The Palo Alto Board of Education met in its annual retreat Tuesday and, with the added opportunity of a new superintendent's fresh set of eyes, struck an optimistic tone on ideas for improving and strengthening protocol, communication and the district's long-term visions.
One theme that emerged was the need to clarify the board's purpose and role, both for its own members and for the community and schools it serves.
"I think many in the community are hungry for a vision -- a vision of our education and what we see ourselves doing," board member Camille Townsend said. "I think its time we have that.
"You've had some great experience that we want to capture," she said to McGee.
With the goal of clarifying that vision, McGee asked each board member to come up with a short tagline for the district that would "capture the essence" of its mission.
"I think it's important for people to have a sense of identity with the district," McGee said.
The taglines ranged from board president Barb Mitchell's "where learning comes first" to
Dana Tom's "cultivating our children's futures."
"I think we need to be future oriented," Tom said. "Our children are going to be in a future we can't even predict right now and they need to be prepared for it."
McGee echoed that sentiment throughout the retreat, emphasizing the importance of answering the question, "How do we prepare our kids for careers that don't exist?"
McGee's said his tagline "developing thoughtful learners, deepening knowledge and curiosity and empowering world-class potential" is about effecting change in the district and beyond.
"I always get asked, 'Why did you come here?'" he said. "I think what we do here can really inform other districts across the state and country."
A significant part of the board's visioning discussion focused on a book McGee asked the board members to read, "The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way" by Time Magazine journalist Amanda Ripley. Through three young American students who travel to three countries considered global "education superpowers" Finland, South Korea and Poland Ripley explores different educational cultures, styles, paths and experiences.
Townsend said the chapter that most resonated with her was one about the perception of a "math problem" in American schools that students in the U.S. typically don't perform as well in math as students in other countries and that student achievement most commonly drops off during middle school. Townsend urged the board to look at Palo Alto's own data on this to inform a solution to the problem.
Board member Heidi Emberling agreed, saying that the discussion about learning and teaching math should be reframed as another way of building critical-thinking skills.
"My daughter came home in first grade and said 'Girls aren't good at math,'" she said. "I liked the metaphor that math is a language. ... It is the basis for logical thinking, for processes and for persistence. And you have to follow a rigid formula in terms of trying things step by step to get your answer. It's a discipline of thought."
McGee said he faced similar issues with math achievement at schools during his career and that at one point he made an effort to hire teachers who had majored in math in college.
McGee also gave a presentation based on research from another book, "Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago," which came out in 2010 and tracked over seven years various data in Chicago's public elementary schools. (McGee served as the Illinois state superintendent from 1998 to 2001, and almost all of his career before and after was spent in the Illinois school system.)
The book identifies five essentials that produced the strongest, most improved schools in Chicago: instructional leadership, ambitious instruction, professional capacity, student-centered learning climate and family and community involvement. McGee said he believes strong leadership is a primary driver of change at all levels.
He also cited snippet quotes from the book such as "the importance of 'relational trust,'" "professional development must be systemic" and "strategic plan guides leaders." He did not offer concrete ideas for how these concepts can or will be applied to Palo Alto, but the group is set to discuss specific priorities and goals at the second day of the retreat on Wednesday.
"This is a very different conversation than we normally have at these meetings," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said. "I appreciate the external information. ... It's helpful to get some new juice into our discussions."
The board's most recent annual focused goals, adopted last September, range from increasing small-group instruction, integrating Common Core standards and improving the district's website to making communication with the community more transparent and frequent.
The board will meet for the second day of the retreat Wednesday, Aug. 13, beginning at 9 a.m. at the University Club, 3277 Miranda Ave., Palo Alto. The board will convene for a closed session discussion around 2:30 p.m. to discuss the evaluation process for McGee. View the agenda here.
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