East Palo Alto High School graduates inaugural class of seniors

L.A. Cicero EPA grad

Graduating senior Catrina Brown, center, spoke with English teacher William Dean before East Palo Alto High School's first commencement on June 17, 2005.

L.A. Cicero EPA waiting

Graduating East Palo Alto High School senior Jerome Stanley waited for the start of the procession to Memorial Auditorium, where he received his diploma with honors.

For the first time in almost three decades, the city of East Palo Alto has a graduating public high school class of its own. On Friday, June 17, 60 seniors will walk across the stage of Memorial Auditorium in a ceremony marking a historic step in the struggling community's revival. Since Ravenswood High was closed 29 years ago as part of a desegregation order, the city's teenagers have been bused to Menlo Park, Redwood City and Belmont for high school. Many did not flourish in the large public schools far from home, with only one-third of the city's ninth-graders completing 12th grade, according to East Palo Alto High School Principal Nicole Ramos-Beban, a Stanford alumna.

Four years ago, Stanford's School of Education; Aspire Public Schools, a charter management organization; and the Ravenswood City School District decided to tackle the cycle of underachievement by establishing a college preparatory charter public school in the city. About 70 percent of East Palo Alto High's teachers—including Ramos-Beban—are graduates of the Stanford Teacher Education Program, and the school is used as a training ground for its student teachers. Underscoring the university's relationship with the school, Provost John Etchemendy will deliver the commencement address on Friday.

The school's academically vigorous program has produced remarkable results, Ramos-Beban said. In a community where only 6 percent of residents between 18 and 25 have a college degree, the new school will graduate most of its senior class on time, with 90 percent of the graduates gaining college admittance. This achievement is notable, Ramos-Beban added, because more than two-thirds of the class are the first in their families to earn a high school diploma. The school's population is 67 percent Latino, 20 percent African American and 13 percent Pacific Islander. Ninety percent of students in the school district are classified as low income.

"These students are pioneers, both in their families and their community," Ramos-Beban said. "When East Palo Alto High opened its doors four years ago, many of our students were two or four years behind their grade level. Now almost all of them are moving on to college."

With 300 students, the charter school features a project-based curriculum tied to standards and performance assessments focused on preparation for college. Teachers work in teams with a common group of students for two years, providing them with individual attention in a goal-oriented environment.

As a result, about a third of the graduating class will enter four-year colleges, including all of the University of California campuses and several California State University campuses. Two students have received full scholarships to Smith College and the University of California-Berkeley, and three have been awarded $40,000 presidential scholarships to Menlo College, Ramos-Beban said.

Students also are heading to the University of Colorado-Boulder, Saint Mary's College, Mills College, National Hispanic University, Santa Clara University and Chaminade University of Honolulu. More than two dozen students will begin their college careers at Cañada College, which offered several college courses to the students while they were still in high school.