Almanac

Cover Story - February 18, 2009

Is this going to work?

Everest backers lukewarm to Sequoia district's proposed East Palo Alto site for the charter high school.

by Dave Boyce

If Everest Public High School opens in September with 100 freshmen, as seems increasingly likely, the charter school may well settle for its first two years in a low-rent, high-crime community on the southern edge of the county.

From the outside, its portable buildings on concrete slabs at 763 Green St. in East Palo Alto won't win any architectural awards. And the classrooms and offices will be taken over in the evenings by a long-planned adult school.

Are appearances and location and shared space that important when the matter at hand is providing teens with an education designed to get them ready for and into four-year colleges?

It depends on whom you ask.

Everest spokeswoman Diane Tavenner told The Almanac that she "feels very confident we'll open. There certainly is a great deal of hard work ahead of us."

With negotiations over the school's location ongoing between Everest and the Sequoia Union High School District, neither side was ready to talk details, but The Almanac spoke to a few parents looking to send their kids to Everest. They reserved their judgment, as well as their enthusiasm. Safety and traffic topped their lists of concerns.

The Almanac also talked with the East Palo Alto police about the community around the school site and issues of safety.

Green Street residents, with the exception of the next-door neighbor, did not disguise their lack of enthusiasm for a high school on a street block that, they say, has too few sidewalks and too much speeding traffic.

An offer

The Sequoia district faced a Feb. 1 state deadline to make an offer of facilities to Everest.

Though Sequoia's board rejected Everest's petition for a charter in September 2008 and advocated against it before the San Mateo County Board of Education, which denied the petition in December, the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools in Sacramento gave the Everest charter request a 9-0 recommendation on Feb. 3. The state Board of Education is expected to approve it in March.

The district based its decision on what it insists is a lack of community support, financial problems, and the school's attraction to white students who might otherwise attend two undersubscribed charter high schools in East Palo Alto.

Everest would be modeled on Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City. Admission to Summit is by lottery because there are many more applicants than seats. About a quarter of its students live in the Almanac's circulation area. Summit's founders are also leading the effort to establish Everest.

Summit is in its sixth year and has an ethnically and academically diverse student body, a four-year-college acceptance rate of more than 95 percent, and costs that run thousands of dollars less per student than the high school district's.

The 13-page facilities offer proposed by the Sequoia district, approved unanimously by the trustees on Jan. 28, offered four classrooms in portable buildings, with furnishings to include desks and chairs along with library shelves, cafeteria tables, and one room outfitted with water and sinks for science labs.

The offer did not address where those cafeteria tables or bookcases would go, nor did it talk about bathrooms, office space or the details around sharing the space with the adult school. Everest had asked for five classrooms.

Ms. Tavenner said she is working with Everest's attorney to prepare a detailed response, due March 1, that describes the school's needs.

As it stands, the offer's shortcomings reflect the district's "lack of coherence" in its decision-making, she said.

District spokeswoman Bettylu Smith said the offer "does not address every small detail," and that more will come after Everest responds.

The offer appeared to undercut some of the district's reasons for rejecting Everest's petition in September. District officials claimed that Everest would draw students away from other East Palo Alto charter high schools, but this proposal would place Everest in their vicinity.

Similarly, Ms. Tavenner said, the letter accompanying the offer describes East Palo Alto students as "those most in need of a small-school program focused on college preparation," a position at odds with the district's refutation of Everest's claim that there were such students in the district.

"It sort of leaves me speechless, to be honest with you," Ms. Tavenner said.

Everest applicants

So far, the school has received 237 applications, Ms. Tavenner said. Of the first 220, 44 percent were from Redwood City and 21 percent from Menlo Park, she said.

About 12 percent came from East Palo Alto, with Woodside and Portola Valley at 5 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Ethnically, the list includes 44 percent of applicants claiming Hispanic heritage, 38 percent white, 6 percent Asian and 3 percent African-American, Ms. Tavenner said.

The deadline to apply is March 6. For more information, go to www.speverest.org.

Nineteen percent of Sequoia district students live in East Palo Alto, said Ms. Smith, the district spokeswoman.

