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School in Review

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“We’re closing in 26 days.”

When East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School (EPAA), a charter school in the Ravenswood school district, earned low API scores, many in the Stanford School of Education were taken by surprise. (MASARU OKA/Staff Photographer)

Richard Mojarro had only been principal at East Palo Alto Academy (EPAA) Elementary School for less than 10 months when he began making final preparation for the school’s closing in June.

Like everyone else, the disappointment stung most when he thought about the potential. While it was rarely said aloud, there was a widespread expectation for these students to be practically spoon-fed their academic achievement. After all, when EPAA opened in 2006 under a charter from the Ravenswood School District, it looked like a sure-fire recipe for success.

The elementary school is the second leg of the Stanford New Schools project founded in 2001 by Linda Darling-Hammond, a School of Education professor who was on Obama’s short-list for Secretary of Education. Its school board includes professors and administrators from the School of Education and many of its teachers were trained at the university.

And, really, Stanford wasn’t used to failure.

That’s why administrators at the Stanford School of Education, teachers and families were unprepared for the Ravenswood decision. Denied a five-year charter extension by the School District board, EPAA instead received a limited two-year extension. Only the fifth-grade program of the elementary school will remain open until 2011, and the high school until 2012, while Stanford educators will begin the search for a new “charter home.”

“It was a shock to us because we had been kind of led to believe that we were fine and that we didn’t have anything to worry about,” said Deborah Stipek, a member of the Ravenswood board of directors and dean of Stanford’s School of Education. “We didn’t find out that they weren’t going to recommend not continuing the elementary school until the day of the board meeting.”

Plans had been made. Summer school, reading programs with Stanford donors and alumni and a stint with undergraduate and graduate students from the Schools of Engineering and Medicine were all in the works.

“It cuts it short, it cuts the plans short,” Mojarro said. “Change is hard for people, so my initiatives weren’t embraced immediately because it was very different. So it took awhile for them to warm up to these ideas. But what happens now — it’s all dissolved.”

Mojarro had even recruited the help of a Stanford alum, Sarah Woodward ‘09, to design two murals and lead a school-wide event to paint it in an effort to beautify the school.

In the end, none of it mattered.

California public schools are evaluated through their Academic Performance Index (API) scores, which are based on standardized test results. EPAA had an API of 606 in 2009; CA’s state average that year was 755.

But, these less-than-stellar numbers did more than just close EPAA —- it also tarnished Stanford’s School of Education’s academic reputation.

Mike Piscal, founder of Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF) public schools, charges Darling-Hammond with trying to evade assuming responsibility for flaws he perceives in their educational approaches.

“Are you kidding me? East Palo Alto is like a rough neighborhood in Beverly Hills compared to South Centro and Oakland and Compton. It is not a difficult environment to educate a kid.”

His intuitions have told him that the problem is in the institution.

“They’ve been teaching in the ivory tower for so long, they don’t know how to teach kids, and they certainly don’t know how to teach the teachers how to teach them,” he said. “Here’s what was considered one of the best schools of education, and they can’t run one school.”

Piscal, a mere private school English teacher when he started ICEF in 1991, has proven he can outperform Stanford in this charter-school “race to the top.” 15 times.

ICEF boasts of having established five elementary, six middle and four high schools in South L.A., seven of which have API scores at or above the state average. The rest have populations that are too small to provide accurate data from which the state can calculate API.

One of its latest additions, ICEF Vista Elementary, is in its second year of operation on a campus a few blocks away from the projects in Inglewood, a common hangout for the Bloods. ICEF Vista has an API of 767.

But, it’s more than just working toward a test score. Piscal thinks that he’s found a model program that solves the charter school problems.

“To me, the tests are easy,” he said. “If you have a rigorous college prep education where the child, when they graduate from high school, is prepared to go to Stanford or Berkeley or UC-Davis or Cal State San Francisco, and you’re preparing them to do college level work, that’ll take care of the test scores.”

But Gary Orfield, professor of education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, said that he firmly believed that Darling-Hammond and her Stanford-trained corps could have met state standards with more time. He attributes failing charters to lackluster administrators, inexperienced teachers and an underrepresentation of social factors that impede students’ abilities to learn.

“Those kids have multiple problems,” he said. “They come from poor families with relatively low information. They have language issues, and they have a lot of other issues in their lives.”

Still, for Piscal, the best way to relate this expectation to his students and assure that they meet the standard is not to be afraid to ask for help.

“They have good intentions at Stanford,” he said. “But they put their theory that they cherish ahead of what’s going to work.”

Mojarro, who had been in the public school industry for over ten years, was well aware that the Stanford New Schools approach to education needed drastic change.

“Obviously they hired me for a reason,” he said. “It’s not a mystery to anyone — it’s public information that the school needed changes. It was not doing very well academically.”

Though Mojarro is hesitant to make any assumptions about the administration that preceded him, he says that the classroom structure may have contributed to a stunted academic development.

Most students were grouped together and taught in single classrooms despite age differences — first grade with second and third with fourth. As a result, said Mojarro, faculty would often have to teach down in order to accommodate younger students, who may not be as up to speed academically as their older peers — a tendency he immediately worked to change when he arrived by moving to separate the students by grade level.

His changes may have benefited from more time, however, and many pro-EPAA lobbies felt that the judgment came too soon. After all, although it had been in operation for four years, the elementary school had only two years worth of test scores for only three grades — two, four and eight.

Seventy-eight percent of the 276 students enrolled in EPAA are English language learners (ELL), and though born and raised in the U.S., did not have the state-standard classroom capabilities in language arts, Mojarro said.

“Four years is more than enough time,” Piscal countered. “They don’t say it’s the kids, but they’re saying it’s the kids.”

“You don’t have four years to teach a child how to read,” he added. “That’s just not acceptable. The kids can’t wait that long, they need the school to work by the second year.”

Piscal also thought that it took EPAA High School too long to reach the level of achievement that they boast of now — sending over 90 percent of their students to college.

“I think Ravenswood school district did the right thing,” he said. “Stanford School of Education is running a school where kids are not learning how to read.”

“The prisons are filled with adults who were poor kids who didn’t learn how to read — that’s what the high stakes are, here,” he added.

The debate about what makes charter schools work or not, and their efficacy in California, remains lively, and hard-and-fast conclusions will remain elusive for the foreseeable future. But for Stanford, the issue is clear: educators failed to bring the school up to state standards and were denied an extension because of it.

The worst part is, Mojarro said, that it’s the students and their families who are left to pick up the pieces.

“They’re scrambling right now, really, trying to find a place for their children,” said Mojarro, who is expected to run a tight ship to the very end to ease the transition.

Students are, in fact, still in the midst of completing the California Standards Test (CST) — the very same exam responsible for the school’s low status, Mojarro said.

“And, though our school is closing, we are really confident that come August, our scores are going to show that we’ve done wonderfully this year,” he added. “That is going to be our legacy.”

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