Ravenswood revisited, reunited
Publication Date: Wednesday Sep 11, 1996

Ravenswood revisited, reunited

From 1971 to 1976, East Palo Alto's high school was a 'model school' offering an interracial, innovative education. Former students and faculty say it was a success in many ways. So why was the school closed?

by Tracy Jan

As they stood atop a picnic table posing for a photographer, Randy and Vicki Jackson scanned the crowd of 600 gathered at Flood Park in Menlo Park. They couldn't help but laugh. This was their 20th high school reunion. And the situation was very similar to a moment long ago when they had posed for a yearbook photo after being elected "cutest couple" in the 1976 senior poll. Ravenswood's "cutest" are still close. The two East Palo Alto residents, members of the last graduating class of Ravenswood High School, recently celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary.

And, like many, they look back on their unique high school experience with reverence.

"Ravenswood was a fun time for me and my husband," said Vicki Jackson, holding her senior yearbook. "I've taken away the ability to be more understanding toward all people."

The school was ahead of its time in many ways, noted Randy Jackson, recalling how his basketball team was sent to dance lessons to improve footwork.

The school also produced more than its share of recognizable graduates. Alumni and former faculty include White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry (Class of 1972), comedian and script writer Monica Piper (teacher), former Chicago White Sox outfielder Rudy Law (Class of 1975), Newsweek correspondent Tom Rosensteil (Class of 1974) and entomologist Sally Fox (attended 1972-73).

But many of those at the reunion found themselves reflecting on the experiment that was Ravenswood from 1971 to 1976 and wondering if the noble goals of an interracial educational setting and progressive curriculum had been achieved.

"Now, 20 years later, I can look back upon the whole experience objectively and see a huge contradiction between the feelings we had about Ravenswood and the reality of Ravenswood," said Pier Cynthia DuPee, president of the last graduating class. "One of the things that comes to my mind today is--was there real integration?"

Some felt the school and its unique programs never got a fair chance. A few even had held out hope of Ravenswood reopening.

But those lingering dreams vanished earlier this year when East Palo Alto's only public high school, long dormant and decrepit, was torn down. The school, previously at 2050 Cooley Ave., was bulldozed in June to make way for the city's planned Gateway development.

During the Aug. 24 reunion, Randy Jackson held out a square piece of broken brick. A friend had given it to him. He said it was a piece of Ravenswood's "J building" where the school's musicals were held.

Jackson passed the memento around, letting his classmates rub the broken pink brick for luck.

"If that stone could speak, it would say a lot," he said.

"People fail to get along because they fear each other. They fear each other because they do not know each other. They do not know each other because they have not properly communicated with each other. We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools." --Martin Luther King Jr., as quoted in Ravenswood High School's 1971-72 yearbook

Ravenswood High School's reputation as a controversial institution had been firmly established by the time the school opened in 1958 serving 629 students. Although East Palo Alto was a growing community of 25,000, many questioned whether a high school was needed. Many more debated where the school's attendance boundaries should fall and who would attend Ravenswood.

At the beginning, Bayshore Freeway was the basic dividing line, but debate lingered. Some neighboring communities opposed proposals that would include them in Ravenswood's boundaries, while other Peninsulans feared the impacts of Ravenswood's growing racial and economic isolation.

"By 1963, it was clear that whatever people called the Ravenswood problem, the real issue was race," noted the authors of the 1976 book "Ravenswood."

Nearly a decade had passed since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education made racially segregated schools unconstitutional. But by 1963, officials had grown increasingly concerned about the effects of "residential segregation" on schools like Ravenswood. White families were moving out of East Palo Alto in large numbers.

"There is a feeling of rejection of us as a community," noted East Palo Alto resident Ed Becks in a San Francisco Call Bulletin article on April 12, 1963. "I'm telling you, this has a depressing effect on a minority race."

