Department heads from Gunn and Palo Alto high schools met with the Board of Education to discuss a proposed phase-in of stiffer graduation requirements, so by 2018 they would fully align with entrance criteria for the University of California and California State University.
The proposal would not affect the vast majority of Palo Alto students, who already meet or exceed the UC/CSU prerequisite coursework, the so-called "A-G requirements."
Rather it is aimed at raising expectations for — and performance of — the roughly 20 percent each year who graduate without fulfilling them, a group that is disproportionately low-income, African-American or Hispanic. For students with "explicit" plans that differ from the four-year college track, the new proposal would offer an opportunity for customized "alternative graduation requirements."
The reform proposal is backed by the Parent Network for Students of Color, the Student Equity Action Network and We Can Do Better Palo Alto, a group lobbying to reduce academic stress.
Teachers did not explicitly endorse or reject the proposed new policy, which has been recommended by Superintendent Kevin Skelly. But they cautioned that many new supports would be needed to foster success should the new requirements be adopted.
Several also said they worried about the "opportunity costs" in the new policy — for example, forcing struggling students into extra academic periods at the expense of subjects they love and thrive in.
"I disagree with the belief that helping more students with 'A-G' can be accomplished simply by changing the graduation requirements," Kathy Hawes, chair of Gunn's math department, said.
"Changing the requirement will only result in more students meeting 'A-G' if we change our program in a significant way.
"When students in my class have difficulty I don't make the quiz harder with the expectation they'll work harder and do better. I ask, 'what can I do differently to improve my instruction?'"
Teachers from an array of disciplines discussed recent efforts to boost the achievement of struggling students. At Paly, for example, student-teacher ratios in "regular lane" math classes are 12:1, compared to 37:1 in advanced calculus, according to math department head Radu Toma.
Gunn also has lower class sizes in its lower math lanes, and both high schools said they are experimenting with online learning for students in programs like the Khan Academy. Special education teachers reported there have been positive early results under a newly strengthened "inclusion model," in which special ed teachers come into mainstream classrooms to co-teach classes in history, science, English and algebra.
The high schools also reported they are extending library hours and in-school tutoring opportunities for students. Still, some worried such measures would not be enough.
"What else can we offer instead of just the same thing over and over again?" asked Paly counselor Selene Singares. "That guy that kept pushing the boulder up the hill — Sisyphus — we don't want Sisyphus. And that's what I'm hearing.
"What's also very important is the social-emotional needs of students. As we increase the expectation we also increase the need to support students who struggle with depression," Singares said.
Gunn counselor Monica Espinoza, who runs the College Pathways program for underrepresented minorities, described the extra struggles some of her students face.
"I have a student who works 30 hours a week to help his parents pay for food and rent. There are issues with them being so poor they have to contribute to the family not having tutors to help them meet the rigors of the classes, coming from other districts or countries and thrown into one of the most rigorous school districts in our area and not knowing how to cope," Espinoza said.
"Other students have tutoring for many hours and access to a whole different conversation when they're at dinner. Then there are a lot of emotional issues — parent issues, family issues — that none of us can change," Espinoza said.
Parent Michele Dauber of We Can Do Better Palo Alto charged that Palo Alto has constructed "basically a failing 'school-within-a-school' for minority and poor students.
"Regardless of race, if you're in a basic lane in the Palo Alto Unified School District you're attending a failing school, camouflaged by the test scores of high-achieving kids who offset and hide negative outcomes," she said.
Dauber and others from her group called on the district to hire a third-party consultant to bring "a fresh set of eyes to a problem we've normalized," and to assess whether the high schools truly are offering academic "basic lanes" that meet but do not exceed the A-G requirements.
"Our community has lost confidence in some of our teachers, notably the Paly math department," Dauber said.
Calling for outside auditors, she said "we need to get on track to fix our failing school-within-a-school."
Other parents cited the extensive use of outside tutoring by many Palo Alto families, arguing that phenomenon points to a problem with classroom teaching. Later in the meeting, Skelly rebutted what he called a "flogging of teachers."
"This idea that we have failing schools is hard to reconcile with some of the great successes I see with kids — all kinds of kids — who come through our schools," he said.
"There's a tone here where this idea that, 'if you cared more, you'd be more successful with these students,' and I think that's insulting.
"Nobody's running from these issues. We're here because we want to talk about them. I'd encourage you to be a little more gentle with staff. These are not bad teachers, and it's very difficult to come time and time again when people just bang on staff on a regular basis. It's just not productive," he said.
Board members pressed teachers for specifics on resources and supports that would help struggling students meet the more stringent graduation requirements being contemplated. Skelly is scheduled to return to the board in May with a more detailed proposal for the phase-in of the new graduation requirements.