For East Palo Alto, a Stanford-Run High School

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

You won’t see workbooks or multiple-choice tests at the nearby charter school.

Instead, ninth graders at East Palo Alto High School read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and write essays about turning points in their own lives. Tenth graders study apartheid in South Africa and travel to a San Mateo courthouse to retry the killers of voter education activist Amy Biehl, ’89, who were pardoned by that nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In their junior and senior years, students explain their research in math and the social sciences before a jury of teachers—not unlike a dissertation defense.

“They’re grappling with issues in a real-world context,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education. “They’re actively engaged.”

Until EPAHS opened its doors in 2001, the East Palo Alto area hadn’t had a public high school in 25 years. For the past four years, Darling-Hammond has served on the board of Aspire Public Schools, which managed EPAHS with support from the Ravenswood School District. Now, she has become vice president of the newly formed nonprofit Stanford School Corporation (SSC), which took over operations in July.

“We’ve been more or less running the high school, so there won’t be any huge changes,” says Deborah Stipek, dean of the School of Education and president of SSC. “We like the way it’s working.”

At a time when the drop-out rate for students of color in the East Palo Alto community is more than 50 percent, EPAHS (which rents a former elementary school campus in Menlo Park) recently graduated its first senior class—90 percent of whom are now attending two- and four-year colleges.“It’s a major change in the expectations of the community for the future of their children,” Darling-Hammond says. She adds that 2/3 of students’ parents have not completed high school. Seventy percent of EPAHS students are Latino, 20 percent are African-American and 10 percent are Pacific Islander.

The 300 students who choose to attend don’t come for the football team (there isn’t one) or extracurricular activities (there is after-school tutoring). They sign on because they’re looking for a small, personalized school where teachers, working in collaborative teams, will help them beat the demo­graphic odds. “We have an equity agenda,” says principal Nicky Ramos-Beban, ’91, MA ’92. “Our school exists to close the gap between poor kids and rich kids.”

More than 80 percent of EPAHS teachers are graduates of the Stanford Teacher Education Program. Building a college culture is the overarching theme on the leafy neighborhood campus, and a different pennant flies from each classroom door: Duke, Georgetown, San Jose State, Notre Dame.

The Stanford corporation ultimately wants to add elementary and middle school students, and in autumn 2006 will hold a lottery for kindergarten, first and sixth grade classes. Education professor Anthony Bryk will oversee the K-8 program.

“I predict that 10 years from now we’ll see a lot of these,” says Stipek, who ran a lab school at UCLA, and who thinks of the Stanford-run school as something akin to a teaching hospital—working with patients, training new doctors, doing research and serving as a resource to other doctors at other hospitals. “If we’re working on early literacy and figuring out creative ways of getting kids’ reading scores up, we certainly would be enthusiastic about working with the rest of the district,” she says.