Three candidates vie for two seats on Ravenswood school board

Retention of teachers, improving facilities among top concerns for district

Two incumbents and one challenger, all with backgrounds in education, are competing for two open seats on the Ravenswood City School District Board of Trustees in this November's election.

Current Trustees Marco Chavez and Sharifa Wilson are running against Marielena Gaona-Mendoza, a special-education teacher and longtime advocate in the district.

The two elected will join nonprofit office manager Ana Maria Pulido, parent and Stanford Golf Course technician Marcelino Lopez, and retired Ravenswood superintendent Charlie Mae Knight at the dais.

The Ravenswood school district serves kindergarten through eighth graders in East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park.

The three contenders hope to lead a school district that serves primarily low-income and minority students, many of them also English-language learners, and is vastly under-resourced compared to more affluent neighboring districts. Recent standardized test results show persistent low student achievement across grade levels and subjects in Ravenswood: 60 percent of students did not meet standards in mathematics and 54 percent failed to in English on this year's Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exam.

The district is also facing competition from new charter and private schools in East Palo Alto, with at least two primary-level sites set to open in East Palo Alto next year.

With a new superintendent at the helm and the recent passage of a $26 million bond measure that promises to bring much-needed improvements to dilapidated school facilities, the two incumbents argue that Ravenswood is finally on a promising path forward with ample evidence of positive change.

Gaona-Mendoza, however, sees a district that has failed to meet the needs of students and families, particularly in special education. If elected, she hopes to shift a school culture she says is resistant to reform and transparency in governance.

Marco Chavez

Chavez, both a product of and former educator in the Ravenswood school district, is seeking a second term on the board. He has lived in East Palo Alto for more than 40 years, and said he feels a sense of responsibility to continue to serve the community. He believes his 20 years of experience at various levels of education -- as a former teacher and administrator who works in the superintendent's office at the San Mateo County Office of Education -- have primed him to continue to serve the community.

"I have the unique quality that I live and breathe the implementation of programs and services that are connected to our education systems," he said in an interview with the Weekly.

The most significant issue facing Ravenswood, Chavez believes, is the rising cost of living in East Palo Alto and the surrounding area, which affects both families and staff. If re-elected, he hopes to find long-term solutions to this problem, including partnering with more outside agencies to help support Ravenswood students and families -- many of whom are living in single-family homes with multiple families or are forced to leave the area because they can't afford the cost of housing, he said. He also wants to push the district to find ways to provide affordable housing for teachers, possibly in collaboration with the city or other local agencies.

Though he acknowledges the challenges facing the school district, Chavez said he's excited about the direction in which Ravenswood is heading. During his tenure, the district adopted a new reading language arts program that is aligned to the new Common Core State Standards, he noted. The district also completed a comprehensive facilities master plan that looked at the district's needs in a more "strategic way," Chavez said. The plan envisions long-term improvements for the school district, starting with more than $100 million in "critical" districtwide repairs.

Chavez was in the majority this February when the board voted 4-1 to approve a new charter school for East Palo Alto: a TK-8 campus from the well-established organization KIPP Bay Area Schools. The board's role now, he said, is to monitor the implementation of the new charter. It must also re-double its own commitment to improving student outcomes and work to champion the district's strengths, he said.

"I will continue to advocate for our schools and to continue to highlight some of the great programs and services that we are offering to our families," he said. "Sometimes we don't do that -- cheer ourselves in some of the great things that we're doing."

Chavez was first elected to the board in 2012 with 33.7 percent of the vote along with Wilson, who led with 41 percent, according to election results.

Marielena Gaona-Mendoza

Gaona-Mendoza is perhaps most well-known in both the Ravenswood and Palo Alto Unified school districts for her staunch advocacy for special-education students and families. She is a regular presence at board meetings in both districts, speaking out about what she sees as injustices in the district's handling of special-education issues. She also frequently translates on behalf of non-English speaking parents in Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings. She also has direct experience in the Ravenswood district as a former parent. She also worked as a special-education aide and home-school liaison in the Palo Alto school district.

She said she decided to run for the school board to change what she sees as the status quo in Ravenswood: low student performance, inadequate support for students with special needs, an inability to retain high-quality teachers and poor communication between district leadership and the community.

Gaona-Mendoza, who now teaches special education at Fair Oaks Elementary School in Redwood City, went back to school to get her teaching credential after her children graduated. She then taught in Ravenswood for several years, primarily at Willow Oaks and Belle Haven elementary schools. During that time, she said she saw both good and bad teachers -- but "the good teachers always left."

