Andrea Summers’s first few months teaching at Costano Elementary School were terrible. The children were wild. Vandalism was so bad that the police needed to be called almost every week. She was teaching right on the edge of America’s richest region, California’s Silicon Valley. But she and Costano were trapped in a pocket of persistent crime and poverty: the isolated bay-side town of East Palo Alto.
In such a dismal setting, Summers didn’t immediately notice some visitors: engineers from a high-tech company across the street who would hop the fence to play basketball with the students. Then, some of the engineers offered to help tutor math. Finally, in the spring of 1990, the company’s boss paid a visit. His name was John Morgridge; his company was Cisco Systems.
Cisco was tiny then, and it didn’t have much money. But Morgridge said that he and his wife cared passionately about education. If Costano needed math tutors, his company would help supply them. If Costano needed computers, Cisco would find them. And about those dingy walls: Morgridge and some employees would come by on Saturdays with paintbrushes.
Across the table, Summers sat wide-eyed. For years, she had been teaching in some of America’s toughest schools. She had scrounged for chalk, textbooks, and special reading instructors. “I can’t believe that someone finally gives a damn about these schools,” Summers told Morgridge. And then she burst into tears.
More than a decade later, Morgridge’s bet is paying off. Costano’s students, mostly Latino, African-American, and Pacific Islander, treat one another with respect. The classrooms are packed with inspirational slogans. And on standardized tests, Costano scores in the middle of California’s range, up from the bottom tenth in the early 1990s. All this is happening in a district that annually spends just $4,500 per student — barely half of what neighboring Palo Alto musters.
Just about everyone in business gets excited at some point about “fixing” the schools. And just as predictably, after a few years, the well-meaning crusaders drop out, disappointed and dispirited. Nowhere is this cycle of hope and frustration more evident than in the way that Silicon Valley relates to the 30,000 people of East Palo Alto. The Valley is packed with optimistic entrepreneurs whose success rests on doing the impossible. If you can do great things with silicon or software, the thinking goes, how hard can it be to transform a few schools in a hurry?
But Silicon Valley’s fast-paced way of doing things has turned out to be exactly wrong for communities like East Palo Alto. It isn’t possible to call a meeting, set a plan, and insist that units meet their “Q2 deliverables.” These days, East Palo Alto is 55% Latino and nearly 10% Pacific Islander, so language barriers can be immense. And it isn’t easy to unravel problems associated with poverty — gangs, poor health care, poor housing — that often paralyze attempts at better education.
John Morgridge understands this as well as anyone. In East Palo Alto, he preaches patience and an old-fashioned, sleeves-rolled-up commitment: “If you want to make an impact, you need to invest your time every bit as much as your money. And you need to stay involved for the long run. If you can’t look at a five-year horizon, you shouldn’t get involved.”
Get beyond the quick-fix mind-set, and progress does seem within reach. One case in point is East Palo Alto Charter School (EPA Charter), the educational equivalent of a startup. The school was founded in 1997. Its catalysts are teachers, mostly middle-class whites who arrive from all over the United States, believing that they can help transform urban education. They are passionate and still in their twenties, with degrees from the likes of Brown, Harvard, and Stanford. Their naïveté is gone. They know that they can’t work miracles in a single quarter. Yet they have become savvy, effective teachers. And they have forged remarkable bonds with East Palo Alto parents who want to do something extra to brighten their children’s prospects.
Costano, meanwhile, is like a change program inside an established company. In part, its progress is a testament to Cisco’s persistence. But Costano has also achieved what author Malcolm Gladwell calls a “tipping point.” Once outsiders help create a climate for learning, good things happen. Parents become more committed. The best teachers help recruit other stars. And before long, troubled schools turn into winners.
The chattering has stopped. All eyes are on the blackboard. In a sheet-metal mobile classroom, 24 fourth graders watch with excitement and a little nervousness as their teacher posts five math problems on the board.
This is Brian Auld’s favorite moment of the day. He is a 24-year-old Stanford graduate. Auld teaches fourth-grade math, science, and English at EPA Charter, which serves 350 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The school has become a haven for East Palo Alto’s striver families, particularly recent immigrants from Central America.
