With eye on test scores, Ravenswood kicks off the year
East Palo Alto district inaugurates new Spanish-English 'dual immersion' program
Achievement-test charts line the entry hall of East Palo Alto's Ravenswood School District headquarters.
Farther down, a glass-covered poster congratulates Brentwood Academy, the only one of the district's schools so far to break 800 — the statewide target — on California's Academic Performance Index.
Ravenswood kicked off the school year Aug. 23 with about 3,500 students and an operating budget of $38.5 million. About $22 million of that comes in restricted "categorical" funds, much of it targeted to poverty-related issues.
In the shadow of the high-flying Palo Alto Unified School District, the K-8 Ravenswood has kept a sharp eye on test scores and made slow but steady progress in educating its 3,500 students, 76 percent of whom are English learners and more than 85 percent of whom are considered low-income.
Ravenswood's latest Academic Performance Index score is 715 — far below Palo Alto's 926 — but up little by little from 688 in 2010, 666 in 2009 and 637 the year before that.
"The story has changed here," said Renu Nanda, executive director of the independent Ravenswood Education Foundation, who occupies a small office down the hall from Superintendent Maria De La Vega.
"When I moved here it was doom and gloom. Now it's less dramatic, but so many positive things are happening in terms of accountability and outcomes for kids."
The foundation raised $1.2 million last year — much of it from outside sources — and has channeled that into summer academies and extended academic hours for children.
It also helps manage an army of volunteers, including about 100 who visit classrooms to offer science lab to middle-school students.
"If you can capture their imagination in science, engineering and math at that age, they'll be pulled along by a love of learning," Nanda said, adding that Bosch Healthcare has issued a challenge grant to support middle-school science in the district.
The Ravenswood Education Foundation is supporting the launch of a new technology initiative this fall led by award-winning teacher Robert Pronovost, a Stanford University graduate who has taught in the district since 2007.
East Palo Alto's challenges have attracted scores of energetic young educators like Pronovost, either to district campuses or to the variety of alternatives that have sprung up, including charter schools like East Palo Alto Charter School, East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, East Palo Alto Academy and independent schools Eastside College Preparatory School and Beechwood School.
So many alternatives are now available to Ravenswood families that Superintendent De La Vega questions whether the 26-year-old Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program — which permits up to 1,000 Ravenswood students of color to enroll in seven nearby districts — is still necessary.
The Tinsley program was crafted by lawyers as part of a 1986 settlement of a desegregation lawsuit.
"Things have changed and there's a lot of choice now," De La Vega said in an interview last week.
"To me it doesn't feel like there's this need to do Tinsley any more when there are so many choices for parents."
She figures she loses about 800 students — more than 18 percent of Ravenswood's potential enrollment — who exit the district every morning for other districts under the voluntary transfer program.
"Sure, I'd like them back. It's always healthy to keep children in their own communities and also it improves the quality of our programs," she said.
De La Vega said she hasn't compared achievement data to investigate whether Tinsley children are better served than children enrolled in Ravenswood, but "that's a question that's raised every year — how are they doing over there?"
She credits the foundation with boosting programs and morale in the district.
"They do a lot for teachers, keeping morale going, coffee carts, beginning-of-year gifts and adopt-a-classroom," she said.
A separate foundation, East Palo Alto Kids Foundation, last year gave about $225,000 in grants to teachers in schools throughout East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park.
After deep budget cuts last year — leading to increased class sizes, school closures and staff furlough days — Ravenswood begins the 2012-13 academic year in about the same situation, De La Vega said.
Class sizes will remain at 25 in K-3 and 31 in grades 4 through 8 and furlough days will continue.
In a Sept. 20 grand opening, the district will inaugurate a "new" school — the dual-immersion Los Robles, where Spanish speakers will learn English and English speakers will learn Spanish.
The objective, said De La Vega, is that "when you get out of eighth grade you should be able to speak and write in both languages." Los Robles is opening as a K-6 campus, with plans to add a new grade for the next two years.
On Oct. 11, Ravenswood's seven principals will present their plans and priorities to the Board of Education.
Though steady for this year, the district is bracing for possible failure of Gov. Jerry Brown's November tax initiative. That outcome would trigger a significant $441-per-student cut in academic year 2013-14.
"We're holding our breath for November, trying to keep the faith and be optimistic," De La Vega said.
Staff writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.