Gaona-Mendoza sees attracting -- and then keeping -- quality teachers in Ravenswood as the most important challenge facing the school district today. She advocates for increasing the district's investment in professional development and putting in place stronger evaluation procedures.

Many special-education aides and mainstream teachers with special-education students in their classrooms also need better training, she said, to ensure that the district's inclusion model is more effective.

Communication and transparency are top priorities for Gaona-Mendoza, who said she has often sounded the alarm bells to the board or to district leadership about struggling students, with no response.

"If I am elected ... I will make sure that every issue gets followed through," she said.

The board should also be more accessible to the community, she said, beyond email and the three minutes that members of the public are allotted at board meetings.

Gaona-Mendoza is enthusiastic about charter schools, pointing to their high graduation rates and strong support for students.

"Palo Alto doesn't need them; Menlo Park doesn't need them; but East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park, they do need them. They've been saving many of our kids," she said.

Sharifa Wilson

A longtime public servant in East Palo Alto, Wilson emphasizes her experience in her third bid for school board. Wilson came to East Palo Alto as a teacher in the Ravenswood district but went on to serve on the City Council from 1990 to 2002. She first ran for school board in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012.

Wilson said her time in the classroom and later as site director of East Palo Alto nonprofit College Track, which supports high school students through college graduation, "sensitized" her to the inequity in experience between students in Ravenswood and neighboring districts. This, combined with a personal commitment to community service and knowledge of policy, led her to decide to run for the board.

She, too, is positive about the direction Ravenswood is heading in. Bringing in a new superintendent, Gloria Hernandez-Goff, in 2014 has made a "significant difference," Wilson said. She credits Hernandez-Goff with improving school climate at the district's middle schools -- cutting down on bullying and fighting during recess and lunch by partnering with an organization that provides coordinated, inclusive activities during those times, for example. The superintendent also made technology a priority and helped the district eventually get all first- through fourth-grade classrooms to a 1:1 student-to-computer ratio, Wilson said.

Top issues facing the school district, Wilson said, include supporting under-resourced students and high teacher turnover. Wilson said some efforts are already making a difference for students, like extending school hours until 6 p.m. to give students a place to study and have dinner.

If re-elected, she would also support regional efforts to build more affordable teacher housing in the area. As a former council member, she said she is uniquely positioned to understand "what's involved in getting a project off the ground."

Wilson served on the board through several controversial charter-school decisions, including in 2010 when she supported the closure of the Stanford University-run East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School, citing poor performance. The next year, the board also denied a petition by charter operator Rocketship to open a new elementary school in East Palo Alto that would have eventually served 650 children.

Most recently, in February, Wilson backed KIPP's proposal to open a tuition-free school in East Palo Alto in 2017, albeit not too enthusiastically.

She voted in favor given the fact that the organization's petition met all the necessary legal requirements, but made a plug for work she said is underway to improve the traditional educational experience in Ravenswood district schools.

"The only way that we're going to prevent the district from being eaten alive by every charter school ... is to keep moving forward, which we're doing under this new superintendent," Wilson said at the Feb. 11 board meeting. However, she added, "the results are not going to be seen for another six or seven years."


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2 people like this
Posted by mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 7, 2016 at 10:57 am

I work in Ravenswood and would encourage everyone to vote for the two incumbents -- Marco Chavez and Sharifa Wilson. They are working hard and we are seeing the great improvements in Ravenswood in the last few years. Ms. Gaona-Mendoza is a disgruntled former employee who comes to many board meetings and makes many negative and divisive comments. She seems more concerned about complaining than about improving. Ravenswood needs leadership who will work together on the path to great education for all students.

Like this comment
Posted by Afraid of Marielena
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 7, 2016 at 11:11 am

Marielena would be an absolute disaster as a board member, but look for her to get the Weekly's endorsement as the Weekly loves her and her methods. She would drive the district over the cliff. [Portion remove.] The earlier post suggests she is an ex-employee of Ravenswood. If so, that's at least four places where she has worked and flamed out.

[Portion removed due to factual inaccuracies.]

2 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 7, 2016 at 12:59 pm

What happened with that investigation into Sharifa Wilson more than a decade ago? Was there any fire to the smoke, or was someone just blowing smoke? She's remained quite popular in the community.

2 people like this
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 7, 2016 at 7:40 pm

I would like to respectfully square things away, It became public knowledge that such dishonesty or falsifying of documents in the OCR issue, NEVER actually took place and whoever assures otherwise is unequivocally WRONG and MISINFORMED. Additionally, what is also a fact is that such OCR complaint was SUCCESSFULLY lodged, investigated and found to have merit with an outcome in favor of the complainant.

