School board members in turn asked Superintendent Kevin Skelly to clarify current course offerings after the students and parents angrily testified against what they called the "math letter," a statement signed by Palo Alto High School's math department in May.
In the letter, department head Radu Toma and his colleagues had argued against raising Palo Alto's graduation requirements to meet UC/CSU entrance criteria because doing so would "either stop a significant number of students from graduating or, alternatively, force us to drastically lower standards in our courses as too many other schools have done."
Toma indicated that Paly's "regular lane" Algebra 2 class exceeds "basic benchmarks." Easing those standards so that they meet but do not exceed UC/CSU entrance requirements would hurt the school district's reputation, he wrote.
In emotional testimony at Tuesday night's school board meeting, students and parents criticized the letter as "arrogant, elitist and paternalistic," reflecting a math and science program at Palo Alto's two high schools that caters to high achievers while failing to offer a basic path to college for many students.
They called for the district to ensure the availability of at least one lane of high school math and science offerings that meet, but do not exceed, the UC/CSU requirements.
"This letter is offensive on so many levels I don't have time to explain," parent Kim Bomar said.
"For Mr. Toma to say (certain students) cannot be expected to pass is a total abrogation of the duty to teach."
About 20 percent of Paly's and Gunn's Class of 2011, including a disproportionate number of black and Latino students, graduated without fulfilling the entrance requirement for CSU and UC, the so-called "A-G requirements."
While it's possible to graduate without meeting the four-year-college-prep curriculum, Palo Alto has struggled to boost the percentage of its graduates who meet the UC/CSU entrance requirements. The concern was identified as a priority in the district's 2008 strategic plan, and the board set a goal of having 85 percent of its graduates meet the criteria by 2012.
Skelly in May recommended that the school board boost Palo Alto's graduation requirements to align with the UC/CSU entrance criteria as one way of raising expectations for all students. That idea has been endorsed by a variety of interest groups, including the Student Equity Action Network, the Network of Parents of Students of Color and the group We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which has pushed for measures to reduce academic stress.
But the Board of Education reacted cautiously to Skelly's May proposal, expressing worries about unintended consequences for struggling students, including many in special education.
At the time, Skelly said he would bring the issue back to the board after researching why some students are not fulfilling A-G. He returned with an analysis in October.
At Tuesday's board meeting, students and parents criticized the tone of the math letter as "unacceptable in every possible way" while renewing their request that Palo Alto align its graduation standards with UC/CSU entrance criteria.
Lucas Brooks, an African-American senior at Paly and member of the Student Equity Action Network, said he's fortunate to have "two MIT graduates, constant access to the Internet, and the time and money to hire a tutor.
"But unfortunately, most of my minority and economically disadvantaged friends as well as many others cannot say the same," Brooks said.
"Unfortunately, they go home and struggle to teach themselves material designed for students like me. This doesn't mean there's a problem with their brains, just their school.
"It doesn't make sense to me to design even the middle lane classes so that students in them need to learn much more than they'll need to achieve their collegiate dreams," Brooks said.
He also urged the board to reform graduation requirements to comply with UC/CSU entrance criteria.
Parent Wynn Hausser, a member of We Can Do Better Palo Alto, said he was "flabbergasted to read the letter from the Paly math department that indicates these teachers are more concerned with reputation and awards than doing their jobs as educators — that is to educate all their students to the best of their ability.
"I do not think, or at least I hope, that this letter does not represent the viewpoint of the majority of Palo Alto teachers. But the elitist attitudes expressed in the letter should be repudiated in the strongest possible terms," Hausser said.
Skelly apologized to the parents, saying he took responsibility for overlooking Toma's comments in the context of the A-G debate in May.
"I should have gone back to the math department and worked on that issue," he said Tuesday.
"I think the math department regrets the contents of that letter and wish they'd expressed concerns about the psychic implications for students more articulately and more sensitively.
"While folks may not trust the math department on this, I do. They're people of good will who want to see kids be successful."
Skelly said he will bring the A-G matter back to the board but wants assurance that staff members will have a safe environment to express their views.
"We're not proud of the results we have (on A-G attainment) to date and I take those as personal failures," he said. "I think others do as well, including the math department."
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