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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Opening the door Opening the door (September 04, 2002)

East Palo Alto mother Margaret Tinsley blazes a path for public education

by Faiza Hasan

Valerie Tinsley couldn't really talk about her home to anyone at school. One wrong word and the school authorities would find out she lived in East Palo Alto, and that would mean expulsion and legal trouble for her parents.

Valerie is the daughter of Margaret Tinsley, who along with other concerned parents, brought about a lawsuit that led to a program allowing students from East Palo Alto to legally transfer to the Palo Alto school district, as well as seven other districts on the Midpeninsula.

The lawsuit was filed in 1976 by 34 parents from Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. It claimed that the geographical segregation of local school districts denied equal educational rights to the mostly minority students in the Ravenswood City School District. It took 10 years for the lawsuit to finally be settled in 1986.

Since the program started, 1,037 students have transferred out of East Palo Alto. Every year, 166 students can take advantage of the program. In 2001-2002, about 143 students enrolled in kindergarten, first or second grade in the eight school districts. Of those, 72 enrolled in Palo Alto schools, bringing the total number of transfers for 2001-2002 to 573 students.

But back in the early 1970s, when Valerie Tinsley was a little girl, East Palo Alto students were not allowed to cross the boundary separating them from the better Palo Alto schools. So they had to find another way.

Some black residents created their own modern-day version of the Underground Railroad, risking legal repercussions by secretly enrolling their children in Palo Alto's schools using false Palo Alto addresses or having children stay with relatives who lived within district boundaries. They called this the "sneak out program."

Nowadays, the "sneak out" program is nothing more than a memory and few can recall this chapter in local history. Children from East Palo Alto can openly and legally enroll in Palo Alto schools, thanks to Margaret Tinsley and an organization called the Mid-Peninsula Task Force for Integrated Education.

Margaret and her daughter Valerie, along with Valerie's brother Michael, sat down with the Weekly recently to tell their story.

When Margaret's three children were young, parents took desperate measures to get their children into Palo Alto schools, even giving fake addresses like empty parking lots when registering their children. Others were helped by sympathetic families in Palo Alto who volunteered their addresses. Valerie's mother played it safe by giving the address of relatives who lived in Palo Alto and by also making sure that her children stayed at that home during the week.

She needed to be cautious, because sometimes, the East Palo Alto children would hear rumors that the school district was carrying out some kind of "sweeps" to try and catch them. Kids whispered that Palo Alto parents were following public transit buses that the students would usually take to go back to East Palo Alto.

"These were the parents who didn't want our children going to schools in Palo Alto," said Margaret. Though she could never prove that the schools were carrying out sweeps, she is sure that they had their own ways of finding out about the East Palo Alto children.

Margaret remembers a couple of times when someone showed up at the house Valerie was staying at in Palo Alto, and started asking questions about her. "It happened when she was at school, so they would always miss her," her mother said. "We didn't know who they were but we thought that they might be from the school district."

Valerie, who is now in her early thirties and lives in East Palo Alto, still isn't completely sure whether it was the parents of Palo Alto students or the school authorities who carried out the sweeps. All she knew was that she missed her parents and her bed when she moved in with her aunt in Palo Alto to avoid being caught.

"It was scary to know that I might be followed," she said. "I was constantly looking over my shoulder. Sometimes I would get a spooky, uneasy feeling on the bus. I would look behind the bus and see a car and wonder if it was anyone following me."

It was while the kids were still in school that Margaret was approached by members of the task force, which was a group of volunteers from Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, who wanted to make the schools in Palo Alto more racially diverse. It filed a lawsuit against the eight local school districts: Palo Alto, Belmont-Redwood Shores, Las Lomitas, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Redwood City, San Carlos and Woodside.

"By the time I and my husband joined them, most of the work had been done," said Margaret. "I would talk to school boards because I wanted them to acknowledge that there was a problem in East Palo Alto. Once they did that, half the battle was won."

The lawsuit and later the program were named after Tinsley by default. "The first person on the list of parents was a white woman, but they wanted a minority so I was chosen and the lawsuit was named after me," said Margaret.

