Advice about Living in West Contra Costa & Solano Counties

Parent Q&A

Select any title to view the full question and replies.

  • We are planning on returning to the Bay area this summer 2018 after we finish out our year here in Portland, OR. We used to live in Alameda which we loved but feel like we are priced out of there now. Plus from what I have heard, it is not really the "best kept secret" that it used to be. We bring in over 200K in family income, and we have a 3 year old daughter with special needs (primarily speech). We want to rent for at least a year as we will probably need to locate somewhere further out due to current housing prices. We would like to eventually buy after a year or so (so probably around summer/fall 2019). We are considering El Cerrito, Richmond Annex, Pinole, Hercules, and Benicia. We would like to stay below $700K range for housing.

    We want good schools, of course, but also to be near schools/preschools which would serve my daughter well in regards to her speech delay. Has anyone had experience in dealing with special education services for their kid/kids in West Contra Costa County or Solano County? I am familiar with services in Alameda County but not so much with with WCCC or Solano's.

    Also, how are the neighborhoods in the above towns mentioned? Safe, family-friendly, walkable, diverse? Alameda really spoiled us. Is $700K realistic for El Cerrito/Richmond Annex (which is our 1st preference due to proximity to Oakland which is where we will both be working).

    Hi, welcome back to the area. I can't speak to the education issue since we're still at preschool age but I can recommend living in El Cerrito. We squeaked in at just under $700k last year (don't know about rental prices) and really like it. We're on the "flats" so there's more foot traffic, litter and property crime than in the hills, but it is also extremely walkable with excellent proximity to public transportation, shopping and parks. We couldn't afford Kensington or Albany but are close enough to enjoy the farmers market and restaurants. There's a big mix of income levels, ethnicity, social views, etc. so no one need feel out of place (I hope). The schools are decently rated and seem to be improving in terms of "scores" and the people I know who have kids in EC schools have all said they're happy at the grade school level (mixed reviews of the junior high and high schools). I've heard great things from people living in the Annex though that is definitely less walkable. If you end up in EC you are very welcome to message me with questions. Good luck!

    Having looked for a long, long time (and eventually giving up) in El Cerrito on a higher budget, I'd say under $700k is unrealistic unless you can do a very small 2 bedroom in Richmond Annex or Richmond Hills. Prices have increased a lot over the past two years, especially in the El Cerrito area. The neighborhoods there are fine--thus the crazy increase in prices. Pinole, Hercules, or Benicia might be a better bet. You might also consider San Leandro or Pleasant Hill/Concord/Martinez. Can't speak to special education services, but you might start there and then pick a neighborhood after. 

    I think you can buy a two bedroom townhouse in Bayfarm within your budget. If you are willing to stretch a bit more three bedroom town homes are possible.

    I live in El Cerrito and I LOVE LOVE LOVE it.  My kids are in public schools and are doing great.  My daughter had speech issues as well and was diagnosed and entered into a program at Cameron School, which is in El Cerrito (NOTE: public schools take do not need to be of school age....wish I'd known that with my son).  I think it would be hard to get something here for $700K, but could be possible. I also lived in Benicia, which is rather idyllic, but the commute drove us to El Cerrito. I think you could get something for $700K in Benicia.    I think it would also be hard to get something for $700 in Richmond Heights, but could be possible.  Mira Vista school is extremely diverse and the school and staff are dedicated.  I would choose Pinole over Hercules, personally, and you could get something for $700.  

    I can highly recommend Pinole.  I have heard very good things about the Cameron School, in El Cerrito, which offers speech therapy and preschool style classes for students who qualify in WCCUSD.  If you choose the back part of Pinole Valley, you get to send your daughter to Ellerhorst, which is a very good school.  I think you are priced out of El Cerrito if you want to keep it under $700k, but should be able to get something nice in Pinole if you move quickly when you see a house you like.  Pinole Valley is safe, family-friendly, and diverse.  You can walk to the local park, but everything else is about 1.5 miles away.  We have a Trader Joe's, Sprouts, Peet's etc. plus a bunch of chains and a handful of mom and pops.  

    I know some folks who live in Benicia and have spent a good bit of time there.  I like it a lot and it is definitely walkable and has a lot of charming small businesses on 1st street.  It doesn't feel very diverse and it doesn't really feel like it's part of the Bay Area proper.  Most of the people we know here in Pinole go into the city or Oakland/Berkeley pretty regularly, whereas most of the people we know in Benicia don't really seem to like to cross the bridge.  

