A Stanford banner hung outside the classroom of first-grade teacher Maricela Montoy at the East Palo Alto Charter School.
Inside, a couple dozen children -- dressed in the school uniform of khakis and a white polo shirt -- sat cross-legged in rows on a rug. All eyes were on Montoy, a recent Stanford University graduate, who stood at the whiteboard.
A small boy named Baltazar, designated as that day's "greeter," rose from the group. Trying his hardest to look a visitor in the eye, he offered his hand and explained that the class at the moment was working on reading -- sounding out the word "porcupine," to be exact.
Attention to detail is critical in the labor-intensive enterprise of education. And East Palo Alto Charter School, or EPACS as it is known, seems to have many details right.
The school earned an impressive 842 on California's 2009 Academic Performance Index -- better than 80 percent of all California schools and in the very top tier of schools with similar low-income demographics.
That kind of success has parents flocking to get their children into East Palo Alto Charter, a publicly funded charter school. With more applicants than the 420 available spots, admission is by lottery.
The burgeoning of charter schools and other educational options for children in East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park has vastly altered the landscape in a community long known for its less-than-desirable public schools.
Families have more choices than ever before. Those include improved public neighborhood schools, charter schools and private schools where tuition is subsidized or covered entirely by philanthropists. Stanford University has joined the effort, sponsoring two of the community's five charter schools.
Choices also include 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.
The educational restart in East Palo Alto has attracted a new generation of bright and passionate educators determined to do whatever it takes to make a difference in the lives of students.
"It takes a lot, but don't these kids deserve it?" asked Mike Berman, a Stanford graduate who has spent the past six years teaching, mentoring and counseling at EPACS and its high-school counterpart, East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, also a public charter school.
"What else are we to do? Why shouldn't this be one of the best schools in the country?"
The reformers have had major, if unintended effects -- for both good and ill -- on the "traditional" schools, the five elementary and two middle schools that comprise the non-charter portion of the Ravenswood City School District.
On one hand, Ravenswood schools are widely acknowledged to be improving, prodded in part by the competition. On the other hand, the multitude of alternatives for children has drained about 2,100 students from the regular schools, and with them, the accompanying state revenue. (Approximately 3,000 students attend the public neighborhood schools.)
"We're all working toward the same end, but oftentimes it becomes competitive," Ravenswood Superintendent Maria De La Vega said.
"I know it's not their intent, but when you take (students) away it makes it more difficult to work through those challenges.
"My role as superintendent is to protect the district and make sure we're left with the ability to provide a quality education."
California has 750 charter schools with an enrollment of 276,000 students, according to a recent report by the San Mateo County Grand Jury.
Five charters operate within the boundaries of the Ravenswood school district. They are the East Palo Alto Charter and its affiliated high school, the Phoenix Academy, both managed by Aspire Public Schools, a nonprofit charter-school operator; Stanford-affiliated East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School and East Palo Alto Academy High School; and the K-8 Edison-Brentwood Academy, operated by the for-profit EdisonLearning Inc.
Intended to provide educational choice, charter schools are public schools freed from many of the state regulations that bind traditional schools.
They typically operate under a three- to five-year charter with a sponsoring school district -- a kind of performance contract outlining the school's mission, program and metrics for success. They must reflect the racial balance of the surrounding community and also are required to serve special education students.
At the end of a charter's term, depending on academic results as measured by state standardized tests and other conditions of the charter, the sponsoring agency decides whether or not to renew the charter.
Instilling a college-prep culture is a huge priority for most if not all the schools in Ravenswood, and it begins early.
At East Palo Alto Charter and the Phoenix Academy, classrooms are named for colleges. There's UC San Diego, Duke, Occidental, Brown and many more.
"Just naming things after colleges helps push that into the kids' consciousness from the very beginning," Berman said.
"Instead of saying, 'I'm in Ms. Baker's class,' they say, 'I'm in Stanford,' or 'I'm in Longhorns.'"
The college focus also adds cheer to the campus, with colorful banners hanging from every doorway.
The first-graders in Ms. Montoy's "Stanford" classroom are known as "the trees."
At Phoenix Academy, a student who doesn't feel like wearing his or her uniform to school always may substitute college gear without penalty.
