By Barbara Wood
Special to the Almanac
When students from the Ravenswood school district transfer to other Midpeninsula schools through the Tinsley program, they learn things that can't be measured on achievement tests, such as how to negotiate in very different social contexts, Stanford researcher Kendra Bischoff told the Menlo Park City School District board on Nov. 29.
In addition to board members, Ms. Bischoff spoke to the district's leadership team and about 30 members of the public at a special meeting in the district board room held to discuss her doctoral research on the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer program.
Ms. Bischoff did look at the academic records of students in the Tinsley program, which came about as the result of a lawsuit filed in 1976 by parents in the Ravenswood City School District and neighboring districts. The suit was settled in 1985 by requiring Peninsula school districts to transfer some minority students from the Ravenswood district into their districts each year.
The Peninsula districts include Menlo Park, Las Lomitas, Woodside, Portola Valley, Palo Alto, Belmont-Redwood Shores and San Carlos.
Each district has a maximum number of Ravenswood students it must take each year. If more than the maximum apply, students are chosen by lottery.
Ms. Bischoff compared students who had participated in the program with students who applied but were not chosen in the lottery.
Using the results of state achievement tests from 2003 to 2010, Ms. Bischoff said, "in science and history I find large positive effects" for the Tinsley transfer students with "smaller positive effects" in math and English language arts.
Students are also, she said, "more proficient in English than if they remained in the Ravenswood district." She said 65 percent of those who applied for Tinsley transfers in 2008 were Latino.
Tinsley transfers are available only to kindergarteners and students in first and second-grades who may then stay in the district until they graduate.
To try to gauge the non-academic aspects, Ms. Bischoff conducted 130 in-depth interviews with Tinsley students who were in sixth to 12th grades and their parents, plus a group of parents just applying for the program. She ended up with 4,000 pages of interview transcripts.
"The biggest sentiment that came from most students is that it's a lot of work to negotiate two different social contexts," Ms. Bischoff said.
Learning that skill, however, gave them an important advantage. "Students feel confident about their ability to interact in a broader world," Ms. Bischoff said. Students, especially those in high school, told her "they weren't afraid to have a conversation with anybody."
"I think students value the fact that they're learning how to operate in these multiple contexts," she said. "Certainly parents do."
Something else that came up, Ms. Bischoff said, "is that students talked about the pride they have in the schools they attend." They talk about how difficult their schools are and what types of problems they have, she said.
"Students talk a lot about how they feel they are doing work above grade level," she said.
Tensions do arise from the fact that students are not attending school in the community they live in. While the Tinsley program provides bus transportation, transportation for other activities, including those beyond school, can be a problem, she said.
But students talked a lot about riding the bus, "and not in a negative way," she said. They do have to get up early, "but at the same time it's a social environment as well." Many students form friendships on the buses, she said.
Ms. Bischoff said parents told her their reasons for applying for the program included helping their children gain English-speaking skills, and preparing them for college and other academic opportunities. "Most parents won't say just for interracial contact, which is what the lawsuit says," she said.
Ms. Bischoff said she has some recommendations for the schools. "There are still a lot of students in the (Ravenswood) district," she said. The Tinsley settlement also talked about making improvements in the Ravenswood District. "I do think that needs to be brought back into the conversation," she said.
She suggests that the Peninsula districts try to have some activities for parents of transfer students in the Ravenswood district so parents there can network and meet each other and not have to worry about transportation.
Students also need more assistance in being able to stay after school and take part in activities. A mentor program for Tinsley students could be a big help, she said, with students working with the same adult or older student throughout their time in a school.
Teachers could use some help in learning how to deal with students from different backgrounds. "I think that it's important," she said, "that students not feel like outsiders. "Everyone needs to be aware of subtle biases that happen."
Students would also benefit from schools starting to talk about college at a young age, "to really set up expectations that are really high," she said.
Ms. Bischoff said that although she has received her doctoral degree, she is continuing to refine her Tinsley research and hopes it may some day be published as a book. She is currently doing post-doctoral research at Stanford on the ethics of education equity.