Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 25, 2011

Groundbreaking next week for East Palo Alto high school

Sequoia district, philanthropists team up to build $13 million charter campus

by Chris Kenrick

For the first time since Ravenswood High School closed in 1976, East Palo Alto will have its own public high school campus this fall.

But unlike the sprawling, "comprehensive" campus that was Ravenswood, the new $13 million campus will be home to a small public charter school, which graduated its first class of 21 students last June from a makeshift campus in a rented warehouse.

Groundbreaking is set for Tuesday at 10 a.m. at 1039 Garden St. Completion of the campus for the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, which eventually will serve 420 students, is due by this fall.

The fact that the new campus is for a charter school underscores the role the charter movement has played in remaking the educational landscape for East Palo Alto students.

Charters are publicly funded schools that operate under five-year agreements with sponsoring school districts. They must accept students on a first-come, first-served basis or by lottery, if oversubscribed.

Charter schools pledge to achieve certain metrics as measured by standardized tests. At the end of the charter period, the schools must apply for recertification.

California currently has 809 charter schools serving 341,000 students, according to the California Charter Schools Association. Ethnically, charter enrollment is 41 percent Hispanic, 35 percent Caucasian and 12 percent African-American. Seven percent of charter students are in special education, and 18 percent are English-language learners, the association said.

East Palo Alto's new campus represents a partnership between the Sequoia Union High School District — the five-year-old Phoenix Academy's chartering agency — and private philanthropy.

Sequoia is contributing $4 million. Another $4 million has been raised from philanthropic sources, the largest being the Charles & Helen Schwab Foundation. The balance will come from a $5 million bond issued by Aspire Public Schools, the charter school operator that manages Phoenix along with more than 30 other charter schools in California.

"This groundbreaking is the latest milestone in our vital and dynamic partnership with Aspire," Sequoia Union High School District Superintendent James Lianides said.

"The Sequoia district's contributions and support of the new Aspire school in Garden Street is rooted in the values and high aspirations for students that we share with Aspire, and in our long-term commitment to enhancing high-quality educational opportunities in the East Palo Alto community."

Ravenswood High School was part of the Sequoia district before it closed due to declining enrollment in 1976. Since then, East Palo Alto teens have been scattered among Sequoia's four other main campuses — Menlo-Atherton, Woodside, Sequoia and Carlmont high schools.

In addition to high-school students, the campus will absorb middle-school students currently served by Phoenix's sister school, the K-8 East Palo Alto Charter School — freeing up capacity at the popular school on Runnymede Street, which has a long waiting list.

The additional space will allow East Palo Alto Charter School to add an extra classroom for each grade, meaning there will be three kindergarten classrooms instead of the two currently available.

In other charter school news in East Palo Alto, a proposal by Rocketship Education to open a new East Palo Alto-based charter elementary school in the fall of 2012 was to go before trustees of the Ravenswood City School District Thursday night (Feb. 24).

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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