Surveying East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City School District with fresh eyes, new Superintendent Gloria Hernandez sees a lot that needs fixing.
Referring to the time prior to her arrival last summer as Ravenswood's "dark years," she vows a new commitment to budget and data transparency.
"We're developing systems so that all these things are very evident, so everybody knows what we're doing and how we're moving forward," she said in a recent interview. "I think implementation (of transparent systems) has been spotty" in the past.
She was shocked to learn after arriving that Ravenswood's science programs were essentially being run by outside volunteers, Hernandez said.
"During what I'd call our dark years, the (Ravenswood Education) Foundation and people from the (Menlo Park) Presbyterian Church were the ones that kept science and some of the higher, more interactive math programs and the early literacy support programs going in our district, through volunteers, raising funds, actually hiring people and getting the labs together, the lesson plans," she said.
"These are people who are professionals, retired professionals, scientists but not educators in the sense that they don't have teaching credentials. But they did all the work to keep these extracurricular and higher academic programs alive at Ravenswood.
"They're still doing that, but they were doing it almost independently before."
In a bid to embrace volunteers and outside supporters, Hernandez now routinely includes Ravenswood Education Foundation Executive Director Renu Nanda in meetings of the district's top executive team. Last year the foundation raised more than $1.3 million for Ravenswood, mostly from donors who do not live in the district.
"I'm really excited about the new direction for the district," said Nanda, a lawyer who was a foundation board member before becoming executive director in 2011.
"I think there's a strong vision, and vision that really incorporates community partners in a way I didn't see before."
Hernandez said she's reached out to local elected officials and public administrators, including Jim Lianides, superintendent of the Sequoia Union High School District, where Ravenswood students go after eighth-grade graduation.
"We have to accept responsibility for how we provide the educational foundation for those kids up to eighth grade," Hernandez said, referring to recent reports that high schools often steer minority and low-income students into lower lanes of math.
To boost the quality of math teaching at Ravenswood, Hernandez is pondering a reconfiguration of K-8 campuses to create two middle schools, where students would have access to high-quality, single-subject teachers.
"I know the challenges of finding effective, highly qualified single-subject teachers for seventh- and eighth-grade students," she said. "It's very, very difficult."
Separate middle schools would permit her to concentrate specialized teaching resources and pursue another one of her goals reinstituting a school band program.
"It's very difficult to find five band teachers that we could pay at five different K-8 schools," she said.
Hernandez dreams of luring families back from the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program, the 28-year-old, court-ordered desegregation settlement that sends as many as 900 children who live inside Ravenswood boundaries to other nearby school districts including more than 500 to Palo Alto.
"Tinsley was supposed to be a two-way street, where some students would go to other districts and we would get students from Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Las Lomitas to come to Ravenswood, and of course that hasn't been the case," she said.
"In effect what happens is that Ravenswood loses students."
While she doesn't fault parents for seeking the best for their kids, Hernandez is skeptical that Tinsley is an optimal solution.
"I do think Tinsley could be challenged legally, but I think the real challenge to Tinsley needs to be improving our student achievement outcomes," she said.
She hopes to bring students back to Ravenswood by improving test scores and curb appeal.
"The data results need to be much improved, and we need our facilities to look like the facilities across the freeway," Hernandez said.
She's hired a consultant to produce a vision for upgrading facilities and at least for now put on hold closed-door talks with the office developer Sobrato Organization to sell or exchange the district's freeway-facing land.
The 2012 passage of California Proposition 30 resulted in an extra $3.8 million in Ravenswood's total budgeted current-year revenue of $37.7 million. Budget chief Megan Curtis said the new money, restricted to instructional purposes, is allocated to teacher salary and benefits. Current enrollment stands at nearly 3,600.
Hernandez said she's been making the rounds of the area's most effective schools that have populations similar to Ravenswood. She acknowledges the success of charter school operators such as KIPP, the Stanford-operated East Palo Alto Academy and Aspire Public Schools, which runs East Palo Alto Charter School and its sister high school, Phoenix Academy.
"They're here and they're very effective," she said. "I want us to be that good."
She hopes to find outside funding to establish a leadership-training program for Ravenswood staff, as well as an eighth-grade transition program that would offer a "dreaming and goal-setting retreat" for all eighth graders.
"I want to do an interest survey and aptitude assessment for each child, and then have a counselor meet with the student and look at their dreams and talk about how to get there," including finding summer programs, she said. "This has not been done before, but I want to start this spring.
"Our charter schools are effective, and what they offer students is a very clear path and they communicate well with parents. It's not rocket science. The research and everything tells you what you have to do, and we just have to plan accordingly and follow up on that."
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