Newspaper article

The Yolo Education Center: Helping Students Achieve Success

This article appeared in the November 18th issue of the West Sacramento News-Ledger (external link).

The Yolo Education Center: Helping Students Achieve Success

by Thomas Farley

The new Principal at West Sacramento’s Yolo Education Center is Alejandro Ramos. Everything indicates that he is changing learning and lives for the better. Allen Young, a Center educator, says that Yolo Ed was once a battlefield of gang culture but that has changed under the leadership of Ramos. He also says the Center has received six-year accreditation and recent recognition from Yolo County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Jesse Ortiz.

Four schools make up The Yolo Education Center: Yolo Continuation High School Grades 10-12, Evergreen Opportunity Middle School grades 7-9, Evergreen Opportunity Elementary grades 4-6, and the Washington Adult School. All four help students who may have had trouble learning in traditional schools. Principal Ramos explains some of the differences between traditional and alternative schools:

“I think one of the biggest differences with alternative schools is that we are able to meet kids where they are at, build on that strength, and take a holistic approach to learning. We have the flexibility to be different; we’re not as scripted as a traditional school. We tailor the educational environment to take in the needs of the kids. Students come with a variety of needs and we’re able to work with them, support them, and get them to engage. The primary goal is for us to teach kids they can be successful.”

The entire Center staff is focused on success. Staff meetings include everyone from the Principal to janitorial employees. All Yolo Education personnel keep a friendly and concerned attention on every student, communicating concerns between each other whenever necessary. The Yolo High students I talked to did not mind this monitoring, indeed, they seemed to favor it.

Senior Tanya Alvarez explained the difference in learning at Yolo Ed. “I think we have more communication with our teachers because of the smaller classes. Teachers pay more attention to each of us.” Another two-year student of Yolo Ed, James, comments, “I like this school a lot better. Smaller, better atmosphere.” That atmosphere is not accidental. Behavior like bullying or ridicule are not tolerated, they are contrary to what everyone at Yolo Education is trying to achieve.

Educator Young explains the Center’s new culture. “A culture of family. In many cases these are students that have been marginalized throughout the district, their environment, or the community. In many cases this could be their only stable environment. We want an atmosphere of family, we want to make sure that this is their safe haven, and I think Principal Ramos has done a great job of doing that in the last year of change.”

Continuation school perception is also changing. Young stresses that there is no longer any stigma attached to such a designation, that every student going through Yolo Ed is as academically qualified as anyone going through, say, River City High School. And that their graduation certificates read simply Yolo High School, without any disparaging wording.

With such progress made in such a short time, West Sacramento should eagerly look forward to what Ramos’ staff and students produce in the coming years. Certainly better learning, certainly better lives.

Question and Answer with Mr. Ramos by Monica Stark

1.) Talk about your background and what led you to West Sacramento. How long have you worked for WUSD and in what if any other capacities?

I began my teaching career in alternative education for the Solano County Office of Education. My first assignment was teaching in a Vallejo group home designed as a second chance for incarcerated youth. This challenging yet rewarding assignment reaffirmed not only my desire to pursue education as a profession, but also highlighted the power an educator has in redirecting the lives of underserved and marginalized students.

I have been in education for 18 years, having taught most of seven years for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. I am on my eleventh year in school administration. Prior to coming to Washington Unified, I worked for the Berkeley Unified School District. Three years as a vice-principal of Longfellow Middle School and four years as Dean of Students for Berkeley High School.

I am on my fourth year here at Washington Unified School District. Two years as Assistant Principal for River City High School and currently working on my second year as Principal for Yolo Education Center.

2.) What’s the difference between your campus and the River City High School — what makes Yolo unique?

Student enrollment and class size are the immediate differences. This allows for more direct interaction and relationship building with students. Teachers get to know the myriad of issues that are impeding success in school and work on addressing the road block or referring out to outside support services.

We have the support of a school social worker that runs a girls focus group and a foster/homeless youth support program weekly. For outside agencies we provide a counseling room to work with out students. We currently have the following agencies that provide outside wrap around services for our students: Yolo Family Services, CommuniCare Health Center, Victory Community Services, Yolo County Children’s Alliance, Foster Parent Recruitment and Retention, Each 1 Reach 1 Alliance, and Chicks in Crisis.

