Ravenswood board considers new K-12 charter school in East Palo Alto

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Families filled every seat and lined the walls at the Ravenswood City School District board meeting, spilling into a hallway with kids in tow.

Their show of support was for Aspire Public Schools, an Oakland-based organization that runs charter schools serving mostly low-income students throughout California and in Memphis.

Aspire operates East Palo Alto Charter School, for kids in kindergarten through eighth grade, and the high school-level East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy. For the most part, the students are Latino residents of East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park, where parents are inspired by Aspire’s motto: “College for Certain.” Before the board’s Sept. 26 meeting, translation devices were passed out to Spanish speakers in the crowd.

“Even my youngest daughter, she’s 5 years old, and with only a few weeks in kindergarten she has already in her mind that she wants to go to college,” said Patricia Diaz, a mother of six whose children are all students or alumni of Aspire schools.

Diaz was among six parents who spoke at the meeting. The school board is considering whether to approve two petitions from Aspire: one would renew the K-8 charter and the other would effectively combine this school with the existing Aspire high school under a new name – East Palo Alto College Preparatory Academy.

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Board members are scheduled to reach a decision on both petitions by Oct. 30. While Aspire enjoys abundant community support and the board praises its success, a few obstacles stand in the way.

Since Ravenswood only serves K-8, Superintendent Gloria Hernandez said a major concern is how to legally incorporate the high school portion of the proposed charter into the district. East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy is now sponsored by the Sequoia Union High School District.

Charter schools receive public funding but are given considerably more freedom than other schools in their districts. Sometimes, this flexibility runs up against a district’s federal mandates, as is the case with Aspire and Ravenswood’s special education program. The district is awaiting answers from a federal court monitor as to whether high school students in the special ed. program can be put directly under Aspire’s oversight, according to Hernandez.

Monitoring a high school would also be a big adjustment for Ravenswood’s staff, Hernandez said. She hopes Ravenswood can continue to collaborate with the Sequoia district, which serves grades 9-12.

Despite these concerns, board members and district personnel recognize the results that Aspire has achieved. Aspire promises that every graduating senior will be accepted into a four-year college.

Sharon Johnson, principal of East Palo Alto Charter School, said the school’s performance has “grown tremendously from some humble beginnings,” especially since the merger with Aspire Public Schools in 2003.

In 2000, the first year that California used the Academic Performance Index to measure the performance of public schools, East Palo Alto Charter School received a score of 529, far below the state’s goal of 800. However, after averaging a gain of nearly 50 points per year, they achieved a score of 819 in 2006. The school has continued to score above 800 ever since, whereas the district overall averaged a score of 709 in 2013.

On the benefits of a K-12 school, Jennifer Saul, dean of students at East Palo Alto Charter School said, “We want kids to have a clear path with a system that’s promising college for certain, instead of needing another lottery.” As of now, students at East Palo Alto Charter School must re-enroll at East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy for high school, and are not guaranteed admission if enrollment exceeds capacity.

“It’s in our community’s best interest,” Hernandez said, of having a high school in the district. “We really are very open to the idea of continuing to work with the charter because they have a great academic track record. They do make a difference in our community, for our high school students in particular.”

Hernandez said Ravenswood district personnel have been working with Aspire and the Sequoia district to iron out the logistics and get the answers that they need to move forward. “If we’re all working together for our students and our community, I think we all win,” she said.

Aspire staff members believe they will be able to address the Ravenswood district’s concerns and continue to serve students and families for many years to come. Saul explained that, ultimately, Aspire schools aim to foster a culture of giving back.

“Our vision is that these students, after completing degrees, will return to our community, ready to help support future generations,” she said.

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