Ravenswood's enrollment climbed from 629 in 1958 to 1,205 in 1963. At the same time the percentage of black students grew from 21 percent in 1958 to 37 percent in 1961 to 49 percent in 1963.

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) expressed concern about Ravenswood's student population becoming all black. They demonstrated and challenged school district policies in court.

Some called for a phase-out of Ravenswood. The school board considered a "voluntary transfer" program, but eventually dropped the idea. Believing their children could get a better education outside of a segregated Ravenswood, some parents were able to place their kids in white Palo Alto homes. The plan was known as "sneak out."

In many ways the 1960s were not a time of peace or love for Ravenswood. Concerns grew about the quality of education. The faculty became frustrated with criticism about student performance. And student and parent demonstrations were common.

And the segregation problem grew worse. Ravenswood's enrollment peaked in 1964 at 1,285 and then began to fall. But its proportion of black enrollment continued to grow from 60 percent in 1964 to 94 percent in 1970.

It was at that point the Sequoia Union High School District decided to take action.

With a goal of reducing Ravenswood's alienation, the district embarked on a bold mission in 1971 to desegregate the East Palo Alto school and create an innovative education environment that would be attractive to students from throughout the county. The objective was to create a "new Ravenswood" through a voluntary interschool busing program.

But while some saw it as intriguing, others saw it as an invasion.

"As you all know next year our school will be turned into a school with majority white . . ." wrote student Sandra Boulding in 1970, as quoted in "Ravenswood." "Next year our black, beautiful and soulful school is going to turn into one of the biggest hippie fields in the district. . . . I don't want to walk down the halls of Ravenswood next year and say 'Hi guy.' I want to walk and be proud of what I see and say 'what's happening brother?' I don't want to listen to Simon and Garfunkel at my senior prom, and I'm sure you don't want to either. I want to dig on the Temps."

Many East Palo Alto Japanese, Filipino and Samoan students, believing that they would receive a better education at one of the hill schools, chose to transfer out of Ravenswood when offered the opportunity as part of the interschool busing program in the fall of 1971.

But many others remained hopeful and optimistic.

In order to attract more students to Ravenswood, educators sought to make Ravenswood into a "model school," with individualized instruction, field trips and unique classes such as mountaineering and scuba diving.

Popular teachers from other schools in the district were recruited to come to the new Ravenswood. And with them came many students from the predominantly white hill schools such as Carlmont, Belmont, Woodside, Sequoia, Menlo-Atherton and San Carlos high schools.

Kelly Hunter, the first volunteer to transfer to Ravenswood after the new program began in 1971, said that the experience strengthened her outlook on interracial relationships.

"Ravenswood was the best experience I've ever had," said Hunter, who attended the reunion in August. "I didn't want to be a part of the traditional school setting."

Her father, Bob Hunter, is now the vice principal of Carlmont. "I was excited about my daughter going to Ravenswood because she would have opportunities to expand her education and associate with different groups," he said.

The optimism showed during the first Back-To-School Night during that fall of 1971.

"There was a traffic jam all the way to University because so many parents were trying to get in," said Clarence Cryer, who served as Ravenswood's principal from 1971-74. "I was thinking 'Wow. We are not alone.'"

Enrollment at Ravenswood surged from 781 in 1970 to 1,125 in 1971. The proportion of black students dropped to 51 percent.

"The first days of school were fun," said La Verta Jones, music teacher at Ravenswood from 1968-76. "We had faculty meetings every day and were determined to make integration work."

"People had mixed reactions at first, but as long as parents and other adults stayed out of it, (the students) got along great," said Mike Pounds, one of the first graduates of the new program in the spring of 1972. "As the year went on, a lot of different ideas were exchanged between cultures."

Although the school had been desegregated, real integration took time. Former teachers and students say it happened slowly as friendships were forged.

One area where true integration occurred was in performing arts, said former music teacher Don Harris.

