Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program attempts to address education inequality, serve minority groups

On March 14, 1986, after more than 10 years of litigation, the Tinsley v. State of California settlement created the United States’ first inter-district desegregation initiative: the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP). Although the VTP continues to serve as a prominent symbol of the case, Tinsley’s ultimate goal was to bridge the divide between the Ravenswood City School District (RCSD) in East Palo Alto and surrounding school districts, ensuring that all students would be able to receive a quality education.

Thirty-six years later, divides continue to persist, particularly in regards to schools’ resources and funding. While equity advocates may have won the legal battle through the Tinsley settlement, its application remains far more complex.

History of the VTP

In the late 1960s, Palo Alto and East Palo parents joined to form the Midpeninsula Task Force for Integrated Education, due to concerns regarding the racial disparity between RCSD and neighboring school districts. Tinsley attorney Jack Robertson noted the stark demographic statistics in an interview with the Palo Alto Weekly. “East Palo Alto was 100% Black [while the] other districts were practically all Caucasian,” he said. Eventually, the 33 parents in the task force worked with Robertson and two other lawyers to present their case in court, selecting Margaret Tinsley—an African American East Palo Alto mother—as the main plaintiff.

The VTP originally allowed for up to 206 minority kindergarten through second grade RCSD students to attend schools within eight surrounding school districts’ boundaries—including Palo Alto Unified, Menlo Park City and San Carlos. If more students applied to transfer than spots available, a lottery system would be used to determine who could participate in the Tinsley program. Once their racial minority population reaches 60%, districts are no longer required to reserve the court-mandated spaces for the VTP: As of 2022, the Redwood City School District and Belmont-Redwood Shores School District have met the population threshold, resulting in the current 135 annual transfer spots.

Furthermore, the court order also allows students attending school in the eight participating districts who are not minorities to transfer into RCSD. This option, however, elicits significantly fewer participants: from 1986–2006, only two non-minority students transferred into East Palo Alto. In contrast, 2,508 students transferred out of RCSD during the same time period.

Transportation Issues

In accordance with the Tinsley settlement, Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) allows 60 students from RCSD to attend Palo Alto schools. Although these students could previously choose to enroll at the PAUSD site of their choice, the district terminated bus routes to several schools—including Gunn—at the end of the 2021–2022 school year.

Students at sites no longer served by the district’s buses can opt to attend a school that does have bus service or find their own form of transportation. Junior Stephanie Castillo Baltazar noted the adverse impact of the arrangement on both her and other Tinsley program families. “A lot of students that live in East Palo Alto have parents who work two jobs or have more than one kid,” she said. “The change was super stressful because we had to figure out how I was going to get to school and back home. My mom drives me now, but she’s emotionally drained and has less time to get dinner ready.”

According to Assistant Superintendent of Equity and Student Affairs Yolanda Conaway, two main factors drove the decision to cut routes: a lack of bus drivers and excessively long bus rides. “We are one of the most resourced districts in the area and yet we couldn’t find bus drivers,” she said. “This was also an equity issue, since we were essentially saying, ‘If you’re [a VTP student,] you have to get up at 5:00 in the morning and don’t get to sleep.’ It ultimately came down to the fact that getting kids to school was more important than having [their] first choice school available.”

Tinsley program parent Alma Navarrete expressed frustration with the district’s lack of communication regarding the substantial decision. “There were a lot of changes in the program like the termination of bus routes,” she said in a conversation translated from Spanish by her daughter. “While I appreciate the district helping us out and allowing my daughter to have a better education, it seems like they’re cutting off valuable resources and not eliciting feedback from parents and students.”

Social Impact

Beyond transportation, VTP students, such as freshman Elizabeth Perez, have noticed social impacts stemming from her longer commute to Gunn. “I wanted to go to some of the football games, but wasn’t able to because it’s too far away and my mom can’t give me a ride,” she said. Castillo Baltazar echoed Perez’s thoughts and offered deeper insights. “Living farther away changes everything,” she said. “A lot of people in Palo Alto view East Palo Alto as ‘ghetto,’ but most of us can’t afford to move to Palo Alto. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t necessarily belong at Gunn because I wouldn’t be going here without the Tinsley program.”

Data and Professional Development Teacher on Special Assignment Tara Firenzi points to the challenge of increasing student body diversity while avoiding feelings of isolation. “I would love to see more students from underrepresented backgrounds on campus,” she said. “That being said, [the students from East Palo Alto] are still a very small population of students when compared with the majority groups at Gunn, and it can be easy for them to feel a profound sense of isolation.”

Firenzi, a former Social Emotional Learning and Functionality (SELF) coordinator, began an attempt to ameliorate this issue in 2018. Alongside Assistant Principal Courtney Carlomagno, she worked to create a SELF cohort solely consisting of students in College Pathways, a program that aims to close the resource gap for underrepresented and first-generation college students. “The students had a stronger connection to each other and to their mentor,” she said. “They were able to talk about their feelings of being discriminated against and not feeling connected to the wider school community in an environment where they felt safe.”

