Publication Date: Wednesday Feb 21, 2001
High school coming back to RavenswoodNew charter school will be run by private nonprofit company
by Jennifer Deitz Berry
It's been a quarter of a century since the Ravenswood school district last had its own high school, but that's about to change. At their last meeting, district board members voted unanimously in favor of opening a small charter high school. "It's a dream come true for me," said Ravenswood Superintendent Charlie Mae Knight. "I know that with this kind of involvement the school is certainly destined to become one of the respected citadels of learning that we've been trying for years to get into this city."
The new high school will be located at Menlo Oaks School in east Menlo Park, and will eventually hold about 300 students. The school will be operated by a nonprofit organization called Aspire Public Schools. Aspire's CEO is Don Shalvey, who was a chief player in the creation of the first charter school in the state, the San Carlos Learning Center.
"We're all elated about it," said Shalvey. "I think it's going to be terrific for the district, for us, for Stanford, and most importantly, for students and families."
What will make the new high school even more unique will be its partnership with Stanford's teacher education program under the leadership of Professor Linda Darling-Hammond.
Darling-Hammond will be working with Shalvey and Knight to bring top-notch teachers to the high school--something that's been a challenge for the district for years.
"Somehow the best and brightest didn't find their way to the inner city," said Knight.
The goal is to hire teachers who have National Board certification or are willing to work toward that high standard. The school is also trying to recruit teachers that reflect the largely minority population the school will serve--particularly those who are bilingual or are skilled at reaching students who speak English as a second language.
The charter school will then serve as a "Professional Development School" for teachers-in-training. Professional Development schools are similar "teaching hospitals," where medical students are trained to become doctors.
In this case, students in Stanford's STEP program who are working toward obtaining a teaching credential and a master's degree in education would be trained and supported by mentor teachers at the high school. The hope is that learning to teach in an environment that promotes exemplary teaching and has close links to the university will leave graduates better prepared to teach.
The school's small size will also be an attraction for many students, Shalvey says. "Having a small school says that no one slips through the cracks. You can be much more personalized."
With only 300 students, the school won't be able to have its own sports teams and may not have as many elective offerings as other public high schools, but what it lacks in breadth it will make up for in depth. Classes won't be squeezed into the typical 45- to 50-minute sessions. Instead, students will be taught subjects in longer blocks that can be varied in length to accommodate science labs or project-based learning opportunities.
Another goal will be to ensure that academic work is relevant to the "real world." Planned curriculum will include "service learning" projects where the topic students are learning in the classroom will be linked to activities they'll do out in the community. Students will also be required to take on internships and apprenticeships to help them get a clearer sense of job opportunities. And, they may also be encouraged to take online or community college classes.
Many students likely to attend the school will come from families where both parents are working, so the school will be open from dawn to dusk--7 a.m. to 7 p.m.--and mentors or tutors will be available during most of those hours to provide extra support and help with homework.
To make the transition go more smoothly, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided a one-time $320,000 grant that will cover the costs typically associated with opening a new school, such as purchasing the new textbooks, classroom equipment and furniture.
Since the last Ravenswood public high school closed in 1974 due to declining enrollment, students from the district have to take buses or long car rides to high schools in the Sequoia Union High School District. Residents have pushed for years to have a new high school opened, but it wasn't until now that a good plan emerged.
Negotiations with Aspire moved surprisingly quickly, however, thanks in large part to a law passed in 1998 that makes it more difficult for school districts to reject applications for charters. Talk about opening the charter school began last summer, and at the end of January plans were sealed.
Under Knight's leadership, the Ravenswood district has been particularly open to exploring ways to offer parents and students more choice. The district already offers a wide array of alternatives, such as magnet schools and schools managed by a national for-profit company, Edison Schools.
"For a long time we thought that the charters may be the undoing of the public school," Knight said. "Now it appears that the charters are really great options for those people who feel that we are not delivering a quality product."
Despite the quick approval, it will be a few years before the high school reaches its full capacity, with students being phased in slowly. In fall of this year, a class of 80 freshmen will be added to the Menlo Oaks site, and the school--which had served fourth- through eighth-graders--will not add a new fourth-grade class. As each new high school grade is added, a lower grade will be dropped off until the transition to high school grades is complete.