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A leader's challenge

After sanctions, rebuilding a culture of trust and results

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.

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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."

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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.

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A leader's challenge

After sanctions, rebuilding a culture of trust and results

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Dec 15, 2009, 5:01 pm

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.

Comments

michelle
East Palo Alto
on Dec 12, 2009 at 8:03 pm
michelle, East Palo Alto
on Dec 12, 2009 at 8:03 pm
Like this comment

As a former Ravenswood teacher, I find it negligent that this article did not mention the support of the New Teacher Center mentors in the district. They are the reason I stayed in the district for as long as I did (3 years). All of my instructional/professional support and focus on truly meeting students' needs came from NTC-not my principal or district staff. And, I did have success in my classroom. The problems with the district are the lack of strategic systems, not the students and community. When I left the district this past June, the culture was still one of blame, fear, and mistrust. Add a low salary, forced "fidelity" to scripted curriculum, lack of student enrichment, and "leaders" who lack instructional knowledge and vision...you wonder why teachers leave? Rather, I should say that most only stay because of the New Teacher Center.


Annonymous
East Palo Alto
on Dec 13, 2009 at 9:11 am
Annonymous, East Palo Alto
on Dec 13, 2009 at 9:11 am
Like this comment

I am appalled by the content of this article. Although I appreciate the positive approach the writer takes to the work Ravenswood is doing, as a teacher in East Palo Alto, I can guarantee you that one of the critical missing components in the RCSD is effective leadership both at school sites and in the district office. I suggest a follow-up article that asks teachers, students and parents what accounts for the gains in API and conversely what is responsible for high teacher turnover and low student enrollment.


teacher
East Palo Alto
on Dec 13, 2009 at 9:32 am
teacher, East Palo Alto
on Dec 13, 2009 at 9:32 am
Like this comment

As a teacher in East Palo Alto, it is great that our district is being recognized in a positive light. Unfortunately, that light has been shined in the wrong direction. Those who are making the changes in Ravenswood are those in the schools, most especially the teachers and the few administrators who have stayed beyond 1 or 2 years, along with the New Teacher Center's support. Without the support of NTC, the schools would be further behind than they were a few years ago.

The district office is still viewed as a place promoting "blame, anger, frustration and lack of trust", albeit less than at this same time a year ago, due to personnel changes. There is a fear of telling it as it is, for teachers in recent years have been fired for that, but I guarantee if you dig enough you will find teachers willing to tell you the truths of Ravenswood.


David Herrera
East Palo Alto
on Dec 14, 2009 at 9:38 pm
David Herrera, East Palo Alto
on Dec 14, 2009 at 9:38 pm
Like this comment

I am the principal of Cesar Chavez Academy, and a proud instructional leader. We currently enjoy an 8th algebra proficiency rate that is 22% above the state average. This past year, we had an API gain of 33 points, which was above the state average of 19 points. In my tenure at Chavez, staff turnover has dropped to nearly zero.

In my capacity as an administrator over the past seven years, I have collaborated with the New Teacher Center staff, district office staff, and most importantly, the teachers and families of Cesar Chavez Academy to build a climate of trust, mutual respect, and achievement.

I am pleased that there was a positive article written about our district. As the article points out, our task is Ravenswood is daunting. Given the constraints that we face (such as the state-level demand for curriculum fidelity), reaching successful outcomes for our children can often seem like an impossible task.

The support of those outside Ravenswood--funders, volunteers, non-profits--and the dedication and passion of those educators that commit to doing whatever it takes for our kids...that is what it will take to bring about a positive transformation in Ravenswood.


previous teacher at Ravenswood School District
East Palo Alto
on Dec 28, 2009 at 11:25 pm
previous teacher at Ravenswood School District, East Palo Alto
on Dec 28, 2009 at 11:25 pm
Like this comment

I believe that it is important for good reporters to not just speak about the Ravenswood School District in opinions. Instead, I believe that good journalism depends on exploring the results of imposed legal improvement mandates set forth by the State of California Department of Education. Are you aware of the State imposed improvement plan that was begun a year or more ago and is still in effect? If you go on to the district web site the plan is very strict due to a strong lack of academic growth in many areas. Please look at this before you write a fluff article.

This superintendent in my opinion has not done a good job for the past four years. The school board meetings are not reviewed on the district web site (most school districts put the minutes of each school board meeting on their web for public view). The current district web site has information on it that is years old. It in my humble opinion reflects a leader that is not competent in many many ways and I am only so sorry to say that the school board is not letting her go and finding someone new. I know there are some fine teachers however rather than give an opinion I would encourage all to view the facts on the district web site (see State Mandated Improvement Plan).

The children deserve a better leader because education shapes their future. Your fine reporter should take some time and go read on the district web site the current State mandated improvements for the school district and give the public a sort of report card of the results. This would be good reporting because it would reflect the facts rather than the opinion of the situation.

Too many Principals look through the rose colored glasses of interpreting facts in ways that really might not reflect the whole. I suggest that if one really wishes to know how a particular school is doing then one should view the schools STAR test results and compare it to other schools and get a more realistic view of reality. One can only wonder why such so called leaders remain in their positions...perhaps it is due to reasons the reporter should look into for if a school is in a Program Improvement status for many many years, I believe the State asks that Principal to move on. I could be mistaken. Can the reporter review this and write another article.

A concerned teacher


previous teacher at Ravenswood School District
East Palo Alto
on Dec 28, 2009 at 11:59 pm
previous teacher at Ravenswood School District, East Palo Alto
on Dec 28, 2009 at 11:59 pm
Like this comment

I wrote the comment directly above. After further thought, I wish to correct the record. The current superintendent of Ravenswood School District is competent. Highly competent. What I meant to say is that the results of her leadership has not been fruitful in my humble opinion due to the leadership role.

As with a teacher in a classroom or a principal at a school, if results are not good then rather than try to reason why,...after so many years in a role, I believe it is only right for that person to give another person the leadership role. Often those in such situations such as teachers, Principals, or High Level Administration do not leave on their own.

It is my opinion that Ravenswood School District needs new leadership to better review all those in positions of authority by reviewing the facts of progress.

I thought the mark of a good reporter was to avoid opinions but instead state the facts in clear ways so that the reader can draw his or her own opinions.

It seems that the role of the reporter is not what it once was...this is sad too.

Concerned Parent and Teacher


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