Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 8, 2010

East Palo Alto high-school proposal divides trustees

Some fear charter schools could draw more students away from traditional public schools

by Chris Kenrick

Ever since Ravenswood High School closed in 1976, East Palo Altans have wanted a high school of their own back.

But a proposal to build a new 9th-12th grade campus — complete with a gym and athletic fields — on local school land has split the leadership of the K-8 Ravenswood City School District, which serves East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park.

The point of contention is that the new facility would not house a traditional public high school, but rather accommodate two existing charter high schools.

Charters are also public schools, but they offer academic alternatives to students in the district. Currently, teenagers who choose to attend a traditional public high school must do so through the Sequoia Union High School District, which operates schools in cities from Menlo Park to San Carlos.

In deciding whether to lease land for a high-school campus, Ravenswood trustees are caught in a bind. The deal would create a new high-school facility in East Palo Alto. But the charter high schools and their affiliated elementary schools could draw even more students — and state revenue — away from the K-8 Ravenswood district, which is already suffering from declining enrollment.

Ravenswood Superintendent Maria De La Vega said the charters would be able to boast a K-12 option.

"They say to families 'We have a K-12 program and a new high school campus,' and boom, there they go," De La Vega said.

Trustee John Bostic agreed: "If our community becomes the red-light district for charter schools, is that going to deplete our ability to run a school district?"

But Ravenswood Trustee Larry Moody argued in favor of pursuing the charter campus idea.

"We have an opportunity to do something here, and our children are not faring well under the system we have, being sent way over to Woodside High and all the way to Carlmont in San Carlos," he said.

The dropout rate of Ravenswood students attending public high schools west of U.S. Highway 101 is about 65 percent. At charters, the rate is dramatically lower.

The proposal to build the new campus comes from the Sequoia district, which is required by state law to provide facilities for the two charter high schools currently operating in East Palo Alto.

They are the Stanford University-run East Palo Alto Academy High School and the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, managed by Aspire Public Schools. The Stanford high school leases the aging campus of the former Menlo Oaks Elementary School, and Phoenix Academy operates out of a former warehouse.

Sequoia is seeking a large site — perhaps under long-term lease from the Ravenswood district — where it could build a campus offering athletic fields and a shared modern gym, something the charter high schools currently lack.

"We have two options," Sequoia district trustee Don Gibson told the Ravenswood board in a recent study session.

"We can build separate, smaller 'pocket facilities' or we can find a larger parcel and make it as close to a comprehensive high school as possible.

"We're looking to build facilities the community can use. We're kind of waiting to see what you're thinking" about leasing space for a high school campus, Gibson told Ravenswood board members.

If a large site is not available, Gibson said the Sequoia district has identified smaller parcels in East Palo Alto where it is poised to build separate facilities for the two charter schools.

The K-8 Ravenswood district for years has battled declining enrollment and the resulting loss of state revenue. But district leaders say they hope to reverse the trend because of new housing planned for East Palo Alto and the district's plan to improve academic achievement.

Enrollment last September was 3,427 students, down more than 18 percent from five years ago.

The district loses nearly a thousand students a year to the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program, which allows 160 non-white kindergarteners each fall to exit the district and enroll in neighboring Palo Alto, Menlo Park and other area school districts as far north as Belmont. The Tinsley program is the result of a 1986 settlement of a desegregation case brought by Margaret Tinsley.

Ravenswood's traditional schools also lose students to charter, private and parochial schools.

District leaders plan a marketing campaign to lure local families back into neighborhood schools.

"First we need to improve, then we need to sell ourselves," Trustee Sharifa Wilson said.

"We're trying to capture the middle-class families that are living in our community," Moody said. "We have data that show we're not (capturing them), but we know they are living among us."

"We need to advertise like the charter schools," said Trustee Marcelino Lopez.

"Every time we go to a parents meeting we've got to sell our schools. When I went to the Child Development Center (a district-run preschool), most of the parents were talking about Tinsley."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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