“What’s this?” Auld asks, pointing to the toughest problem of the afternoon: 62 – (349 x 5) = ___ – 12 /3. His finger touches 62. A dozen hands fly into the air. “Six squared,” Alejandra says.
“What does that mean?” Auld asks. He looks at the upraised hands and calls on the smallest, shiest girl. “Yes, Ruth?” he asks.
“Six times six,” she replies. “That’s 36.” The class rips through the rest of the problem, one step at a time. When one child gets stuck, Auld encourages the others to help. “Whisper it to him, Wynesha,” he counsels. Gradually, the fourth graders realize that what looked horribly tough can be broken into a series of simple problems — and solved.
A half hour later, Auld declares a recess break and talks about what he’s been doing. He is a more realistic teacher than he was when he showed up at EPA Charter three years ago. Auld has learned that some mothers and fathers don’t come to parent-teacher conferences because they’re in prison. He has learned that if he can’t silence a rowdy class quickly, his lesson plan will be wasted. But most of all, he has learned that if he persists — and shows the tiniest signs of joy when kids get it right — the children will rise to almost any challenge.
That tough-minded optimism is exactly what Kristyn Klei wants. She is in her second year as EPA Charter’s principal, and although she is all of 29 years old, she sometimes sounds as if she has been an educator since the days of Thomas Dewey. “Always teach to the top of the class,” she says. The lobby outside her simple cinder-block office is decorated with plaques lauding the school’s science-fair winners and top artists. “Just because our students are children of color doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have high expectations,” she says.
EPA Charter relies on math drills, frequent spelling tests, and a no-nonsense focus on the basics that children need to do well on California’s statewide tests. Last year, the school’s fourth graders ranked above the national average in reading, spelling, and language and in the top quartile in math. Sixth, seventh, and eighth graders did nearly as well, while some younger grades lagged. Overall, EPA Charter’s scores surged 115 points from a year earlier, as calculated on the state’s 1,000-point scale.
By rights, EPA Charter shouldn’t be doing this well. With an operating budget of less than $2 million a year, the school lacks funds to build its own facilities. So it makes do in a worn-out, 1960s-era school building that had been abandoned for years. Volunteers have painted bright murals on the walls and restocked empty library shelves with books. But big-ticket upgrades (like a proper cafeteria) are maddeningly out of reach. Children eat lunch outside. When it rains, they must either dart inside or hope that a concrete overhang keeps them dry.
Look harder, though, and you can find sources of strength. Parents have been brought into the school in ways that go far beyond PTAs. Some parent volunteers help the faculty during recess, while others keep order during lunchtime. Among the frequent visitors is Feliciano Villasenor, a part-time cook and custodian at an elegant hotel in Menlo Park. He is a single father who emigrated from Mexico in 1993 and speaks limited English. His five children are all at EPA Charter.
“Every evening, I gather the children in a circle around me at home,” he says through an interpreter. “I tell them, If you don’t get an education, you will have to work as hard as I do, and you won’t make any more money. If you get an education, you will earn a lot more money. And you might not have to work so hard.”
One of the deepest commitments to the school comes from 30-year-old Saree Mading, one of EPA Charter’s few African-American teachers. She grew up in East Palo Alto and moved to Sacramento, where she had a comfortable teaching job and a safer home. When East Palo Alto was named murder capital of America in 1993, she shuddered. But she also felt a responsibility. “I told my husband, That’s where I need to be,” she recalls. So Mading moved back to East Palo Alto to teach social studies and science at EPA Charter. Her two older children are in sixth grade and first grade at the school.
Just before Christmas break, Mading presides over an awards ceremony for the school’s third-annual science fair. As she hands out award certificates, she jokes, “My hand is tired! I had to sign so many of these.” But she is beaming as her eighth graders walk up to get their awards. They have been junior scientists, making hypotheses, gathering months of data, and writing everything up as neatly as they could. They are a big step closer to success in the adult world.
With passionate young teachers and dedicated parents, EPA Charter has two-thirds of what’s needed for a fighting chance at creating a successful school in a blighted community. But principal Klei knows that hope and good cheer alone are not enough. She is trying to run a 350-student school on a shoestring budget. She is trying to retain good teachers when EPA Charter’s starting pay is just $37,600 — significantly less than what wealthier school districts nearby can offer.
