A "clear and brutal fact" — that the Ravenswood City School District is currently failing to adequately prepare its students for high school — has driven a district decision to open a new, comprehensive middle school in East Palo Alto this fall.
The district's existing middle school model, with sixth through eighth grades spread across six sites, mostly at combined elementary and middle schools, has not provided the hands-on learning, differentiated instruction, expert teaching and robust offerings of electives, among other programs and services expected in middle school, according to a report a district committee issued last month. Consolidating students at one school will, the district hopes, reverse an alarming trend: Only one in three Ravenswood students leave the district fully prepared to meet the rigors of high school and then graduate ready for college, according to the report.
"At this critical juncture for our district, we are seizing this opportunity to set a better course for our middle school students," the report states.
The new middle school will start with an inaugural class of sixth graders in the 2017-18 school year at the Cesar Chavez & Green Oaks Academy site on Ralmar Avenue. The school will grow in each subsequent year by grade, and eventually take over the entire Ralmar Avenue campus, including space currently occupied by the Los Robles Magnet Academy. (Los Robles will move to Ronald McNair Academy. McNair, a middle school on Pulgas Avenue, will have been consolidated into the new middle school by then.) Most current seventh- and eighth-graders will remain at their schools through graduation, the committee said.
The principal of the new school will be Douglas Garriss, who currently oversees the district's English-language acquisition, English-language development and Advancement Via Individual Determination program for sixth through eighth grades.
The comprehensive middle school will bring to Ravenswood a targeted, prioritized focus on middle school students, rather than the current system, in which "an elementary approach and set of routines for academics and behavior predominate even through the middle school years," the committee wrote in its report. Teachers will be content specialists, rather than generalists. There will be a wider array of electives, advanced classes, enrichment programs, clubs, services and upgraded facilities, the report states.
Curriculum will emphasize hands-on learning, critical thinking, independent research and projects, the committee envisions. Curriculum will be be aligned with the Common Core State Standards as well as to the educational programs that students can expect when they get to Menlo-Atherton High School.
Students will move through each grade as cohorts, with the same teachers for language arts, math, science and social studies. They will also have a required advisory period when they can get personalized support in both academics and social-emotional topics, like the impending transition from middle school to high school or peer pressure, the report states.
There will also be a makerspace, a visual and performing arts program, a homework center and a mentoring program that pairs eighth-graders with high schoolers, among other planned programs.
In the first year, the district plans to hire one vice principal, 10 sixth-grade core teachers, one integrated-service teacher and five single-subject teachers (in science, physical education, makerspace, music and art) as well as support staff. The staff will gradually grow through the 2019-20 school year.
The committee also has presented the new middle school as a financially sound decision for a cash-strapped district. A budget shows projected savings of about $1.6 million annually that will be reallocated, including to a new pre-kindergarten program at each elementary school and facilities improvements.
"We will be able to realize these significant savings because our programs will be operating at a better scale that is more appropriate for the middle school setting," the committee wrote. "Rather than spreading ourselves thin across six campuses, we'll be able to strategically focus our resources for maximum benefit."
Short-term facilities upgrades planned for the new middle school "depending on funding" include additional science labs, a designated music room, a dedicated car drop-off lane off Bay Road to ease congestion on Ralmar Avenue, new bike racks and moving existing playground equipment to other campuses or local parks.
Long-term, the district hopes to build a performing arts and assembly center, a second gym, art studios, a student life center and educational gardens at the new school, among other plans. Ravenswood is in the midst of creating a comprehensive facilities master plan. Last summer, voters approved a $26 million bond to fund significant repairs and upgrades needed at all eight of the district's school sites, which are more than 50 years old and serve more than 3,400 students from preschool through eighth grade.