4 people like this
Posted by Pablo
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 7, 2016 at 8:18 pm

Glad to see a new face on the ticket. It's never reassuring to see incumbents promoting the status-quo when the district so clearly continues to perform poorly.

4 people like this
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 7, 2016 at 9:32 pm

Disgruntled or not, as a former Ravenswood Especial Education Teacher and an "insider" Marielena, our new candidate is well aware of the needs and shortcomings that our School District is facing. There is no doubt that our School District is in dire need of new blood in our School Board seats, perhaps our existing board members have been occupying those seats for quite too long and that longevity keeps them seeing our existing problems from a different angle, perhaps is time for someone new with fresh ideas and a new perspective may be the long overdue Board member that we need to improve the mediocre education our children have been receiving for far too long. I strongly believe that Marielena is the way to go, with her strong background in Special Education, her first hand knowledge as a former District teacher and her passionate drive to improve the quality of education in our community, she may be just be the person our School Board needs to steer us all in the right direction. God bless us all.

Sent from my iPhone

6 people like this
Posted by My Other Two Centts
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 8, 2016 at 3:59 pm

Mutti, you posted back in may about the Ravenswood Bond, at that time you sounded like the superintendent, and now you sound even more like her. Back in May you wanted people to believe that the reason why our Ravenswood is doing so bad is because the houses' values is between $100,00 and $200,000 dollars when in fact they were being sold for no less than 600,000. At that time you wanted to get pitti from the community so they would donate money. Only a superintendent or HR would know if Marielena is a disgruntle employee or not. I am now sure that you are her, because of the way you speak about Marielena, and because you are asking the public to vote for Sharifa and Marcos and it is in your best interest that no other person gets the seat. At this time you are doing anything you want as a superintendent, and if someone else comes you will have to do your job, and not just pretend you are doing it. I bet you that if an there was an investigation going on you will be discover of asking people to vote for the incumbents who are not holding you accountable for our kid's low scores or for not facing the issues that are going on in Ravenswood School District. I did notice that your post was added during working hours, if you are a Ravenswood employee, then you use the internet services and the time your are supposed to be working to post, instead of on your own time.
Another reason why you do not want someone else on the board is because you recently hired your own son to work on HR even though he was not qualified for the job,l and the proof is that when Ravenswood employees complain about the poor job he was doing you just moved him to another department instead of getting rid of him, as you do with other employees. I called this corruption. Also the way you put the bond out to voters was a shady one. One person who seems to have a lot of knowledge posted something about the fact of doing it illegally. Please read the posts.
In case you forgot about your posting back in May I am cutting and pasting it for you to refresh your memory Ms. Gloria Hernandez:
vPosted by mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 20, 2016 at 10:31 am
One minor correction. This will not fund " new furniture, equipment, classroom technology," Bond funds can only be used for capital improvements -- buildings, etc. It cannot be used for anything that is not nailed down. The main objection by the anti-any-tax opposition is using 30 year bonds for short-lived computers. This won't happen. Roofs and electrical systems will last the 30 years needed to pay them all off.

Also, the example of a $700,000 assessed valuation in EPA is not at all realistic. Assessed valuation is usually much, much lower than market value because of Prop 13 limitations. And few homes in EPA even have a market value that high. Most homes in EPA probably have assessed valuations in the $100,000 to $200,000 dollar range at a maximum, so the taxes would be $30-$60 per year. Long-time home-owners could easily have an assessed valuation under $50,000.

I work in Ravenswood, and we need things fixed!! It's a shame to take money from the General Fund that supports classrooms to make these much-needed repairs.

Supporters of Measure H have a website at

2 people like this
Posted by Wondering Too
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 8, 2016 at 10:08 pm

Correction to the Article:
Ravenswood Schooll Board Members do NOT provide their e-mail to the community or parents of students in district. There is no way to contact them. They are unrecheable. Also. they only allow TWO minutes to speak at the board meetings not three like every other school district. That needs to change. How can they really listen to the community when they are accssesible to the public and they cut short the time to address them at the board meetings?
I also want to know what happened to the Sharifa's Federal investigation about using city's funds to pay for her son's airfare and hotels when she went on a trip to Australia for a conference? That was wrong thing to do, and she is the one we are trusting our students education.

Like this comment
Posted by Afraid of Marielena
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 12, 2016 at 8:33 am

[Post removed due to inaccurate assertion.]

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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