School district leery of Menlo Park mayor's meeting on education

A local school district and Menlo Park’s mayor have very different views about what was behind a community conversation that took place Monday night.

Mayor Kirsten Keith, who put on the event titled “Community Conversation: Improving Quality of Education,” said it was intended to spark a community conversation to identify ways to improve the quality of education at Belle Haven School, which is part of the Ravenswood City School District. The K-8 district operates six schools in East Palo Alto and two in Menlo Park, the other being Willow Oaks School in The Willows neighborhood, which was not discussed at the meeting.

“For years, we’ve been hearing from residents in Belle Haven who are not happy with education … and are asking for help, for assistance with this,” Keith said earlier this month.

Ravenswood’s superintendent, however, alleges the event was held to “secede” the school from the district.

“Our community will no longer stand by idly as you continue bashing us for the express purpose of earning political equity with your Menlo Park constituents,” Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff wrote in a letter to the mayor dated Sept. 12. “On behalf of the hardworking people of the Ravenswood City School District, let it also be clear that we will not allow anyone to segregate our community.”

Rolando Bonilla, publicist for Ravenswood, said the district’s main beef was that it never received an invite.

“Really, the reason you saw the district in such a strong position is that the district wasn’t invited (and) you can’t have a conversation without us,” Bonilla told The Daily News after the meeting, speaking for Hernandez-Goff, who attended the event.

“There is a history here. … It’s all talking about essentially separating Belle Haven from the Ravenswood City School District. We have to take those words and that history into account and, for that reason, the superintendent thought it was very important to send out a letter. … In the district’s opinion, the Belle Haven community, through the mayor, are seeking … a land grab.”

At the event, Suzanne Carrig, a Santa Clara County Office of Education consultant, discussed options for changing district boundary lines or creating a new district, and Joe Ross, president of the San Mateo County Board of Education, discussed differences in the quality of education within the county.

“The reality is in east Menlo Park and East Palo Alto that the schools need a lot of work,” Ross said. “There’s about $350 million of upgrades that need to be done to bring these schools up to par with schools on the other side of this county, and the Ravenswood district only has the ability to finance about $50 million max of that.”

At a packed house inside the Menlo Park Senior Center cafeteria, community members also shared their suggestions and concerns.

Pamela Jones, who attended Ravenswood schools in the 1950s and ’60s and was a board member from 1977 to 1981, said there should be just one K-8 school district in Menlo Park, not the current four.

“We would save money on administration (costs) that could go back into kids’ education,” Jones said.

Caroline Lucas, a Menlo Park City School District board member and Los Lomitas Elementary School District teacher, said the “greatest influence” on a child’s education is a high-quality teacher, but Ravenswood acts as a “starter district” for teachers who quickly leave for higher-paying districts.

“Who wouldn’t take a job 3 miles away for a $20,000 pay increase?” Lucas said. “As long as the districts on the west side offer salaries significantly bigger than the schools on the east side, they will hire the most effective teachers.”

Jones invited the East Palo Alto community to meet with Belle Haven residents to come up with a plan to improve their children’s education.

“The problem has been there for 50 years,” she said. “It takes a different kind of thinking than what we have been doing. … We cannot afford to lose another generation.”

Cecilia Taylor, a 2016 City Council candidate, said she recently toured the school, noting the facilities are in the same state of disrepair as when she attended in the 1970s.

“That doesn’t mean the education in there is poor, but it definitely means the facility is old,” Taylor said. “There are a lot of things that need to change and the only way we can do that is if we work together.”

The overwhelming majority of Ravenswood’s students, about 89 percent, live in poverty. Roughly 83 percent are Latino, 7 percent are Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, 7 percent are African-American and the remainder are other races. Last year, 19 percent of Ravenswood students scored proficiently in English and 12 percent proficiently in math on state tests — only a 1-point gain in English, and no change in math from 2015. The scores are markedly worse than state scores for low-income students of all three predominant ethnic groups in Ravenswood.

A couple of attendees spoke up to place some blame on Ravenswood parents.

“I believe we have strong educators, awesome teachers and principals,” said Angela Chavez, who is a district parent. “I think where we are lacking is the support of our parents in the education of our children.”

There have been at least two prior occasions when regions of Menlo Park seceded from Ravenswood. In 1976, 250 residences and 64 students in the unincorporated Menlo Oaks neighborhood left the district via a 3,490 to 3,290 vote. In 1983, a portion of The Willows and Flood Park neighborhood that included 287 students seceded from the district by a 4,400 to 2,436 vote.

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