefs and community advocates together to talk trust. 

After police shootings of African-Americans in Missouri, New York and Ohio triggered violent nationwide protests and spawned the Black Lives Matter movement, Holder started holding similar meetings across the country and has done so in Atlanta; Cleveland; Memphis, Tennessee; Chicago; and Philadelphia. 

"What has struck me in all these meetings is that people on both sides want the same things," said Holder, who mentioned that his brother is a retired police officer. "They want to be safe, they want their children to be safe, and they want to be treated in a fair way. Police officers want to be safe and be respected." 

The Oakland meeting was the last of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. Holder will step down from his post in a few weeks. 

Holder made public comments at the Oakland Federal Building, which included a call for an end to racial profiling, for about 10 minutes before closing the meeting to the press. 

In addition to local police chiefs like Oakland's Sean Whent and Berkeley's Michael Meehan, the meeting included Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Rep. Barbara Lee and U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag. Bishop Bob Jackson of Acts Full Gospel, Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter, and representatives from East Oakland Youth Development Center and Youth UpRising were among the community leaders attending the round table. 

"Body cameras tend to reduce the number of complaints and are a very useful tool in trying to determine what was the nature of action between officers and someone in the community," Holder said. 

In the East Bay, the issue of police body cameras and race jumped to the front page Tuesday, when two Emeryville police officers shot and killed a female theft and carjacking suspect they say pointed a gun at them. 

Emeryville police took the unusual step of identifying the race and gender of the officers who shot the woman in a news release issued Wednesday. 

"One officer was female and the other officer was African-American," the statement said. It also said that one of the two police officers who shot the woman was wearing a body camera but turned it on only after the two fired their weapons. 

And in a statement the day before Holder's Oakland meeting, BART police Chief Kenton Rainey said local communities lost "confidence in our department following the Oscar Grant incident in 2009." Grant was shot in the back and killed by a BART police officer who said he mistook his gun for a Taser. 

Rainey said he understands "the anger and raw feelings; understanding the community's perspective is a key part of any equation with a healing solution." He said one of the most important aspects of his department overhaul was a "comprehensive body camera program." 

The body cameras, Rainey said, are "an opportunity to show how far we have come in our reform efforts and our commitment to constitutional policing principals." 

Schaaf said before the meeting that Oakland police have come a long way in instituting court-ordered reforms. 

"Oakland police have not shot anyone in two years," Schaaf said. "We need to make sure our reforms are permanent and substantial. But we have to do more to close the trust gap between government and the people we serve." 

Regina Jackson, president of East Oakland Youth Development Center, who participated in the discussion, said she directed her concerns to Haag about training for police in how to deal with those who are mentally ill. 

"I said I don't know if folks in public safety have any strategy to deal with people with mental illness," Jackson said. "People are already victimized by mental illness, and most of the time it's the illness and not willful disregard. That is something I'm really interested in having them take a look at." 

Jackson also said Oakland police need to "look more like the people in the community and be from the community" in order to do a better job at building trust. 

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said Oakland police are short-handed, and, in times of crisis, officers who work overtime are stressed out. 

When asked if that stress leads to mistakes, O'Malley said, "I think they are working a lot of hours." Nevertheless, she said "police need to do their jobs in a fair and respectful way." 


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After Outcry, Oakland Softens Turnaround Schedule for Five Failing Schools

By Doug Oakley
doakley@bayareanewsgroup.com
Published January 2015
OAKLAND -- School officials are giving five failing schools the option to delay turnaround efforts announced in December after a series of tense community meetings this month highlighted fears of charter takeovers and school closures. 

Last month, the school district issued an open call to school administrators, community groups and charters to submit turnaround plans at the five schools with an April deadline and a relaunch of the schools in August 2016. 

Now the district is offering a second, optional timeline with a proposal deadline between July and October and with a school restart in August 2017. 

"The advantage of timeline two is that it does provide more time to process the information and develop proposals," said schools spokesman Troy Flint. "The downside is that it delays for another year the introduction of a new and improved school that has been developed with community input." 

Following the Dec. 19 announcement, teachers bristled at the idea of losing jobs and allowing charter organizations to submit plans. Students worried their schools would be closed or changed. 

McClymonds High School, Fremont High School, Castlemont High School, Brookfield Elementary School and Frick Middle School were targeted for turnaround based on falling enrollment and poor academic ratings, school officials said. 

Schools Superintendent Antwan Wilson referenced the slower time line during a Jan. 14 school board meeting that featured numerous denunciations of the plan by students and adults. 