The 1986 settlement creating the Voluntary Transfer Program had three main goals: to increase the number of minority students in the eight mostly white school districts; to improve the educational standards of the Ravenswood district; and to increase the inter-district cooperation between Ravenswood and the other districts.

The settlement not only included the Voluntary Transfer Program, but also a Ravenswood Improvement Program, which included a study that looked at educational practices and programs in Ravenswood, and a Model Schools Study that was to develop a plan for model schools in Ravenswood.

The program is administered by the San Mateo County Office of Education. An advisory committee, which is made up of school superintendents from the districts involved and the two county superintendents of schools, meets quarterly to share information, discuss concerns and activities.

"It was all about choice," said Margaret. "East Palo Alto parents should have the choice to send their children to a better school district. There should not be barriers to education because of districts."

Just 5 feet tall, with short, dark hair, Margaret Tinsley has a quiet air of determination about her. It is not hard to imagine her marching to the courts and school board meetings to demand a better education for her children.

She was a Palo Alto native, an honor roll student who graduated from the now closed Cubberley High School in Palo Alto. After her marriage in the 1960s, she and her husband moved across U.S. Highway 101 to settle down in East Palo Alto to raise a family. She recalls how, when they were looking for houses, the real-estate agents would automatically take them across the bridge to East Palo Alto, saying that there were no houses available in Palo Alto.

When her children started going to school in the late 1960s, she realized that the Ravenswood City School District was failing to meet their needs. "I thought that the schools were fine 'til grade three," she said, "but after that I felt that they weren't doing a good job."

Remembering her own time in Palo Alto schools, Tinsley wanted the same kind of solid educational foundation for her children. So she moved her children, the eldest of whom had started school at Ravenswood, briefly to a private Christian school.

But after a year or so, Margaret was still not satisfied. So like other East Palo Alto parents with relatives in Palo Alto, she decided to enroll her children in Palo Alto schools, and gave the address of her relatives as her children's residence. To avoid trouble with school authorities, she made sure that the kids, Michael, Karen and Valerie, spent the weekdays in Palo Alto and were living within the district limits. Valerie was in kindergarten when this happened.

"For me it was a necessary evil," said Margaret. "But they were with relatives and we talked every day, so there was no problem that way. They understood. Sometimes I would bring them home for the whole week."

The Tinsley children are grateful for the decisions their parents made regarding their education. "Going to school in Palo Alto made a world of difference, it made us well rounded individuals," said Michael, who just turned 40.

"Mother wanted us to have a better education and she knew about the Palo Alto schools because she went there," he said. "I liked school. I knew kids who were in the other school district and they were doing things that I didn't want to do."

But Michael does admit that he didn't have a lot of school friends around him while growing up. "I would come home, do my homework and hang out, but I didn't have a lot of extracurricular activities outside school."

He had to be careful not to get too involved in school activities because he did not want to reveal a lot about himself to the school authorities. "I did go to the school dances and played on the football team but then I had to be careful because the more involved you got the more information they needed about you, like the name of your doctor and things like that."

The three Tinsley children went to Palo Alto schools at a time when the district was nearly all white. In fact, both Michael and Valerie Tinsley say that they would often be the only minority students in class.

"I was one of maybe 10 kids from East Palo Alto and I don't really remember any other minorities," said Michael.

Both siblings say that the only time they felt unwanted by the schools was when officials started checking students records, which resulted in some of their friends being caught and expelled from the district. Otherwise they say they never felt any discrimination.

Most of the time the three Tinsleys couldn't talk about where they lived, which meant they couldn't have friends over to play or do the things other kids their ages did. It was easier for the older two kids as they had each other and their cousins to hang out with, but for Valerie, the youngest, going to school was a totally different experience.

"The hardest thing for me was not being able to walk home or to go over to a friend's house to do homework," she said. "There were times when we would pass by East Palo Alto on the bus for field trips and I would want to point out and say really badly that that's where I live, but I knew I couldn't."

