Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 31, 2010

Schools face 2011 with big successes, huge challenges

Parent focus groups, budget hurdles line New Year's horizon

by Chris Kenrick

With top-performing students, two state athletic championships and money in the bank, the Palo Alto Unified School District has a lot to celebrate at the dawn of a new year.

But a persistent racial achievement gap, a scary state budget and a community still on edge about the mental health and stress load of its teens signal ample challenge ahead.

New on the horizon for 2011 is a district plan to convene parent and student focus groups with "randomly invited" members to gain a better sense of what's on peoples' mind.

Focus group results will be reported in June.

"There are lots of parents we don't really hear from," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said this week, adding that focus groups helped in his last job in Southern California to highlight "issues parents are aware of and how they feel about things."

With a bumper crop of elementary students and K-12 headcount this fall shooting past 12,000, the district is scrambling to add desks and playgrounds in the right parts of town.

The school board will ponder enrollment projections early in 2011, and members say they hope to forge consensus on an action plan.

"We look at the future, and we believe our growth is going to continue," Skelly said. "Families are more willing to make sacrifices in order to move their students to quality schools."

Though on a steady upward trajectory for 20 years, enrollment could be stalled temporarily by a new law, effective in 2012, which moves the kindergarten birthday cut-off date from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1 and will phase in over three years.

As many in town call for the opening of new schools, the district is in the midst of major renovations and expansions on its 17 existing campuses financed by a $378 million facilities bond backed by more than 77 percent of voters in 2008.

Palo Alto schools also got a huge vote of confidence in May 2010 when more than 79 percent of voters backed a $589 annual school parcel tax, expected to generate an annual $11.2 million, about 7 percent of the district's operating budget.

The approval percentage was the highest ever for a parcel tax in Palo Alto especially heartening to educators in a year when other districts were laying off teachers and cutting back calendars.

The election result was "really energizing a big 'yes' to our children and our community," Skelly said.

Yet he expects the budget outlook to turn ugly in January, when Jerry Brown begins his second round as governor and tackles the state's massive budget crisis.

"Governor Brown seems very keen on making some tough choices, and it's probably going to involve major cuts to education," Skelly said.

Watchful of the ongoing Sacramento crisis, Palo Alto has shaved spending by easing caps on class size and cutting principals' discretionary funds.

The maximum class size in K-3 this fall went to 22 children and to 24 for grades 4 and 5.

Teachers have not received raises beyond their seniority-based "step and column" increases since 2008-09, when they got a 2.5 percent raise plus a one-time payment of 2.5 percent of their previous year's salary.

In 2009 the district completely ended retiree health benefits for employees hired after June 1, 2009.

When it comes to student achievement, Palo Alto in 2010 again counted its schools among the highest-ranked in California, as measured by SAT scores and success on advanced-placement tests.

With 83 percent of the Class of 2010 taking the SAT, the average score was 635 in critical reading; 672 in math and 640 in writing far exceeding state averages of 501 in critical reading, 516 in math and 500 in writing. National average scores are almost identical to California's.

But the district reported a persistent racial achievement gap when it issued numbers in June to comply with state orders to address racial "disproportionality" in its special-education programs.

The district reported at 41 percent of Palo Alto's African-American students and nearly 25 percent of the district's Hispanic students are enrolled in special education, compared to a district-wide average of about 10 percent.

And though many Gunn and Paly grads get admitted to top universities across the country, Palo Alto lags wealthy communities such as San Marino and Piedmont as well as the competitive Lowell High School in San Francisco in the percentage of students graduating with a rigorous college-prep curriculum under their belts.

The percentage of Gunn graduates completing entry requirements for the University of California and California State University systems went from 79 percent in 2008 to 87 percent in 2009. Paly went from 70 percent in 2008 and 83 percent in 2009. The district has made it a priority to boost those numbers, particularly among minority students.

One of the most contentious school board issues of 2010, still not fully resolved, concerns whether to shift first-semester final exams from late January to before the December break.

Advocates of the shift view it as a way to reduce stress by giving students an assignment-free winter break, noting that nearly all other high schools in the area already have done so.