She is also trying to prepare children to succeed in the wider world, which can sometimes seem frustratingly far away. To improve her odds, she and her school need a network of friends on the other, affluent side of Interstate Highway 101.
That’s where the bookmarks come in. “Every time we get a gift to the school — whether it’s a $10,000 check or a book for our library — we send a thank-you letter,” Klei says. “And we include a bookmark made by one of our first graders. It takes 20 minutes to make each one. But it’s worth it. It makes donors feel important, and it keeps them connected with our school.”
Month by month, EPA Charter is building those connections. Last year, Yahoo contributed $25,000 for a new playground — and sent dozens of its employees over one Saturday to help put the swings, slides, and climbing equipment in place. Logitech, a maker of computer gear, has donated dozens of computers and provided ongoing service and support. The School Futures Research Foundation, supported in part by Wal-Mart heir John Walton, has become an active backer of the school.
EPA Charter’s most fruitful relationship is with Venture Law Group, a Silicon Valley law firm that specializes in helping startups. The firm’s cofounder and chairman, Craig Johnson, is a former Peace Corps volunteer, and his spirit of public service permeates the group. Venture Law sends storytellers into the school for Latino Heritage Day. It donates library books by the box, with more than 100 employees making contributions. The law firm also helps underwrite several teachers’ salaries. Most striking, it helps EPA Charter’s children touch the outside world, thanks to two programs that don’t cost much but require a lot of hands-on commitment and passion.
Each autumn, children throughout EPA Charter are invited to design the law firm’s annual holiday card. The five best designs are posted on Venture Law’s internal Web site, and employees vote on their favorites. The winning design gets a 4,000-copy pressrun — and is mailed to CEOs, investment bankers, and venture capitalists around the globe. On the back of each card is a photo of EPA Charter students and a few words about why the school matters.
Meanwhile, each spring, Venture Law’s employees teach four-day workshops at the school about how to start a business. Children in older grades form bracelet-making companies and then try to sell their wares to younger students. At the end of the exercise, everyone knows a bit more about manufacturing, sales, bookkeeping — and teamwork.
For Klei, the bracelet-company exercise is a great way to teach her school’s children something about business and give them a small taste of the company-creating excitement that drives Silicon Valley. For the Venture Law visitors, it is much more than charity work. Some describe it as one of the most exciting projects they do all year.
“I wanted to be a teacher when I was growing up,” confides Grace Kawahira, a legal secretary at Venture Law. “But I never had the guts to try it. So I was nervous when it was my turn. There I was, trying to teach a class of seventh graders. But we came to this point where I asked them if they could think of any brand names and what made those brands work.
“All of these children put up their hands. They were so excited — and they had really good answers. It was wonderful.”
It’s a drizzly morning at Costano Elementary School. Most principals would shepherd their students inside the building as quickly as possible. But that isn’t how Marthelia Hargrove wants to start the day. She is Costano’s principal: a sturdy black woman with a trace of her North Carolina upbringing still in her voice. Almost every morning for the past five years, she has been leading close to 500 children in a rousing, outdoor catechism about education.
“I believe I can learn!” Hargrove says, clutching a microphone that’s barely necessary. Even without amplification, her voice carries to the farthest corners of the school grounds.
“I believe I can learn!” the entire student body shouts back.
“I can learn!” Hargrove says. “I will learn!” Each time, the welcoming answer comes back faster and louder. Her calls get longer and more ambitious. “I promise to read each day and night,” she declares. “I know it’s the way to grow up right.” Her students stay with her, answering with conviction.
It is an awesome show. But for Costano to be a success, students will need to maintain some of that pep-rally energy throughout the day. They will need to stay optimistic and focused when it’s time to learn about fractions, the Liberty Bell, or the right way to use a semicolon.
In the younger grades, Hargrove’s approach is working spectacularly well. Last year, second, third, and fifth graders scored above average in every standardized California test they took. Her third graders were in the top quartile in math, language, and spelling.
