East Side Prep Not “Going to Scale” and Why (Part 2 1/2)

In the last post, I wrote about a private non-profit school located in East Palo Alto (CA), a predominatly Latino and African American city across the expressway from affluent Palo Alto. East Side Prep is a high school that by all conventional measures is a success. Such successful schools, dependent on private donors to underwrite student tuition and the overall cost of running a day and residential program, often get pressured to clone themselves elsewhere.

Yet for the 22 years since it was founded it has remained–and grown–where it is. No satellite schools. No franchisees. It did not scale up in the familiar manner that a Christo Rey–a chain of private Jesuit schools have. Nor has East Side Prep gone the way of charter school networks as KIPP, Aspire, Green Dot, and YES Prep.*

So I wondered why.

In the original post, I said:

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.

Before I had written the post, I had contacted Chris Bischof, one of the school’s founders to ask why. He responded November 10, 2017 so I am updating the previous post with what he said about scaling up.

We have had several donors in the past ask us to “scale up” by either increasing our enrollment and/or starting similar schools in other communities. Our general response is that we still have so much work to do at our current site. As we always say, it’s definitely a work in progress and we’ve chosen to focus all of our efforts on continuing to improve the quality and rigor of our program each year. We have also “scaled up” over the years by expanding the scope of our program. I guess you can say that rather than adding more students per grade, we chose to take a more longitudinal approach by supporting students all the way through college and onto successful careers. We are committed to making sure that our students’ hard work at Eastside will pay off for them long-term. I’d be happy to talk with you more about this if you have any further questions.


*Readers have pointed out to me that in the San Francisco Bay area are highly touted charter schools serving a similar population that East Side Prep serves. Envision Schools and Leadership Public Schools both founded in 2002 have three schools in each of their networks. It seems that these two charter networks are equally as sensitive to the perils of “scaling up” after 15 years as is East Side Prep.


Filed under school reform policies

7 responses to “East Side Prep Not “Going to Scale” and Why (Part 2 1/2)

  1. Everything does not have to get bigger to get better. Scaling up does not guarantee success. I do think some of the school’s successful strategies could be shared with other schools, public and private, informed by a similar mission. Again, educators could learn from another school’s successes, but they still would have to think about their own mission and community. What are often called “best practices” can’t just be copied and pasted into another school and neighborhood.

  2. Rick Gaston

    Thanks for this piece, pointing out the great work that East Side Prep has been doing, Larry. Note also that Envision Schools, a Bay Area charter group that has started several great schools in San Francisco, Oakland, and Hayward, has also limited its growth to those schools rather than scaling up.

  3. MathAppeal

    Predominantly, not predominately

  4. Pingback: I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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