Parents respond

Everest would be on Green Street for its first two years — a "starter campus," Sequoia district Assistant Superintendent James Lianides has said.

Before voting to approve the offer, Trustee Gordon Lewin said of the Green Street location that it "will create a different mix of students enrolled than if it were somewhere else."

That site reflects an ongoing uncooperative attitude from the district, said Atherton resident Lynn Bodell, whose daughter attends Summit and whose eighth-grade son, though entitled to go to Summit, is expressing a preference for Everest.

Ms. Bodell's first concern is safety, particularly with regard to traffic. "I know the way high schoolers cross streets en masse," she said in an interview.

Security of teaching materials in a classroom to be shared with an adult school at night is another issue. "What's the (Everest) teacher supposed to do with all the materials," she asked. "Pack them up every night?"

Then there's convenience. The Sequoia district extends from Belmont south to the county line in East Palo Alto, and west to Portola Valley and Woodside.

Everest, Ms. Bodell said, should be in the middle, not the edge, of the district so as to ease the commute for parents hard-pressed to deliver and retrieve their kids on work days.

"It sounds, quite frankly, like the district is trying to sabotage the school in any way they can and this is just the latest way, by finding the most undesirable property they can find," Ms. Bodell said.

In separate interviews, Mr. Lianides and district Superintendent Pat Gemma said other sites had been considered, but neither would say where they were. Added Ms. Smith: "We considered any available space in the district and identified the Green Street property as the best site."

A SamTrans spokeswoman said bus routes originating at train stations in Redwood City and Palo Alto stop along Donohoe Street about a block away from the proposed school, and there are sidewalks all the way to the school.

Maurine Xavier of Redwood City has applied to Everest for her daughter who, Ms. Xavier said, is neither emotionally nor academically equipped to attend a large comprehensive high school.

"I would want to see the location for its safety, but other than that, I don't have a problem with it," she said. With an adequate facility as a given, she said, the critical piece is the education model.

The Tokaikolo Christian Church is adjacent to the site. The Almanac asked Deacon Pulusila Bloomfield, who supports the proposed school, if he had a message to Everest applicants from Atherton, Woodside, Menlo Park and Portola Valley.

"I think it will be a good idea to have their children come here and experience life in East Palo Alto and not be afraid to get together with other kids who have a hard time in life," he said. "Sometimes, I think that we set ourselves apart about what's going on with our neighbors. ... If we can lay down our differences and work together, I think we can make East Palo Alto a better place to stay and live."

Asked to comment on the idea of driving her daughter to and from East Palo Alto every day, Ms. Xavier, who is self-employed, said she would not back down. "If we're really a cross-section of society in San Mateo County, then you're not going to not send your kid to this school," she said.

The safety question

The cross-section of society that lives in East Palo Alto lives with more crime than the rest of the county.

East Palo Alto had 1,314 assaults for three years starting in 2003, and 1,065 for three years starting in 2006, a 20 percent drop, according to a December 2008 report from East Palo Alto Police Chief Ron Davis. (The report is available at tinyurl.com/d7yn8x.)

By comparison, Menlo Park had 402 and 281 assaults, respectively, during the same periods, though the latter number stops at June 2008. (The report is available at tinyurl.com/bbnxdq.)

Of the 1,500 total crimes reported in East Palo Alto in 2008, 2.5 percent, or 38, happened on Green Street, police Crime Analyst Doris Cohen said. None was violent, and there was one negligent gunshot in which no one was injured.

Included with the city's $6 million in grants to fight crime is $200,000 for ShotSpotter, a detection system that blankets the city with sensors to identify the location of gunshots, said Capt. Carl Estelle, precinct captain for the neighborhood that includes Green Street.

ShotSpotter gives the street address of the incident and can indicate whether the gunfire occurred in the front or back yard, Capt. Estelle said in an interview. Since March 2008, the system identified two incidents on Green Street, both after 10 p.m., he said.

The grants include $420,000 to suppress gang activities and classes to help kids resist their appeal. Over 250 students have graduated, Chief Davis said.

One Green Street resident alleged that traffic reaches 60 or 70 mph there. Capt. Estelle acknowledged that some vehicles are probably moving too fast, but that accuracy is difficult for a pedestrian using just his senses.