    I really feel like Pinole is one of the "best kept secrets" here in the Bay, and my husband and I joke that it must have a cloaking device on it or something.  We feel close to everything but also far away, if that makes any sense.  It also feels much less crowded here than it does everywhere else.  Good luck with your search!  

    I think you could easily rent for a year in Marina Bay (Richmond), which puts you in the zone for services at Cameron (as recommended by other posters), and gives you time to look around the area. We are in EC which does seem like it's exploded in price lately. I'd look in the Annex to buy, although who knows if $700K will get you in there in a year's time. Pinole has a tougher commute to Oakland/SF (although is a nice town overall), those extra exits on 80 cost you lots of time on the road.

    I can recommend the Richmond Annex, although the prices here have gone through the roof recently.  You may be able to do a two bedroom but the three bedroom houses are going for between 725-$800k.  I have an almost three year old who is at a great preschool in a berkeley, although we may consider sending him to EC public schools. We walk regularly to our three neighborhood parks in the annex and El Cerrito and also to the prepared food annex at EC natural grocery. Today as we walked up the hill on the way home, I thought as I do every time how lucky I feel to live here. There are incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I just love the neighbors and feel of community. We are also a few blocks from city hall where a 24 hour fitness will be opening soon.  We also walk to the EC library and pool. I grew up here and it has changed quite a bit. There are so many more kids now then when I was my sons age.  I really can’t say enough good things about it. 

  • We live in an area that is nice and safe and we like our house and backyard.  It's in the Bay Area, but doesn't feel like it. Our child just started at the local elementary school and I am not really loving it.  It's decently ranked, has strong parent involvement, and our child enjoys it.  I am really not a fan of the homework load for 5 year olds or the amount of junk food that seems ever-present or the fact that they spend a decent portion of time on the computers at least three days a week.  The real problem, though, is the school population.  We were very excited to go to this school because on paper it is very diverse.  In practice, however, almost all of the children of color seem to be in self contained special education classrooms, and most of my child's classmates are white.    

    The families at this school tend to be working class white families, and I frequently see NRA T-Shirts, Blue Lives Matter T-Shirts, and Make America Great Again hats at pickup.  I know that several households have guns, which is something I am deeply opposed to.  In addition, most of the kids seem to have smartphones by the 2nd grade or so and when we see them at the park or at school events more than half of the kids are behaving in a way that I would absolutely not want my own child to behave.  These are not evil people, they are not overtly racist or homophobic or sexist or... but their entire world view and values are in opposition to our family's and I do not want my children to be raised in the way that they are raising their children.  My child has started to make close friends with one little girl who is downright rude to adults and mean to other kids, and her mother takes pride in how "feisty" she is.  

    We have about two or three like-minded families that we have found, but I feel like we are sort of stuck between compromising our values so our children fit in to the dominant culture at their school or our kids being the weirdos who don't fit in (which was my experience being raised by a hippie family in a rich white suburb in the 80's).  We are trying to decide if we should stretch our budget to the max and try to get into Crestmont or if we should just pick up sticks and move to Berkeley, despite extortionate rents.  We could just about pull off either option, although we would have to go back to clipping coupons and not taking vacations.  I just don't know which is the right option.  Has anyone else experienced a similar dilemma? What choice did you make? How did it turn out? 

    There have been a spate of recent questions about moving to Pinole/El Sobrante/Hercules... maybe you are on the flip side of that? The culture can be different in the different corners of the East Bay, you may not make great family friends there but if the school works for your child, you might feel like you can settle in. 4 weeks is not very long to "give it a try". Of course, having differing cultural values than your kids' friends happens no matter where you are - also disliking your kids' friends! Remember whoever they glom onto in  kindergarten is not necessarily going to be their best friend for the long haul. To sum up... If my child were happy at a school, I would live with the Make America Great hats etc., just as you would expect those folks to tolerate you and your "hippie" ways. Host all the playdates; don't let your child have a playdate at a home with guns; be the parent who serves organic snacks and who bugs the district nutrition staff to improve the offerings; nag the teacher to drop the homework packets; discuss your concerns about computer time with the teacher or principal. (some of these things are WCCUSD districtwide initiatives, some have leeway at the school sites) My ananoymous-stranger-on-the-internet advice is to hang in there at least for the K year. Don't worry about getting into Crestmont, there's always space there in all the grades, as with *almost* all the local private schools. In answer to your specific question about a similar dilemma, we go to what I'm sure is a different WCCUSD school than yours (whites a minority at ours); college going is not the automatic path, English language skills aren't a given, and some of the little girls wear hijabs. Culture clash indeed. It's not always easy on a day to day basis and I can't always communicate (literally) with my kids' friends' parents. OK, so they may not be MY lifelong friends, but my kids are accepted and doing fine, and these friendships may or may not last at Korematsu and ECHS. I'm in it for the long haul of getting out of my white liberal bubble - or at least recognizing I'm in one.

