As test scores inch upward in the Ravenswood City School district, which includes East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park, a plethora of charter schools and other alternatives hurt neighborhood schools, its superintendent said.
In her five years at the helm of the K-8 district, Maria De La Vega says she is making slow but steady headway on the district's motto, "journey to excellence," boosting state performance scores for each of the past three years.
But she regularly battles a loss of students, as families abandon neighborhood schools for what they consider better options.
In the Tinsley desegregation program alone, nearly 900 students depart Ravenswood each day to attend schools in neighboring school districts, including Palo Alto.
On top of that, Ravenswood students more recently have flocked to charter alternatives, taking state funding with them that would have gone to neighborhood schools.
Last year, for example, about a quarter of district students attended charter schools instead of their neighborhood school.
De La Vega said she lost "a whole sixth-grade class" several years ago when a Stanford University-sponsored charter operator, Stanford New Schools, opened East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School. (It has since closed.)
"Historically Ravenswood did not do well, so people see it that they're giving kids an opportunity," De La Vega said in an interview this week.
"But they don't see the consequences to the school district when so many go, and you're left with not enough students to provide a comprehensive program at each grade level."
De La Vega said she sees light at the end of the tunnel in Ravenswood's efforts to meet the terms of state and federal orders for improvement, both in academic results and in services to children with special needs.
After three years on the state's Program Improvement list, triggered by less than "adequate yearly progress" on state tests, De La Vega hopes to be dismissed from the program when she appears next year before the State Board of Education.
The Program Improvement process means Ravenswood is visited regularly by a county intervention team to monitor the district's progress toward its improvement plan.
"The interesting thing for me was that we had a plan when the state decided to impose some of these sanctions, and we were starting to show progress," she said.
"When the intervention team came in they basically just tweaked our plan and began monitoring it. Their reports to the state have always been favorable, showing signs of progress in API (Academic Performance Index) and AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress)."
Ravenswood's API currently stands at 688, up from 633 in 2007.
De La Vega also hopes the district will be released by 2014 from what has been 14 years of federal court monitoring of its special-education program. The court intervention came from a 1996 class action lawsuit by parents claiming children with disabilities were not getting adequate services.
Court-appointed monitor Mark Mlawer periodically flies in from Washington, D.C., to check on the district's progress and report to U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson.
Special-education students in Ravenswood are now completely mainstreamed and the district has no "special day" classes, De La Vega said.
De La Vega's immediate worries concern feared mid-year budget cuts from the state -- an anticipated $2 million to $4 million from an operating budget of $22 million. (Ravenswood gets another $17 million in restricted federal funds, much of it to address problems associated with student poverty levels.)
"There are rumors about mid-year cuts, and we're just beside ourselves trying to figure out how we're going to continue to survive," she said.