Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 17, 2014

New superintendent dreams big for Ravenswood

Embracing volunteers, she wants new middle schools, and funds for band

by Chris Kenrick

Surveying East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City School District with fresh eyes, new Superintendent Gloria Hernandez sees a lot that needs fixing.

On the job for six months, Hernandez will convene the K-8 district's outside funders and others for a Jan. 29 "resource mapping" session to review student data, current assets, and ways to make the most of them.

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."

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

Comments

Posted by muttiallen, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jan 18, 2014 at 12:13 pm

muttiallen is a registered user.

I've volunteered and worked in Ravenswood since 1996, and the improvements in the district over the last 5+ years are phenomenal. But there is still a long ways to go, and I'm excited for the things Dr. Hernandez is working on. It also helps a lot that the budget will be growing rather than shrinking. It has always been interesting to me that the test scores in PAUSD for low income students are almost the same as those for Ravenswood. Palo Alto has a waiting list for English speakers into the Spanish dual-immersion program, and Ravenswood has a need for more English speakers in its program. Here's a good opportunity for cross-registration in both directions. RCSD has a new Tech Coordinator last year and a new Science coordinator this year who are doing amazing work with teachers to better prepare RCSD students for high school in these areas. These positions, and money for training and supplies to go with them, are funded by Ravenswood Education Foundation. It's so wonderful that people outside Ravenswood District realize the importance of a good education for ALL children, not just their own.


Posted by Palo alto parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 19, 2014 at 9:39 am

I wish Ms. Hernandez much luck! She has some great ideas. In her comments about the existing programs, she said she was surprised that science was mostly run by outsiders - that is also true in PAUSD. Up until 7th grade, there are no dedicated science teachers (except maybe at Escondido). The classroom teachers do some and most of the schools seem to pay the Junior Museum to run programs at their schools using PiE money. Having one or two middle schools is also a great idea, the ability to hire single subject teachers and start a band program is terrific. She is also right about the Tinsley program, not only does it pull students (and $$) out of Ravenswood, it also pulls committed parents out of community building, neighborhood schools. Good luck to her!


Posted by Christopher Chiang, a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 20, 2014 at 10:39 am

Some research suggest that K-8 have advantages over middle school configurations, the following link is an informative look at this issue:
Web Link

From the link:
"But a study published in Ed Next found that student achievement declines when students enter middle school, and that students who attend K-8 schools perform better."


Posted by Ravenswood Middle Grade Teacher, a resident of another community
on Jan 23, 2014 at 10:50 am

I think that the main goals to focus on would be transparency of plans for the district and teacher to student ratios. I know that my students can do amazing things with an environment that allows the teacher to focus on individuals. Since last year, the number of students that rotate through my classroom has doubled. This has presented more challenges in my ability to customize my lessons to maximize individual student learning. In collaboration with other district teachers, there is a lot of positive talk about increasing student success with results that are supporting our collaborative efforts.


Posted by OPar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 23, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Palo Alto Parent,

Ohlone has a science teacher (works out of the Farm), though the over-expansion of the school has meant less for each class.

I wish the new superintendent the best of luck. I think she's thinking in the right direction--EPA should have its own strong schools and EPA residents shouldn't have to send their kids out of the district for a good education. Nine hundred kids going out of district is a sizeable chunk--nearly one-fifth. That a couple of charters have done well there, including a high school, says to me that the right district management could really make the district turn around.


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