East Palo Alto school test results soar -- too late

Boost in test scores too late to save Stanford charter school, shuttered in June

Success is bittersweet for Stanford University School of Education Dean Deborah Stipek.

California Star Test results shot up this spring for students in the Stanford-sponsored charter school, East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School.

But results of the May test, posted last week, were too late to save the three-year-old school.

Citing poor academic performance, trustees of East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City School District voted April 22 to shut down the charter school. It closed its doors in June. Stanford continues to operate a charter high school in East Palo Alto, the East Palo Alto Academy High School.

The Stanford elementary school's approximately 250 students -- who, along with their parents, had packed the Ravenswood trustees' meeting to plead for renewing their school's charter -- will go back to attending neighborhood campuses when the new school year opens this week.

At the time of the trustees' 3-1 closure vote in April, Stanford argued the decision was being made on skimpy data -- barely more than two years' worth of test scores.

But Ravenswood trustees -- who oversee seven schools serving children in East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park -- weren't having it.

They opted instead to accept the closure recommendation of Superintendent Maria De La Vega, who cited poor academics and difficulties with classroom management at the school.

She said the schools programs were inadequate and Stanford was unlikely to be able to improve them sufficiently.

The vote to close the school was conducted in less than five minutes, with no discussion by board members.

A week earlier, trustees had voted 3-2 to deny a full, five-year charter renewal to Stanford, but left open the possibility the school could survive another two years under heavy supervision.

Stanford heavyweights, including Stipek and Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who led Barack Obama's education transition team, were kept waiting for hours and not asked to speak.

"Whether your name is Stanford or something else, it's all about the data," trustee Larry Moody told the standing-room-only audience April 14.

In hindsight, Stipek said she learned far more than she bargained for about the challenges -- educational, financial and political -- of mounting a charter school.

"What's been shown over and over is that start-up schools take a few years to get off the ground," she said in an interview Friday.

"We were pretty confident our scores would look good this year but it's almost painful to see because it's a few months too late.

In English Language Arts, the school went from having 54 percent to 70 percent of second graders scoring at "basic" or above achievement levels between 2009 and 2010. Among third graders in English Language Arts, the jump was from 35 percent to 64 percent. There was no 2009 data for fourth and fifth graders, and thus no basis for comparison.

In math, second graders scoring "basic" and above jumped from 52 percent in 2009 to 81 percent in 2010. Among third graders, the jump was from 38 percent to 71 percent.

"If you look at many charter schools, the first few years don't look that great -- and then there's often a jump."

Stipek said the early scores of East Palo Alto Charter School (EPACS) -- now the top-performing public school in East Palo Alto -- were even worse than those of the Stanford school.

"If (EPACS) had been judged on the same criteria, they would have been shut down a long time ago and we wouldn't have seen the incredible good work they're doing now," Stipek said.

The 13-year-old, K-8 EPACS had a 2009 Academic Performance Index score approaching that of some elementary schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District. With high demand for spots at the public charter school run by Aspire Public Schools, admission to EPACS is by lottery.

De La Vega said today she is "pleased to see the progress of the students at Stanford Elementary on their CST's for School Year 2009-2010.

"Our decision not to allow Stanford New School to operate grades K-4 was based on 2009 data and programmatic issues," she added.

Stipek said there's a "totally built-in conflict of interest" in having a local school district be the sponsoring agency of a charter school.

Because of students returning from the closed Stanford school, the Ravenswood district begins the school year with greater enrollment -- and thus more state funding -- than it had last year.

"It's almost hard to believe that the very organizations that have the biggest disincentive to charter a school are the chartering organizations in California.

Ravenswood's enrollment is boosted this fall not only from students coming from the Stanford charter elementary school, but also from the high-performing Edison Brentwood charter school. The for-profit EdisonLearning Inc. of New York, which operated the school for the past 10 years, announced in May it was withdrawing from managing the school for financial reasons.

Largely because of students from Stanford and Edison, Ravenswood begins the school year this week with an enrollment of 3,578, a 17-percent boost over last fall.

Because the district receives state funds based on enrollment, its operating budget also will be higher.

Stipek, who recently announced she will step down as education dean in the summer of 2011, said Stanford remains committed to the Ravenswood City School District, and to students in the charter high school Stanford continues to operate.

"The high school is providing an important service to students in East Palo Alto, who are graduating and going to college at a much higher rate," she said.

"And we're raising funds for them to be able to afford college and bringing a lot of mental health resources and a lot of other programs.

"I'm hoping they're valuable enough that we'll figure out how to maintain that high school because I think it's really important for the community and it's also important for the (Stanford) School of Education."

Related story:

Charter schools boost results in East Palo Alto

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