"We want to do a better job at communicating," Wilson said. "I didn't fully appreciate how much people need to be told on the front end. But we are focused on the fact that this process will involve community engagement." 

Part of his reasoning for including charters in the process is to be open to all possibilities for creating quality schools, Wilson said. Charters in Oakland have a better high school graduation rate, 72 percent, than schools under direct control of the school district, which have a 67 percent graduation rate. 

"You have to be open from the beginning to consider all possibilities and keep quality as our north star," Wilson said at the Jan. 14 school board meeting as he was interrupted by catcalls and boos. "The majority of our schools are district-run schools, and that will continue to be the case. And we can't arrive at final solutions absent community engagement." 

Easing fears 

James Harris, the newly named president of the school board, sought to ease fears about charters taking over Oakland public schools and to acknowledge the troubled seven-year program starting in 2000 that divided large schools into smaller ones only to have some of them changed back again with no support from the central office. 

"This piece about charter schools, don't trip on that," Harris told a group at McClymonds High School on Jan. 13. "If you don't want charter, say 'I don't want charter' and I will hear you. Let that be your truth. Don't get it twisted. If you don't want charter, I want to ask you to make something much better." 

Harris said he understands that people don't trust Oakland's school leaders, whose schools have a 21 percent dropout rate, and he wants to change it. 

"I get it as a citizen and I understand when you say 'I do not trust Oakland Unified,'" Harris said at the school board meeting. "But there is new blood, new membership, new people working to gain your trust. This is not top down. This is not us telling you what to do." 

Gloria McNeal, a parent at McClymonds who attended the school, as did her mother, said she'd rather not have a charter school take its place. 

"I don't think we need a charter here," McNeal said. "I do understand they want to make McClymonds a better school. And I'm hopeful they do the right thing." 

McClymonds parent Misty Cross said she feels cynical and distrustful about the process, but she does want something different. 

"I honestly feel they already have a plan without us," Cross said at the meeting at the school. "I'm open to a charter. If its for the kids, I'm for it." 

Following Denver's example 

Cross said she wanted to know how Oakland's new Chief of Schools, Allen Smith, carried out a 2010 turnaround of 11 schools at Denver Public Schools that she had heard about "and was it sustained." 

At the time, Smith worked for Wilson who was an assistant superintendent there. According to a 2011 presentation to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the program was mostly successful. 

Of 11 schools in the turnaround effort from 2010 to 2011, all but three had increased enrollment. Denver school district documents show turnarounds were different for each school. In some, principals and staff were dismissed, a new academic plan was put in place, and the school restarted. In others, schools were closed and restarted with two, three or four schools in their place. The district ended up with 16 new schools, three of them new charters, documents show. 

"And after the first year, all of them met or exceeded state standards," Smith said. "It has been called the most successful turnaround effort in the nation." 

In Denver, Smith said he used five "pillars" as standards for improving each school, including extended teaching time during the day, individualized math tutoring, building a college-going culture, using data to drive academic program decisions, and investing in "human capital." 

"But in Oakland, we want to pick pillars that are unique to Oakland," Smith said. 

He said initially, each Oakland school administration slated for a turnaround will be given $12,000 to hire proposal and letter-of-intent writers. Letters of intent to turnaround the schools are due March 12 for those schools that want to move quickly. 

After a plan is approved by Wilson and the school board and a new school opens, the district will stick around with intensive support for the next three years, Smith said. 

"Those are the most critical years in the transformation," he said. "The first year we look at culture and school climate. The second year we go deeper in construction of the program. The third year is for tweaking and the fourth is full build-out." 

Oakland City Council President Lynette McElhaney, who attended the McClymonds meeting, pleaded with the sometimes hostile crowd to give Wilson and his staff a chance. 

"We should hold open the possibility that this is not the same old same old," McElhaney said. "What I'm hearing the district say is they want this community to write down what you see is the best way to educate the kids. Lets hold open the possibility that this superintendent is sincere, and he wants the best for our kids." 

Differing schools concepts 

Steve Jubb, the former executive director of Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, led a seven-year effort ending in 2007 in Oakland schools to break large schools into smaller ones and give students a choice which school to attend. He said the program showed promise in the first few years but then it lost steam as new superintendents came and went without supporting the 48 new schools that were created. 

McClymonds was one of those. In 2005, it split into three schools only to be switched back to one in 2010. 

"In concept, Wilson's plan is not a bad idea," Jubb said. "But here's the problem. The big mistakes districts make is they look at the stats and say, 'This is outrageous and we're going to do something about this,' and they push reform before they have consensus. You have to make sure the community who articulated the need for these schools stays close. That takes a lot of maintenance." 


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