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Three candidates vie for two seats on Ravenswood school board

Retention of teachers, improving facilities among top concerns for district

Two incumbents and one challenger, all with backgrounds in education, are competing for two open seats on the Ravenswood City School District Board of Trustees in this November's election.

Current Trustees Marco Chavez and Sharifa Wilson are running against Marielena Gaona-Mendoza, a special-education teacher and longtime advocate in the district.

The two elected will join nonprofit office manager Ana Maria Pulido, parent and Stanford Golf Course technician Marcelino Lopez, and retired Ravenswood superintendent Charlie Mae Knight at the dais.

The Ravenswood school district serves kindergarten through eighth graders in East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park.

The three contenders hope to lead a school district that serves primarily low-income and minority students, many of them also English-language learners, and is vastly under-resourced compared to more affluent neighboring districts. Recent standardized test results show persistent low student achievement across grade levels and subjects in Ravenswood: 60 percent of students did not meet standards in mathematics and 54 percent failed to in English on this year's Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exam.

The district is also facing competition from new charter and private schools in East Palo Alto, with at least two primary-level sites set to open in East Palo Alto next year.

With a new superintendent at the helm and the recent passage of a $26 million bond measure that promises to bring much-needed improvements to dilapidated school facilities, the two incumbents argue that Ravenswood is finally on a promising path forward with ample evidence of positive change.

Gaona-Mendoza, however, sees a district that has failed to meet the needs of students and families, particularly in special education. If elected, she hopes to shift a school culture she says is resistant to reform and transparency in governance.

Marco Chavez

Chavez, both a product of and former educator in the Ravenswood school district, is seeking a second term on the board. He has lived in East Palo Alto for more than 40 years, and said he feels a sense of responsibility to continue to serve the community. He believes his 20 years of experience at various levels of education -- as a former teacher and administrator who works in the superintendent's office at the San Mateo County Office of Education -- have primed him to continue to serve the community.

"I have the unique quality that I live and breathe the implementation of programs and services that are connected to our education systems," he said in an interview with the Weekly.

The most significant issue facing Ravenswood, Chavez believes, is the rising cost of living in East Palo Alto and the surrounding area, which affects both families and staff. If re-elected, he hopes to find long-term solutions to this problem, including partnering with more outside agencies to help support Ravenswood students and families -- many of whom are living in single-family homes with multiple families or are forced to leave the area because they can't afford the cost of housing, he said. He also wants to push the district to find ways to provide affordable housing for teachers, possibly in collaboration with the city or other local agencies.

Though he acknowledges the challenges facing the school district, Chavez said he's excited about the direction in which Ravenswood is heading. During his tenure, the district adopted a new reading language arts program that is aligned to the new Common Core State Standards, he noted. The district also completed a comprehensive facilities master plan that looked at the district's needs in a more "strategic way," Chavez said. The plan envisions long-term improvements for the school district, starting with more than $100 million in "critical" districtwide repairs.

Chavez was in the majority this February when the board voted 4-1 to approve a new charter school for East Palo Alto: a TK-8 campus from the well-established organization KIPP Bay Area Schools. The board's role now, he said, is to monitor the implementation of the new charter. It must also re-double its own commitment to improving student outcomes and work to champion the district's strengths, he said.

"I will continue to advocate for our schools and to continue to highlight some of the great programs and services that we are offering to our families," he said. "Sometimes we don't do that -- cheer ourselves in some of the great things that we're doing."

Chavez was first elected to the board in 2012 with 33.7 percent of the vote along with Wilson, who led with 41 percent, according to election results.

Marielena Gaona-Mendoza

Gaona-Mendoza is perhaps most well-known in both the Ravenswood and Palo Alto Unified school districts for her staunch advocacy for special-education students and families. She is a regular presence at board meetings in both districts, speaking out about what she sees as injustices in the district's handling of special-education issues. She also frequently translates on behalf of non-English speaking parents in Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings. She also has direct experience in the Ravenswood district as a former parent. She also worked as a special-education aide and home-school liaison in the Palo Alto school district.

