Last week news was created when a charter school launched and supported by Stanford University’s School of Education was denied a 5-year renewal of its proposed charter by the Ravenswood, California school board. The board later approved an extension of the charter with modifications. The Ravenswood board members cited low test scores in the school’s new elementary grades as the rationale for denying the initial charter request, and cited the successes of the longer-standing high school division as the reason for extending a modified charter which focused on continuing the upper elementary and high school grades.
A report by the New York Times on the school board’s initial decision played up the idea that a respected university’s education program was unable to produce a quality learning experience for the diverse group of students who attend Stanford New School (SNS). The Times failed to report many of the facts that led up to the controversial board decision and has thus far not followed up with a more complete story or to recount subsequent events.
The NYT did not report that Stanford New School began as a high school charter, launched at the Ravenswood Elementary School District’s request to provide the first public high school in over 25 years in the low-income East Palo Alto community. The then all-Black community had lost its high school due to desegregation back in 1976, and students were bused out to districts from which most failed to graduate. The high school charter quickly turned this situation around, and has routinely graduated over 85% of its students and sent more than 90% of graduates to college – with an increasing share (now 53%) admitted to 4-year colleges, a rate double the state average.
The East Palo Alto Academy High School has also improved test scores for its students (now Latino, African American, and Pacific Islander from households that are among the lowest-income in the state), raising the Academic Progress Index, the state’s achievement measure, by 180 points and sharply increasing exit exam pass rates.With nearly 2/3 of its students limited English proficient, and most entering 9th grade reading below the 5th grade level, the school has a heavy lift, but it has developed intensive support systems to allow students to catch up while pursuing a college preparatory program. Through its Early College Program, students also take college courses while in high school. Last year 125 of them took 550 college credits, and 40% earned “A’s” in their college courses.
It was only three years ago that Stanford New School launched the elementary division — a slow expansion plan that would add a grade each year. While parents were deeply committed to the school, and turned out by the hundreds to support it at the initial board meeting earlier this month, the elementary portion of the school was still establishing itself. It had only 2 years of performance data from a few grades when the charter renewal came up last week. These scores were higher than those of some now-successful schools when they were first founded, but lower than those of more established elementary schools in the district – a source of concern to the Ravenswood board.
Although you’d be hard pressed to pick this fact out of the Times’ sensationalized account, the Ravenswood school board actually indicated its strong support for the secondary component of the Stanford New School even as it denied the initial charter request based on its concerns about the elementary test scores. Instead, the board voted to modify the charter to assure the high school would continue.
Pundits who oppose the far-reaching, student-centered school reforms of Stanford scholars like Linda Darling Hammond were quick to wave the Times story about as evidence of the failure of those ideas. The most vitriolic pundits, in fact, singled Darling-Hammond out, even though her association with SNS was limited to advising on the high school’s development, a role she relinquished in spring of 2008 while working on the Obama campaign and transition.
When Darling Hammond offered a fuller account of the situation than that reported in the Times, long-time critics like Chester “Checker” Finn Jr. simply ignored it – choosing to continue their harangues against her, going so far as to suggest that the opponents of performance assessment (an issue Darling-Hammond has championed) had some how been “outed” by performance data.
The real dispute, of course, is not about whether performance should be measured (of course it should), but over how comprehensive those measurements should be, using what tools, and for what variety of purposes. But that's a debate for another time.
Having visited East Palo Alto Academy High, I can attest to the fact that students do, indeed, have to engage in performance assessments, as well as study for the state standardized tests. They must present research papers each year in exhibitions to panels of judges, who evaluate their work and require revisions when the work does not yet meet high standards. Graduates attest that this practice was one of the most important in preparing them to succeed when they arrived in college.
No doubt the SNS charter school, especially the elementary school, has faced challenges. Creating a school for high-need students in a low-income community where 2/3 of parents have less than a high school education is hard work. And Checker Finn should know. His own foundation “parachuted down” from its snarky, policy wonk world and helped support several charter schools in Dayton, Ohio, first through a Fordham funded organization called KIDS (Keys to Improving Dayton Schools). KIDS provided grants to two schools, Omega and East End Community, in 2002. When the schools floundered, Fordham took over direct sponsorship in late 2005.
In 2006, Mr. Finn’s co-worker Terry Ryan owned up to the “tremendous challenge of educating disadvantaged students in urban communities” and even went so far to offer his “respect for traditional educators” who have to teach children who bring to school “painful stories.”
As things turned out, Mr. Finn and his collaborators fell flat on their faces. The Omega school never could attract enough students, and the East End Community School could not make AYP with their proficiency rates on standardized tests far, far below the state average. The schools closed in 2008.
What’s the admonition about throwing stones in glass houses?
East Palo Alto Academy High students have participated in Sojourn to the Past, a 10-day educational trip through the South, for a number of years. Students traveled to key civil rights communities, from Atlanta to Selma and Memphis, met civil rights activists, and visited historic sites. They raised a portion of the cost themselves (writing 20 fundraising letters to family members, friends and other potential donors), attended 10 preparatory seminar sessions, and recorded reflections throughout the trip.