Stanford University was rebuffed Wednesday in its bid to renew the charter of a struggling East Palo Alto elementary school it oversees.
Citing poor academic performance and ineffective behavior management in the classroom, trustees of the Ravenswood City School District voted 3-2 to deny a new five-year charter to Stanford New Schools. The Stanford-affiliated nonprofit operates an elementary school and a separate high school, which together serve about 550 students from East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park.
"Whether your name is Stanford or something else, it's all about the data," trustee Larry Moody told a standing-room-only audience of parents, teachers, students and Stanford professors who had come out to support the schools.
"Certain levels of performance had to be adhered to."
Trustees left open a chance that the two Stanford schools could survive for at least two more years, but only under strict supervision. They asked Ravenswood Superintendent Maria De La Vega to work out terms of such a deal with Stanford, and bring it back to them for a final decision.
Wednesday's vote came after passionate, sometimes tearful, pleas from parents, students and Stanford professors to save the school community they have taken years to build.
"Our babies can't be reflected in a spreadsheet. Our spirit is way too big for a list," said Lola Rockwell, whose granddaughter, Najwa, is a third grader at the school, East Palo Alto Academy.
"We've poured our hearts, sweat and spirit into this school. Where will my child go if you close our academic world down?"
The vote also followed conflicting interpretation of reams of often-contradictory state data.
Stanford argued that its state Academic Performance Index "similar school ranking" scores of six in 2006-2007 and seven in 2007-2008 technically qualified it for automatic renewal under state criteria. A drop in that score to three in 2008-2009 was attributable to "a significant change in the group of state-identified similar schools," Stanford said.
In recommending against charter renewal, Ravenswood Superintendent De La Vega viewed the same data differently.
Saying the 2006 to 2008 scores represented only the better-performing Stanford high school, she argued that the drop in the 2009 score reflected a serious "downward drag" of including the poor-performing elementary school in the score.
"In a technical sense I suppose we could say they have met the criteria," said San Mateo County counsel Tim Fox, summarizing De La Vega's analysis.
"However, the overarching question for charter renewal is whether the charter petition represents a sound educational program and whether the charter petitioners are likely to succeed in implementing the program it describes.
"So when the data show there's a problem -- even if they technically meet the metrics -- it's a matter of consideration for the board."
Trustees expressed frustration that the K-12 charter renewal came as an all-or-nothing package, failing to distinguish between the higher performing Stanford high school and the struggling elementary school, which has operated for a shorter time.
Stanford officials insisted that, if given a few more years to succeed, their recently implemented reforms would put the elementary school on a sound footing and provide community benefits for years to come.
"We understand our elementary school has not performed as well as it should, and we know we have work to do," Stanford School of Education Dean Deborah Stipek said.
"We've dedicated ourselves to that in very serious ways this year with excellent support from the district. If you look at how well the high school was doing in its first three years of existence -- if it had been reviewed at that moment -- you probably would have denied it.
"Its API (Academic Performance Index) scores were actually lower than our elementary school is. It takes a few years to get going in the right direction."
Stipek noted the Stanford high school has a 96 percent college acceptance rate, that 53 percent of its graduates are admitted to four-year colleges and that Stanford raises several hundred thousand dollars a year to provide college scholarships for its high school graduates.
When parents pleaded they would have few alternatives if the charter schools are shut down, Ravenswood officials seemed annoyed that the improving quality of the district's own neighborhood schools are frequently overlooked.
"All the right things are in place in the Ravenswood district," said Aaron Williamson, a Stanford graduate and president of the Ravenswood Teachers Association.
"In fact, all the other schools in the Ravenswood district have higher scores than the charter does.
"You have seven other schools to choose from in this district. We'd welcome you with open arms, and the parents would welcome you."
Trustee Saree Mading, herself an administrator at another charter school, East Palo Alto Charter School (EPACS), said, "I'm a big charter fan, but I'm so tired of hearing that what you've accomplished at Stanford New Schools, EPACS or Edison (charter school) is not able to be accomplished right here within the Ravenswood City School District.
"That is why I ran (for school board). Because I know it can be accomplished right here in our own schools.
"When I see how parents have run from one school to the next, not staying to build a community, it frustrates me."
School board chairwoman Sharifa Wilson said the district was embarassed recently when the state's list of "worst-performing schools" contained three schools from Ravenswood -- two of them charters. One was the Stanford elementary charter (Stanford has appealed, according to the Stanford Daily) and the other was a charter shuttered in 2008 for poor performance.
"We have a responsibility to see that the children from this community are receiving a good quality education and, it frustrates me also, we are measured by these scores and are held accountable for your failure," Wilson said.
Philanthropist, volunteer and former teacher Tashia Morgridge, who has been active in the district since the 1980s, urged the board to renew Stanford's charter.
"We're all here with the same goal -- the education of the children of Ravenswood," Morgridge said.
"This is humbling, challenging work. Success does not come easily or quickly. The district knows this. Stanford knows this. That means we work harder."
With changes now in place, Morgridge expressed confidence the Stanford elementary school would substantially improve.
In the final 3-2 tally, trustees Wilson, Moody and Mading voted to deny Stanford's petition for renewal. Trustees John Bostic and Marcelino Lopez supported Stanford.
A subsequent motion, asking the superintendent to return with a plan for a possible two-year extension under heavy supervision, passed 4-1, with the support of all trustees except Wilson.