Scaling Up: The Story of East Side Prep (Part 2)

East Side Prep is a private, non-profit school located in East Palo Alto (CA). Founded in 1996 by Chris Bischof and Helen Kim, Stanford University graduates, the school has aimed at serving low-income minority students who will be the first in their family to attend college. East Side Prep has grown from a class of eight ninth graders to a secondary school serving over 300 students including a residential component. Demographics capture the intent and reach of the school.*






The cost is $19,000 for a day student or $29,000 for a residential student. No student or family pays that amount. Donors–individual (85%) and corporate (15%)–pay the full tuition for each student with each family contributing at least $250 a year. Also each family is expected to volunteer at least 20 hours a year at the school.**

The multi-faceted program includes a heavy academic load, arts and humanities offerings, after-school competitive sports, and much tutorial and remedial help including a full summer term (see here, here, here, and here)


With over 30 full- and part-time faculty, most of whom are veteran teachers who have taught at ESP for up to a decade or more, there is much stability in the staff. At one Open House I attended on October 19, 2017, six of these veteran teachers spoke of how they came to ESP and why they have stayed as long as they have and the closeness of the faculty in working together to solve problems.


The curricular focus in all disciplines is on academic preparation for the rigors of college, and
emphasizes critical reading, expository writing, research methodology, and mathematical
problem solving. The academic course plan all students take meets the University of California
and California State University a-g admissions requirements, and all students complete
coursework that exceeds the requirements for UC/CSU freshman admissions.
Students are untracked with the exception of math and Spanish, for which tracking is based on
entering algebra preparation and native language designation. All students are required to take
four years of the following: English, including AP English Language in their junior year; laboratory
science, with either AP Physics, Advanced Chemistry, or Advanced Biology in their senior year;
mathematics, ending in AP Calculus (AB or BC), AP Statistics, or Pre-calculus/Statistics; and
Spanish with the exception of native speakers who finish their 3rd year in AP Spanish Literature
as juniors. Students take a year of World History, U.S. History, and a semester each of AP U.S.
Government and AP Microeconomics.
Students enroll in College Readiness courses in their 10th, 11th and 12th grade years for skill
development, test preparation, and senior college prep, a course in which seniors complete their
college applications and prepare to transition to college.
In the senior year, students also take Senior Research Institute (SRI), a research and writing based
course that culminates in a 25-page research paper and a 30-minute presentation of research….
In addition to computer science, Eastside offers a variety of electives including fitness,yearbook,
art and photography, drama, piano, band, and choral ensemble. Sports options include basketball,
soccer, volleyball, track and field, cross-country, weightlifting, and strength and conditioning.
A variety of student clubs, such as robotics, Student Council, and the community service club,
Interact, foster community building as they give students a chance to assume leadership roles on
campus. There is an emphasis and a connection in all of these activities to the mission of the
school and the importance of high standards


In addition, there is a Resource Program for students who need extra support–the school estimates 10-20 percent of students need such help. A faculty Advisory system began in 2001 that brings each teacher with a group of students together to meet regularly in each of the four years students will be at ESP including scheduled Advisory lunches between a student and his or her Advisor. (For video reports of teachers, students, and program, see here, here, and here)

There is much more that I can describe about the school’s residence program, the athletics, the ups-and-downs, yes even an outstanding school has problems that the administration, staff, and parents work on continuously and together. But I won’t. Readers can refer to above links for more information about the school from local sources and the school’s website.

Going to Scale

The fact of the matter is that this is an extraordinarily “successful” school by conventional measures. Donors have supported the school year in and out. Working class parents in East Palo Alto and nearby neighborhoods seek entry for their sons and daughters. ESP has graduated seniors who go on to college and earn a degree in numbers that most high school principals and faculties can only admire and respect.

This school has existed for 22 years. There is no other ESP in adjoining neighborhoods and other cities. It is one of a kind.

Yet other private non-profit schools aimed at a similar population have spread their work to other cities such as the Jesuit created Christo Rey that began in 1996 on the South Side of Chicago and since then a secondary school network network of 32 schools across 21 states and the District of Columbia. Combining a rigorous academic curriculum with students paid to work through a Corporate Work Study Program, donors, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have given large sums of money to spread the network. Each of these schools is locally owned and operated with a national office helping individual schools stay true to the model.

I am not suggesting that ESP copy such franchising in going to scale. I have not discussed it with Chris and Helen at all. For all I know, they and their Board may well be following a non-scaling up approach. That is, a successful school hangs in—continues to improve it self and avoids cloning. ESP fills the need for better schooling in an area that lacks such successful schools, and leaves it at that. Opposite to scaling up is hanging in and not looking to replicate what one is already doing well.

My hunch is that Chris and Helen have been approached many times by donors and others to spread what they have done in East Palo Alto. Generous givers may want more ESPs. So why no clones of ESP? Why haven’t Chris and Helen journeyed forth and spread ESP seeds elsewhere?

I can only speculate but to create another ESP with its history in the neighborhood, its many moving parts in a complex program, a stable and experienced faculty, continuous neighborhood support, and enduring leadership is neither easy to duplicate nor worth doing since these leaders would not be able to continue their work at ESP as they have for over two decades. Hanging in as a strategy and continuing good work with teachers and students in an under-resourced neighborhood is surely seen as inefficient by those who tout scaling up. f it works here, let’s do it everywhere. There is, however, no one best way to school those who want to be the first in their families to go to college. East Side Prep is only one and very hard to reproduce in a different setting with different leaders.




*I have known both founders of ESP as students in a social studies curriculum and instruction course they took with Lee Swenson and me in the graduate Secondary Teacher Education Program at Stanford University in the early 1990s. I have visited the school multiple times, most recently in mid-October 2017.

**This data comes from East Side College Preparatory School, “Programs and Best Practices,” 2016-2017.





Filed under school reform policies

2 responses to “Scaling Up: The Story of East Side Prep (Part 2)

  1. Alice Flarend

    I think it is difficult (and probably frustrating) to understand the contextual nature of teaching, learning and schooling unless you have deep experiences in all three with those experiences coming from different systems. Having grown up in the Chicago Public School System, teaching in a small rural school ( graduate ~90 students) with my own children attending the neighboring larger school (graduating ~500 students), I am amazed at the diversity in goals, struggles, resources and philosophies. And by resources I do not mean only financial.

    One quick anecdote as an illustration. At my children’s’ school, Mock Trial is a cult with the teams meeting every Sunday for 2 hours. Mock Trial was popular where I work but has died over the past years. However, the high school musical is stronger than the larger school and has survived the retirement of the favored director.

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