The Ravenswood Science Initiative (RSI) began in 2008. A local high school principal reported that Ravenswood City School District (RCSD) students come to high school unprepared to succeed in science. “They get into a science lab; they are embarrassed because they don’t know what to do and stop going to that class. That begins the slippery slope of dropping out. By sophomore year, they are gone.” (Matt Zito, Principal, Menlo Atherton High School)
RCSD includes East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park, CA. It serves about 3,800 students, (K-8) 72% Hispanic, 10% African American, 10% Pacific Islander. More than half of the students speak English as a second language. Almost all families in the district are low income. Half of the parents do not have a high school education. Graduating 8th graders attend high schools outside this school district. High school graduation rates are low, averaging about 35%.
Through a Menlo Park Presbyterian Church Compassion Weekend project, hundreds of volunteers worked to upgrade an existing RCSD middle school lab at Belle Haven, create a science lab at Costano/49er Academy and restore a science lab at McNair that had been converted to a girls locker room. As Compassion Weekend project managers worked with the schools to restore the labs, they could see it was going to take a lot more than a rehab to increase science lab experiences in the district.
Hosting science labs takes knowledge, experience and time. RCSD teachers are hired as generalists. Background or training in science is not required. They may have no experience in presenting hands on lab procedures for students. Preparation is time consuming. Middle school teachers have multiple classes, with no time between classes for the set up and clean up science labs require. New teachers to the district lacked time to figure out what is in the science lab or how to use it.
To address these needs, Ravenswood Science Initiative volunteers, organized through the Ravenswood Education Foundation, offered science lab support to teachers at Costano/49ers Academy. The 6th and 7th grade teachers, Max Fox and Silas Ellison, accepted the offer and the learning began. A regular schedule of earth science and life science labs developed, with volunteers providing supplies and set up for labs teachers requested. Students viewed science lab experiences as a privilege to be earned. The program expanded to McNair in 2010, Willow Oaks in 2011, Belle Haven in 2012, Cesar Chavez and Los Robles in 2013.
RSI recruits science and engineering professionals and community experts to provide content knowledge and real world experience to science labs. This year, 6 scientists, 2 engineers, 2 college instructors, a high school chemistry teacher, and Stanford grad students are volunteer lab instructors supported by 30 volunteers who coach students working in small groups.