Older students are having a tougher time. Costano is located in the northeast corner of East Palo Alto, the poorest, toughest part of town. As children grow up, it’s hard to shield them from every distraction or negative influence nearby. It’s also hard to deal with a student population that turns over so fast. Nearly 70% of Costano’s students come from immigrant families, including some that might have been in Mexico, in Samoa, or in other parts of California a year ago. If their previous schooling was erratic, Costano can’t work miracles in a single year.
Turbulent local politics are touching Costano as well. State regulators aren’t happy with East Palo Alto’s efforts to teach disabled children and have proposed that the regulators should take over in lieu of the city’s longtime school superintendent, Charlie Mae Knight. Hargrove rallied in Knight’s defense, but a petition that she submitted was found to include some invalid signatures. Early this year, Hargrove was ordered to serve a one-month suspension in connection with the petition controversy.
Nonetheless, Costano has done a lot during the past 12 years to create a climate where students can learn. The graffiti is gone, replaced by relentlessly upbeat slogans on classroom walls. Bright sixth graders stay after school to tutor fourth graders who are having trouble with fractions or reading.
As Costano becomes known as a school that works, more people are willing to help. Librarians at the East Palo Alto Library — who used to shudder when Costano students arrived after school — now welcome them. No wonder: Approximately 40 students and their parents have signed contracts to do an hour of homework at the library at least four days a week.
Good teachers now seek out Costano, even though they could teach elsewhere. Stanford University is pitching in as well. Some 60 business-school students now visit Costano every Wednesday afternoon to tutor first graders. This is tutoring for realists: The program is supposed to last all the way through high school, and it will require future generations of MBAs to pick up the load after current tutors graduate. No one is predicting miracles right away. “You need to be very patient,” says tutor Heather Steinmeier. “The kids have very different levels of learning. They also feel betrayed if a tutor doesn’t show up. But it’s exciting to see how you can make an impression on a child.”
Of Costano’s many outside allies, Cisco remains the biggest by far. In the 12 years since John Morgridge first visited the school, the network-equipment company has installed a computer lab and helped upgrade Costano’s library. Cisco staff members have donated at least 80 school uniforms and a washing machine so that even the poorest families can keep their children’s clothes clean. Cisco has also sent a free dental van to the school so that children who have never seen a dentist can get proper care before their teeth are ruined.
Cisco has established its own, hands-on way of helping. When the company gave several-dozen computers to the school, it also sent over its own engineers to network the machines. Then Cisco provided free summer classes to the school’s computer-lab manager, Gil Patterson, so that he could keep the network running perfectly.
“Schools never want to turn down a donation,” says Maideh Radpour, a director of philanthropy at Cisco. “But you need to know when you’re burdening someone with a donation that they can’t really use. You need to be sure that they can support it. Otherwise, you might feel good, but you’ve really just donated a large, expensive doorstop.”
In the mid-1990s, Cisco grew too big and successful to keep its offices in East Palo Alto. The company moved farther south and now has an enormous headquarters in San Jose. That makes it harder for Cisco employees to stop by Costano during their lunch breaks and help children with their math homework.
Yet John Morgridge and the people who work for him have stayed true to their promise to help the school over the long term. “Marty Hargrove doesn’t let go, and you don’t want to let go,” a Cisco executive explains. So Cisco keeps writing checks, donating supplies — and sending Morgridge himself. Once a year, he serves as “principal for a day.” It’s a time to visit classes, ask teachers what he can do to help, and try to inspire each year’s group of children.
Morgridge has become a billionaire, with a street named after him in San Jose. As chairman of Cisco, he helps steer a global company with more than 30,000 employees. He also remains an informal mentor to John Chambers, his former lieutenant, who is now Cisco’s CEO. Yet Morgridge’s face lights up when he discusses his interaction with the gritty elementary school and its determined principal.
“I talk to Marty Hargrove the exact same way I talk to John Chambers,” Morgridge says. “She tracked me down in New Hampshire a little while ago because she wanted to talk. She’s one of the few people who can call me at any time for any reason — and expect to get through.”
George Anders (email@example.com) runs Fast Company’s West Coast bureau from San Francisco.