Yolo High School is fortunate to count on a Career Specialist on site that works directly with students on transitioning them out of High School and preparing them for College or Career. He consistently meets with seniors to keep them on a path to graduation and works both in and out of the classroom with career exploration, college FASA workshops, Scholarship information, Vocational/Technical opportunities, community service hours as well as hiring guest speakers, while networking with outside agencies for student support.

Another significant distinction at Yolo High School is the opportunity for students to recover credits. We offer online classes practically in all subject matter geared for high school graduation. Students can work at their own pace both during school and from home.

A successful addition to our site is our parent outreach. We currently have increased parent participation on campus not only through back to school nights and open house, but also through parent meetings both in English and Spanish sessions.

3.) How does a student become enrolled at Yolo?

Most of the students at Yolo High come from River City High School. Primarily because they are credit-deficient and are not engaging academically. A significant portion of those that come from River High are students that are overwhelmed by the size of the High School and need a smaller learning environment. To our credit we are increasingly receiving students electing to come here by choice. This year all but a couple of our transfers were voluntary. A small portion of our students are transfers from other districts.

4.) If there was one message you’d like your students to take to heart when they leave Yolo what would it be?

I want my students to seize the opportunities available. I want them to be advocates for a positive direction in their lives by embracing their potential and seek out their dreams!


Yolo Education Center (external link)



Bottom photo: Alejandro Ramos on the right, Allen Young on the left.


















Transitions and Captions

On Monday the 23rd I will be leaving West Sacramento, my home for the last 15 years. I am moving to Las Vegas to be closer to one of my brothers and also for a change of scene. Having lived in California’s Central Valley for nearly my entire life, I am eager to see new places and new people. The desert awaits.

While my life is being put into moving boxes, I continue to write and to query. I’ve submitted an article on spec to Rock and Gem Magazine and I think we’re moving forward.  We’ll see. Fundamental to this experience is the emphasis this magazine places on captions. Their Writer’s Guidelines file (external link) gives the best advice I’ve read on writing them.

Here’s some of their sage counsel along with my comments as a writer, not an editor:

Rock & Gem’s caption style is to use informative, full sentences that tell readers more than they could see by looking at the photo. You cannot leave it up to the editor to write your captions. Only you know why you took the photos you did, so only you can explain what is relevant about them.

I’d add that a writer can still be in doubt. An editor’s experience can be invaluable here since they have years of experience in knowing what their readers want. Perhaps the subject, say sulfur, has been well covered in previous issues. Do I, therefore, want to go into great detail in my captions? Or is every caption unique to itself?

If you have trouble writing an original sentence for a caption, find a sentence in your article that relates to the photo and copy it to your caption file. It’s that easy to write good captions! If you can’t find any text in your article that relates to your photos, you probably need to take new photos. 

In years past I tried to add details that weren’t in my articles by putting that information into captions. But is that really a good idea? If I couldn’t fit into an article that New York state’s gemstone is garnet, could I then put that detail into a caption? Or is it out of place, not being in the body of work?

The trend is for any writer to take their own photographs. It is therefore essential that, if requested, we craft captions for our articles. The Rock and Gem file linked above provides plenty of good examples and I’d urge you to check it out.



Photograph by Thomas Wolf, (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons


What I Won’t Be Writing On

Just when I thought (internal link) couldn’t get more depressing, in comes this job offer. Write about bedbugs. 1,000 word articles. Fifty of them. For a penny a word. 18 people are already bidding on this work which would require original research and writing. Note how they pay less as you write more. And that bedbug experience is preferred.

Looking for a native born English speaker who’s a great writer. Your job will be to write 50 or so articles regarding bed bug topics. These will be a mix of pest control related articles for the top 25 biggest cities in the world and 10 or so countries. . . .The articles will likely be around 1000 to 1500 words each . . .

Per article, we will pay $10 for the 1000 word articles or $17 for 2000 word articles, BUT we will commit to 50 or so of these articles and the very real possibility of a lot more work about this topic if you prove yourself able to do a great job.

Big bonuses if you’ve had a bed bug encounter!



Reporter Tools

During my short stint as a reporter I learned many things, particularly what tools I should use.

My most important tool was a smart phone. It took most of my photos and the voice recorder taped most of my interviews. I use an iPhone but the choice is up to you. I did bring along my point and shoot camera when I thought I would need a telephoto lens but the majority of image taking was done with the smart phone’s camera.

