Faced with rising enrollment and plans for new curricula, schools in Palo Alto are poised to change. At the helm will be the district's Board of Education -- itself slated for transformation in November's election.
Six candidates, all new to the board except incumbent President Camille Townsend, are vying for three of five spots.
The candidates -- Melissa Baten Caswell, Claude Ezran, Wynn Hausser, Barbara Klausner, Pingyu Liu and Camille Townsend -- offer a spectrum of backgrounds. Townsend and Baten Caswell left careers as a lawyer and corporate officer, respectively, to focus exclusively on schools. Klausner also left behind law offices to teach in Palo Alto for nearly a decade until last spring.
Meanwhile, tech executive Ezran has spent 25 years in Silicon Valley companies; he insists the ability to serve in public office while holding a job is essentially democratic. Hausser, whose background is in marketing and communications, is used to campaigns of a different sort through his work at Public Advocates, a social-justice nonprofit.
The diverse pool even includes a former scientist for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and current freelance writer, Pingyu Liu.
Yet the candidates are linked by personal stakes in the district's future -- all have students in the district except Townsend, whose children graduated, and Klausner, whose daughter is at private school.
If elected, candidates will face critical decisions in the coming year.
Figuring out where to put students is likely to dominate deliberations. The board is expected to draft a new Strategic Plan in the spring, and facilities discussions could revolve around whether to open a 13th elementary school or third high school.
The district currently leases several sites, including Cubberley Community Center, formerly a third high school, and the closed Garland Elementary School on North California Avenue, which is now the privately run Stratford School.
However, as more students arrive -- 235 new pupils were counted this year, about half the size of an elementary school -- the issue of instructional space is expected to become more pressing.
Changes in how and what students learn are also in the works. As many as 30 percent of high school students are currently underserved by the schools, representatives from the district's High School Task Force reported at a recent board meeting. The group will spend the year studying how to modify or add to current programming to help low-achieving students -- or even high-achieving students overburdened by stress.
Meanwhile, the possible addition of foreign-language instruction, an option under review by a second study group, could transform elementary education.
Representatives from both groups will report to the newly elected board and seek guidance throughout the year. The board will weigh findings and decide next steps in the spring.
Yet steering schools through upcoming changes may be no more daunting than navigating past troubles.
Last year's debate about creating a Mandarin-immersion program left the community frustrated with a school board that resolved the issue only after 20 separate meetings. Although initially voting against the language program, the board reversed the decision after Mandarin proponents announced plans to open a charter school that could take funds from public schools.
Many questioned the board's reversal, labeling it a "flip-flop." Critics said board members set a bad precedent in changing their decision.
The program is a reality now, set for an August 2008 start at Ohlone Elementary School -- yet the issue remains a bitter pill for some.
A major management crisis also called the board's governance into question and unfolded parallel to the language-program turmoil. District middle managers, including principals, wrote the board a letter citing a deep lack of trust between them and former Superintendent Mary Frances Callan. After the Weekly obtained and published the letter, community members questioned whether the board acted properly -- and quickly enough -- to address the issue with the superintendent.
The district brought in the consulting firm of Geoff Ball and Associates to examine what went wrong. The resulting Ball report led to the creation of new behavior rules for board members and the superintendent.
Meanwhile, Callan retired over the summer and was replaced by Superintendent Kevin Skelly, previously at the Poway school district in southern California.
The year is off to a good start and spirits are high, thanks to Skelly's positive demeanor and a feeling that last year's difficult issues are in the past, say board members and district employees. But even Skelly acknowledges the "honeymoon period" may wear off when it comes time to make tough decisions.
Looking ahead, the Weekly asked candidates to weigh in on the year's upcoming challenges.
How should the board address enrollment growth and the need for new facilities in the future?
Baten Caswell: We need to take a step back and [and see if there are options to use our facilities differently to accommodate more kids. ... Could we do afternoon and morning kindergarten for awhile to free up some space? [Could we do that with high schools? ... I don't believe we're ready for another comprehensive high school today, but we have to start planning for it in the future. ... We have the Garland site and that could be a release valve while we make some adjustments. ... We need to look at it in light of a strategic plan that's going to cover the district.
Ezran: A 13th elementary school and a third, non-comprehensive high school are definite possibilities, but I would first want to have a comprehensive plan before making such important incremental decisions. ... [We could have a high school for the 20 to 30 percent of our students who don't go to four-year colleges. A focus on drama or art would be possibilities. This could help slow enrollment growth at other high schools, and it would be a smaller high school, maybe half [of other high schools.
Hausser: I would start the re-opening of Garland because it's going to take some time. Probably as an elementary school, but not necessarily. ... We should look at the possibilities of expanding existing high schools rather than opening a third. Part of it is the sheer cost of a third high school ... and you reduce the programmatic options and richness. [We could clear out the portable village behind Gunn and put a two-story building there. ... A larger school means you could have a school-within-a-school, which keeps the intimacy of a smaller school while making best use of facilities.
Klausner: If you look at that roller-coaster ride we've been taking with student enrollment from the 1950s, it clearly goes up and then it goes down. ... It's important not to commit to too much too early. ... Several of our elementaries are at capacity ... [but we still need to stop and see what's going on at middle school and high schools. ... That will make it clear as to what time we should be recalling the lease on Garland. ... I don't think all the elementaries should be treated the same. The sites are different sizes. If one school feels like they're at capacity, it doesn't mean another school with the same number of students is that way.
