Local charter high schools Summit Prep in Redwood City and East Palo Alto High in the Willows neighborhood of Menlo Park are trying approaches that appear to be producing results, including boosting scores on standardized for kids with language and other learning challenges.
But for a variety of reasons, Woodside and Menlo-Atherton high schools are not adopting these approaches.
The Almanac sat down recently with the dean of the College of Education at Stanford University, Deborah Stipek, to discuss the challenges facing high schools.
Ms. Stipek has many local ties: she lives in Woodside, her husband Tom Mudd was a trustee of the Woodside Elementary School District; and her step-daughter graduated from Woodside High in June and is now in college. (Mr. Mudd says she chose Woodside for its diversity and on her first day, "never felt so blonde," he recalls her saying.)
But instead of talking about specific programs at local schools (M-A and Woodside high schools have shown impressive gains, too, on standardized tests), she discussed the challenges facing many high schools in California, in particular the large number of students in need of remedial classes in reading, math and English language skills.
Last spring, some 3,500 students in the Sequoia Union High School District — 45 percent of the total enrollment — were judged to be in need of these remedial classes.
"I think most public high schools have not figured out how to meet their needs," says Ms. Stipek. "If you want your best teachers to be teaching those kids who are most needy, you may not be able to do that" in schools that have teachers' unions, Ms. Stipek says, since the most experienced teachers may not want to teach the most challenging students.
Small schools, particularly charter schools, are an alternative worth examining in that they tend to attract young, highly motivated teachers with a missionary zeal and a willingness to give up parts of their private lives, she says.
As for innovative teaching methods, local charters Summit Prep and East Palo Alto High, for example, are assigning students to faculty advocates who play parent-like roles during a student's entire stay at school.
Advocacy programs are "a very powerful concept," Ms. Stipek says. "Charter schools have provided an environment where that kind of innovation and experimentation can thrive and has thrived."
The charters are using team teaching in an interdisciplinary style — such as history, literature and science classes built around a single theme — in longer class periods. "Kids don't see as many teachers, and teachers don't see as many kids," Ms. Stipek says.
At Summit, months-long periods of intense academic focus are followed by weeks dedicated to artistic and/or athletic interests.
In traditional schools, innovations like these would be complicated by union contracts, Ms. Stipek says.
She is concerned about the state-wide trends.
"What kind of economy is the state of California going to have if the majority of its population has about a seventh-grade education level," she asks. "I don't think we want to go to a place where only kids with money get a good education, and unfortunately, I think we're getting there."
Kids in need
Of the five most populous U.S. states in 2005, only in California did students score below average on every national assessment test they took, according to the state's education department. Of the test takers, half of fourth-graders and 40 percent of eighth-graders were reading below grade level.
Every year, both M-A and Woodside send scores of seniors, advanced-placement courses behind them, off to four-year colleges, but the schools and the Sequoia Union High School District have many students from low-income neighborhoods and whose performance on standardized tests is below-average.
Among the district's population, the state Department of Education lists 41 percent of students as Hispanic and 41 percent white for the 2004-05 school year. Of 7,940 students, 22 percent were English language learners and 24 percent qualified for the federal free-lunch program. Sequoia also had 42 special-education teachers on staff.
Summit draws students from the Sequoia district and was designed to reflect the district's demographics and to prepare all students for a four-year college, says Executive Director Diane Tavenner. For 2006-07, Summit is enrolling 375 students, with 32 percent of Hispanic heritage and 51 percent white, of whom 24 percent are English language learners and 18 percent qualify for the lunch program. Summit has two special-education teachers.
With a target of 800 on the state's academic performance index of 200 to 1,000, Summit scored a cumulative 862 last year, up from 735 in 2004-05. Meanwhile, at M-A and Woodside the overall scores were 727 and 720, up from 673 and 665.
Dollars drive quality?
Concepts shown to work in charter schools echo those already proven in well-endowed schools, Ms. Stipek says.
"In many respects, what we're discovering is that what works for really rich kids (will) work for the rest of us, too," she says, the difference being that charters have to make do with a lot less money.
How much less? For 2006-07, charters will receive about $6,200 per student. "We can't provide kids a quality education on $6,000," she says. "We're hoping we can do it on $8,000." Fundraising is a necessity, she says.
The wealthy Woodside Elementary School District, expected to spend about $15,200 per student in the coming year, regularly raises 25 percent of that from the school's foundation.
Traditional schools in the Sequoia district receive about $10,100 per student, according to state data. M-A and Woodside also have foundations.
Learning from charters?
Sequoia district Superintendent Pat Gemma says he likes the idea of faculty serving as student advocates, but notes that it was tried and rejected by union teachers at Sequoia High School because "it did not comply exactly with the language in the contract," he says. "It couldn't continue beyond a pilot period."
Summit's intensive study program is nice, too, he adds, but the education code won't allow it at a traditional school.
Asked whether changing the education code could be a way to adapt some charter methodology, Mr. Gemma did not mince words: "I don't think that that's the real hope for educational reform (sought by) charter school (proponents). I think the real hope of many charter school proponents is that public education will become privatized so that there can be a more have and have-not system in place."
"Charter schools, when you look at them carefully, function and are allowed to function like private schools," Mr. Gemma adds.
Woodside Principal Linda Common gives no ground to charter school success, given Woodside's operating restrictions and its mix of students. For example, the school is initiating one-on-one instruction to autistic children this year. Ms. Common also defends the concept of large schools.
She does appreciate Summit's parental-involvement mandate. "It's a group effort (to raise a child). You've automatically got that at Summit," she says. "Public schools cannot make parents participate. Parents are huge in how kids are going to turn out."
Mr. Gemma defends the Sequoia district in noting the "multitude of programs" at schools like M-A and Woodside, whereas all a charter can say is: "Here's our program."
Asked to comment, Ms. Tavenner says Summit has more offerings than may appear, given the needs of its students. Maybe 10 percent of Summit students would survive advanced-placement classes at Woodside, she says.
The key, she says, is individual attention — called differentiation in the education community. "It's not 'Here's our program,'" she says. "It's 'Here's our mission,' and there are an infinite number of ways for us to achieve that mission."