Speeding is a problem throughout the city and a daily topic in briefings, he added. The police department is not fully staffed, he said, but when it is, a second motorcycle officer will be added to patrol traffic.

Asked if he had a message to families thinking of attending Everest, Capt. Estelle replied: "Public safety is our No. 1 priority. We've had great success working with the Ravenswood district. We look forward to working with the Sequoia district. We welcome them."

Being neighborly

State law does not require school districts to go through city planning departments when building schools, but districts sometimes meet with affected communities in efforts to be a good neighbor.

The Sequoia district held a community meeting in East Palo Alto on Feb. 3 at the nearby Apostolic Church. Green Street resident David Winsberg, who said in an e-mail that he represents the street's residents, said the meeting produced "general uproar in the community because, mainly, the increase in traffic on a narrow, residential street and because the whole project was rammed down our throats. There has been no study of the community done for this site."

The district, Mr. Winsberg told The Almanac, didn't think through its choice of locations. The proposed school, he said, "is in the middle of a residential block that doesn't have sidewalks and doesn't have a bus stop" at the northern end of Green Street, although there are stops at the opposite, end. But, he said, there are no sidewalks from those bus stops.

"We get a tremendous amount of very high-speed cross-town speeders running through here," he added. Green Street is a cut-through route because, despite petitions signed by all but two of the street's residents, the city has not installed slowing mechanisms such as speed bumps, he said.

District spokeswoman Smith said in an e-mail that of the 150 people invited to the Feb. 3 community meeting, "a couple dozen" showed up.

"In the weeks and months ahead, we will build on this developing relationship with neighbors, keeping them informed of important milestones in the process," she said.

Comments

Posted by Hanson, a resident of Woodside High School
on Mar 10, 2009 at 5:47 pm

I am really stunned at the apparent bias in your article regarding the Sequoia Union High School District's offer for a site for the proposed Everest Charter School. Although the backers of Everest insist they are interested in providing an educational opportunity, it appears they are only interested in serving a select group of students. Apparently they are not interested in East Palo Alto students. Although it is true that hundreds of students in East Palo Alto would benefit from a more local school option, apparently Everest is not interested in fulfilling that role.
After a cursory review of the proposal your article immediately starts examining crime statistics and discusses gunshot location technology. Clearly the crime statistics between East Palo Alto and Menlo Park are different, but what about Redwood City or some of the other communities? The Everest Charter proposal claims to want to draw in students from all of the communities, where did you not discuss crime and traffic statistics among these communities?
Additionally of concern is Everest Charter's impact on a school district that is facing large scale budget cuts. As the high schools in Sequoia face heavy finding cuts and layoffs, how can they justify draining funds for a pet project or a specialized school for a relatively privileged few? Regarding Ms. Tavener's comments, I wonder what her real agenda is and how much she will choose to pay herself out of the taxpayer's education budget.


Posted by Concerned parent, a resident of Woodside: Woodside Hills
on Mar 16, 2009 at 4:45 pm

If you think that Ms. Tavener is doing this for the money, then you're terribly misinformed. She is a volunteer!

The charter schools are not serving a select group of students as you suggest. If you don't believe me, just drive by Summit Prep on any afternoon (as I do) and you'll see that these kids look and act just like the kids at any other area high school.

The charter schools work because these are students and parents that are motivated and understand the value of education. The charter schools are more successful on less money than the other schools. The school district should thank and embrace these parents and students instead of doing everything they can to discourage their efforts.

But the first thing the Sequoia district should do is give the new Everest school a decent campus. Didn't the district learn anything from their Summit experience?

This has nothing to do with East Palo Alto - it has everything to do with the district officials giving these motivated families nothing more than an empty lot with a few temporary, portable classrooms. Even with that facility disadvantage, I'll bet those kids outperform the students at any of the other fancier high schools.


Posted by woodsider, a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline
on Apr 23, 2009 at 8:13 pm

charter Schools have shown nothing but great things for the kids why take any chance of having a good education from them?


Posted by woodsider, a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline
on Apr 23, 2009 at 8:14 pm

charter Schools have shown nothing but great things for the kids why take any chance of having a good education from them?


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