Battling declining enrollment and funding, the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto is starting to discuss consolidating schools — a process that is sure to be thorny but that the interim superintendent of the K-8 district says is necessary for its survival.
Interim Superintendent Gina Sudaria offered her initial thoughts on school consolidation during a June 27 presentation to the Board of Education on her vision for the next school year.
Sudaria's three primary goals are improving instruction by putting "the right people in the right places," providing holistic support for students and being fiscally responsible.
"Not only are we going to have to rightsize our district, but we'll have to do it in a way that doesn't distract from the work that we have to do day to day in the classroom still," she told the board. "The fall is going to be a very challenging time. I'm trying to set the tone and the picture of what we're going to have to do."
Ravenswood currently enrolls just over 2,000 students — down from about 3,500 seven years ago — with six schools and about 132 teachers. An enrollment consultant estimated this spring that the district will lose 27% of its students over the next five years, a decline far sharper than the district itself had predicted.
Ravenswood receives funding from the state based on average student attendance, meaning revenue has also dropped over the last several years. The district projects receiving $26.7 million from the state in 2020, down from $31.5 million in 2017.
In an interview, Sudaria said she is starting this summer to gather information that will lay the groundwork for difficult conversations around consolidating schools this fall. The district will hold public meetings on the topic in September and October before she makes a recommendation to the board. She anticipates the trustees will make a decision in December.
Consolidating schools will allow the district to provide more services to students, such as mental health support and electives, she told the board in June.
"I wouldn't necessarily say school consolidation is something that you successfully get through but you can in the sense that the end result will better behoove students on the other side. The main process is to collect as much information as possible about programs, about your district and presenting that data and information to your community, who should have a primary seat in the conversation," Sudaria told the Weekly.
She emphasized a commitment to being "as transparent as possible about the decisions that are made and what input was considered."
Sudaria plans to talk with superintendents of districts that have closed schools, including the neighboring Redwood City School District, where the board decided to shutter four schools last year due to low enrollment and a budget deficit. Ravenswood is also working with a consultant, Kaya Henderson, the former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, during this process.
In her presentation to the board, Sudaria acknowledged that Ravenswood is "not where we need to be in terms of academic outcomes for our students." The same percentage of students meet or exceed standards in both math (12%) and English language arts (18%) this year as they did four years ago, according to Sudaria.
She said the district must align its instruction to grade-level expectations and curriculum, offer more "coherent" professional development and improve teacher and administrator morale.
"To change course," she said, "we must elevate instruction districtwide and take action to ensure we have the right educators and the right leaders again in the right seats. Research and experience show improving instruction requires great teachers, effective principals and rigorous and engaging instruction. The presence of one or two of these elements is not enough."
Ravenswood has put new principals in place at several schools for next year and is reorganizing the district office, Sudaria said. The board approved a series of appointments at its final meeting of the school year on June 27, including new directors and coordinators of special education, student services and human resources.
Several outside organizations, including Instruction Partners, New Leaders and the New Teacher Center, are helping the district with coaching staff and instructional planning. The Ravenswood Education Foundation is funding these partnerships next year.
The education foundation has also allocated $100,000 for Education Resource Strategies, which helps school districts "transform how they use resources (people, time, and money)," the nonprofit's website states, to conduct an analysis of the district's "human capital," starting this summer.
Another $107,000 from the Ravenswood Education Foundation will go to a newly approved contract with Attuned Education Partners to help the district develop a long-term strategic plan.
Trustee Ana Maria Pulido told Sudaria that she liked Sudaria's vision conceptually but that questions remain about how it will be executed.
"I'm hoping a lot of my 'hows' ... (are) going to be more defined" in the strategic plan, Pulido said on June 27.
Following Sudaria's appointment, the Ravenswood Education Foundation saw a windfall of $1.3 million in donations, which Sudaria said donors specified was due to the change in leadership.
"There's a sense of optimism and support for the collaborative environment that has been established in my tenure," she said. "I don't make unilateral decisions. I believe in a collective decision-making process."
Pulido noted at the meeting that a longtime, major donor is pulling out of donating to the Ravenswood district, a decision Sudaria said was already in the works the last couple of years. After this school year, John and Tashia Morgridge of Portola Valley's Tosa Foundation will no longer give $700,000 to support Ravenswood's reading recovery program.
"The donors have contributed over 20 years and are minimizing their portfolio of who they contribute dollars to and narrow their focus," Sudaria said.