Back to School: Eastside Prep Adapts to New Crises with Back-To-Basics Leadership

When Chris Bischof and Helen Kim founded the private, nonprofit Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto back in 1996, they accepted all eight students who wanted to attend. The school — which aimed to open doors for young people who were historically underrepresented in higher education — lacked even a building, so it convened in different locations, including a picnic bench, depending on the day of the week. Bischof personally picked the students up in the morning and drove them home after a day of classes, homework, and basketball practice that sometimes stretched to 15 hours. “It was a miracle that we got through the first year,” recalled Bischof, who still serves as the school’s principal. But he and Kim were determined to fulfill their mission, so get through that first year they did.

In 2020, as Eastside Prep heads into its 25th year, the school enrolls 261 students and offers ongoing support to hundreds of alumni. A remarkable more than 99 percent of Eastside Prep graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges or universities, with 80 percent graduating, or on track to graduate. The school has its own campus with first-rate classroom facilities; dormitories; a computer center; a gymnasium (and a stand-out basketball team); a Center for the Arts that includes a theater, dance studio, art studio, and darkroom; and, most important of all, a staff of highly talented and dedicated teachers and administrators.

Underlying this track record of success is a back-to-basics commitment to the essentials of high-performance leadership in the nonprofit sector. Eastside Prep keeps a tight focus on its mission—a mission that derives from the passion and insight of its founders. In addition, over the course of two and a half decades, the school has followed a strategy that allows it to adapt and grow in order to meet that mission. Even in difficult times, moreover, Eastside Prep has managed to secure funding to match its changing needs. Notably, however, the school has resisted the siren call of scaling for scaling’s sake. In effect, Bischof and his team have pursued a “small is beautiful” approach: By aiming for excellence within the context of a single school that serves a single community, Eastside Prep has been able to serve its mission while retaining the capacity for responding to unexpected challenges.

In normal times, Bischof would have spent the summer months overseeing the school’s on-campus summer session. But this summer Bischof found himself working day and night as he grappled with the impact of Covid-19. “That’s been the big challenge for us,” he acknowledged. “How do we make that transition and continue learning while also supporting our students and families beyond the classroom?”

But, busy as he was, Bischof took time to discuss how Eastside Prep is managing in these fraught times — perhaps the most challenging in memory for nonprofit leaders — and to share how he has surmounted challenges and relentlessly pursued Eastside’s mission over the past quarter century.  

Finding a focus

The interlinked impact of racial and economic inequity first struck Bischof when he was growing up in Palo Alto. A dedicated high school basketball player, he often played pick-up games at the recreation center in nearby East Palo Alto and became friends with his teammates there. As he went through the process of applying to college – with ample support from his family and from the exclusive private school that he attended – he observed that his East Palo Alto teammates, who were as deserving as he, had almost no guidance or support. Indeed, East Palo Alto didn’t even have its own public high school – it had been shuttered in 1976 – which meant its teenagers were bussed to four different high schools in nearby towns. When Bischof tried to help a talented teammate apply to Cal State, only to see his friend rejected, he grew angry. “That really stirred some feelings for me,” he told the Los Angeles Times some years ago. “I guess ‘rage’ is a good word to describe it. There were these obvious injustices. It would be so apparent to anybody. My friends and teammates were working as hard as I was, and they just didn’t have the same opportunities open to them.”

Chris Bischof with a group of Eastside Prep students

Photo: Eastside Prep

Rather than rue the injustice and move on, Bischof acted. After enrolling at Stanford University, he founded Shoot for the Stars, an after-school program that combined personalized tutoring and basketball coaching, with the emphasis on academics. He sustained the program even while he pursued a master’s in education and then became a teacher at Woodside High School (which had many students from East Palo Alto). Then, with Kim, he began the process of establishing a new, mission-driven high school that would focus on helping students from East Palo Alto get accepted into four-year colleges or universities. To achieve this mission, the founders determined they would have small class sizes, emphasize college preparation, and build and sustain a culture of collaboration between students and teachers that would help students develop a strong work ethic and give them the support they needed to succeed.  

When an anonymous donor gave Eastside 1.7 acres of land in East Palo Alto, the school began to build its campus. Applications increased, the school grew, and, as Eastside graduates began to be accepted to four-year colleges, Bischof saw his long-held mission being realized. “We started to see a powerful ripple effect take place in our community,” he said when receiving the 2013 Tipping Point award, “as the question is no longer ‘Will I go to college?’ but rather, ‘What college will I go to?’”

Eastside Prep campus

Photo: Eastside Prep

Meeting the mission

By 2010, Eastside had graduated 11 high school classes and seen seven of these graduate from college. Unfortunately, however, not all Eastside graduates actually finished college — a situation that caused Bischof to reflect on his mission. “I was so naïve when we started the school,” he said, “in terms of thinking that our students getting to college was the ticket to a better life. There is so much more to it that those of us whose parents went to college just can’t imagine.”