"Our first musical, "West Side Story," provided a real glue and brought many kids together. We could run rehearsals until 11 p.m., and a lot of the (white) kids would stay in friends' homes in East Palo Alto," Harris said.

Pekka Luuk, Ravenswood's first and only exchange student, was grateful that his host family had let him choose between Woodside and Ravenswood. "As an exchange student, coming to America (from Finland) was already a cultural experience," said Luuk. "But I got more deeply down into the real American experience because of Ravenswood."

The experiment got so much attention that Coretta Scott King visited the campus in the spring of 1972. According to Cryer, she said Ravenswood was exactly what her husband had spent his life talking about.

"We were all working toward the same goal--different races living and learning peacefully side by side," Cryer said.

But the experiment was not successful for all students, and criticism continued about the quality of education at Ravenswood.

Roselyn Denise Womack, student body president during Ravenswood's last year, compared the Ravenswood experience to a football game. "The stadium is provided, just like the Ravenswood school. You can come, participate and be a player on the winning team; you could be on the team but sit on the bench; you can be a spectator in the stadium; or you can choose not to even enter the stadium at all. The opportunity (for a winning team) was there. It was just up to each individual to decide what level of play (he or she) wanted to participate in."

"Ravenswood appealed to the self-motivated learner," said Joyce Rosensteil, who taught English at Ravenswood for three years.

"A number of things galvanized people to the school--it's program, what it stood for, but also the fact that the school may close someday," said reunion organizer Peter Katz. Problems between the races were rare compared to the hill schools, he said.

Interracial dating at Ravenswood occurred occasionally and was not taboo. "The school was pretty unified. It was the '70s, so people would streak across the school no matter what color they were," said Randy Jackson, a freshman in 1972.

"We had two courtyards (often divided by color), but it was no big deal, and you could cross easily. The adults were the only ones attacking the school, while the kids were having a good time," Jackson said.

But the new "model school" could not maintain the momentum. Enrollment at Ravenswood dwindled from 1,125 in 1971 to 956 in 1972 to 823 in 1974. After the first year, fewer students from the hill schools elected to transfer. Recruitment became more difficult, since fewer students knew the popular teachers who had set an example by transferring to Ravenswood during the initial years.

Despite student and faculty unity at Ravenswood, murmurs of discontent started on the outside and external pressures mounted.

Ravenswood could not get a guarantee of minimum enrollment from the high school district. And district financial problems were mounting. Attempts to increase tax revenue for the district failed. Cutbacks had to be made to the Ravenswood program. And the possibility of closure loomed.

"East Palo Alto residents have vowed to fight the closure of Ravenswood High School, and parents have said if Ravenswood is closed they will keep their children home before they become victims of one-way busing," noted the Ravenswood Post in an article on Oct. 8, 1975

Senior class president DuPee, then 17, blasted the school board in her speech to save the school in 1975. "If Ravenswood is closed down, we the black students will be shoved into forced and one-way busing. All the pressure of desegregation is to be placed on the black students' shoulders," DuPee said.

But the pleas fell on deaf ears. A week after DuPee's speech, four of the five district board members voted to close Ravenswood at the end of the school year.

The board had committed itself to closing one or more schools to ease its financial troubles. The school board cited Ravenswood's depleted enrollment, the negative image of East Palo Alto, cost savings and districtwide desegregation as rationale for making Ravenswood the first to go.

The board also rationalized that the closing of Ravenswood would solve the school district's desegregation problems as students from East Palo Alto would have to attend one of the hill schools. In order to do that, however, East Palo Alto students would need to catch a 7 a.m. bus to school.

"I felt like Ravenswood was the isolated stepchild of the school district," student body president Womack said 20 years later.

"Closing Ravenswood was like putting a knife through our heart," said Randy Jackson, who has lived in East Palo Alto his entire life. "Ravenswood was an indispensable institution to the East Palo Alto community. It taught us to be good people. Our kids weren't wanted at the other schools."