She said she decided to run for the school board to change what she sees as the status quo in Ravenswood: low student performance, inadequate support for students with special needs, an inability to retain high-quality teachers and poor communication between district leadership and the community.

Gaona-Mendoza, who now teaches special education at Fair Oaks Elementary School in Redwood City, went back to school to get her teaching credential after her children graduated. She then taught in Ravenswood for several years, primarily at Willow Oaks and Belle Haven elementary schools. During that time, she said she saw both good and bad teachers -- but "the good teachers always left."

Gaona-Mendoza sees attracting -- and then keeping -- quality teachers in Ravenswood as the most important challenge facing the school district today. She advocates for increasing the district's investment in professional development and putting in place stronger evaluation procedures.

Many special-education aides and mainstream teachers with special-education students in their classrooms also need better training, she said, to ensure that the district's inclusion model is more effective.

Communication and transparency are top priorities for Gaona-Mendoza, who said she has often sounded the alarm bells to the board or to district leadership about struggling students, with no response.

"If I am elected ... I will make sure that every issue gets followed through," she said.

The board should also be more accessible to the community, she said, beyond email and the three minutes that members of the public are allotted at board meetings.

Gaona-Mendoza is enthusiastic about charter schools, pointing to their high graduation rates and strong support for students.

"Palo Alto doesn't need them; Menlo Park doesn't need them; but East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park, they do need them. They've been saving many of our kids," she said.

Sharifa Wilson

A longtime public servant in East Palo Alto, Wilson emphasizes her experience in her third bid for school board. Wilson came to East Palo Alto as a teacher in the Ravenswood district but went on to serve on the City Council from 1990 to 2002. She first ran for school board in 2008 and was re-elected in 2012.

Wilson said her time in the classroom and later as site director of East Palo Alto nonprofit College Track, which supports high school students through college graduation, "sensitized" her to the inequity in experience between students in Ravenswood and neighboring districts. This, combined with a personal commitment to community service and knowledge of policy, led her to decide to run for the board.

She, too, is positive about the direction Ravenswood is heading in. Bringing in a new superintendent, Gloria Hernandez-Goff, in 2014 has made a "significant difference," Wilson said. She credits Hernandez-Goff with improving school climate at the district's middle schools -- cutting down on bullying and fighting during recess and lunch by partnering with an organization that provides coordinated, inclusive activities during those times, for example. The superintendent also made technology a priority and helped the district eventually get all first- through fourth-grade classrooms to a 1:1 student-to-computer ratio, Wilson said.

Top issues facing the school district, Wilson said, include supporting under-resourced students and high teacher turnover. Wilson said some efforts are already making a difference for students, like extending school hours until 6 p.m. to give students a place to study and have dinner.

If re-elected, she would also support regional efforts to build more affordable teacher housing in the area. As a former council member, she said she is uniquely positioned to understand "what's involved in getting a project off the ground."

Wilson served on the board through several controversial charter-school decisions, including in 2010 when she supported the closure of the Stanford University-run East Palo Alto Academy Elementary School, citing poor performance. The next year, the board also denied a petition by charter operator Rocketship to open a new elementary school in East Palo Alto that would have eventually served 650 children.

Most recently, in February, Wilson backed KIPP's proposal to open a tuition-free school in East Palo Alto in 2017, albeit not too enthusiastically.

She voted in favor given the fact that the organization's petition met all the necessary legal requirements, but made a plug for work she said is underway to improve the traditional educational experience in Ravenswood district schools.

"The only way that we're going to prevent the district from being eaten alive by every charter school ... is to keep moving forward, which we're doing under this new superintendent," Wilson said at the Feb. 11 board meeting. However, she added, "the results are not going to be seen for another six or seven years."

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