World Languages Instructional Lead Daissy Tabares volunteered to mentor for the cohort—she noted the students’ unique perspectives on certain SELF lessons, such as ones on racial disparities and redlining, in which they may have personally experienced the consequences. “A lot of kids opened up more than they would have if they were in another class with other students,” she said. “I would often hear something along the lines of ‘[Things are unfair for us,] but how are we going to fix it?’ They didn’t believe that things could be better.”

While not all Tinsley students participate in College Pathways, many face similar challenges to those who do. Perez acknowledges the merits of the experimental group, but also believes minorities should not be treated as a monolith. “Every opinion is different and a lot of people want to be around the people that they most relate with,” she said. “Personally, I don’t like feeling different from the rest. I’d be okay with [being in a similar cohort,] but it wouldn’t be my first choice.”

Likewise, Firenzi recognizes the importance of striking a delicate balance between the sides of this dynamic. “It’s really hard because you don’t want to tell students that they should only be with others that look like them,” she said. “At the same time, that can also make minority students feel much safer and more connected. Ultimately, you need to have specialized opportunities for students to feel safe, and you need to do a better job of creating a school culture where everyone feels welcome.”

Student Supports

Although the PAUSD website states that one of the goals of the VTP is to improve educational achievement of Ravenswood students, some are concerned with their teachers’ approaches in meeting the aim of “achievement.” “Teachers will ask if I need help, but it doesn’t seem like they actually mean it,” Perez said. “They ask for the sake of asking and don’t truly want to do anything.” For Castillo Baltazar, her experience was less about teacher apathy, but rather teachers failing to properly advocate for and believe in their students. “I feel like we get cushioned compared to everybody else,” she said. “In middle school, other students got a blank set of notes, but my friend [who is also from East Palo Alto] and I received filled-in ones. I was in sixth grade and definitely could have done the blank notes on my own.”

Castillo Baltazar also noted a less-subtle ordeal with a teacher that made her feel uncomfortable. “[During] my freshman year, I remember one of my teachers saying that I was having trouble in his class because I was Latina, and that I would need to put in more effort to pass,” she said.

Granted, these experiences are not unique to students in the VTP. “These are much larger systemic issues that we’re looking at,” Firenzi said. “We need to be focusing on all the factors, including how accessible and safe we make a student’s social and academic environment across the board.” Conaway shared similar thoughts. “We should do our best to make sure families and students from East Palo Alto feel welcome here,” she said. “But from an equity leader’s perspective, there’s just a lot more work we need to do in general to make people of color and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds feel like they are welcome in a place that is predominantly wealthy. We have work to do, but that’s our nation’s work, not just Palo Alto’s.”

Future Outlook

While a major component of the Tinsley settlement order was the creation of the VTP, two additional parts, the Models Schools Study and Ravenswood Improvement Program, are often overlooked. “The consultant shall estimate the high, average and low enrollments expected in model schools, develop a plan for a model school(s) and explore the problems, costs, advantages, disadvantages, feasibility and reasonableness of said plan,” the Tinsley settlement states. “The consultant shall consider the creation of one to three model schools designed and located to attract both minority and non-minority students.”

Unfortunately, a model school was never built in East Palo Alto, leaving the district with no dedicated high school. Currently, students in RCSD attend Menlo-Atherton High School, located in Sequoia Union High School District, to finish their secondary education.

Firenzi believes the unrealized part of the settlement is a crucial aspect of achieving education equity through the VTP. “We shouldn’t need to have students take a bus and be dislocated from their communities,” she said. “They should be able to go to a good school with lots of resources in their neighborhood. Without a secondary school in the Ravenswood community that serves the needs of East Palo Alto, you get stuck with some non-ideal options.”

Conaway reiterated Firenzi’s thoughts while considering realistic benchmarks for the near future. “I do agree that we need to think about a better solution because every community deserves a high-quality school,” she said. “There are some rockstar teachers in East Palo Alto that just need more pay and more opportunities to do what is right for students. I don’t know if that’s going to happen soon, but I do know that in the meantime, the 600 to 700 kids that we have in the Tinsley program deserve our best.”

Although the VTP is far from perfect, those in the program—such as junior Andy Vega—appreciate its ability to provide opportunities for underrepresented groups. “Being able to help students go to better schools for multiple years is [in itself] a success,” he said.

In a survey sent out to VTP parents in Fall 2019 and published in the 2021 PAUSD Western Association of Schools and Colleges report, one parent voiced similar thoughts. “As a mother of a child in special education, one can see the difference in the amount of support that my son receives,” she said. “My children are exposed to a diversity of cultures and this allows them to learn new languages and traditions. [Overall,] the academic level is much better.”