Financial results of the abrupt closure of the low-performing — but improving — three-year-old charter school underline the conflict of interest inherent in state charter-school laws.
In the case of the Stanford-sponsored East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School, which closed in June, the school's fate was in the hands of a financially pressed school district that directly benefited from closing the school.
The vast majority of the 150-plus children from the shuttered school will fan out to neighborhood schools this fall, bringing state revenue with them.
A $2.15 million increase in the Ravenswood district's operating budget, bringin it to $38.9 million, is "entirely associated with the returning students," Chief Business Official Megan Curtis said this week.
Curtis was referring to children from the Stanford school as well as from Edison-Brentwood, another charter school whose operator withdrew in May after 10 years of managing the high-performing school.
Together, the two schools are sending approximately 600 students back onto district rolls.
"Overall, we would have lost $4 million, but the returning students reduced that and brought back revenues to the district," Curtis said.
Following a contentious April meeting in which students, parents, volunteers and Stanford professors pleaded to save the Stanford elementary school, Ravenswood trustees voted 3-2 to deny a five-year charter renewal. A week later, they voted 4-1 to shutter the school as of this past June.
Trustees and Ravenswood Superintendent Maria De La Vega cited poor academic performance and ineffective behavior management in the classroom as reasons for the closure.
Indeed, a month earlier, the Stanford elementary school was one of three Ravenswood schools that had turned up on the state's preliminary list of "worst-performing schools." Stanford said it was appealing the listing.
"Whether your name is Stanford or something else, it's all about the data," Ravenswood trustee Larry Moody said at the time.
"Certain levels of performance had to be adhered to."
Ravenswood Board Chair Sharifa Wilson said the district had been embarrassed by the "worst-performing schools" listing.
"We have a responsibility to see that the children from this community are receiving a good quality education and, it frustrates me also, we are measured by these scores and held accountable for (Stanford's) failure."
Stanford argued the decision to close the school was premature and rested on skimpy data — barely more than two years worth of test scores.
The university said new policies had been enacted that would boost results within a year or two — and substantial improvement in the May 2010 standardized test results has borne out that argument.
In English Language Arts, the school went from having 54 percent to 70 percent of second-graders scoring at "basic" or above achievement levels between 2009 and 2010. Among third-graders in English Language Arts, the jump was from 35 percent to 64 percent. There was no comparison for fourth- and fifth-graders because there was no data for 2009.
In math, second graders scoring "basic" and above jumped from 52 percent in 2009 to 81 percent in 2010. Among third-graders, the jump was from 38 percent to 71 percent.
"If you look at many charter schools, the first few years don't look that great — and then there's often a jump," Stanford School of Education Dean Deborah Stipek said in an interview last week.
April's closure vote followed conflicting interpretation of reams of often-contradictory state data, and ultimately was a judgment call by trustees.
Stanford argued that the charter was technically qualified for automatic renewal.
"In a technical sense I suppose we could say they have met the criteria," San Mateo County Counsel Tim Fox said at the April meeting.
"However, the overarching question for charter renewal is whether the charter petition represents a sound educational program and whether the charter petitioners are likely to succeed in implementing the program it describes.
"So when the data show there's a problem — even if they technically meet the metrics — it's a matter of consideration for the board."
The board chose to go with De La Vega's firm recommendation that the school was not likely to improve on its poor academic results.
Asked this week to comment on the improved May 2010 test scores, De La Vega responded: "I am pleased to see the progress of the students at Stanford Elementary on their (California STAR Test) for school year 2009-10.
"Our decision not to allow Stanford New School to operate grades K-4 was based on 2009 data and programmatic issues."
De La Vega did not comment directly on a potential conflict of interest in having the school district decide the fate of the charter school.
However, in an interview that touched on the charter-school issue last December, she said:
"We're all working toward the same end, but oftentimes it becomes competitive.
"I know it's not their intent, but when you take (students) away it makes it more difficult to work through those challenges.
"My role as superintendent is to protect the district and make sure we're left with the ability to provide a quality education."
Stanford continues to operate a charter high school in East Palo Alto, the East Palo Alto Academy, which also will house a fifth-grade class this fall.
Ravenswood trustees in April declined to renew the school's five-year charter and voted to end the relationship with Stanford in two years or as soon as Stanford can find another chartering agency — whichever comes first.