Ironically, by the time the transfer program was finally put in place in the late 1980s, Margaret's own children had all graduated from Palo Alto High School. "Even though my own kids didn't benefit from the transfer program, there is a satisfaction from doing something that has benefited others," she said.

E ach year parents of preschool children in the Ravenswood district are sent letters informing them about the Tinsley program. That's how parent Marisol Munoz found out about it. Talking to people whose kids were in the transfer program, she decided to enroll her daughters, Marisol and Stephanie, in the program.

Both Marisol, who is nine, and Stephanie, who is eight, go to Duveneck Elementary School in Palo Alto. Munoz dislikes the elementary school her daughters would have attended in Ravenswood because the majority of the teachers and students are Spanish speakers. For Munoz, English is the language needed to succeed, so she knew that she needed an alternative.

She is satisfied with the progress her daughters are making, keeping tabs on how they are doing by attending parent-teacher meetings. When her eldest daughter was bullied and called "poor," Munoz went straight to the principal to complain. "She said that she would take care of it," said Munoz. "That girl was bullying other girls too, so I thought that I would go and complain if she did it again, but it didn't happen again."

By placing her daughters in the transfer program, Munoz had to make compromises. Though her daughters read and speak perfect English, their written Spanish is shaky. And since they don't go to the same school as their neighbor's children, the girls, like Valerie Tinsley before them, have few friends in the area.

"They have some friends at school," says Munoz. "They went twice this year to parties at their friends houses in Palo Alto and once or twice they met friends at a restaurant."

"Their friends don't come here often," she said. "Their parents prefer that the girls go over to their houses to play."

Subtle reminders like that only reinforce Munoz's desire that her daughters have a better life. Marisol says that she wants to be a veterinarian, Stephanie a teacher.

"They can be whatever they want to be as long as they get a college education," said Munoz, pausing. "I wonder how much the medical school at Stanford University costs."

As the school district refuses to pinpoint the transfer students in the school district, it is difficult to assess whether they are doing as well as students living in Palo Alto.

Yet according to the 2000-01 Tinsley compliance report done annually, an estimate of the 2000 Academic Performance Index (API) for the Tinsley students, which was calculated using test data supplied by the districts, put the Tinsley students API as 645, when the state target is 800.

But according to the Palo Alto school district, most parents and students participating in the transfer program are satisfied with Palo Alto's educational standards. They also say that the transfer students are doing a lot better than students going to other school districts.

"Initial studies done with the two counties, Santa Clara and San Mateo, that East Palo Alto students, particularly underrepresented minorities, do much better in Palo Alto schools," said Carmen Giedt, the transfer-program coordinator for the Palo Alto school district. "I think it's a wonderful opportunity for students from East Palo Alto to take advantage (of)," she said.

Things have changed since the Tinsley children snuck across Highway 101 to go to school. Now, a school bus, paid for and staffed by the Palo Alto school district, comes to take students from East Palo Alto to Palo Alto. As the bus goes over the bridge, the neighborhood changes to quiet, leafy streets and elegant mansions.

Valerie Tinsley feels vindicated, watching her neighbor's children take the bus. "Isn't that nice?" she asked. Sitting at her mother's dining table, she watched her son, who attends school in East Palo Alto, work on the computer. The single mother and her son live just a couple of streets away from her parent's house.

"One of my son's friends goes to school in Palo Alto. Sometimes he has friends over from school come to play," she said. "When I first heard about that I was shocked. We couldn't have kids over because we couldn't draw attention to ourselves. It just didn't happen."

Valerie also sees a college education in her son's future.

"True, there is a great educational difference between Ravenswood and Palo Alto," she said. "But I wanted him to experience having friends that live near him and who go to the same school. I push him hard and he is on the honor roll and I am preparing him for college.

"Education is important. But now that I am older, I look back and realize that I have no contact with school friends. I felt it was something I missed and I don't want my son to go through the same thing."

But she is fully supportive and proud of her mother.

"Sometimes parents here in East Palo Alto ask me to say 'thank you' to my mother," said Valerie. "Their children are able to go to school without any problems and they are thankful for the open door." E-mail Faiza Hasan at


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