Eastside Story

Chris Bischof wanted to see his East Palo Alto grade-schoolers make it to college. The solution? Start a prep school right in their own backyard.

July/August 2000

Reading time min

Eastside Story

Barbara Ries

This morning Helen Kim tries to be diplomatic with her 11th-grade American government class at Eastside College Preparatory School. All nine students call themselves liberal Democrats, but to make a "model Congress" work, three will have to act like conservative Republicans.

"That's against my religion, Helen," calls out Na'Kelia Pickrom from the back row. But Kim knows her students can play unfamiliar roles with flair. Standing out from the crowd is something they do every day. They are college-bound students from East Palo Alto, where just 65 percent of kids finish high school and only 8 percent enter college.

Kim, '92, MA '93, can also count on an unusual degree of trust from these 11th-graders. After all, they took a huge leap of faith simply by coming to this school. Now 70 students strong, Eastside was only a year old when they were freshmen, joining eight sophomores in a single prefabricated classroom on a muddy vacant lot.

But the promise of a launchpad to college in their own backyard was a powerful draw. And against daunting odds, Eastside has delivered: this summer the original eight freshmen are eight graduating seniors, all accepted to schools that include Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, Morehouse College and Seton Hall. Eastside's bold -- some said quixotic -- mission has earned an indisputable seal of approval.

The story of how this school came to be stands out as much as its students do. The founder and principal is Chris Bischof, '92, MA '93, a young teacher who was tired of seeing East Palo Alto high schoolers abandon education. "In the past, students in this community have not been pushed as much as they could have been," Bischof says. "My educational philosophy is pretty basic: set expectations high and provide the proper support so students can be successful in meeting those goals."

Bischof first connected with East Palo Alto kids on the basketball court. He grew up in the Peninsula suburb of San Mateo; and while he was a student at the tony Crystal Springs private high school in Hillsborough, he sought out the best game in the area. It turned out to be a local league at the Onetta Harris Community Center in East Palo Alto. In 1988, as he prepared to enter Stanford, Bischof saw his teammates weren't prepared or motivated to go on to college. The experience of that rift never left him.

In education as in other areas, East Palo Alto has long been shortchanged. It hasn't had its own high school since 1976, when Ravenswood High was closed as part of a desegregation effort. Nor does this impoverished city of about 30,000 (half Palo Alto's population) have banking facilities or a supermarket -- its single bank branch shut down in 1988 in the midst of a crime wave that brought the city notoriety as America's per-capita murder capital in 1992.

Since Ravenswood closed, students have been bused 20 miles to the Sequoia Union High School District. For years, East Palo Alto parents have been troubled by what happens when their kids leave neighborhood schools: even their best can feel like outsiders and slack off. The Sequoia district has San Mateo County's highest dropout rate, and Latino and African-American students leave at four times the rate of whites. But there were few alternatives -- until Bischof stepped in.

At Stanford, Bischof spent two years with the East Palo Alto Stanford Summer Academy, a volunteer program to mentor and tutor elementary school students. He realized that these kids would have to be motivated -- he calls it "hooked" -- if they were to sustain their efforts in the Sequoia district. His first idea was basketball. In 1991, Bischof created the Shoot for the Stars program, which linked participation in after-school basketball with attendance at a daily study hall. The plan was his senior thesis, and the Haas Center for Public Service gave him $5,000 to test it.

Bischof ran the program while completing a master's in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) and continued it after graduation in 1993, when he was hired to teach at Ravenswood Middle School. At its height in 1996, Shoot for the Stars mentored 50 pupils from grades 4 through 8.

Don Vermeil, MBA '74, a Palo Alto real-estate developer and a board member of Eastside, first met Bischof at a Shoot for the Stars game after reading a newspaper article about the program. "There was a unique connection between Chris and the kids," he says. "They were tuned in and supportive of each other. And they were unselfishly playing as a team." That's a rarity among teenage athletes, says Vermeil, who coached his own kids' teams and has followed high school basketball closely.

But the program took only a small bite out of the problem, Bischof says. He feared that his eighth-graders, soon to be bused away, still might stumble in high school. So he decided to pursue a bigger dream: a private school with an intensive, college-prep curriculum for East Palo Alto students -- in East Palo Alto.