While Ravenswood's innovative teaching had encouraged many to pursue a college education, some students dropped out after its closure, Jackson said. Many also opted to finish high school in three years, so they would not have to transfer. Ravenswood students who had not graduated had no choice but to attend Woodside, Menlo-Atherton, Carlmont or San Carlos high schools, depending on where they lived. The changes resulted in racial tension and conflicts within many of those schools during the first few years.

"As we end your senior year and Ravenswood's last, I look back and ask, 'What was Ravenswood?'. . . It was you, it was me, it was everyone bold enough to try it. But now, what is it? It is the knowledge that we have striven for something, worked together for a common goal. . . We will always have the experience. No school board can take that away from us. A very famous quote comes to mind: 'We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.' Let us not complain that the school is closing but rejoice that it existed to begin with, and that we were a part of it. For this, we should be grateful." --Excerpt from Marcia Bell's senior yearbook, 1976, by Steve Ullman

"The tragedy of Ravenswood is that we failed to realize that by letting every individual have his separate niche, there is no community."

--Bill Vines, Ravenswood teacher, as quoted in "Ravenswood," published in 1976. Vines is now a City Council member.

Several members of the Class of 1976, Ravenswood's last graduating class, brought their yearbooks to the reunion at Flood Park. The distinctive front cover displays a neon blue "Ravenswood" sign plugged into an outlet. On the back, the sign, drained of color, is unplugged.

"We thought to use neon because it really glows bright when plugged in. But when you unplug it, although the light diminishes, there are still remnants of its existence there," said former yearbook editor Marcia Bell.

Those remnants were clear at the reunion, which was open to all who were involved in the four years of the "new Ravenswood" but drew Ravenswood students and faculty from all years.

"I just finished my 25th year teaching, and Ravenswood was the most exciting and rewarding time," said dance teacher Diane Silven. "Ravenswood attempted to break down barriers. After being there for a couple of years, I stopped seeing color."

But there was an undercurrent of disappointment at the gathering. Although desegregation had converted Ravenswood's black enrollment from 94 percent to 51 percent during the first year, over two-thirds of the students at the reunion were white.

"I have now come to question whether (the Ravenswood experience) was the same for all people, regardless of color," DuPee said. "I question why the black representation at the reunion was so low."

"We really believed then that if you leveled the playing field by improving the curriculum and skill level of the students, the rest would follow automatically. They were good dreams, but it wasn't that simple and could not be done with one generation," former English teacher Joyce Rosensteil said. "Integration was a much needed step, but until we know, respect and trust each other, we're not going to solve our problems."

Rosensteil's son, Tom, also has a different perspective on his Ravenswood experience 20 years later.

"At the time, Ravenswood was not a success in terms of integration because America wasn't changed by the experiments in an obvious way," said the Newsweek correspondent, who, along with McCurry, was not able to attend the reunion. "We did not integrate. We made the school multicultural but didn't make it a melting pot."

Rosensteil compared his years at Ravenswood to America today--less racist but more separated. Although he valued Ravenswood's educational mission more than the desegregation at the time the school closed, he said the opposite is true today.

"In retrospect, the desegregation was a success. . . . We had this indelible experience at a very impressionable age, involving something important and idealistic," Rosensteil said.

Many at the reunion referred to Ravenswood fondly in their stories. But many remembrances were folded into larger discussions about the state of race relations in society and the debate over multiculturalism in education. At least to those at Flood Park, these issues are neither new nor without hope.

"Learning doesn't only take place in the classrooms, but also on the playgrounds," said former principal Cryer. "Ravenswood fulfilled the expectation that learning can take place in an environment of peace, contentment, harmony and enthusiasm. Our society hasn't progressed as far as we could have . . . but we proved at Ravenswood that it doesn't have to be that way."

Today, approximately 750 students from East Palo Alto attend high schools in the Sequoia Union High School District. Of the 750, two-thirds attend Carlmont and one-third attend Woodside.


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