    I'm guessing you're in El Sobrante or Pinole. Welcome to West County, where MAGA is part of our diversity. 

    Be the squeaky wheel where you really feel you need to, and let some other things go. If, by January, you're still unhappy, you can put in that application to Crestmont. If you're willing to drive your child to Crestmont, also consider asking for a transfer to either Mira Vista or the new West County Mandarin School, both of which are located really near Crestmont and are (obviously) tuition-free. You will likely find your tribe at either of those places. The WCCUSD transfer office isn't easy to deal with so make calls to principals and be persistent. (If the Mandarin program is like the Spanish immersion program, they take new students in first grade but not after that).

    I don't know where you are, but I assume WCCUSD.  I'd work with the transfer office and say you want to stay Public, but something about this particular place is not jiving with you and you want to move.  If they are not responsive, climb all the way to the Supt.'s office.  I think they would try to keep you.  There are some wonderful diverse schools in the WCCUSD that are trying to do real work knocking down walls.  Also, if you have a kindergartener, there is a brand-new full Mandarin Immersion school that would *LOVE* to have you. Contact them directly. I am sure you could transfer right in.  DO IT!!!!

    I personally think that a kid's early education is really important in setting the tone for future years.  If you are in West County, there is a small, comfortable private school on Tassajara that you might like.  Great community.  Not sure if they have room in your grade, but it's worth a call - next week.  510.233.3013.

Parent Reviews

Just here to echo what previous posters have said - you should definitely have a look at West Contra Costa. I grew up in Oakland and went through the city's public school system but when I moved back to the Bay Area two years ago and started looking to buy a home, I was deterred by how poorly the public schools were rated. Granted, one shouldn't entirely judge the system on these ratings, but with friends who actually teach in some of these Oakland public schools who shared some not so great stories with me, we figured it was worth widening our house-hunting options (and who knows, perhaps in a few years' time, Oakland public schools will be doing better with the shift in demographics/continued gentrification of the another poster pointed out, parental involvement is critical). In any event, we were pleasantly surprised when we ended up buying in El Cerrito. This city also seems to be going through a demographic shift, with a mix of an older generation who've probably lived here all their lives and younger families/couples moving in. Our kids are still young so haven't entered the public schools yet, thus, I can't speak to that, but we're also liking its proximity to Berkeley/SF/Oakland in case we need to head to any of those spots. Overall, we've been really happy with our decision to move out this way.

I have two pieces of advice for you.  One is to not make your determination about what schools are good based on the test scores.  Generally, really high test scores correlate with really high incomes among the parents and/or and intense testing focus by the school.  I would think about the kind of climate you'd like for your children to go to school in, and try to find that, with the understanding that in elementary school at least any "gaps" in instruction tend to be easily and almost effortlessly closed by engaged  parents who read to their kids and take them to museums, etc.  I myself went to high school in Danville and was absolutely miserable there and at my elementary school in San Ramon.  The quality of teaching was mediocre at best, but everyone was affluent so the scores looked good.  My daughter, in contrast, goes to Ellerhorst elementary in Pinole, and although I was very nervous at the start of the year because the test scores aren't very good (and in fact almost panicked and moved to private school), we are very happy there and her own test scores are showing remarkable progress.  The school is extremely diverse, and we have been blown away by the kind, supportive, family-like atmosphere of the school.  Some schools achieve good test scores by sacrificing many of the things we value in our children's education: PE, music and movement, science, art, imaginative play, and it was a game changer for us to realize that while we valued quality education, that did not always mean picking the school with the best test scores.

My second piece of advice would be to check out West Contra Costa County.  I lived in Oakland for a decade and will always love Oakland, but it is pretty much out of reach for under $850k in the kind of family friendly neighborhood I'm imagining you would want (especially when you consider that the listing prices tend to be $100k or more under the eventual sale price).  El Sobrante, Pinole, and Hercules are the hidden gems of the East Bay, and although the WCCUSD schools often are not super highly ranked, we know many, many families who are extremely happy with their neighborhood schools.  I can only speak to Pinole, but it offers a lot of the good parts of growing up in the TriValley area (amenities, greenery, safety) without the competition and snobbery and intense social pressure that made it so awful as a child that didn't fit in in Danville and San Ramon.  The area has been filled with a lot of older folks for a long time, but in the last two years or so, we've seen a huge wave of older folks moving out and young families and couples moving in from Berkeley/Oakland etc.  Check it out!