Hundreds of East Palo Alto parents and children turned out for a crowded and emotional school board meeting Thursday night to shout a collective "no" to the prospect of a high-performing charter school being established in their community.
In hours of testimony -- much of it in Spanish -- parents said the proposed school, by Rocketship Education, would "take money away" from their own children's schools.
They urged trustees of the Ravenswood City School District to reject Rocketship's application to establish a new elementary school in East Palo Alto by the fall of 2012, which eventually would serve up to 650 children.
In the end, the board voted 3-2 to deny Rocketship's proposal. The two votes supporting Rocketship came from the board's newest members, Evelyn Barajas-Luis and Ana Maria Pulido, who were elected last November.
Superintendent Maria De La Vega, who had recommended a "no" vote, said a new charter school could lead to neighborhood school closures and otherwise "disrupt" a small district like Ravenswood.
She acknowledged charters have "shown great success" in other districts, but indicated Ravenswood -- facing a major budget deficit -- is fighting for its survival. Ravenswood already loses more than 1,000 students who reside in the district to alternative programs, including the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program.
District parents said they had been recruited to speak out at Thursday's meeting after being told the new charter school would lead to closure of neighborhood schools, and that the new school would accept only top-performing students.
In fact, a charter school by law must take students on a first-come, first-served basis, or by lottery if oversubscribed.
More than 350 parents, teachers and children -- many holding signs and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with their school names -- filled the gymnasium at Costano School. A significant minority wore purple T-shirts, denoting support for Rocketship.
The proposed charter school would "endanger our school and our program," said Maria Sanchez, teacher of a kindergarten class at Green Oaks Academy taught both in English and Spanish.
Parent Ana Silva said in Spanish that, despite coming from another country, her two children "received all the support they needed from their teachers" at Willow Oaks School.
A host of students, teachers and principals delivered passionate testimony about the sense of community they feel in their neighborhood schools.
Rocketship, a four-year-old nonprofit led by tech-entrepreneur-turned-teacher John Danner of Palo Alto, operates three charter schools in low-income areas of San Jose.
The schools are relatively new -- having opened in 2007, 2009 and 2010 -- but students there earned 2010 Growth Academic Performance Index scores of 886 and 925, compared with Ravenswood's district-wide score of 688.
Rocketship co-founder and Chief Achievement Officer Preston Smith had pledged to work closely with the school district, and argued that achievement levels attained by Rocketship students would substantially boost Ravenswood's district-wide average.
Rocketship uses what it calls a "hybrid model" -- combining classroom teaching with one-on-one computer work, which allows students to master basic skills at their own pace, according to the company.
A significant minority in Thursday's audience indicated they support Rocketship.
"There are many rumors floating around about Rocketship, but has anyone really talked to their staff to get the information?" parent Lakeshia Phillips-Marshall asked.
"I want this to be about my child's education, not about how much money the school district will lose if the school is there," the mother of two said.
"We'll never know if it's going to be a success until we give it a chance."
After years among California's worst-performing school districts, Ravenswood's standardized test scores have inched up in the past several years, with gains on all campuses but led by the K-8 East Palo Alto Charter School (EPACS), a 13-year-old charter operated by Aspire Public Schools.
Rocketship officials said they will now appeal for a charter with the San Mateo County Office of Education, with the intention of establishing an East Palo Alto campus. The group's three existing schools operate under charter agreements with the Santa Clara County Office of Education.