With high hopes of making inroads against the achievement gap, Palo Alto school board members Tuesday, May 8, declared their support for boosting high school graduation requirements to align with entrance criteria for California's public, four-year universities.
The proposal -- which will add requirements in foreign language, math and lab science beginning with the Class of 2016, today's eighth graders -- will not affect the vast majority of Palo Alto students, who already meet or surpass the new guidelines.
It is aimed at boosting expectations and support for the consistent 20 percent of students who graduate without the four-year college-prep curriculum under their belts.
The new rules also offer customized "alternative graduation requirements" for students who cannot or prefer not to pursue the standard route. The alternate path would be designed by the student and parents in consultation with school officials, and would have to meet California graduation standards.
The plan is set for a final school board vote May 22, but all five members Tuesday indicated their support, praising Superintendent Kevin Skelly for his multi-year work on the topic.
In presenting his case for beefing up the requirements, Skelly's voice cracked as he read a letter from a long-ago Palo Alto High School graduate who said he'd always regretted "taking the easy way out" when at Paly.
"I did not choose wisely as my parents were not involved back then," the letter said. "If I had been forced to fulfill the language requirements back then it would have helped me in college and in life."
Skelly said whether students pursue the college-prep curriculum or negotiate "alternative requirements," the new system will force them to have a conversation with school officials and parents about productive use of their high-school years -- something that's currently not the case.
The school board chamber was packed with school principals from every level, as well as high school students and parents who voiced support for the measure.
Twin Paly seniors Al and Lucas Brooks told the board they are among the only African-Americans in their advanced classes, their other black friends having been "laned down" years ago.
"When I look for my black friends, they're in other classes," Lucas Brooks said.
"The only difference between myself and my friends is that I had two PhD parents and all their resources ... and they didn't have that, and were laned down to the bare minimum requirements for graduation."
Paly senior Tremaine Kirkman, a founder of the Student Equity Action Network, said the graduation proposal "is the right and practical thing to do to help students maximize their futures."
Gunn parent Linda Lingg, who last year expressed skepticism about the proposal's impact on special education students, said her concerns have been met with the latest proposal on alternative requirements.
"Thank you for submitting a proposal confirming that our community values individuals who are pursuing an alternate path," Lingg told the board.
"I recommend adopting this inclusive plan."
While indicating their own support, board members asked Skelly to outline prior to the May 22 vote how he plans to monitor and assess the impacts of the new graduation policy.
Also Tuesday, the board approved a list of "principles" to guide its upcoming discussion with the City Council on the future of Cubberley Community Center, as well as the membership of a 25-member Community Advisory Committee.
Committee members are Tom Vician, Tom Crystal, Lanie Wheeler, Michael Bein, Jean Wilcox, Sheri Furman, Ken Allen, Damian Cono, Claire Kirner, John Markevitch, Tracy Stevens, Susan Bailey, Rachel Samoff, Lessa Bouchard, Jerry August, Jim Schmidt, Susie Thom, Greg Tanaka, Diane Reklis, Mandy Lowell, Brian Carilli, Michael Closson, William Robinson, Penny Ellson and Mike Cobb.