I used Apple’s built in Voice Memo feature to record conversations but I also bought an app called TapeACall (external link) to record while I was on the phone. An external microphone proved handy and welcome. It’s uncomfortable to stick a cell phone in someone’s face, as you are forced to do when recording with your camera’s microphone. My mike is from iRig (external link) which is sold over the net and at Guitar City locations. Make sure your microphone fits directly to your camera. Like the camera, you will need to get the microphone very close to your subject. Even two feet away is too far. Get closer.

A vest was extremely useful. Lens caps, notepads, camera, extra lenses, pens, business cards and so on seem to multiply when you are in the field. I got this nice vest at a Bass Pro Shop (external link) but you can find something similar almost everywhere. Just don’t get a fisherman’s vest, they come up too far on your body. You want something with lower pockets.

A lanyard and an ID badge of some sort made me feel better and more confident. You want people to see that you’re upfront about what you are doing. I made up the tag myself but chose a Sponge Bob lanyard as an icebreaker. It’s hard to remain serious when Sponge Bob makes an appearance.

Take business cards (external link), even if they’re not from the group you are reporting for. You always want to give people a way to get in touch if they have questions after you leave.



How to Start Writing Locally — Making Pitches

Your writing website is finally in order (internal link) and you’d like to start writing locally, perhaps for an area weekly, a community paper or a local news website. I’d recommend you query an editor with ideas, not just a link to your URL.  Don’t always come to the editor for ideas, take the initiative and propose stories yourself. Make pitches and make yourself more valuable.

Here’s a very long suggestion list I made before writing for the new team at the West Sacramento News-Ledger. (external link). I’d probably limit it to ten today. None of these pitches are lengthy or detailed. Editors are busy people and they know almost instantly if a story seems worth pursuing.

Just two of these pitches were accepted but I always keep a list of ones that weren’t. A new editor may come on the scene and they may have a different focus. As you write your accepted stories, continue to develop new pitches and keep sending them in.

1.) Sail Inn update. This local landmark is under new owners and is undergoing renovation. I wrote about its close a while back. (internal link) Will it reopen soon?

2.) A report on the Port. (internal link — story accepted) I’d find out what they are doing these days, who is operating it, and what the future holds. Everyone sees the port but few know what’s going on there. Much more than just rice.

3.) A look at the current home residential real estate market in West Sacramento. I’d talk with two or three agents/realtors about what it’s like today in Southport, Broderick, and Bryte. Interview new home owners to see why they decided to buy in West Sac.

4.) A look at the current commercial real estate market. There’s quite a bit of commercial going up in the Southport area. Time to find out why.

5.) Houses of worship. A short interview with the people behind three major religious centers in West Sacramento: the Sikh Temple, The Russian Baptist Church, and The City of the Dharma Realm.

6.) How are our trees doing? An interview with the city arborist.

7.) School update. The high school is always doing something of interest.

8.) A report on Nor Cal beverage, a powerhouse in our community. I live near the production facility near the port. Five hundred people employed! (external link)

9.) A report on the UPS facility on Harbor.

10.) A short report on each of the West Sacramento fire stations. Maybe a paragraph or two on each. (Story idea accepted but never written. This idea did generate another story that was written, an article on a firefighter auxiliary named CERT (internal link))

11.) A report on how the new library is doing.

12.) What about original writing for movie reviews? I can also do an original gardening column. How about information on Ships In Port?

13.) Mediterranean Food and Music festival. Sept. 12 and 13. (Newspaper sent photographer to cover the event.)

14.) Where to fish in West Sacramento. Talk with fisherman and the local bait shop. I could draw up a map.

Bugs Bunny Pitches


Does Your Website Have Ads? It Shouldn’t.

Your freelance website should not contain ads any more than your printed resume should contain them. The tiny revenue generated by advertising will never be worth the unprofessional appearance that ads convey. And if you run ads because you have a free site, well, reconsider. That site ain’t free. You’re paying in lost customers. Pony up the money and lose the ads.

I recently visited a number of writer sites to get ideas. It was amazing the ads for weight loss, digestive solutions, testosterone builders, and search sites that could look up anything on anybody. Even pop up ads. Enough!