The Stanford University School of Education has a nationally recognized track record in research and training, but its decade-old venture in hands-on management of schools has been rough going.
A Stanford-affiliated elementary school was forced to close last year after losing its charter in a vote by trustees of East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City School District, who cited poor performance.
Stanford's remaining charter high school, East Palo Alto Academy, has earned dismal scores on California standardized tests, failing to meet growth targets in two of the last three rounds.
But the 245-student high school -- serving mostly youth from East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park -- has forged ahead under new leadership, which arrived a year ago.
A recent visit to the academy -- housed in the former Menlo Oaks School on Pope Street west of U.S. Highway 101 -- found an orderly campus with students in small classes, engaged in the usual high school work of algebra, English, geometry and government.
Though offering extra academic support, the school eschews uniforms, mandatory extended hours and other back-to-basics features that have become standard fare for high-achieving charter-school operators such as KIPP and Aspire Public Schools.
Such requirements can have a perverse and discouraging effect on students who are at a high risk of dropping out, said Kevin Sved, CEO of Stanford New Schools. The university created Stanford New Schools to manage the East Palo Alto charters, combining university resources and faculty expertise for the benefit of underserved students.
"Those (extra-high requirements) can have a very negative impact on students' chances of obtaining a high school diploma," he said.
Sved said the academy's test scores are low because many students arrive at the school poorly prepared.
For example, last year's entering ninth-graders averaged a fourth-grade reading level, and many transfer students who have been "unsuccessful" elsewhere are admitted, he said.
Senior Faauuga Saofanua said he boosted his GPA from 1.2 at Carlmont High School to 3.7 at East Palo Alto Academy because "teachers here really care for you and stay after school for long hours.
"If you need help, they'll be there for you," said the basketball player, who took advantage of the school's credit-recovery program to make up enough units to plan on college next year.
"The many interventions we have in place for the students pay off as they reach their senior year," Sved said, noting that 89 percent of the school's 2011 graduates were admitted to college. That includes 52 percent accepted to four-year colleges, more than double the rate for similar students in California.
Principal Yetunde Reeves, who grew up in East Palo Alto, was recruited to the academy last year from the Oakland Unified School District, where she had been principal of the EXCEL High School on the McClymond campus in West Oakland.
"It's exciting to be in a small school where we attract students who haven't had success in other environments," Reeves said, noting that the academy this fall enrolled 15 students from large high schools who needed a "second chance."
"We're trying to be strategic about how teachers give kids extra support while keeping to grade-level standards."
Reeves noted that the African-American majority of her East Palo Alto youth has shifted to a Hispanic majority today.
Sixty-four percent of the school's students are classified as English-language learners.
"We definitely try to build on that strength by offering Spanish for native speakers, and they do very well when they get to the AP exam, but that doesn't necessarily translate into good scores in English," Sved said.
The school maintains close ties with Stanford with regular faculty interaction and use of Memorial Auditorium for graduation ceremonies each year.
To boost the school climate, the academy last year hired two young Stanford graduates to coach boys and girls basketball.
"That's added a lot of vibrancy to student life here and was a priority for me when I came here," said Vice-Principal Jeff Camarillo, who joined the school last year.
Many of the 22 teachers, as well as Camarillo, are graduates of the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP), and the academy has Stanford faculty oversight that includes nationally known names in education such as Linda Darling-Hammond.
Several classroom teachers voluntarily host "Steppies," -- Stanford students getting practical training for their future careers as teachers.
After losing the opportunity for charter renewal with Ravenswood last year, Stanford New Schools approached the Sequoia Union High School District, where trustees voted May 4 to charter East Palo Alto Academy beginning in 2012-13.
The new charter comes with a new campus -- Sequoia just completed a new facility on Myrtle Street in East Palo Alto, which will be the school's new home starting next fall.
Sequoia trustees said they were impressed with the school's offerings and excited about the new partnership.
"Our board supports the Stanford charter and, given that it's just a high school at this point, felt Sequoia should be the chartering agency so the school can continue its work in the Ravenswood community," Sequoia Union High School District Superintendent James Lianides said.