"We started this sooner than we should have," Bischof admits, looking back on Eastside's early days. But he couldn't walk away from the kids. So he recruited Kim from her high school teaching post in Sunnyvale to help him start the school, with just eight students and no campus. A benefactor had purchased a 1.66-acre site for Eastside, but today's pristine quadrangle with a handful of one-story classrooms and a modern gym surrounding a perfectly mowed lawn was barely conceived when school opened in fall 1996.

So they had to improvise. Bischof and Kim drove the kids around in vans between borrowed classroom spaces at other community nonprofits. Another private school donated some used textbooks, but mainly the teachers had to scrounge their own materials, lab equipment and even paper and pencils. The only supplies they could afford, Bischof recalls, were paperback books for English. "The hardest thing about the first year," he says, "is that the kids were embarrassed to say they went to Eastside." Morale dropped to its lowest point when one of the borrowed classrooms was burglarized and they had to hold class in a room with boarded-up windows.

Just as he was beginning to worry that a few of the students might leave Eastside, Bischof had the chance to revive enthusiasm at a stroke. One rainy afternoon, he pulled everyone out of class and rushed them to the new school site to watch as the first half of a prefabricated classroom was lowered onto the school's future quad. The whoops and cheers carried for blocks.

There hasn't been a single defection. In fact, the kids' loyalty to Bischof is one of the reasons the school exists. Kiazi Malonga, for example, came to Eastside because Bischof had been his mentor since fifth grade. Now graduating, Malonga finds its "family atmosphere" a comfortable second home. "We trust Chris because he leads by example. He demands and asks for the best and does the same himself," says Malonga, who will follow Bischof's footsteps and enter Stanford this fall.

Eastside has other pluses. Asked why she chose it, Na'Kelia Pickrom at first replies, "Because it's close to home." Then she adds that it's the one-on-one time with teachers and the fact that they are so straightforward, unlike the frazzled and authoritarian educators at other schools. She echoes Malonga's views on Bischof. "Chris shows all of us that anything is possible," says Pickrom. "Everyone says that, but he is a living example."

In keeping with its founder's philosophy, Eastside's hallmarks are personalized learning, long hours, rapid achievement and teacher-student partnership. Admission criteria include test scores, teacher recommendations and an interview to assess untapped potential. Demand already outpaces capacity. This year's freshman class of 15 was chosen from more than 55 applicants. The student body is a relatively accurate reflection of the community's ethnic makeup -- about 70 percent African-American, 25 percent Latino and 5 percent Pacific Islander and East Indian.

Students attend class from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and carry a heavy courseload: four years of math, science and a foreign language, and advanced placement English in their senior year. That's roughly double the requirement for admission to the uc system. They tackle three to four hours of homework a night and willingly attend review sessions on weekends. Most even spend their summers in Eastside programs. And, true to Bischof's original idea, they're good athletes. The boys' basketball team, coached by Bischof and Steve Smith, '92, Eastside's development director, has won its league three years running and the California Central Coast Sectional Tournament the past two years. The girls' team took its league for the first time last year. Tara VanDerveer, head coach of women's basketball at Stanford, is a school adviser.

In four academic years, enrollment has grown from eight to 20 to 35 to 70. Seventh- and eighth-grade classes came on stream this year, and the school will add sixth grade next year. Bischof says he will cap enrollment at 120, the goal for 2002. "I couldn't do this with 1,000 or 2,000 kids," says Bischof. "It takes a level of dedication and personalization that works best with a smaller group."

The school has high expectations of its staff, too. Eastsiders are on campus hours after the last bell, studying and bonding with classmates -- and teachers. Bischof and his 12 faculty are on a first-name basis with every student. Mutual consideration is palpable, reinforced by a sign that spells out R-E-S-P-E-C-T in colored letters on the wall of the American government classroom.

Eastside is more than a job for Bischof. It's a calling. He lives in a trailer on the school grounds and took his first vacation since graduating from Stanford -- three days in Monterey -- this spring. "I don't see it as a sacrifice or compromise," says Bischof. "My life is different from most of my Stanford friends. But I love my job and, well, I don't consider it a job at all."