At East Palo Alto Academy Elementary, Stanford women's basketball player Sarah Boothe recently visited and stressed to the children that, sports aside, strong academics are essential for students if they are to find a place in the world.
The constant focus on college reinforces that "you have to expect hard work and excellence from yourself," Phoenix college counselor Berman said, sitting in the makeshift campus, a former warehouse. College banners and slogans invoking personal responsibility hang throughout the building.
As he walks the halls, both at Phoenix and its affiliated East Palo Alto Charter, Berman greets every student by name.
"It's really hard for these kids to have high expectations for themselves if their school doesn't have that with them, because their society doesn't. We're fighting an uphill battle when they leave here because out on the street, in their neighborhood, in other communities, people don't expect them to succeed."
Berman tells of a student who was recruited to Phoenix in his sophomore year after the teen failed every freshman class except P.E. at a large public high school.
"Whose fault is that?" Berman asked. "Certainly it's the student's fault.
"But no one grabbed him by the ear and said, 'Come to class. You can do this, and I'm going to make sure that you meet your potential.'"
The student, now a senior and a member of what will be Phoenix's first graduating class next June, was accepted last week to California State University, East Bay.
East Palo Alto's own public high school, Ravenswood, was closed in 1976. Today, students from the K-8 Ravenswood district have a 65 percent high school dropout rate after they fan out to various campuses in the Sequoia Union High School District, including Woodside, Sequoia, Carlmont and Menlo Atherton.
But East Palo Alto's educational reformers have proven that things could be otherwise.
East Palo Alto Academy High strongly outperforms Sequoia's comprehensive high schools when it comes to graduating students with a college-prep curriculum under their belts. Ninety percent of its students continue their education in college.
Eastside College Preparatory School, a private middle- and high school founded in 1996 by Chris Bischof and Helen Kim, retains most if not all of its students, and 100 percent of its graduates go on to four-year colleges, including some of the most competitive in the nation.
The three-year-old Phoenix Academy will graduate its first seniors next June. So far, every senior has filed at least four college applications. Acceptances are beginning to trickle in.
"The reason we started our high school is we couldn't stomach any more having kids being really successful here (at East Palo Alto Charter) and then going off to other schools and falling apart," Berman said.
A few years ago, he said, an East Palo Alto Charter teacher got his hands on Carlmont High School's Algebra 1 final exam and administered it to his eighth-graders.
"There were kids who got an A on that test who were placed back in Algebra 1 at Carlmont and failed it," he said.
The difference, Berman and others say, is the level of expectation and the intensive support offered by the hard-working (and mostly young) charter-school teachers and staff.
"We have high expectations, and we kick them in the butt a little bit. You don't lower the bar, but you support them in meeting those expectations."
Phoenix Academy is open for homework help until 6 p.m. every night. And teachers give out their phone numbers in case questions arise later.
"At Woodside, people wouldn't notice me," said Phoenix Academy senior Eduardo Magana, who spent his freshman year at Woodside High School. "Here, a lot of people know who I am.
"If I have questions when I'm doing my homework, I can call my biology teacher and she'll walk me through it."
Cutting-edge educational research and other resources are some of the benefits Stanford is working to offer students at its elementary and high schools, both named East Palo Alto Academy but also known as the "Stanford New Schools."
East Palo Alto students enjoy Stanford student tutors, contact with professors and perks such as holding their graduation ceremonies in Stanford's Memorial Auditorium.
Stanford's commitment, School of Education Dean Deborah Stipek said, "is really university-wide. I've been very touched by the way other deans and other department chairs have really been available to try to provide support and resources to meet the needs of the kids and families we're serving.
"The head of the athletic department said, 'Would your families like to go to football games?' When we found a lot of social-emotional health issues, I went to the chair of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and they had a team of folks down there very soon working with the families.
"These are all resources, and the charter school is the kind of conduit to doing those things."
Stanford entered the charter business in 2001 when, in collaboration with Aspire Public Schools, it launched East Palo Alto Academy High (then named East Palo Alto High School).
Aspire withdrew from the partnership in 2005, leaving Stanford to operate the high school and the three-year-old elementary school.
"I think we're still learning," Stipek said when asked if the elementary school has lived up to expectations.
"We've only been in business for three years. The high school is doing extremely well -- we've got 90 percent of our kids going to college.
