The race for three open seats on the Ravenswood City School District Board of Education is heating up, with all three incumbents and seven newcomers officially running in November, according to the San Mateo County Elections website.
Board President Ana Maria Pulido and trustees Charlie Mae Knight and Marcelino Lopez are seeking re-election to the five-member governing board. The district serves approximately 2,400 students in East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park, about 56 percent of whom are English-language learners and 89 of whom qualify for the free/reduced lunch program, according to data from the California Department of Education.
Pulido, who was born and raised in East Palo Alto and is a product of the city's schools, was first elected in 2010. In an interview Saturday, she said she decided to seek another term to continue the forward progress she sees in the district, particularly on better preparing Ravenswood students for success in high school and college. She cited the district's new comprehensive middle school; targeted investment in science, technology, engineering, math, arts and music (STEAM) education; last summer's formal exit from a federal special-education mandate, the Ravenswood Self‑Improvement Plan (RSIP); and facilities upgrades as examples of that progress. When she was first elected to the board, Ravenswood had no science or arts instruction or single-subject teachers for middle school students.
"Change in leadership can sometimes change the direction," she told the Weekly. "We are at such a critical, important time in the district."
If re-elected, Pulido said she wants to develop new and "creative" approaches to recruiting and retaining teachers as the district struggles against economic and housing disparities in other communities. She said she will also focus on fiscal management, communication and transparency. Pulido wants the district and board to communicate more directly and proactively with the community, including through a listening campaign, newsletters or the district website.
"We're putting so much time and emphasis on creating the improved academic experience for students and sometimes that gets misconstrued or (people) focus on the minute hiccup we may encounter versus the great accomplishments and the new, innovative projects," she said. "What I want to do is for our district to share our story and be more proactive about doing that."
The former chief operating officer for local nonprofit One East Palo Alto, Pulido was hired by the Sequoia Union High School District in January as the superintendent's communication specialist and executive assistant.
Lopez said Friday that he decided to "give it another shot," particularly to keep an eye on the district's compliance with the federal special-education mandate.
Lopez was first elected in 2002 as part of a reform slate that in part sought to remove Knight, who had been the district's superintendent for 17 years. Knight had faced conflict-of-interest charges that resulted in a trial in 2001, after she tried to help underpaid school-district employees pay for housing and other needs through a loan program using private funds. She was acquitted by a San Mateo County Superior Court jury.
Knight won a seat on the school board in the 2014 election. She did not return a request for comment on her candidacy.
In a candidate statement filed with the county registrar, Knight writes that she has "devoted my career to fighting for educational opportunities for children of our community."
The accomplishments she is "most proud of" include balancing the district's budget and opening a standalone middle school.
Many of the seven newcomers work in education and said they felt compelled to run to bring change to Ravenswood, concerned about inequitable outcomes for students and crumbling trust between district leadership and the community. In recent years, the district has faced a budget crisis, a vote of no confidence in Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff and calls from the community for her ousting. In April, the board voted 3-1, with member Marielena Gaona-Mendoza dissenting and Lopez absent, to renew Hernandez-Goff's contract.
Meanwhile, district leaders have maintained that the long-struggling district is on an upward trajectory, with the new comprehensive middle school, the exit from the yearslong federal special-education mandate and increased focus on STEAM education, among other changes.
The newcomers are, in alphabetical order: school aftercare director Maria Victoria Chavez, special-education administrator Brooke Crosby, nonprofit curriculum manager Stephanie Fitch, paraeducator Julian Garcia, teacher Laura Nunez, paraeducator and parent Nicole Sbragia and Tamara Sobomehin, who oversees development and strategy for youth technology nonprofit Streetcode Academy. Nunez and Sobomehin are running on a slate together.
Below is information about the candidates who spoke with the Weekly before the county's Aug. 10 deadline to qualify for the November election. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
Chavez was born and raised in East Palo Alto and attended Ravenswood schools from kindergarten through eighth grade. After working as an office manager and in one of the district's after-school programs, she is now the after-school program director for Connect Community Charter School in Redwood City. She said Ravenswood teachers, staff and community members encouraged her to run for a seat on the board. She said she has "experienced firsthand the need for transparent and honest communication that not only includes the superintendent's voice, but also the voice of teachers, staff, students and parents." If elected, she promises to "collaborate with agencies to capitalize on resources for our students" and "work with teachers, families and administration on strengthening academic programs to increase academic achievement," her candidate statement reads.
