Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 14, 2011

Charter high school gets new campus

East Palo Alto school combines public, private resources

by Chris Kenrick

East Palo Alto students will plant black bamboo at their new charter high school campus Saturday to honor a Japanese family who cultivated the same land as a nursery for more than 50 years.

The 305 students at Aspire East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy moved this fall from their previous quarters — a windowless warehouse on Bay Road — to the newly built, 2.7-acre campus on Garden Street.

"The students say, 'We finally have a real school now,'" Principal Tom Madson said. "There's a markedly different atmosphere. Behavior is more mature and academic."

The $13 million project was jointly funded by the Sequoia Union High School District, private donors and Aspire Public Schools, a charter operator whose 34 schools serve more than 10,000 California students.

Saturday's official ribbon-cutting is intended to thank the many who helped with the new campus, including the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, which supplied most of the $4 million in private donations. Another $4 million came from the school's chartering agency, Sequoia Union, and the remaining $5 million from an Aspire facilities bond backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Members of the Nakagawa family, who ran a nursery business on the site for decades, will be on hand Saturday to talk about the history of the land, school staff members said.

Following a 9 a.m. ceremony, the Palo Alto nonprofit environmental group Canopy will oversee volunteers for the rest of the morning in planting 81 trees on the now unlandscaped school grounds.

Phoenix Academy opened with its first freshman class in borrowed space in 2006. It was launched at the urging of East Palo Alto parents who worried their kids would not graduate if sent out of town to their assigned high schools in Atherton, Woodside or San Carlos.

The school graduated its first class of seniors in 2010. All 40 graduates so far have been accepted by — and most are attending — four-year colleges.

Madson aims within a few years to grow the new campus to its full capacity of 405 students, as the larger younger classes move up and the campus adds a sixth grade.

The addition of sixth through eighth grades will free up sought-after space at Phoenix's sister elementary school campus, Aspire's East Palo Alto Charter School (EPACS). Admission to the high-performing East Palo Alto Charter School is by lottery.

Phoenix Academy operates with extra support, including mandatory parent participation, uniforms, and a longer-than-usual school day and school year. Summers vacations are typically just four to six weeks long, with two-week breaks in the fall, winter and spring.

"Our school has always been scrappy — that's our history, our roots," administrator Mike Berman said.

"But it's remarkable to be in a new campus that reflects the results of that. The kids have earned it. There's something to be said for being in a place that reflects how hard you're working."

The new campus has 16 classrooms, including a fully equipped science lab, and plenty of natural light. It replaces a seven-classroom warehouse campus with unfinished cement floors and a parking lot as the only outdoor space.

"We had more than 200 people at a back-to-school pot luck (at the new campus), and the tables were overflowing," Madson said.

"It gave people who don't usually get to talk and mix and mingle to do that, and the kids were playing in the grass. It's finally more than a parking lot."

Helen Streck, one of the founding parents of East Palo Alto Charter School back in the 1990s, said the new campus represents a dream. Though her own children have grown, Streck remains on the Phoenix advisory board.

"There's a reason you have dreams," she said. "I'm always amazed at the dedication of the staff. Children in East Palo Alto have the same capacities and capabilities to learn as the children across the freeway, and they can perform just as well."

The Aspire Phoenix Academy campus is one of two new small high schools built in East Palo Alto this year.

The other is a still-unoccupied, gray stucco campus on Myrtle Street, recently completed by Sequoia Union. A sign in front says "Sequoia Union High School District Alternative Campus."

Officials of the Stanford University-affiliated East Palo Alto Academy High School, a charter school now operating from an old elementary campus on Pope Street in Menlo Park, said the school intends to move to the Myrtle Street space next year.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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