A Model School Flops

It sounded like a great idea: Stanford education professors would create a model school to show how to educate low-income Hispanic and black students.

Or, as it’s turned out, how not to.

In March, Stanford New Schools (aka East Palo Alto Academy) -- a charter high school started in 2001 and elementary grades added in 2006 --  made California’s list of schools in the lowest-achieving five percent in the state.

This month, the Ravenswood school board denied a new five-year charter. The elementary school -- now with K-4 and eighth grade -- will close in June. Another year or two wouldn’t be enough to improve poor student performance and weak behavior management, Superintendent Maria De La Vega told the board.

The high school will get two years to find a new sponsor: the local high school district has said “no,” but there are other options.

How did it happen? Stanford New Schools, run by the university’s school of education, seems to stress social and emotional support over academics.

Stanford New Schools hires well-trained teachers who use state-of-the-art progressive teaching methods; Stanford’s student teachers provide extra help. With an extra $3,000 per student raised privately, students enjoy small classes, mentoring, counseling and tutoring, technology access, field trips, summer enrichment, health van visits, community college classes on campus, and community service opportunities. The goal is to send graduates to college as critical thinkers, lifelong learners, and “global citizens.”

The school provides students a web of support, reports the New York Times:

High school students have one teacher/adviser who checks that homework is done, and when it is not, the teacher calls home. Teachers know students’ families and help with issues as varied as buying a bagel before an exam to helping an evicted family find a home. Teachers stay late and work weekends, and tend to burn out quickly -- causing a high rate of turnover.

EPA Academy enrolls very disadvantaged students: Most are the children of poor and poorly educated Spanish-speaking immigrant families; the rest are black or Pacific Islanders. Their English skills are poor. Those who come in ninth grade are years behind in reading and math.

In comments on the news stories that have run, I see a common refrain: It’s impossible to teach these kids. Not even Stanford can do it.

But other schools with demographically identical students are doing much better. The top-scoring school in the district is East Palo Alto Charter School (EPAC), a K-8  run by Aspire Public Schools, Stanford’s original partner. An all-minority school, EPAC outperforms the state average.

Rather than send EPAC graduates to Stanford’s high school, Aspire started its own high school, Phoenix, which outperforms the state average for all high schools. All students in the first 12th grade class have applied to four-year colleges.

Aspire co-founded East Palo Alto Academy High with Stanford, but bowed out five years ago. There was a culture clash, Aspire’s founder, Don Shalvey told the New York Times. Aspire focused “primarily and almost exclusively on academics,” while Stanford focused on academics and students’ emotional and social lives, he said.

Deborah Stipek, Stanford’s dean of education, says the elementary school is too new -- in its fourth year, but with only two years of scores -- to be judged. Stanford considers the high school a success.

In an email to Alexander Russo, Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who helped create the high school, defended the high school’s “strong, highly personalized college-going program.” The graduation rate of 86 percent exceeds the state average. “In addition, 96 percent of graduates are admitted to college (including 53 percent to four-year colleges) -- twice the rate of African American and Latino students in the state as a whole.” Half the students enroll in Early College classes on campus.

Given the horrendous drop-out rate for Ravenswood students who go to large public high schools -- it’s estimated only one out of three receives a diploma -- EPA Academy is helping students stay in school.

But its graduates are not prepared for college.

The 96 percent college admission rate is meaningless, since it includes community colleges, which take anyone, and California State University campuses, which admit students with a B average or better, regardless of test scores.

EPA Academy students are graded on a five-dimensional rubric, based on (1) Personal Responsibility; (2) Social Responsibility; (3) Communication Skills; (4) Application of Knowledge; and (5) Critical and Creative Thinking.

Only 20 percent of the grade is based on knowledge, notes Michele Kerr, who taught an ACT prep course for disadvantaged students at a nonprofit from 2007-09. Compared to district high school students, East Palo Academy tutees had “the lowest skills and the highest grades,” Kerr recalls. Students with high A averages turned out to have very poor reading and math skills, though their writing was relatively strong.

EPA Academy students got into CSU on their grades, while much stronger students with lower grades were shut out, says Kerr, now a Stanford-trained  high school teacher.

On CSU’s test of college readiness, no EPA Academy 11th graders were deemed ready for college English; only 11 percent were deemed ready for college-level math. Of course, they might catch up in 12th grade. But the state exam shows 11th graders are far behind. In English Language Arts, 54 percent are below basic, 40 percent basic, and only 6 percent proficient. No students tested as proficient in Algebra II or chemistry, 9 percent in biology, and 6 percent in U.S. history.

The median scores for SAT takers are in the high 300s in each section, about the 15th percentile. ACT scores average 15, equally low.

When I started the reporting that led to my charter school book, Our School,  I planned to write about the Aspire-Stanford school. I was at the school board meeting when Aspire-Stanford got the charter. I talked to East Palo Alto parents eager for a high school in their own town. I interviewed Shalvey and Darling-Hammond, who took the lead in getting the high school started.

However, I couldn't get the access I needed -- the inexperienced teachers didn't want a writer taking note of their mistakes -- so I ended up at Downtown College Prep,  a charter high school in San Jose designed for underachievers from Mexican immigrant families.

As at East Palo Alto Academy, DCP started with a progressive philosophy and very high ideals. But the two high school teachers who started the school had no trouble acknowledging mistakes. When things didn’t go as they’d hoped -- which happened a lot -- they tried something else.  No time or energy was wasted blaming the students’ poverty or the tests.  The unofficial motto was: We’re not good now but we can get better. And they did.

Will Stanford education professors learn from their mistakes? I fear they’ll  write off the elementary, claiming the program didn’t get enough time, and continue to claim the high school as a success. That would be a waste of a “teachable moment.”

It sounded like a great idea: Stanford education professors would create a model school to show how to educate low-income Hispanic and black students.

Or, as it’s turned out, how not to.