A tight focus on academics has slowly but surely boosted test scores in East Palo Alto schools.
The kids and teachers have worked hard -- but Renu Nanda thinks outside volunteers deserve some small credit as well.
Nanda, a lawyer and resident of Menlo Park, is the new executive director of the Ravenswood Education Foundation, which has raised more than $3 million in its four-year history and brokered outside assistance for the hardscrabble Ravenswood City School District. The district serves 3,800 K-8 children from East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park.
Longer school days and summer academies have been top funding priorities for the foundation -- "increased learning time is one of those things that we know works," Nanda said.
The Ravenswood district celebrated a 79-point gain -- from 636 to 715 -- over three years in its Academic Performance Index (API), released last week.
That may not compare to Palo Alto's 926, but it's progress for a district where 80 percent of children are considered low-income; about two-thirds are still learning English; and 30 percent every year are brand-new enrollees.
Four schools -- Brentwood, Cesar Chavez, Costano and Willow Oaks -- exceeded the median API score for other California schools with similar demographics. One school, James Flood, precisely hit the median. Three others -- Belle Haven, Green Oaks and McNair -- came in below the median API score for similar schools.
"Having great schools is an incremental process, and it takes a long time," Nanda said in an interview in her small office at Ravenswood district headquarters.
"We're showing that we can do it, but it's still a community of high need. Less than half the parents are high school graduates in this district -- compared to the three-quarters in surrounding communities that have graduate degrees."
Nanda first came to the foundation as a board member more than two years ago and has chaired the development committee and served as board vice-president. She previously worked at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Low Income Investment Fund in San Francisco.
In August she took over the Ravenswood foundation's executive post from founding director Charley Scandlyn, formerly a pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, who has returned to the church staff.
The Menlo Park Presbyterian congregation has generated major financial and volunteer power for Ravenswood schools, particularly during the church's "Compassion Weekend" each spring, which brings out thousands.
"We've had volunteers in the classroom, volunteers adopting classrooms, a whole teacher-appreciation initiative. There's a lot of community support," Nanda said.
The foundation's website lists additional broad-based support from local corporations and foundations, as well as from 700 individual donors.
"We're trying to bridge the desire of the community to help -- with all the resources it can bring to bear -- with the needs of the district," Nanda said.
"The district staff is busy educating, teaching, leading, running schools. When you have an outside company that says, 'Hey, we'd like to do something,' it's good to make it easy for them."
Besides adding classroom hours for Ravenswood students, top foundation goals are promoting parent involvement and helping eighth-graders transition to high school.
The foundation last year hired a "parent-outreach coordinator" for the district, and more than 500 district parents have donated to the foundation, Nanda said.
The eighth-grade transition project is still in the planning stages.
Since the closure of Ravenswood High School 35 years ago, Ravenswood students have had to split up for high school, fanning out to Menlo-Atherton, Woodside and Carlmont. Rumors of high dropout rates abound, but reliable data is hard to come by since the high school district does not track the scattered Ravenswood students as a group.
"Our next frontier is how our children are doing in high school, and whether they're succeeding in high school and beyond," Nanda said.
"We've supported good teachers, excellent administrators and engaged parents, and I'm confident our (standardized test) scores will continue to go up."