But a proposal for Palo Alto to change beginning in 2011-12 met with passionate resistance from some parents, resulting in a 2011-12 calendar that retains January finals. The school board will take up the 2012-13 calendar early in 2011.

"At some point we have to make a decision (about the calendar) and move on," Skelly said. "People care passionately about this, but it's not a good use of our time to continue staying until midnight at board meetings.

"Whether finals are before or after the holidays, kids around this country are managing just fine."

Student mental health and well-being remains a top district priority both for 2010 and 2011 as the community continues to respond to five devastating student suicides at the Caltrain tracks between May 2009 and January 2010.

A "safety net" of programs some pre-existing and many others new has been assembled under the banner of Project Safety Net, a broad community coalition focused on youth well-being. Activities range from crisis intervention, to education on how to spot at-risk teens, to promotion of "positive assets" in students as they grow.

In October, students took a "developmental assets survey," answering questions about their attitudes toward things such as family and school. Results, due in February, will score Palo Alto students as a whole on "thriving indicators," "risk behaviors," "assets" and "deficits."

"Our district's first 'focus goal' is student connectedness, and our work with Project Safety Net is going well," Skelly said.

"Our community really responded in terms of giving us permission to survey the kids, and we're looking forward to seeing those results."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Tyler Hanley, online editor of Palo Alto Online
on Jan 3, 2011 at 9:09 am

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

The following comments were moved from a duplicate thread:

Posted by PAUSD Parent, a resident of the Palo Verde neighborhood, on Dec 31, 2010 at 11:41 am

To Skelly,

"At some point we have to make a decision (about the calendar) and move on," Skelly said. "People care passionately about this, but it's not a good use of our time to continue staying until midnight at board meetings.

"Whether finals are before or after the holidays, kids around this country are managing just fine."

If you do not want to stay till midnight at board meetings, better give your spot to someone else who is willing to stay late, so our students mental health is improved on all basis, not just the 41 assets questionnaire. You said "Kids around this country are managing just fine," maybe around this country, but not around our district. They are dying, mentally ill, trying to commit suicide, and you said they are doing just fine?

It sounds to me like we need another superintendent, one who is willing to recognize that our high school students need emergency help now, and is willing to stay late brainstorming how to best help them. There are a lot of kids experiencing stress related sickness. Why do you want to pretend that everything is ok?

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Posted by Parent, a member of the JLS Middle School community, on Dec 31, 2010 at 3:18 pm

When I hear anecdotally from my child that 8th graders are doing SAT prep classes over winter break, I worry immensely about the kids in PAUSD. This is not the kids who want it, but it is definitely the parents who are pushing it.

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Posted by AnotherMom, a resident of the Barron Park neighborhood, on Dec 31, 2010 at 4:19 pm

PAUSD Parent,

To be fair to Mr. Skelly... What type of job you do? Are you good at what you do? passionate? to stay at work until 12 is a PERSONAL choice, and I, as another PAUSD Parent, is grateful that our educators are willing to do that. are you staying until 12?

I agree, it's a matter of parental guidance and I talked to a wide variety of parents with all types of extra curriculum activities. It's good to have a drive and ambitions, but kids need to live THEIR ambitions, not the parents insecurities. Life only starts after the college and successful people come from everywher. So, please don't blame Mr. Skelly and other wonderful and not so teachers in our district. Just spend more time with your kids and watch them closely.

Happy NY and let it be happy and healthy for all.

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Posted by Mom, a member of the Palo Alto High School community, on Dec 31, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Intead of making excuses, Skelly should make an executive decision - can't he do that? The reason there were no supporters of the pre-break finals is that Skelly implied that it was going to pass so supporters felt no need to attend the meeting. Only a minority are opposed, and they are not at high school level. Very wimpy to wait another entire year to vote on this. It would be so easy to send out a questionnaire and have the decision wrapped up by June. Not much of a leader,

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Posted by MidtownMom, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Jan 1, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Make an executive decision on the calendar and move on ! Being an administrator is tough ... you are not going to be "liked" by everyone and anyone .. part of the job; make the tough choices in an informed manner

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Jan 1, 2011 at 5:13 pm

I don't think the calendar change is something Dr. Skelly can make on his own, the Board needs to vote on it.

