How do you change the culture of a school district?
That is the task Maria De La Vega saw before her when she became superintendent of the Ravenswood City School District four years ago.
The low-performing K-8 district, which spans East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park, labored under government sanctions to change its practices in nearly every arena.
De La Vega, a mild-mannered veteran school administrator, continues to swim in an alphabet soup of regulations.
They include a federal court order to provide "full inclusion" for special-education students as well as federal and state orders to boost academic achievement and improve services to the 73 percent of students for whom English is not their first language.
But things are looking up.
"Historically we know that Ravenswood has not been able to reach its goal of all students succeeding," De La Vega said in a recent interview in her tidy office on Euclid Avenue in East Palo Alto.
"However, we put a strategic plan in place three and a half years ago, and we're definitely on the right path of moving toward what we believe is a journey to excellence."
Other educators attest that De La Vega is moving in the right direction.
"The Ravenswood school system has really gotten a lot better in the last years under Maria's leadership," said Deborah Stipek, dean of the Stanford University School of Education. "She has been a very good and very strong superintendent."
Richard Mojarro, principal of the Stanford University-affiliated East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School, said he respects De La Vega.
"She has a very difficult situation and I feel for her, but I think she's doing a wonderful job maintaining order and accountability for student achievement," he said.
As De La Vega has struggled to comply with federal and state mandates while "trying to rebuild a new school district," academic results, as measured by the state's Academic Performance Index, have inched up over the past several years. The non-charter public schools' test scores showed an average of 4 percent growth in 2009 over 2008, with students at Costano Elementary School achieving a 10 percent increase.
"When I arrived it was sort of an atmosphere of blame, anger, frustration and lack of trust," she said.
"In order to change that, we had to realize that only we could change it, and we had to work together.
"The aim was to develop professional learning communities, not only among our teachers but among our administrators.
"I feel like a broken record when I speak to staff about the 'three Rs' — responsibility, results and relationships," she said.
De La Vega's relationship with East Palo Alto's charter schools is, predictably, an uneasy one.
Even as the charters siphon off students and their accompanying state revenue, the district is legally bound to accommodate many of their needs, including providing adequate facilities. None of that makes De La Vega's already tough job any easier.
Ravenswood loses about 900 students a year to the court-ordered Tinsley program, a 23-year-old desegregation plan that allows 160 non-white kindergarteners each year to enroll in neighboring Palo Alto, Menlo Park and other area school districts as far north as Belmont.
Although the district has not sought to alter the terms of Tinsley, De La Vega questions the fairness of losing 160 kindergarteners a year, a number that was set decades ago, when Ravenswood's enrollment was three or four times what it is today.
Another 1,200 Ravenswood students attend K-8 charter schools.
All told, the district loses about 40 percent of its potential enrollment to charter schools or the Tinsley desegregation program, leaving around 3,000 students in the district's seven traditional schools.
"As far as academics go, we're on the right track. Our biggest challenge is the budget and enrollment," she said.
"How long can we hold onto the side of the cliff by our fingertips and hope that the economy gets better?"
De La Vega said she is grateful for the vote of confidence of major corporations including HP and Cisco Systems, which have provided major support to the district.
A reinvigorated Ravenswood Education Foundation, with substantial backing from the membership of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, also has been key in managing outside help, she said.
"Prior to that we had at least 100 different groups who had at one time or another tried to support the district. It becomes quite a managing challenge when you have minimal resources in terms of people."
De La Vega spends much of her time ensuring compliance with the federal and state orders to improve performance.
"We can see we're moving forward and students are benefiting with the changes being made. But it can be difficult to convince the bureaucracy that this takes time," she said.