Bischof came to realize that his ultimate goal was not just to see students admitted to college, but to help ensure that Eastside alum both graduated college and landed good jobs afterward. In service of this expanded goal, Eastside school hired an alumni coordinator to help graduates with financial aid, academic support, and counseling; developed its alumni network and asked graduates to mentor students; and created a career pathways program to help alumni successfully transition to the professional world after college. Eastside students are now assigned a college coach and a career coach when they graduate and Eastside is investing a growing amount of time and resources in supporting its alumni. “We are serving about 700 students per year, including many alums,” said Bischof. “We have really broadened the scope of the program, not only helping students to make the most of their experience in college, but also supporting their career development. … It’s almost like two nonprofits in one.”

Fundraising for the future

Asked what keeps him up at night, Bischof doesn’t hesitate: fundraising. Like most nonprofit leaders, he has been obliged to ride many economic waves in pursuit of his mission.

When Eastside Prep was founded in 1996, the Internet economy was just taking off. But then the “dotcom bubble” burst in 2001, and Bischof had to operate in a constricted fundraising environment. The economy improved after a few years, but at the same time East Palo Alto began to gentrify and many families were forced to move out, some of whom had students still at Eastside. To help these students, and others who simply came from unstable home environments, Bischof began to build a dormitory, which opened in 2007.

The 2008 financial crisis had countervailing impacts, as fundraising became more challenging, but the development that forced families to leave town slowed down. Then, in the economic recovery that followed, East Palo Alto housing prices skyrocketed – from a median of $400,000 in 2013 to $980,000 in 2018. Many Eastside families with strong roots in East Palo Alto were forced to move 50 or 60 miles away and commute back for work, a four- to five-hour roundtrip in traffic. “It’s one thing for parents,” said Bischof, “but another for a kid to be in a car four hours a day, especially given the rigors of our program.” As a result, the percentage of Eastside students who live on campus has grown significantly, and securing funds for dormitories became even more important.

Coping with Covid

Like schools everywhere, Eastside had to transition to virtual learning overnight when California’s Shelter-in-Place regulations were issued in March. Bischof expressed his “great appreciation for the teachers,” who were obliged to revamp parts of the curriculum, even as they continued teaching. Students also rose to the occasion: Seniors, for example, made the most of a drive-in graduation ceremony that replaced the traditional in-person ceremony in the school quad. As the new academic year begins, the school is applying the distance learning model that it developed and honed in the spring, while also making plans to implement a hybrid model (with a combination of remote and in-person instruction) once it is safe to do so.

Unfortunately, Covid-19’s impact on the Eastside community extended well beyond the requirement for distance learning. Indeed, said Bischof, Eastside families began losing jobs almost as soon as Shelter-in-Place began. “We tried to step in as much as possible and provide extra support,” he explained. “We created a dinner program, serving 1,000 meals a week to Eastside families.” The original plan was to serve meals through the end of May, but Bischof extended this through summer and hopes to continue it throughout the fall semester. “It has worked well so far,” he said, “but there is definitely a cost associated with this so we are trying to raise funds.”

The pandemic economy had begun forcing more Eastside families to move in with relatives or find affordable rentals in distant cities. “Our boarding program will take on even greater significance to continue to serve the student population that we set out to serve from day one,” said Bischof. “We will prioritize those who moved far away, but still hope to have enough space to meet the needs of all of our students.”

More than 99 percent of Eastside Prep graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges or universities

Photo: Eastside Prep

Eastside was also stepping up support to its impacted alumni. When universities around the nation shut down, it flew some alumni back home so they wouldn’t be stuck on closed campuses. Many of these students depended on financial aid geared to the pre-Covid situation, and summer jobs that had disappeared. Bischof and his colleagues worked to create an emergency fund to make it possible for impacted students to continue their studies.

Finally, Bischof had to consider the pandemic’s potential long-term impact on fundraising. “I think there will be a drag in terms of the impact on philanthropy,” he said. “I am definitely concerned about that, and we have looked at contingency plans for the upcoming year.” With all this uncertainty, Bischof acknowledged: “It’s hard to keep the focus. There is a lot of time spent as a team figuring out what to do and what is doable? Flexibility is the key, and communication.”

Developing a dialogue

The police murders of Black men and women like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that sparked the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer affected Eastside students deeply.

“We have had lots of dialogue,” Bischof explained. “It’s a little more challenging from a distance but teachers have had lots of good conversations with their students and with alumni. … It’s been quite a time, and when you add that to being in the middle of this pandemic, it has really weighed heavily on our students and alum and families — and is all the more reason why there is such a strong desire to be back together.”

At bottom, the success of Eastside depends on bringing together a wide range of people who have a common sense of purpose. After a quarter century of coping with the vicissitudes of nonprofit leadership, Bischof emphasizes his gratitude toward all of the stakeholders who enable the school to excel at getting “the basics” right. He is thankful for his “donors and longtime supporters, starting with our board, who have been instrumental in helping us get to this point,” he said. “They are incredibly generous people who really believe in what we are doing.” He holds endless respect for the Eastside students, families, and alumni who work so hard and overcome so many challenges to receive an Eastside education. And he is unendingly grateful to all his Eastside colleagues. “Having good people around you is the key, and we are so fortunate to have incredibly dedicated faculty and staff who are all so mission aligned,” he said. “That’s what inspires me. We are all here for the same reasons, and not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate that fact.”

Originally published in Forbes

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