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Posted by Me Too, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Jan 1, 2011 at 5:54 pm

I'm sure Dr. Skelly would love to be able to make an "executive decision" and move on. But the Board needs to approve the calendar change (not to mention the teachers union). And our Board is not noted for its decision making ability - remember Mandarin immersion? The Board has asked for enough research, info, and analysis on calendar change to keep a couple of PhD candidates busy for a couple years - no danger of calendar change any time in our future.

Thank you Dr. Skelly for your willingness to make decisions on the things you can and having the serenity to accept our "Palo Alto Process" on the things you cannot. And congrats on a good year.

Happy new year everyone!

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Posted by retired professor, a resident of Atherton, 7 hours ago

I feel the pressure on these children is excessive. There are more things in life than test scores. Please don't stress out these kids. And, I have noticed that many students get into elite universities because their parents buy them into the schools.

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Posted by B, a resident of the Barron Park neighborhood, 6 hours ago

[Comment removed by Palo Alto Online staff].


Posted by enough!, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 3, 2011 at 11:35 am

Black Monday....the return of Moonbeam.


Posted by interasia, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 3, 2011 at 1:28 pm

I believe that the PAUSD is providing our children with a fantastic education, far better than the private school education than I received 25 years ago. Great job Dr. Skelly + staff.


Posted by Jon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Having a son at college switch from January finals to December finals, I can assure you that this is not really an improvement if at all. The nice thing about the December is that you don't have finals and then deal with revision when you come back. There are a lot of things going on in December that can increse stress adding finals to that doesn't always help...


Posted by pa parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 4, 2011 at 1:00 am

All this conflict around the calendar change, and Skelley has a hard time with just that. (Though it seems a backhanded move to have linked the calendar changes to the finals. Many districts have moved to finals before the holidays by going to uneven semesters without changing the calendar so drastically.)

What about the much bigger issue of deciding to enlarge our already large high schools, when this will put negative pressure on quality and the social environment? There's a premium of millions of dollars in the construction because of this decision, money that could be used instead for improvements or to reopen the third high school. But no one is making the quality and cost comparisons. The Cubberley question is much more complex, and Skelley is on record as having made his decision long ago because he doesn't want to deal with the conflict and complexity.

I'm with the poster above. I'd like to see a leader willing to roll up their sleeves and work with the community to do what's best for our kids.


Posted by Matan Geller, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 4, 2011 at 9:08 am

this is my side of the story

With top-performing students, two state athletic championships and money in the bank, the Palo Alto Unified School District has a lot to celebrate at the dawn of a new year.

But a persistent racial achievement gap, a scary state budget and a community still on edge about the mental health -- and stress load -- of its teens signal ample challenge ahead.

New on the horizon for 2011 is a district plan to convene parent and student focus groups -- with "randomly invited" members -- to gain a better sense of what's on peoples' mind.

Focus group results will be reported in June.

"There are lots of parents we don't really hear from," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said this week, adding that focus groups helped in his last job in Southern California to highlight "issues parents are aware of and how they feel about things."

With a bumper crop of elementary students and K-12 headcount this fall shooting past 12,000, the district is scrambling to add desks and playgrounds in the right parts of town.

The school board will ponder enrollment projections early in 2011, and members say they hope to forge consensus on an action plan.

"We look at the future, and we believe our growth is going to continue," Skelly said. "Families are more willing to make sacrifices in order to move their students to quality schools."

Though on a steady upward trajectory for 20 years, enrollment could be stalled -- temporarily -- by a new law, effective in 2012, which moves the kindergarten birthday cut-off date from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1 and will phase in over three years.

As many in town call for the opening of new schools, the district is in the midst of major renovations and expansions on its 17 existing campuses -- financed by a $378 million facilities bond backed by more than 77 percent of voters in 2008.

Palo Alto schools also got a huge vote of confidence in May 2010 when more than 79 percent of voters backed a $589 annual school parcel tax, expected to generate an annual $11.2 million, about 7 percent of the district's operating budget.

The approval percentage was the highest ever for a parcel tax in Palo Alto -- especially heartening to educators in a year when other districts were laying off teachers and cutting back calendars.

The election result was "really energizing -- a big 'yes' to our children and our community," Skelly said.

