The nonprofit Innovate Public Schools, with offices at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, analyzed the performance of minority and low-income students in all 54 public-school districts in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
The new group says it will issue annual reports spotlighting the best- and worst-performing local schools with respect to their results with disadvantaged students.
In this year's "report card" — Innovate's first — Palo Alto came off as neither best nor worst.
"In Palo Alto Unified, only 28 percent of Latino children are proficient in algebra by eighth grade," said Innovate Public Schools Executive Director Matt Hammer.
"By that metric, Palo Alto ranks 10th out of 36 districts (containing middle schools) in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties and is doing just 9 percent better than Ravenswood School District.
"The top public schools in the Valley are getting twice as many ... Latino kids to proficiency in algebra by eighth grade," Hammer said. One charter school, San Jose's KIPP Heartwood, was the best, with 81 percent of its Latino eighth-graders achieving algebra proficiency.
The top three public-school districts in Latino eighth-grade algebra achievement were Las Lomitas Elementary (67 percent), Los Altos Elementary (43 percent) and Gilroy Unified (38 percent).
On a different metric — preparing Latino students for eligibility for California's four-year public universities — Palo Alto was near the top, ranking second out of 16 local districts with high schools, according to the Innovate report titled "Broken Promises: The Children Left Behind in Silicon Valley Schools."
Los Gatos-Saratoga Joint Union High School District ranked first among public-school districts, ensuring 61 percent of its Latino seniors graduated with the prerequisites for four-year colleges compared to Palo Alto's 48 percent.
An East Palo Alto charter school, Aspire Phoenix Academy, did even better: 62 percent of its Latino students took the classes required for entrance to a four-year-college.
Charter schools figured prominently among the top-performing schools highlighted in the Innovate report, with four charters among the top 10 elementary schools in Latino Academic Performance Index scores.
Rocketship Education, a charter organization co-founded by Palo Alto resident John Danner, operates many of the top-performing schools cited in the report.
Schools that do well with disadvantaged students tend to set consistently high expectations, Hammer said.
"From kindergarten up, these schools believe all their students can succeed in college and push their students hard. Aspire Phoenix requires students to take community college courses. Summit Prep (in Redwood City) requires at last six Advanced Placement courses.
"Effective schools organize to reach their goals. All focus intensely on tracking students' progress to make sure they get help when they need it — before they lose hope."
San Jose's Alum Rock School District had three of the five top-performing middle schools for Latino algebra proficiency, as well as one of the top-performing elementary schools. That district has launched three new schools in recent years and also has worked cooperatively with charter schools, Hammer said.
East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City School District was represented on two of the "worst-performing" lists.
Ravenswood's Ronald McNair Academy was the lowest-scoring middle school for Latino algebra proficiency in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, with only 3 percent of its eighth-graders proficient, according to the report.
Two other Ravenswood schools, Green Oaks Academy and Belle Haven Elementary School, were on the list of the 25 lowest-scoring elementary schools in the two counties in the state Academic Performance Index scores for Latino students.
Rocketship two years ago was turned away from opening a K-5 charter school in the Ravenswood district after a 3-2 vote by Ravenswood trustees. Voting in favor of Rocketship were trustees Ana Maria Pulido and Evelyn Barajas-Luis. Voting against Rocketship were Marcelino Lopez, Saree Mading and Sharifa Wilson, accepting the recommendation of Ravenswood Superintendent Maria De La Vega that Rocketship presented an "unsound educational program" that was unlikely to be implemented successfully.
Palo Alto has closely and publicly tracked the performance of its minority and low-income students in recent years, measuring progress against goals set in 2008. Last fall, district statistician Diana Wilmot reported some progress in narrowing the achievement gap.
Palo Alto had earned a "D" in service to minority and low-income students in a March 2012 report published by the Oakland-based Education Trust West, which evaluates how well California's largest school districts serve Latino, African-American and low-income students.
The district also has been sanctioned by the state for having an overrepresentation of minority students in special education. In 2011, Palo Alto was among 17 of California's 1,000 school districts labeled by the state Department of Education as having "significant disproportionality" in special ed.
The Board of Education voted last year to stiffen Palo Alto's high-school graduation requirements, aligning them with the four-year college-prep curriculum effective with the graduating Class of 2016. The move, supported by minority student and parent groups, was aimed at raising expectations for the roughly 20 percent of Palo Alto students who graduate without those prerequisites, with minority and low-income students overrepresented in that group.
Latinos make up 38 percent of enrollment in Santa Clara and San Mateo county public schools, with African-Americans and Pacific Islanders adding another 4 percent. Latinos make up 10.5 percent of enrollment in Palo Alto, with African-Americans adding another 3 percent. Pacific Islanders are not broken out in the district's published ethnicity data.
Innovate Public Schools was launched last October, with $200,000 from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and $750,000 from the Walton Family Foundation, managed by the family that started Wal-Mart.
Hammer and former San Jose Unified School District Superintendent Linda Murray, now associated with Innovate, said the new group wants to spark a sense of urgency for school reform.
Widespread, systemic change is particularly difficult because there are 54 separate school districts in the two counties, they said.
Silicon Valley Community Foundation Executive Director Emmett Carson has argued that the high number of separate school districts constitutes a "fundamentally flawed system," hampering accountability and change.