A leading charter school organization said Monday it would seek to open a new elementary school in East Palo Alto in the fall of 2017 to serve East Palo Alto and the Belle Haven area of Menlo Park.
KIPP Bay Area Schools, which operates 11 high-performing charter schools in cities, including Oakland and San Jose, will seek authorization for a new school through the Ravenswood City School District and, if turned down by the Ravenswood board, will appeal to the San Mateo County Board of Education, a KIPP official said.
The announcement came at the end of an emotional community forum at St. Francis of Assisi Church convened by a group of East Palo Alto mothers and the community-organizing group Innovate Public Schools, which helps low-income parents lobby for better schools.
The mothers described, in English and Spanish, how their children had been shortchanged by slow, indifferent bureaucracy and inadequate resources in the Ravenswood school district, and declared their sense of urgency for better options.
Already, they said, more than 1,100 children leave the district each morning for schools in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and other districts through the Voluntary Transfer Program, known as the Tinsley program.
"It's clear from the Tinsley program that there's a huge demand," said Ligia Rivera, mother of a fifth-grader and a 10th-grader. "But our question is simple: Why can't we have schools like the ones in Palo Alto and Menlo Park right here in our community?"
Rivera showed slides of Ravenswood's results on the new Smarter Balanced standardized test released last month, indicating that about 80 percent of district students are below grade-level standards in English and math.
"We understand that the (Ravenswood) district is working hard to improve the current situation," she said. "We thank them and realize that each individual is doing their best to make a difference, but we know the school system is like a boat, and boats are really slow to turn.
"Simply put, our kids cannot wait for four or five or six years to make a change," Rivera said.
In 15 months of working with Innovate, Rivera said, the parents had met with various public and elected officials and learned about charter schools, including KIPP.
Especially attractive to the parents were KIPP's longer school days, individualized learning programs, intervention programs for below-grade-level students and "a university culture that begins in kindergarten," she said.
"As parents, it is our right to choose where our children can go to school," Rivera said. "Just because we are a low-income community and cannot pay for private education does not mean our kids should not have educational opportunities."
Rivera and other mothers spoke before a panel of public officials that included East Palo Alto Mayor Lisa Yarbrough-Gauthier, City Councilman Ruben Abrica, Sequoia Union High School District Trustee Laura Martinez, representatives of the San Mateo County Office of Education and April Chou, chief growth and operating officer for KIPP.
All five trustees of the Ravenswood district declined invitations to attend or failed to respond, the mothers said.
However, Ravenswood Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff sat in the front row of the auditorium, which held about 200 people.
Toward the end of the meeting, Yarbrough-Gauthier said she was worried about the fate of the 4,000-student Ravenswood school district if more and more children leave for other options, such as Tinsley or charter schools.
"I know we want to do what's best for our students, but if we take more students out of our schools what happens to our school district? What happens to the children who are left behind?" she said.
The KIPP announcement comes on the heels of news last week that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, plan to open a new private, tuition-free school in East Palo Alto that eventually will go from pre-K through eighth grade.
Two other tuition-free private schools, the K-8 Beechwood School and the 6-12 Eastside College Prep, also primarily serve students from the Ravenswood district.
In addition, three charter schools currently operate within the district's boundaries: the K-6 East Palo Alto Charter School and the 7-12 East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, both operated by the charter organization Aspire Public Schools, and East Palo Alto Academy High School, which was launched by and receives support from the Stanford Graduate School of Education.
In 2010, Ravenswood trustees declined to renew the charter of a Stanford-sponsored East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School, citing low test scores.
In 2011, Ravenswood trustees denied a petition by charter operator Rocketship to open a new elementary school in East Palo Alto that eventually would have served 650 children.
In an interview following Monday night's meeting Superintendent Hernandez-Goff said she had met numerous times with the parent group, as well as with representatives of Innovate and KIPP.
"What I've shared with them is that it's my job to help every single child in the district," she said. "The charter rules and regulations are very clear, and I know that KIPP has a pretty solid curriculum and academic programs so there'd be no reason to turn them down. I tell them, 'That's your job; I'm doing my job.'
"I see my job as not to facilitate charter schools into the district but to really work at turning around our district and improving educational options for parents and kids," she said.