"In a lot of ways we've been very successful in the kind of emotional support and family support, but our kids' skills are not up to what they need to be. It just takes time to get it right.
"So far I think we've learned more from the community than we've given them, but at some point we'll be able to give back more than we are now," Stipek said.
The East Palo Alto schools offer Stanford professors "grounding" for their research.
'This keeps us real," she said.
"It really grounds our faculty so that when we're preparing school leaders and teachers, we understand deeply the challenges they face."
Ultimately, the East Palo Alto charters will be a way for Stanford to formulate educational "best practices" it then can share with its network of large urban school districts around the country, Stipek said.
The charter schools also have focused on inculcating habits not measured by the standardized tests.
"We've tried to focus on all the other things not picked up by the accountability systems that are important for success in life, like being able to articulate an idea, to dress correctly, to be on time, shake hands, look people in the eye, present ideas with self-confidence and listen to feedback and take it gracefully," Stipek said.
"These are very important skills we feel our graduates need to have."
In time, the university hopes to bring resources and professional development opportunities into East Palo Alto, not just for its own charters but for the whole district.
Stanford's commitment to East Palo Alto sealed the deal for Richard Mojarro, a seasoned educator hired to become the new principal at East Palo Alto Academy Elementary this fall.
"I came here because of Stanford," said Mojarro, previously principal of a 4,000-student high school in Long Beach.
"Stanford has a lot of great researchers that I admire: Claude Goldenberg, Linda Darling-Hammond -- these people are rock stars.
"I've never seen a prestigious university like Stanford stake its reputation on the line to serve an underrepresented community.
"That's all I've worked with -- underrepresented communities -- and that really touched me," Mojarro said.
Mojarro described his school's educational approach as less "rigid" than that of many other charter schools.
"I read the research. I scrutinize it, and then I pick and choose," said Mojarro, who describes himself as a "change agent."
"Changes here are to be research-based instructional practices that work for our kids. We need to be a data-driven organization.
"As a practitioner, I'm always looking out for what we can do better," he added. "We want every one of our students to be college graduates, and we're making a commitment to make that happen."
A laser-like focus on curriculum is what distinguishes Edison-Brentwood Academy, the district's fifth charter school. It's operated by EdisonLearning Inc., which was launched by entrepreneur Chris Whittle and former Yale University President Benno Schmidt to pioneer the use of private management to transform low-performing urban schools.
On a recent California STAR Test, the K-8 Edison-Brentwood significantly outperformed Ravenswood's traditional schools as well as East Palo Alto Academy Elementary in both English Language Arts and Mathematics. The only school scoring better was East Palo Alto Charter.
Principal Tami Espinosa attributes Edison-Brentwood's results to a stable, well-trained staff and ensuring the curriculum is followed "with fidelity." Edison-Brentwood, she noted, uses the same textbooks as the rest of the district: Open Court and Everyday Mathematics.
Edison-Brentwood has operated in East Palo Alto since about 2000. As a "dependent charter," it is in a slightly different category than the other four "independent charters," Espinosa said.
Edison-Brentwood also is the only East Palo Alto charter operating under a union contract with its teachers.
"We are a neighborhood school. Our funding goes through Ravenswood and we pay a fee to Edison to manage us. We're given less money because we're paying two bosses, but we have some autonomy," Espinosa said.
"We can choose our own curriculum and choose our own school day. We have a separate agreement with our teachers so we have a longer school day -- we're in class from 7:30 a.m. until 2:45 p.m."
Edison-Brentwood also boasts specialized teachers in art, music and P.E., which frees up 45 minutes per day of the regular teachers' time to collaborate.
"It is very structured time for our teachers to have good conversations about best practices," Espinosa said. "On Mondays they look at academic data, on Tuesdays behavior, and so forth."
All told, the initiatives to improve education in Ravenswood have gained the approval not just of its participants but outside observers as well.
The San Mateo County Grand Jury has urged the Ravenswood school trustees to continue their support for charter schools. (For the grand jury's full report, see www.sanmateocourt.org.)
"The charter schools that have been operating for five years or more are making solid positive contributions to student performance and have highlighted the importance of parent involvement and maintenance of high student expectations," the grand jury said in May.
"The local charter schools and Stanford University are willing partners with energy, ideas and resources to contribute to district-wide improvement."