Students at Stanford New Schools Face ‘A Perfect Storm’

Last April, Ravenswood City School District board members voted 3-2 to suspend a five-year renewal of the Stanford New School charter, leaving many committed stakeholders “surprised.”

In a following meeting, board members decided to suspend all but the fifth grade of the elementary school.  The high school’s charter, the board decided, would only be extended for an additional two years. Such a decision, based on a state calculation of student achievement, has had tremendous ramifications for the students and families of East Palo Alto.

Stanford University established the Stanford New School in 2005, “to be of service and support the district,” stated Deborah Stipek, dean of the Stanford School of Education. Dr. Stipek added: “We wanted to be a partner rather than just preach from the Ivy tower. We wanted a deep understanding of the challenges within the community.”

Ravenswood City School District had initially invited Stanford University to establish East Palo Alto Academy High School (EPAAHS) in 2001. The charter high school was expanded in 2005 when a K-8 elementary school was added, forming Stanford New School.

EPAAHS students have excelled academically since the high school opened: the graduation rate is currently 86 percent, which is well above the state average of 80 percent. Ninety-sex percent of graduates go on to attend college; with 53 percent admitted to four-year colleges last year.

According to the California Department of Education, however, student achievement scores at Stanford New School simply weren’t making the cut.  In March 2010, the state reported Stanford New School as “persistently low-achieving.”

Jenny Singh, a consultant for the California Department of Education, confirmed that the school’s API, an indicator of school performance on statewide tests, grew only 21 points over the past five years, suggesting that the school’s API is the lowest 5 percent in the state.

When Stanford New School was formed, it acquired a new tax code, which meant that the state included only two years of data in its calculations. Based on a full five years worth of data available before the elementary school was added, the charter school actually scored a 76-point overall gain.

Deborah Sigman, California’s deputy superintendent for curriculum, learning, and accountability, reported that Department of Education had received a letter of appeal from Stanford New Schools regarding its designation as persistently low-achieving. However, she stated: “We do not have any indication that state board of education will consider any appeals.”

Christelle Estrada, Chief Academic Officer for Stanford New Schools, stated: “Even though the high school met the criteria for API growth, we didn’t get credit for all those five years.” But, she added, “It’s not about casting blame on people.”

The measurements board members used to justify the closing of Stanford New Schools’ grades K-4, in one of the lowest income communities in California, were not only made using incomplete data, but were also taken from the initial years of the school’s opening.

Donna Foote, author of Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America, stressed that student achievement doesn’t occur immediately. She stated: “The pace of major reforms in education has always been glacial, and yet, we are expecting charter schools to be the magic bullet, the quick fix that somehow transforms the system and closes the achievement gap–overnight.  Even the best charter schools that are fortunate enough to have sufficient talent and treasure, need another crucial element, which is time.”

Dr. Stipek stated that she was “very surprised” when Ravenswood City School District Superintendent Maria de la Vega did not mention until the day of the board meeting that she would be recommending a charter revision.

After repeated attempts to contact a representative of Ravenswood City School District, neither de la Vega nor a district board member was available for comment.

Dr. Stipek stated: “We are doing everything we can to make the transition for families as easy as possible.” Stanford New Schools has held a school transition information session and made a psychiatrist available for families.

Estrada stated, “I know each one of these students personally. They’re going through a huge crisis, and we’re just trying to maintain a stable environment here.”

Dr. Stipek predicts that increasing numbers of charters will close in upcoming years for monetary reasons. Public schools face an economic climate where funding is shrinking tremendously.

Foote agreed: “I think at the end of the day one of the main motivators here is money. Successful charter schools challenge the status quo and some of the bedrocks of our educational system, like tenure and unions. For good teachers, this is terrific. For teachers that aren’t performing up to par, it’s terrifying.”

Dr. Stipek added: “Districts don’t like charter schools because they cost the district a lot of money. Schools right now are absolutely desperate—we’re in a perfect storm.”

The apparent combination of unavoidable budget cuts and the district’s inherent conflict of interest has removed children’s education from the forefront of the agenda. With “pink slips flying left and right,” as Dr. Stipek stated, we should always keep students’ best interests in mind.

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