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The Inclusive Prep School

An innovative academy in East Palo Alto gives poor students a shot at college.

November 13, 2000|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EAST PALO ALTO — What chance does a bunch of poor minority kids from this rough and ragged community south of San Francisco have of going to college?

About as much chance as a rich white kid from up the road in tony Atherton once had of becoming a basketball star.

The all-too-familiar stereotypes in the two San Francisco Bay Area suburbs had been: White men don't jump, and black men don't learn. But those expectations have been turned on their heads at a place called Eastside College Preparatory School.

The tiny, private high school founded four years ago by a kid from Atherton has created an oasis of hope in what had been a desert of low expectations called East Palo Alto, a city of 23,000 on the freeway between San Francisco and San Jose.

Chris Bischof parlayed his love of basketball and a neighborhood tutoring program into a blossoming private high school that sends poor, minority teenagers from East Palo Alto to top colleges across the nation. He did it with the help of a tireless friend from Stanford University, Helen Kim.

A crowning moment for the fledgling school came last spring, when its first graduating class of eight seniors found their mailboxes stuffed with college acceptances. Among the schools the Eastside Eight are attending this fall: Stanford, Mills College, Marymount College and the University of Pennsylvania.

Hundreds of guests squeezed onto campus for graduation. If they weren't crying, they probably had goose bumps. The achievement was that much of a revelation in a community slowly pulling itself up from a low ebb.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, East Palo Alto's only public high school was closed to promote integration. Its students have been bused to other public high schools ever since. Eight years ago, the impoverished city suffered more murders per capita than any other in the nation. Even today, nearly three-quarters of its students are poor enough to qualify for free or discounted school meals.

So Eastside is a clear symbol of rebirth, as much as the new housing tracts creeping in among the tired bungalows and the recently opened shopping center.

"They are building a culture at Eastside where kids know school is about working and being serious," said Josh Edelman, co-director of a program that assists underprivileged students at a nearby public campus, Menlo-Atherton High School. "They have created a culture where it's cool to be smart. That is a great accomplishment."

That culture forces hard choices. On Friday nights, Eastside students can't go home until they have finished all their assignments.

"I am here five or six hours a night," said Alex Young, a junior, with apparent pride. "Some of my friends say, 'You gotta be young and have fun,' and I say back to them, 'What you do now is going to come back to you later.' "

Eastside Prep has blossomed from its initial class of eight freshmen four years ago housed in makeshift, rented classrooms. Adding a grade or two each year, the school now boasts 86 students in grades six through 12, tucked into a small but attractive campus of wooden bungalows surrounding a neat grass quad. Bischof and co-founder Kim plan to expand to 140 students over the next few years.

"We are going to have to see if we can do that and maintain our personal contact and intimacy that is one of our keys," said Bischof, 30.

In the Bay Area and in educational circles nationwide, such a "boutique" school inevitably gets judged by how many children it reaches. Experts wonder how "portable" the model is.

Eastside's founders have tried to make the school as egalitarian as possible. They admit students on full scholarships, funded by the school's ever-growing base of donors. The students, all from local communities, don't have to be top achievers coming in, as long as they show determination and a desire to go to college. The school expects as many as four times more applicants than openings for next fall's class of 20 high school freshmen.

Just to the south, in San Jose, the model already has been replicated by a former Eastside English teacher, Greg Lippman. His public charter school, Downtown College Prep, hopes to increase the neighborhood's paltry college matriculation rate.

Lippman said the formula for success is to combine a high-quality faculty and staff with rigorous standards, small classes and personal attention for students. "The lesson to be learned from Eastside," Lippman said, "is that college can be a goal for students who aren't originally headed in that direction."

Nationally, such high-powered academies were championed by the presidential candidates, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. In their first debate, Bush lauded the Knowledge Is Power Program academy in Houston. The charter middle school and its twin in New York City have supercharged achievement and test scores among minority students.

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