Yet he expects the budget outlook to turn ugly in January, when Jerry Brown begins his second round as governor and tackles the state's massive budget crisis.

"Governor Brown seems very keen on making some tough choices, and it's probably going to involve major cuts to education," Skelly said.

Watchful of the ongoing Sacramento crisis, Palo Alto has shaved spending by easing caps on class size and cutting principals' discretionary funds.

The maximum class size in K-3 this fall went to 22 children and to 24 for grades 4 and 5.

Teachers have not received raises beyond their seniority-based "step and column" increases since 2008-09, when they got a 2.5 percent raise plus a one-time payment of 2.5 percent of their previous year's salary.

In 2009 the district completely ended retiree health benefits for employees hired after June 1, 2009.

When it comes to student achievement, Palo Alto in 2010 again counted its schools among the highest-ranked in California, as measured by SAT scores and success on advanced-placement tests.

With 83 percent of the Class of 2010 taking the SAT, the average score was 635 in critical reading; 672 in math and 640 in writing -- far exceeding state averages of 501 in critical reading, 516 in math and 500 in writing. National average scores are almost identical to California's.

But the district reported a persistent racial achievement gap when it issued numbers in June to comply with state orders to address racial "disproportionality" in its special-education programs.

The district reported at 41 percent of Palo Alto's African-American students and nearly 25 percent of the district's Hispanic students are enrolled in special education, compared to a district-wide average of about 10 percent.

And though many Gunn and Paly grads get admitted to top universities across the country, Palo Alto lags wealthy communities such as San Marino and Piedmont -- as well as the competitive Lowell High School in San Francisco -- in the percentage of students graduating with a rigorous college-prep curriculum under their belts.

The percentage of Gunn graduates completing entry requirements for the University of California and California State University systems went from 79 percent in 2008 to 87 percent in 2009. Paly went from 70 percent in 2008 and 83 percent in 2009. The district has made it a priority to boost those numbers, particularly among minority students.

One of the most contentious school board issues of 2010, still not fully resolved, concerns whether to shift first-semester final exams from late January to before the December break.

Advocates of the shift view it as a way to reduce stress by giving students an assignment-free winter break, noting that nearly all other high schools in the area already have done so.

But a proposal for Palo Alto to change beginning in 2011-12 met with passionate resistance from some parents, resulting in a 2011-12 calendar that retains January finals. The school board will take up the 2012-13 calendar early in 2011.

"At some point we have to make a decision (about the calendar) and move on," Skelly said. "People care passionately about this, but it's not a good use of our time to continue staying until midnight at board meetings.

"Whether finals are before or after the holidays, kids around this country are managing just fine."

Student mental health and well-being remains a top district priority -- both for 2010 and 2011 -- as the community continues to respond to five devastating student suicides at the Caltrain tracks between May 2009 and January 2010.

A "safety net" of programs -- some pre-existing and many others new -- has been assembled under the banner of Project Safety Net, a broad community coalition focused on youth well-being. Activities range from crisis intervention, to education on how to spot at-risk teens, to promotion of "positive assets" in students as they grow.

In October, students took a "developmental assets survey," answering questions about their attitudes toward things such as family and school. Results, due in February, will score Palo Alto students as a whole on "thriving indicators," "risk behaviors," "assets" and "deficits."

"Our district's first 'focus goal' is student connectedness, and our work with Project Safety Net is going well," Skelly said.

"Our community really responded in terms of giving us permission to survey the kids, and we're looking forward to seeing those results."


Posted by a poor immigrant, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 4, 2011 at 11:00 am

Wake up and smell the global competition. On the whole American children lack far behind their peers in other countries. Stress? I'm sorry, these children don't know what stress is. They are given everything they need and everything they want. It's time to work for the opportunities that they feel so entitled to. No, kids, you can't just have them handed to you like your i pods, smart phones and fancy cars.

Spend less time on facebook, less time on video games, less time complaining. Sit down and do the work, you can do it. I know you can.The rest of the world is going to leave you in the dust if you don't stop thinking everyone owes you something.

Congratulations to the young men and women who have excelled scholastically and academically. They put in the time and effort and made certain sacrifices to achieve those accolades. They have learned to manage their time. It will serve them well in the future.


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