Almanac

Schools - October 16, 2013

Board OKs shift of East Palo Alto students to M-A

by Dave Boyce

If Menlo-Atherton High School has room, students from East Palo Alto (in the Ravenswood City Elementary School District) now have the right to request a transfer to M-A without having to participate in the lottery associated with the open-enrollment program.

Unlike their Ravenswood classmates from the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park, who have long been assigned to M-A, East Palo Alto students since the early 1980s have been bused to Woodside and Carlmont high schools in keeping with a judicial decree intended to desegregate those schools.

The board of the Sequoia Union High School District voted 4-1 on Oct. 9 to all but end the busing.

The change in regulations comes just in time for eighth-graders in the class of 2014 to make decisions about where to go to high school in the fall of 2014. The change also gives East Palo Alto eighth-graders a privileged position that, while not at the head of the line into M-A, places them before eighth-graders applying for M-A through the Sequoia district's open-enrollment program.

The new regulation does not affect the longstanding guaranteed transfer to M-A afforded to 10 to 15 households in the Las Lomitas Elementary School District currently assigned to Woodside High.

Board member Carrie DuBois voted against the change, repeating her longstanding argument that it requires Ravenswood students to make a choice, thus favoring students with the wherewithal to make an informed choice. Ravenswood students may have difficulty blending into the M-A culture, she added, and described M-A as "the most tracked school in our district."

She asked for an interim step, possibly including alternative schools for the kids who can't succeed at a comprehensive high school. "The kids from Ravenswood actually deserve a plan and (to) have all the wrinkles worked out," she said. "I don't want to repair the car while we're driving down the freeway."

Since early 2013, when the notion of ending the busing began to gather momentum on the Sequoia board, members of the Ravenswood community have been adamant in lobbying for such a change — though they would have gone further and made the assignment to M-A automatic for all students from East Palo Alto.

School is a constant in the lives of Ravenswood students, one Ravenswood parent told the board. "It's not fair," she said. "For them to have to travel in a bus for two hours is not great. ... Consider the fact that those kids are our future and just because they're poor ... what is rich? I've seen a lot of wealthy people with very bad manners."

"I know it has been a very difficult thing to move forward," said Gloria Hernandez, the Ravenswood superintendent. "But you're doing the right thing."

Parents from the Las Lomitas district had regularly expressed concern about the regulatory change, and did so again before this vote. Parent Larry Kelmar said he had concerns about the speed with which the board was making the decision. A strategic plan should come first, he said.

Planning done by the Las Lomitas community, he said, took six months and included a consultant to help address questions like "What?" and "How?" in crafting a plan. "If you don't have a plan, you really don't have that North Star to guide you," he said.

Ravenswood advocates were pleased, however. The M-A community will benefit, one advocate said. "I think we are very rich," she said of the Ravenswood community. "I think we all need to move forward together. Our children bring with them an incredibly, incredibly rich culture. I want all the community to embrace the richness of the Ravenswood students."

Ellen Mouchawar, an Atherton resident, non-practicing attorney and insistent advocate for the Ravenswood community, spoke warmly about a Menlo Park parent who, Ms. Mouchawar said, recently visited a Ravenswood school and asked the principal how she (the parent) could get involved.

Ahead of the vote, the board members explained their positions.

Allen Weiner referred to apples and oranges in comparing the relevance of the East Palo Alto enrollment policy to strategic planning, which the board is facing in response to a projected enrollment surge in the Sequoia district of at least 22 percent by 2020.

Allowing East Palo Alto students into M-A addresses a historical inequity and won't affect the nature of M-A, Mr. Weiner added. What could affect it is the coming enrollment growth from the Menlo Park and Las Lomitas school districts, he said. But in the years ahead, he said, "it won't be us and them, but us and us."

"We can't wait," board member Alan Sarver said, "until this long-term (strategic plan) is right and complete before taking action. The Ravenswood community has said again and again and again how urgent it is to put in place an appropriate interim step for much more of the community to attend Menlo-Atherton High School."

"It is also," he added, "very fundamentally, the opportunity for us to be extending opportunity and partnership in building up student expectations, to open doors of opportunity, to improve outcomes of Ravenswood students and improve outcomes of M-A. And that's why I can't vote strongly enough for this (policy change)."

"If we have the opportunity to take corrective action to correct a long-term inequity," said board President Chris Thomsen, "we should take it. The (new policy) is not perfect, but we have chance to move forward in a positive direction and we should take it now."

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