East Palo Alto parents who have been working tirelessly for well over a year to bring a new public-school option to their community celebrated Thursday night after the Ravenswood City School District Board of Trustees approved a petition to open a charter school in the city.
The school board voted 4-1, with Ana Maria Pulido dissenting, to approve a resolution to allow KIPP Bay Area Schools, a leading charter school organization, to open a school in East Palo Alto. The school will serve both East Palo Alto and Belle Haven students from transitional kindergarten through eighth grade.
The vote followed numerous parents, students, educators and two city council members urging the board to provide East Palo Alto students and parents with a high-quality educational option within their own community. Students who attend or have graduated from KIPP schools in other cities spoke of how the supportive school community became like a family to them, encouraging them to push through both academic and personal challenges and helping them become college-ready.
By contrast, current and graduated students from the Ravenswood school district spoke of the challenges they faced: feeling unprepared for and struggling in high school, feeling inferior to students from other higher-performing districts and wanting better for future students in East Palo Alto.
"Coming from a Latino community, I grew up hearing Latinos would never make it," said Maria Rodriguez, a freshman at Woodside High School who said she has not received the support she needs to succeed at school. She has several younger sisters who she hopes will do and have better than her, she said.
"I want nothing more than my sisters to make it to a four-year college and graduate from college. I want my sisters to have a school like this," she said. "Everyone deserves to succeed."
KIPP Bay Area Schools, which operates 11 high-performing charter elementary, middle and high schools in cities such as Redwood City, San Jose and Oakland, has been working with a group of East Palo Alto mothers and the community-organizing group Innovate Public Schools for many months to open a charter school in East Palo Alto. KIPP filed an official petition in November and the district held a required public hearing the next month before taking action on the issue Thursday night.
"Central to the mission of the school is an unwavering belief that all students in the East Palo Alto and Belle Haven communities can succeed in the nation's most competitive colleges when provided with extended time for learning inside and outside the classroom, a rigorous, college-preparatory education, and a wide range of supports," the petition reads.
"An excellent college education is necessary for expanded opportunities in an increasingly competitive global 21st century job market. The KIPP K-8 School will prioritize the goal of a college education in achieving personal success and creating a life of choices and opportunities."
KIPP schools place heavy emphasis on high expectations, individualized attention and cultivating deep relationships with students and their families, all with an eye toward getting students to and through college. Nationally, KIPP alumni are graduating from college at a rate more than four times that of the average student from a low-income community, according to the organization. A longer school day provides time for extra support and enrichment.
KIPP schools are tuition-free public schools. They operate lotteries for admission if the community demand exceeds the number of spaces available. Preference is given to low-income and in-district students, April Chou, chief growth and operating officer for KIPP, said at the December public hearing. Ninety-six percent of KIPP students are students of color and 87 percent receive free or reduced-price meals through the federal school lunch program, according to the organization's website.
The school board approved KIPP's petition Thursday night, albeit not too enthusiastically.
Board member Sharifa Wilson voted in favor given the fact that the petition met all the necessary legal requirements, but made a plug for work she said is underway to improve the educational experience in the Ravenswood school district.
"The only way that we're going to prevent the district from being eaten alive by every charter school that can put together, frankly, 80 parents (to) sign a petition, the only way that we can combat that is to keep moving forward, which we're doing under this new superintendent," Wilson said. "The results are not going to be seen for another six or seven years. I understand the need for parents to want to move forward and to make sure that their children are given a quality education."
Pulido, the only "no" vote, said she could not support the charter school given a commitment to the "benefit of all our students, not a segment of students."
"It's important that we look at the 3,500 students that are here and that we look at all those families and we look at all those parents and we look at what is going to be in the best interests of the entire community," she said.
Board President Marco Chavez also emphasized the need for a "relationship building" with KIPP moving forward.
A longtime Ravenswood teacher who herself went through the district expressed some wariness of another charter school coming into East Palo Alto.
"I'm all for opportunities and options. I just want to make sure KIPP can weather the storm," she said. "I've been here 15 years with the district. I've been through charter schools that have come and gone, superintendents that have come and gone, principals that have come and gone.
"If we are failing, parents, we're together," she added, turning to the crowd. "So we need you."
Two other low-tuition or tuition-free private schools, the K-8 Beechwood School and the 6-12 Eastside College Prep, primarily serve students from the Ravenswood district.
In addition, three charter schools currently operate within the district's boundaries: the K-6 East Palo Alto Charter School and the 7-12 East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, both operated by the charter organization Aspire Public Schools, and East Palo Alto Academy High School, which was launched by and receives support from the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.
In 2010, Ravenswood trustees declined to renew the charter of a Stanford-sponsored East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School, citing low test scores.
In 2011, Ravenswood trustees denied a petition by charter operator Rocketship to open a new elementary school in East Palo Alto that eventually would have served 650 children.
Ligia Rivera, a parent leader with Innovate Public Schools (which helps parents and communities advocate for quality public schools for low income children and children of color in Silicon Valley), told the Weekly after the meeting that she felt a sense of hope, coming a long way from the moment when it was just her and two friends working toward what seemed like an impossible goal.
And for another one of those mothers, Alma Mendoza, Thursday's vote was personal. She hopes her younger children will be able to attend KIPP for middle school.
"I'm so happy because my little ones are going to be beneficiaries," she said.
KIPP is aiming to open the school in the fall of 2017 and will work with the district to determine the location of the school.
"We are truly excited for the parents who worked tirelessly to advocate for this option on behalf of their children," Chou said in a statement. "We look forward to partnering with Superintendent Hernandez-Goff and the Ravenswood City School District to support the success of all students in this community."