Oprah highlights East Palo Alto charter school

Monday's segment on educational inequities previews nation-wide movie opening Friday

When "Oprah" panned to their campus Monday, teachers at the East Palo Alto Charter School (EPACS) emitted shrieks of recognition and delight.

Teachers gathered in the school's multi-purpose room to watch the Oprah Winfrey segment, devoted to educational inequities and previewing Friday's selected nationwide opening of the documentary "Waiting for Superman."

Among the schools highlighted were two local charter campuses -- the K-8 EPACS and Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City.

Winfrey's guests included philanthropist Bill Gates, Washington D.C. School Superintendent Michelle Rhee, New York community organizer Geoffrey Canada and "Waiting for Superman" director Davis Guggenheim, all advocating high-performing charter schools as a way to boost educational attainment and U.S. competitiveness.

Some schools, "particularly the charters, have shown us we can do it," said Gates, whose foundation has invested heavily in public education, including both charter and non-charter schools.

"We should shut down the bad charters, just like we should shut down the bad high schools," Gates said.

The show concluded with Winfrey handing $1 million checks to representatives of six charter school organizations, including Aspire Public Schools, operator of EPACS and 29 other California charter schools serving about 10,000 students.

"It's so amazing to have a little bit of recognition and appreciation to reward teachers for their hard work," EPACS Principal Laura Ramirez said as she chatted with teachers after the "Oprah" airing.

"We're so proud of our students' accomplishments across the organization."

The 13-year-old EPACS runs almost year-round. Students began the current academic year in July.

The school operates under a five-year, renewable charter contract with East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City School District.

Admission is by lottery and the school's waiting list is nearly as large as the 450 students who attend the school, one official said.

Fifty-five percent of EPACS students are classified as "English Language Learners," 80 percent are Latino, 18 percent are African-American and 2 percent are Asian or Pacific Islanders.

Eighty-seven percent have family incomes low enough to qualify for the free or reduced-price federal lunch program.

Last week, the school posted a score of 882 on California's 2010 Growth Academic Performance Index -- a 40-point jump over last year and a score approaching those of some schools in the top-ranked Palo Alto Unified School District.

Ramirez attributed the success to high expectations and hard work.

EPACS footage shown on "Oprah" Monday highlighted the five-minute pep rally the school holds in its colorful courtyard each morning at 8 a.m.

The students line up by class and chant: "Hey, EPACS, what do you say? Every person will attend college someday."

Each class then calls out the name of the college its teacher attended, with the college banners held up as symbols. By 8:05 the courtyard is quiet as the students have filed to their classrooms.

Shots of the pep rally used on "Oprah" was filmed three years ago and included students Marcus Law, Abigail Bernal, Jennifer Sacor, Natalie Medina, Cynthia Trevejo and Machol Mading.

Also appearing on "Oprah" Monday was Redwood City student Emily Jones, who said she felt lucky to be able to attend Redwood City's Summit Preparatory Charter High School instead of Woodside High School.

Although ranked by Newsweek in the top 6 percent of U.S. high schools, only 62 out of every 100 freshmen eventually graduate and just 32 percent of graduates meet entrance requirements for California's four-year universities, Guggenheim said.

Jones said that because she doesn't test well, she would have been "put into the low classes" at Woodside.

At Summit, she said, "Everybody takes the same classes, even though you might not be the best speller or the best at taking tests. Everybody's taking the same thing and it's a great place to be."

Jones won admission to Summit through a lottery, in which there were 455 applicants for 110 spots. The Summit lottery is among the dramatic highlights of "Waiting for Superman."

Woodside High School Principal David Reilly said he became aware of the filming of "Waiting for Superman" in the spring of 2009.

"We offered for the filmmakers to learn more about Woodside and other schools in the Sequoia district, but the filmmakers declined," Reilly said in an e-mail Tuesday.

"Had they talked with us and visited our schools, the filmmakers likely would have avoided some of the mischaracterizations and misrepresentations in the film."

Reilly said 93 percent of Woodside's class of 2010 had plans to pursue post-secondary education, about half at four-year universities and the other half at community colleges.

"Information presented in "Waiting for Superman" about our graduates, and their preparation for college, will likely lead to some misperceptions about Woodside High School," Reilly said.

"Waiting for Superman" premiers at selected theaters Sept. 24; in San Francisco Oct. 1; and in Palo Alto Oct. 8.

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Like this comment
Posted by mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 22, 2010 at 9:42 am

Congrats to EPA Charter!! Ravenswood is doing it right by closing the low performing charters and supporting the good ones. And the Ravenswood scores are up, too.

Like this comment
Posted by JR
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 22, 2010 at 10:20 pm

The East Palo Alto Charter School and East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy Family have been exceeding all expectations for over 10 years now. It's great to see them getting some well-deserved praise and attention. Please support these schools as they are facing stiff state budget cuts. College for Certain!

Like this comment
Posted by BK
a resident of Nixon School
on Sep 23, 2010 at 9:02 am

I grew up in Palo Alto and taught at EPA Charter for four years. It's an amazing school achieving incredible success with all of its students. A large part of the success can be attributed to the dedication of the teachers, parents, and the tremendous support from the community. It does indeed take a village, but when that village comes together, the possibilities are endless. Congratulations to EPACS and EPAPA!

Like this comment
Posted by Arnie Mendoza
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 23, 2010 at 10:18 am

I am very proud of the acomplish that our school has achieved.I also want to thank our teachers,students and principal for all their hard work.Congratulations EPACS and EPAPA keep up the good work.GOD bless you all

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