District looks to build schools, shrink achievement gap
Election year brings physical changes to campuses
Plans to open new schools in Palo Alto and to raise the bar on graduation requirements highlighted local education news in 2012, which was an election year.
Results of the competitive school board race in November suggested general satisfaction with Palo Alto's current education leadership. On the student level, surveys of Palo Alto youth reflected a measure of improvement in social-emotional health, possibly attributable to a range of student-wellness programs that have been launched since a devastating string of student deaths by suicide in 2009 and 2010.
Even so, a debate over guidance counseling — specifically the considerably different counseling models used at Palo Alto's two high schools — continued to simmer.
The counseling controversy, and a hotly contested change to Palo Alto's academic calendar this year, were among the most discussed issues in the school board election.
The sharpest critic among the candidates, Ken Dauber, argued that Gunn High School should immediately adopt what he considers the superior model used at Palo Alto High School, which enlists more than 40 "teacher-advisers" to augment a small counseling staff.
The other three candidates said they were willing to allow time for an internal Gunn committee to recommend reforms to the school's traditional counseling system — which does not use teacher-advisers — so long as students at both high schools get "comparable services."
Voters returned two incumbents — Melissa Baten Caswell and Camille Townsend — to office and also elected newcomer Heidi Emberling. Dauber, the sharpest critic of the district, trailed in the field.
The new year could bring a resolution to the counseling controversy. An advisory committee comprising Gunn parents, teachers, students, counselors and administrators, is due to report in February on its recommendations for counseling reforms at the school, to be implemented starting next fall.
The school district has also turned to a community advisory committee to help settle the calendar dispute. The committee of parents, students and school staff will convene early in 2013 to devise surveys and other means to gauge opinion on whether the new calendar should be retained beyond 2013-14.
The past year saw Palo Alto's biggest school-building boom since the 1950s, as projects financed under the $378 million "Strong Schools" bond — approved by voters in 2008 — became visible across town.
Six campuses — including both of the high schools, all three middle schools and Fairmeadow Elementary School — opened the academic year with hardhat zones. At Duveneck Elementary School, portable classrooms were moved to make way for groundbreaking on a new, two-story classroom building in early 2013. A new, two-story classroom building at Ohlone Elementary School opened last year.
About half of the "Strong Schools" bond money has been spent or committed to projects under construction. The rest is in reserve, currently allocated to Gunn and Palo Alto high schools as well as to the opening of a new elementary school.
Palo Alto's steady enrollment growth has prompted a decisive move toward opening a 13th elementary campus — projected by fall 2017 — and also possibly a fourth middle school.
An advisory committee will convene Jan. 14 to evaluate two potential elementary sites — Garland at 780 N. California Ave. and Greendell at 4120 Middlefield Road — based on selection criteria specified by the Board of Education. The committee is expected to make recommendations by late March.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he would present options early next year on either opening a fourth middle school or expanding capacity at the existing middle school campuses.
The old Cubberley High School campus on Middlefield Road may play a part in those solutions, though that is far from certain.
The school district has indicated its preference for renewing the City of Palo Alto's $7 million-a-year lease of Cubberley for use as a community center and placing the 13th elementary school and fourth middle school elsewhere.
The district and city are working together on a plan for Cubberley's future, with a Community Advisory Committee on Cubberley due to report its recommendations early in the new year. The current Cubberley lease agreement between the district and the city expires in 2014.
In September, Palo Alto reported some progress in its long struggle to narrow the achievement gap, while admitting there's still a long way to go.
An analysis of California Standards (STAR) Test scores between 2008 and 2012 showed African-American and Hispanic students made significant gains.
"When we look at closing the achievement gap between the highest-performing and the lowest-performing (elementary and middle-school) students in English language arts, the percentage difference between Asian and African-American students in 2008 was 50.8 percent and last year it was 33.9 percent between the same groups," said Diana Wilmot, statistician for the Palo Alto school district.
She reported significant gains in both math and English for black and Hispanic students.
Superintendent Skelly said at the time, "We've made progress, but the gaps are still way too big."
In fact, an outside group graded Palo Alto as a "D" in its service to low-income and minority students in a report issued in March.
The Oakland-based Education Trust West, backed by funders including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said Palo Alto compares poorly with other large school districts on metrics such as "size of achievement gap" between white students and black and Hispanic students.
"I think we're doing the right work (in addressing the achievement gap) — we just have to execute," Skelly said at the time.
A new strategy to raise the bar for underachieving students was approved by the school board this year, with support from minority student and parent groups: starting with the graduating class of 2016, high school graduation requirements will be stiffened to match entrance criteria for California's public, four-year universities.
Students not wishing to complete the college-prep curriculum may negotiate "alternative graduation requirements" with their school.
The stiffer requirements will not affect the more than 80 percent of Palo Alto students who already meet them but are meant to raise expectations for students — disproportionately Hispanic and black — who currently graduate without the four-year college-prep coursework.
A host of efforts to boost student social-emotional health continued in 2012, some of them school-based and others through community nonprofit or religious organizations.
Some programs, such as Gunn's ROCK (Reach Out, Care and Know), which began as crisis responses to the suicides three years ago, have settled into more general wellness and peer-support activities.
Current Gunn senior Chandler Gardner joined ROCK in her freshman year and continues as a peer counselor.
ROCK, she said, "changed to fit the needs of Gunn as the years have passed, and happily we've had no more suicides.
"Now we're more of a community-building club and do what we can to support our community as a whole.
"High school can be a really tough place, and teens especially may not always want to talk to an adult. ROCK creates peers we can talk to. They're in high school too, and they know the test, the teachers and everything we're going through," Gardner said.
Student survey results showed that social-emotional indicators among Palo Alto students as a whole are improving. The information came through the California Healthy Kids Survey as well as the Palo Alto Reality Check Survey.
"Some of the measures that we as a community have been most focused on, like suicide ideation and student depression, are heading in the right direction," Skelly said Thursday, Dec. 20.
However, "the data also support the need for continued, concerted efforts across the (school district) community to address student health and wellness needs."
Toward the end of 2012, an improved financial outlook allowed school leaders for the first time to consider long-deferred investments.
Better-than-expected projections on property-tax revenue growth, as well as passage of California Proposition 30 in November, meant that as of Dec. 18, the school district's budgeted 2012-13 income, at $169.4 million, was $4.1 million above anticipated expenditures.
Earlier in the year, school board members had agreed on a priority list for any additional revenue that might become available. It reads: "eliminate structural deficit; address program needs; employee compensation; professional development and caution in making ongoing commitments."
In their last meeting before the holidays, all five school board members signaled their intent to vote in January in favor of a one-time bonus for teacher and staff equivalent to 1 percent of 2011-12 salary. The district remains in negotiations with employee unions concerning contract terms for 2012-13.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at email@example.com.