Civil rights lawyers examine school district | July 17, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Schools - July 17, 2013

Civil rights lawyers examine school district

by Dave Boyce

In a bid to start a conversation on addressing poor academic performance among students from the Ravenswood City School District who attend high schools in the Sequoia Union High School District, a group of Bay Area civil rights lawyers has issued a report that attempts to put the Sequoia district on notice that its interactions with Ravenswood are under scrutiny.

The Bay Area chapter of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights issued a 36-page report dated July 2013 that takes the Sequoia district to task for 30 years of subdividing the cohort of students from the Ravenswood elementary district among three high schools. While students from the Belle Haven neighborhood are assigned to nearby Menlo-Atherton High, East Palo Alto students face an eight-mile bus trip to Woodside High or an 11-mile trip to Carlmont High, where the first period starts at 8 a.m.

"Educational opportunity is a critical component for the life success of our youth, particularly youth of color," the report says. "Encouraging and ensuring that supports are in place to help students succeed at every level should be fundamental to our educational systems.

"Arbitrary and harmful policies that disproportionately and negatively impact students of color are infringements with life-altering implications. This (report) seeks to bring attention to a problem in Sequoia Union High School District that can be easily addressed to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed."

The East Palo Alto community had been served by Ravenswood High School, but the Sequoia district board closed it in 1976. The school had declining enrollment and a concentration of people of color, according to a Ravenswood alumni association history. A 1983 court-ordered consent decree — which the Lawyers' Committee report does not mention — required the Sequoia district to establish populations at each high school that fell within 5 percentage points of reflecting the district's ethnic diversity as a whole, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Morgan Marchbanks told the Almanac.

The consent decree expired after six years, but the busing continued. The district's logic: "If we met the spirit of the consent decree, leave it in place," Ms. Marchbanks said. Why was Sequoia High School not an option? The school's assignment plan abuts the Ravenswood district. Sequoia High was excluded because, at the time, it did not need to go outside its assignment plan to acquire a sufficiently diverse population, Ms. Marchbanks said.

Sequoia district officials have been meeting with Ravenswood district officials once a month for the past two years to address the achievement gap and related issues of inequity, Ms. Marchbanks said.

The Sequoia district responded to the report with a letter, a draft of which was provided to the Almanac. "We are pleased to see that this report's findings and recommendations are nearly identical to ongoing SUHSD policy directions based on work begun two years ago by the superintendent and board, as anyone following the board's deliberations, policy setting and budget priorities will recognize," the letter said.

The report comes on the heels of a series of community forums in May led by Sequoia district Superintendent James Lianides and meant to inform the communities about projections that over the next decade, high school enrollment will jump 22 percent. One topic that came up repeatedly: the importance of intact middle-school cohorts as students move through high school.

Three of the four high schools are expected to exceed their maximum capacity by 2020, and a new school is not in the cards. Properties large enough to accommodate one are rare if not nonexistent, and with an estimated cost of $200 million, are financially out of reach. Expansion of the built-out campuses will have to go up rather than out. As for how to pay for it, the district's capital improvement fund sits at $9 million. A bond measure proposal is all but certain.

Among the initiatives the Sequoia board is considering in the interim is an open-enrollment preference for Ravenswood students that would put them at the head of the line in transferring to Menlo-Atherton High. Such an enrollment privilege for admission to M-A has long been in place for households in the Las Lomitas Elementary School District that are located outside the M-A assignment plan.

Las Lomitas families are not the only families given preferential treatment. In a related policy, families assigned to M-A from the unincorporated Fair Oaks/Friendly Acres neighborhood between Atherton and Redwood City also have privileged placement if they want it, but to schools other than M-A.

Go to for a copy of the Lawyers' Committee report.


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