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Philanthropists, principals mingle to discuss needs of Ravenswood students

New superintendent serves dinner, links funders and programs

Wealthy philanthropists, school principals and nonprofit leaders mingled recently in an unusual session to "map resources" for East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City School District.

Superintendent Gloria Hernandez served dinner and invited the district's outside funders and service providers to brainstorm on strengths, weaknesses and gaps in programs on the district's seven campuses, which serve 3,600 K-8 children, most of whom are English learners from low-income families.

Hernandez, who arrived last summer from a Sacramento-area school district to lead Ravenswood, said she was "impressed by how many community partners we have, not just this year, but who have invested for years.

"I want to deepen our collaboration and change how we deal with our partners," Hernandez said, adding that she aims to reassess the district's "delivery system and models."

Only 61 percent of Ravenswood's eighth-grade graduates ultimately earn a high-school diploma from the Sequoia Union High School District, compared to Sequoia's district-wide graduation rate of 80 percent and a 93 percent graduation rate for the Menlo Park City School District students who come to Sequoia.

Only 11 percent of Ravenswood's graduates ultimately complete a four-year college-prep curriculum in high school, compared to a Sequoia district-wide average of 40 percent and a rate of 76 percent for students coming from the Menlo Park City School District.

"We really need to be doing much, much better for our students," Hernandez said at the Jan. 29 event. "We hand them off to Sequoia (for high school), but it's like being a co-parent. We raise those students until the time they go there."

Though principals have developed individual relationships with outside supporters, Hernandez said she hoped the resource-mapping session would offer a broader perspective and help the district ensure parity and develop a baseline of core services.

"The bottom line is, public schools are really where the action is in terms of preparing future citizens, civic engagement and nurturing creativity," Hernandez said.

She divided the 90 guests into seven groups and asked them to confer with each principal about concerns on their campus.

Principals were stationed at charts, which identified specific outside funders for supplemental academic programs on their campuses.

At the K-8 Willow Oaks School, for example, Principal Cynthia Chin said the school serves 120 of its 703 students in an after-school program, run by the nonprofit Citizen Schools, with 100 children on the waiting list.

At the station for the Brentwood Elementary School, one funder remarked that the school did not seem to have much technology.

Principal Tami Espinosa said while Ravenswood has a district-wide technology plan, Brentwood "is not very technology-rich.

"We're K-5, and the laptop give-away programs have mainly been to middle school students," Espinosa said. "But we do now have a laptop cart," she said, adding that with new state testing moving online, "just the basics of using a computer, and a mouse, dragging and clicking is something we're trying to prepare kids for."

Longtime Ravenswood supporters said they were impressed by the volume of information offered at the gathering.

"The transparency and the willingness to reach out and leverage resources is really impressive," said Dave Higaki, executive director of East Palo Alto Tennis & Tutoring (EPATT), which is in its 26th year of offering tennis lessons and academic tutoring to Ravenswood students.

EPATT board member Marcia Pade said she appreciated the opportunity to meet the principals.

"The initiative that the superintendent has taken, to be this inclusive, I think, is extraordinary," Pade said.

Stacey Kertsman, director of Castilleja School's Center for Awareness, Compassion and Engagement, said: "It's so incredible to be in this room with so many people thinking about this school district."

Terrence Riley, business manager of the San Francisco nonprofit Aim High, called the resource-mapping dinner, which was funded by the Grove Foundation, a one-of-a-kind event.

"I've never seen a district go upward and beyond to bring together so many partners to hopefully seek their input and hopefully use their input," Riley said.

Hernandez said Wednesday's session was limited to outside partners who provide academic programs and did not cover other outside-funded district projects in areas such as mental health, counseling and parent engagement.

"This is just a start," Hernandez said. "We wanted you to see each other and have the programs linked up so you could have dialogues with the principals and get an idea of who else is working in the district."

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