Kim matches Bischof hour for hour. "Teachers here get back a lot more than at other schools," she says. "You see results more immediately." Bischof says they haven't had trouble attracting other teachers, and he plans to hire six more this summer, drawing candidates from teacher education programs like Stanford's STEP. Base salaries will jump to $35,000 next year, comparable to both private and public school salaries in the region.

Bischof has tapped his University connection for expert advice as well. "I think of Eastside as a model for what is possible. He's proven that it is possible to create an environment where teachers can care," says Linda Darling-Hammond, Ducommun Professor of Education, faculty adviser to STEP and an Eastside advisory board member. She brings her students to Eastside every year to show them a "setting where students of color are achieving." While many East Palo Alto programs have had an impact on the lives of individuals, she says, "what Chris has done is make a difference in the life of the community as a whole."

Bischof's accomplishment is all the more remarkable because he is an outsider. Gaining community trust has been a gradual process. "In the beginning, there was lots of suspicion and rightly so," he recalls. "We're not having barbecues with the neighbors now, but we do feel accepted and supported." The school keeps a low profile -- no signs, no publicity machine. "But people seek us out," Bischof says. That is no small achievement, according to Bischof's Stanford mentor, John Baugh. "I don't know of anyone who has inspired this level of trust across so many people of different backgrounds," says Baugh, an African-American professor of education and linguistics and an Eastside board member. In the past, Baugh says, most outside help for East Palo Alto has been top-down and paternalistic. By contrast, Eastside charges no one tuition, and that removes any stigma these students might feel as scholarship entries at more well-heeled private schools.

As a private venture, Eastside resembles a start-up in a couple of ways. Besides demanding heavy time commitments, it requires capital to cover its entire operating budget -- $850,000 this year. The money comes from individual and corporate donors and local foundations, much of their generosity fueled by the success of Silicon Valley. High-tech executives and venture capitalists are active members of the school's board. Eastside's sparkling new gymnasium, opened in January, was the gift of a single anonymous donor who believes in home-court advantage. For the first three years, the basketball teams had to play every game on the road.

The school started an endowment last year and has so far raised $4 million. But it won't draw on the fund for at least two years, says Smith. Next year's budget of $1.2 million still has to be raised from private sources.

Financial backing has not come easily. "A CEO of a major corporation shook his head at me, said 'You're never going to do this' and didn't give us a dime," recalls Vermeil. But others were captivated by the similarity between Bischof's mission and a high-tech start-up. "Chris is in the top 10 of entrepreneurs I've ever met," says Bruce Dunlevie, a general partner with Benchmark Capital and an Eastside board member. "He happens to be devoting his energies to something that's not for profit. But he's one of the best I've ever seen."

Nevertheless, Dunlevie, Vermeil and others worry that Eastside's start-up fuel in Bischof, Kim and others can't be sustained long term. "I think the school can give tremendous hands-on, caring service without having individuals work 18 hours a day," Dunlevie says.

Bischof says the board's concerns are valid. Still, for his part, he believes he can keep up the pace. "The more I work, the more progress that takes place, the more I get invigorated." Baugh observes that for teachers, too, "the magic happening at Eastside is a gift. There is an emotional and intellectual reward that fulfills Eastside's teachers the way a larger stock portfolio might fulfill someone else," he says.

While Eastside thrives, things are looking up for East Palo Alto, too. In 1999, the murder toll was seven, compared to 42 in 1992. The bustling new Ravenswood 101 shopping center will soon house an Ikea store expected to create nearly 400 jobs -- and a bank will open there. The derelict Whiskey Gulch area will be transformed into an office-hotel complex by 2003 and is expected to boost tax revenues by $3.6 million a year. Indeed, the Ravenswood School District is pondering reopening a high school and watching Eastside as a possible model. "The proof is in the pudding, big time," says Bischof with an understated smile, as he considers his first eight graduates. "This small group will really have a ripple effect in the community. Chances are their kids will go [to college], and they will influence their friends and peers."

Eastside's first yearbook offers still more proof that the school is fast becoming an institution. Listed among the students cited with class superlatives like "best friend" and "best student" is the category "most popular." The winner? Eastside College Preparatory School, by unanimous vote.

Deborah Claymon, '92, is the managing editor of CNET Television.

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