School Unification and Liberal-Conservative Debates Roiled the 1960s

During the sixties in San Ramon Valley schools there were huge debates over school unification, liberal vs. conservative curriculum choices and school design options – all during a period of huge student population growth.

The proposal to unify elementary school districts with the high school district came to a head in 1964, when school unification appeared on the ballot. Six grammar school districts had been created in the nineteenth century: San Ramon, Danville, Alamo , Green Valley, Sycamore and Tassajara. The first public high school, San Ramon Valley Union High School, opened in 1910 with a school built and occupied in 1917.  Danville was the largest community in the 1920s and its district opened a modern elementary school with several rooms in 1922.  A new Danville Union Elementary District ultimately included the Green Valley, Sycamore and Tassajara schools.  For years, Alamo and San Ramon parents debated about whether or not to dissolve and send students to the modern school; eventually they each built new schools, Alamo in 1940 and San Ramon in 1950.

As homes in the valley were constructed after World War II, the school population expanded and double sessions became the norm. New schools were built or additional space was found. For example, Alamo rented classroom space in the Methodist church for students in 1958-9 and Montair’s first classes met at St. Isidore’s while Montair school was built.  In 1969 Neil Armstrong school students attended classes in 21 unfinished homes until their school was completed in 1970.

In the early sixties, the California state legislature passed legislation to encourage school unifications.  AB 145 pledged an additional $15 per student in unified districts.  The issue went on the ballot, with increased funds for schools and a coherent curriculum dangled as an incentive.  The Valley Pioneer reported extensively on the pro and con arguments for the issue.  Support for unification won, 4,330 to 2617 on November 3, 1964.

Next a new school board was selected.  That election took place on February 23, 1965 with five representatives chosen:  Robert W. Coyle, Edward C. Thomas, William R. Davis, Wesley Sizoo and T. James Ahern.  Several candidates had recently moved to the valley and were willing to shake up the established methods of teaching to reflect contemporary ways of thinking.  After interviewing candidates for a new School Superintendent, the Board chose Dr. Richard L. Foster instead of the well-liked Dr. Roger Schulte who had been the high school district superintendent.

Foster and the district were challenged as the school population exploded.  In 1960 the average daily attendance was 4,200, in 1964-5 it was 5585, in 1967-8 it was 7200 and in 1971-2 10, 500.  In the period between Sept. 1966 and March 30, 1967, 1000 additional students entered local schools.

The new Superintendent was an idea-a minute man and, supported by his board, he promoted open space schools, asking architects “to consider space flexibility and non-restrictive designs.” Curriculum innovations and experimentation were encouraged. Many voters were upset with the different ideas, preferring contained classroom designs and the warmer personality of the now-departed Roger Schulte.

At the high schools, Foster wanted to have Black Panthers come to speak and exchange classes with inner city schools.  During this time, the John Birch Society stirred the pot with its anti-communist message. One slide show entitled “Civil Riots—USA” was presented to an audience of 200 at Charlotte Wood School in March of 1966. It linked the Watts riots, criticisms of police and the Free Speech Movement (including UCB Chancellor Clark Kerr) to communist infiltrators.

School board meetings were so large they were often held in the high school gym.  Lois Sizoo said she came to watch and knit, hoping no one would bring out a gun and shoot her husband.   On April 19, 1967, Ahern and Sizoo were defeated by the more traditional-minded Virginia Deaton and William Morrison.

Late in 1968 Foster departed for the Berkeley School District.  The school year, 2017-2018, was the first year since the fifties that the San Ramon Valley Unified School District student population was less than the year before.  Quite a landmark -- after fifty years of growth.

Sources: Valley Pioneers, Alamo-Danville Observer (March 30, 1966), Bruce Marhenke, Howard Nemir, Stan Hitomi