Max McGee, who officially begins work Aug. 1, spent three days in Palo Alto this week meeting with senior district staff, the city's mayor, police chief and city manager, representatives of Stanford University and some local nonprofits. He also took time to participate in a video shoot with students.
"Coming in new is a chance to look at some of the evidence and information and talk to people with fresh eyes and ears and be ready to learn," McGee said in a meeting with the Palo Alto Weekly.
"One thing I've mentioned to the board and (senior staff) is this idea of balance between autonomy and the collection of individual communities in 17 schools — how do you balance that with the idea of a collective community, a district mission and vision?
"What innovative programs and practices are working in one school that could be transferable to another? What do you do about choice programs that are oversubscribed, as apparently some of them are?"
McGee said he plans to solicit parents' and community members' views through a series of mid-morning meetings on every campus — which he dubs "Second Cup of Coffee" — as well as through evening and Saturday sessions.
"It's just a great way to listen to people and get to know them," he said.
Eventually, he said, he hopes to home in on "three or four really significant goals" for the district.
McGee, a former Illinois state superintendent of education who for the past seven years has led science- and technology-focused high schools in Illinois and New Jersey, said he was drawn to Palo Alto by its reputation.
"It will probably be my last job," the 63-year-old said, "and I wanted to go somewhere where I could have an impact, a district that could become truly exemplary and a model for education beyond regional and state boundaries, and I think Palo Alto has all that."
While he was not actively in the job market, McGee said he heard about the Palo Alto opening from Dennis Smith, a retired school superintendent who co-managed Palo Alto's superintendent search.
"I really wasn't applying for jobs but I thought, 'This looks really interesting,'" he said.
Watching board meetings before and after he applied for the job, McGee said he was "impressed with the board, level of discourse, thoughtful questions, interactions with staff and some of the issue they were tackling."
Palo Alto has a "culture that prizes and respects collaboration and also a district that could benefit from some strong and innovative leadership, and that's always appealed to me," he added.
Though his last two jobs were at high schools — both public and private — with selective admission policies, McGee has also previously headed K-8 school districts. At the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA), a state-supported boarding school that he led from 2007 to 2013, McGee said he sought out "students from around the state who did not have the access and opportunity" of teens from wealthier communities, even when they had significantly lower test scores.
Dismayed by rising attrition rates at IMSA, particularly among students "from under-resourced communities, minority students from rural communities who just didn't have the background they needed," McGee instituted a mandatory program of Wednesday and Saturday tutorials to support students.
"Part of it was educating the teachers," he said. "Many of the faculty members had expectations that basically all the students should be able to do it and those that couldn't had a deficit. My point was that these kids have enormous assets to get from these communities into IMSA, and you have to build on these strengths.
"Some of the things I found over time is it does take more time. It takes after-school programs, for example. It takes supplemental services and support. Part of it is parents and families. How do you support a situation where somebody's working two jobs? How can you help a family support a student? I've done that."
McGee stressed the importance of early intervention for at-risk students, noting that in one of his previous jobs, he opened a preschool program to head off anticipated problems.
"That did not meet with unanimous community support at the time because we were taking over three classrooms and we had to make classes bigger at that school, but it's been enormously successful," he said.
"If students read, and read well, by third grade, a lot of the problems later are solved. The early intervention pays for itself many, many times over."
During his trip this week, McGee also planned to size up Palo Alto real estate.
"If I can afford it, I will find a place here," he said, noting that the $1 million interest-free loan in his contract with the school district could be helpful. "I think it's important to live in the district to see the consequences of your decisions for taxpayers."
He said he's already experienced "sticker shock" doing online searches for local housing.
McGee said he will return to Palo Alto ahead of his Aug. 1 start date to meet with principals on July 27.