Crosby was one of the integrated services coordinators in Ravenswood's special-education department from 2013 through the last school year. She supported the schools' special-education staff, worked with families on students' individualized education plans (IEPs) and was part of the team that helped the district exit RSIP. She said she worked to build much-needed "systems" and training for teachers and providers to comply with the federal requirements — and ensure students were receiving the services they need. Crosby this fall is working in a new special-education position in the Palo Alto Unified School District. She said she left her Ravenswood job after becoming frustrated with the impact of budget cuts on her department — including the loss of two out of five full-time special-education coordinators — which she said was made without any communication about how to make up for the work they had done. She then decided to run for office to maintain her connection to East Palo Alto.
Crosby emphasized her familiarity with the inner workings of the district, especially special education, and established relationships with staff and families. She started her career as a special-education teacher in Oklahoma in 2005 and also taught in Arkansas and Yuba City before moving to East Palo Alto.
Fitch is currently the English language arts curriculum manager at Summit Public Schools, a charter school organization based in Redwood City. She previously worked for seven years an English and journalism teacher and teacher coach at both charter and traditional public schools in California, New Mexico and Massachusetts.
Fitch grew up in East Palo Alto but attended Palo Alto schools through the Voluntary Transfer Program, or Tinsley program, after kindergarten. She graduated from Palo Alto High School through the district's Middle College program in 2003 and went on to attend Santa Clara University.
In an email to the Weekly, Fitch said that she decided to run for school board for the same reason she pursued a career in education: "because I never thought it was fair that kids received such different levels of quality education purely based on where they live -- such as the case between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto."
She said she is "frustrated by non-educators making policy decisions" that affect teachers and students and believe the school board should be "community members who are very knowledgeable and passionate about education -- whether they are teachers, principals, and/or parents."
If elected, Fitch said she would focus on building "two-way communication" between the school board and community, improving teacher retention and encouraging data-driven, student-focused decision making.
Garcia is a graduate and former employee of the district. More about his campaign is posted here.
Nunez is currently a mathematics teacher and athletics director at East Palo Alto Academy, a public charter high school. She moved to East Palo Alto as a third-grader and attended Ravenswood schools through eighth grade. She went on to Eastside College Preparatory School for high school and Stanford University for college.
As a student, she said, she didn't feel properly prepared for high school, and she now looks at her former district through an educator's lens.
"As a high school teacher, and a graduate of Ravenswood, I feel that something is missing," she wrote in an email to the Weekly. "I'm running because I want to be a part of the change. I want to keep students at the forefront, listen to the different stakeholders like teachers, parents and admin to see what we can do to better support them."
The most pressing issues facing the district, from her perspective, are raising student achievement and advocating for policy reform and "immediate solutions that result in increased budget and resources that will help diminish the achievement gap."
Sbragia is a former employee of the district and a current parent. More about her campaign is posted here.
Sobomehin is a longtime community volunteer who works at StreetCode Academy, which was founded by her husband, Olatunde, and provides free technology, entrepreneurship and design education to youth and their families. They have four children who attend school outside of Ravenswood; Sobomehin said her children started school elsewhere before the family moved to East Palo Alto and she and her husband wanted to keep all of their children at the same school.
A first-generation college student, she said she has wanted to influence education policy since she was a young girl.
"After going to recent school board meetings and speaking to many community members, I've realized that this is the right way for me to get involved," she wrote in an email to the Weekly. "My goal is to take all the energy that is behind the frustration and anger people feel and redirect it towards solutions so we are left with the passion and commitment people have for our students."
Sobomehin said she and Nunez decided to run together because of shared values and a vision for how to address problems they perceive in the district. Their campaign slogan is "Recharge Ravenswood," which aims to convey their "goal to inspire and facilitate renewed energy around the participants and policies of the Ravenswood district" while also acknowledging the ongoing, "often unseen" work of teachers and staff.
Whoever is elected in November will join Gaona-Mendoza and Vice President Sharifa Wilson at the dais.
The candidate statements can be viewed by clicking on each person's name below.