East Palo Alto students enrolled in Palo Alto schools through the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program show "very small positive effects" in math and English compared with students who applied -- but were not admitted -- to the program.
In science and history, Tinsley students showed "large positive effects" and "significant differences" from students not in the program.
Those were among many conclusions presented by Kendra Bischoff, who researched the Tinsley program in a dissertation for her PhD in sociology from Stanford University, awarded in 2011.
Bischoff presented informal results from her Tinsley research at a Jan. 10 special meeting of the Palo Alto Board of Education.
The research compared standardized test data of elementary and middle school Tinsley students with test data of students who applied -- but were not accepted -- to the program.
But Bischoff stressed that measuring the value of Tinsley strictly by test scores is "misguided."
At least as important are the social outcomes of the program, which she sought to clarify through more than 100 interviews with Tinsley students and their parents.
"Mounting evidence from a wide variety of sources suggests that schools can have large effects on social outcomes, which are likely equally important for long-term success as standardized tests," Bischoff said.
She concluded that the transfer experience has "social benefits that become especially apparent later in high school."
Most Tinsley parents and students are grateful for the opportunity to attend well-regarded schools, and would choose to participate again if they had to do it over, she found.
The 25-year-old voluntary transfer program -- created to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit by parents in East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City School District -- allows "students of color" from Ravenswood to enter certain nearby school districts between kindergarten and second grade. Ravenswood is a K-8 district serving children from East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park.
Palo Alto gets the lion's share of Tinsley students -- 60 incoming children each year, now totaling about 560 K-12. That represents about 4.5 percent of the district's enrollment. Other school districts participating, though in smaller numbers, are Menlo Park, Las Lomitas, Portola Valley, Woodside, San Carlos and Belmont.
Palo Alto is the only K-12 participant in Tinsley, and the most sought-after destination of Tinsley applicants.
ischoff's test score data, which included Tinsley students in all the participating school districts, did not break out the Palo Alto subset.
Students in the transfer program "are doing better on standardized tests than students not in the program, but maybe not as much as you would guess," she said.
Regarding a common perception that Tinsley students are overrepresented in special education, Bischoff found that students in the program are "about 10 percent more likely" to be in special education than students who had applied, but were not accepted, to the program and stayed in Ravenswood.
"That could be happening for a lot of reasons, and I don't have a clear understanding of exactly why," Bischoff told Palo Alto school board members.
"I think it's a way of getting kids extra help, but on the other side it's also a label to some extent, and can put kids on different trajectories in terms of classes they're taking."
Regarding English language learners, it appears that students in the Tinsley program become more proficient in English than those who applied to the program but stayed in the Ravenswood district, she said.
In her interviews, Bischoff found "the overarching theme that came through for most students is that to some degree being in the program is 'work.'
"They're negotiating two very different social environments on a daily basis, and to a large degree they are non-overlapping. There's often not a lot of interaction (with non-Tinsley classmates) outside of school. People don't use the same grocery stores, the same churches," she said.
"Students talked about the way friendships form, and that it can be difficult to maintain friendships," she said.
"In elementary school, students don't notice the differences too much and students didn't feel excluded in elementary school.
"Students talked a lot about changes in middle school, how their friendship groups changed and their better friends became other Tinsley students.
"It's good to have friends that they can see on the weekends. But the flip side, theoretically, is the reason we have these programs is to have more interaction and we're not seeing as much friendships across those boundaries as would be ideal," Bischoff said.
Many students cited transportation issues as reasons they have difficulty participating in extracurricular activities, she said.
In her interviews with Tinsley students who had reached high school, Bischoff found "a lot of pride" about their participation in the program.
"They talked a lot about what they saw as their experience versus that of the friends in their neighborhoods.
"They had a sense that they went to a really hard school and felt proud they were able to make it in those schools.
"What's important is that they felt confident about it. They talked about how they felt comfortable talking to anybody, of any social class. They felt they could operate in a broader social world even if that process is sometimes hard," Bischoff said.
For the most part, the Tinsley student she interviewed "felt well-treated by teachers, though certainly there were aberrations from that as well," Bischoff said.
"Kids talked about how everybody's just sort of nice. People don't fight with each other. That's not to say they felt everyone was super-friendly, but it wasn't like people had problems with each other. They felt generally it was a nice place to be, a calm environment," she said.
Kids that leave the Tinsley program do so for a variety of reasons -- including the fact that their families move to Palo Alto and they thus become regular students here, Bischoff said.
Others move out of the area. Under the rules of the program, students are not permitted to join -- or return to -- the Tinsley program beyond second grade.
Bischoff said she was assisted in her research by the San Mateo County Office of Education, which administers the Tinsley program, as well as by participating school districts, including Ravenswood.
She did not offer a written document or specific numerical results of her research, saying she is in the process of fine-tuning the work for publication.