Sharing success stories from Eastside High

This note in from Dr. Sandy Wagner, long-time advocated of technology in education and currently helping out as a math tutor at Eastside Preparatory School in East Palo Alto:

“This article in the San Francisco Chronicle and the accompanying video describe the school in East Palo Alto where I have been tutoring for four years.  Eastside is a result of creative genius and hard work; it had to be invented and the existing models were scarce.  The story is impressive – Chris Bischof, a basketball fanatic in high school, found the best pickup games were in East Palo Alto, which once led the nation in per capita murders. When he was heading off to Stanford Chris realized that none of his ball playing friends was going anywhere.  That simple observation became the focus of his undergraduate career, and led him to that first meeting with eight students about 13 years ago.”

Eastside Succeeds By Focusing on Students – San Francisco Chronicle, June 11, 2009

Sandy goes on, “There are some phrases in the article that make the whole thing sound simple, that anyone could do it: “believing in students helps them find success”, “the school appears to brush aside any doubt that closing the achievement gap can be done.”  The important quote is a modest one from Chris, who really deserves a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant or at least national recognition – “it’s the full package – that’s what it takes.”  If anyone wonders why a nearby high school with similar goals and student body, and the support of Stanford University, just flounders along, it’s because this is not a simple thing that can be achieved with slogans and college pennants hanging on the walls.”

Sandy has hit on some of difficulties of communicating why school models differ. It’s difficult to explain how slogans don’t translate to success, when slogans are such compact little devices. In contrast, subtle, complex human interaction takes too long to explain, much less to actually do.

The article mentions some features of the school.  Here are more contents of “the full package”:  There is a large room reserved for tutoring by volunteers, and tutoring time is built into each day. There is a modern computer lab and complete connectivity throughout the school, but no library.  Teachers are remarkably dedicated to the school’s mission – their regular day is 8 to 5 with kids.  Advanced Placement classes, including calculus, advanced biology, and physics, are in each student’s program.  All students reach at least pre-calculus.  Every incoming student takes summer school to get up to speed in math and writing.  Every senior spends 6 weeks at the summer “boot camp” in preparation for all phases of the college admission process.  Every student takes Spanish; those who already speak it take courses to prepare them for AP Spanish.  All students take art and music and show their work in public exhibits and concerts at the school.  A full time staff member is dedicated to staying in touch with graduates during their college years.  Every senior does a research project that is presented, quite professionally in my experience, to a panel of teachers.  All this is provided tuition-free.

This school does sound like a fabulous, caring place, but there are places with great facilities that fail miserably to serve their students. There are so many lessons to be learned here, but I think the big one is, “…the full package–that’s what it takes.” Tinkering around the edges won’t work, nor will slogans about how different things will be. Sandy says, “it had to be invented” not because good schools don’t exist, but because real innovation can’t be checked off a shopping list or slapped together from parts and pieces. Sharing models, and going beyond the superficial is important to help all the other future Eastsides and future Chris Bischofs of the world. People have the power to reinvent education, we just need to share success stories, ideas, and why the hard work is worth it.