Liu: This district experienced roller-coaster enrollment, and we have to remember the history, so I am not supporting building a new high school. I prefer to get some campus back from Cubberley or Garland to make a new high school to accommodate unpredictable increased enrollment. Or [it could be part of a special school. Some high schoolers, they don't want to go to a four-year college. This kind of a plan may serve the district better. A new campus with a mixed level of students.
Townsend: There's greater density at some schools versus others. We need to look at where the growth is and what grades the growth is at. ... In terms of facilities ... we need to upgrade our technology capabilities in the classroom for teacher support and administrative efficiency. ... I think there may be a need to look at that Garland site a little more closely. ... I also want to see what its impact on our entire budget is. ... We're looking forward in February to maybe vote on a June bond, and I think we need that more than ever to upgrade our facilities.
How should the district meet the needs of currently low-achieving students?
Baten Caswell: We need to take a look at all the programs in different schools and see which are working better ... and share the programs that are working well across the district. And we need a program that flows really well ...for example, if we have a kid who's having trouble reading, they won't transition successfully to middle school. ... We need to make sure that we don't have different expectations for different kids coming from different backgrounds.
Ezran: We could offer optional tutoring classes after school. It could be staffed by community volunteers and supervised by teachers. And we could offer that at critical junctures, for example the start of elementary school, or maybe also fifth grade before children transition to middle school, or the end of middle school before children transition to high school. I would do that on a voluntary basis.
Hausser: I'd like us to take a little more of a preventive approach than a sort of triage approach after the fact ... because often we find kids late through testing. ... I would encourage staff to do what I've already heard them start to do, which is to look at scores and have new data. ... There are systems some schools are doing more than others, and any kind of data collection we're doing around the achievement gap should not be optional.
Klausner: [We should look at our core program for gateway skills like reading and math and really work on consolidating what works best and bringing in new strategies if needed. ... [We should also coordinate our programs for low-achieving students [such as summer academy or homework clubs. ... I'm not sure how much coordination there is with after-school or out-of-school programs with what's going on in classroom, which seems like a shame to me.
Liu: Instead of setting a goal to minimize the gap I'd say that every student should show progress. My basic observation is the achievement gap exists forever. As long as we track every student [and they improve, then we did better. .... I talk to parents; they complain the district offers help to good-scoring students and low-scoring students, but what about the students in between? We need programs for middle students, too.
Townsend: Well, we have placed these past four years additional funds and attention onto various groups of low-achieving students. Some programs have been more successful than others, and the staff is re-evaluating whether the programs we have in place are the most effective possible. ... That's not something that the board deals with on a daily basis, and we defer to [Skelly's expertise on this.
What could be done to address student stress?
Baten Caswell: In high school, there's no reason every child has to go to every subject every day. We could go to block scheduling, where you have more of every subject each lesson but not every time. Kids have more time to absorb the information then and teachers can go into more depth. ... And our calendar could be looked at.... [to go to exams before winter break and give kids a chance to refresh. ... We could do more schools-within-schools to foster connections within the community, which we know reduces stress.
Ezran: In seventh grade, we should even out work distribution throughout the year, as opposed to starting with a very demanding schedule. In high school, we need to make sure that we even out the schedule of tests. Teachers are supposed to do that but they don't always. ... Parents can also add a lot to the stress of students, so parent education [would help -- maybe the PTA, for instance, can play a role to educate parents about the issues of stress. ... I think we need to take it very seriously.
Hausser: We need a comprehensive health program across the district. There's a council of parents looking at health with [Assistant Superintendent Scott Laurence now that we have state funding. It's called the School Health Council, and we should support their work and actually implement what they come up with. ... We need to look at sleep deprivation ... For at least some kids [we could offer a split day where the school day starts at 10 or 11 and then progresses further.
Klausner: We need to give students more information about the next step. ...There's so much focus from students and parents that there are these three or four [colleges you have to go to, but if you look at the actual numbers of students who go there, it's very few. ... Students also need more adult mentor figures. In Paly, they have advisory. Is there something like that at Gunn that can be enhanced? Or a separate island for ninth graders ... [to get specific support as they enter high school.
Liu: We have to evaluate total homework load for every student, because every teacher may say, "I only gave them 45 minutes of homework," but if six say that, this is more than three hours. I prefer to reduce homework load, especially if something is at the AP level or project-type homework. ... [Students are young; they need sleep. We have to take care of them. Especially for high school students at Paly and Gunn, we already know they've shown a suicide tendency [because of the high pressure on students.
Townsend: This past year the state gave the district money to create a health-and-wellness policy, and while we as a district have many groups to deal with student health ... [we could use state funding to coordinate these groups and have a uniform plan for health and wellness. ... We as parents need to help out and say to our children, "You're not getting enough sleep and you need to drop something from your schedule."
Which factors are most important in considering whether and how to bring foreign language to elementary schools?
Baten Caswell: Let's be really clear what the goals are -- familiarity ... or proficiency? ...We need to look at what our priorities are in terms of our core curriculum. ... We have a structure already to provide seventh-grade language [and the easiest thing might be to bring it down a year into sixth grade. ... In middle school kids have something called the wheel, where they get a taste of different classes like home economics. We don't have language in the wheel.
Ezran: What are the objectives? Is it going to be a mandatory program in the core curriculum, or is it optional? ... What is the demand for it? ... We need to get input from the community. ... I suggest we start in sixth grade [because then you are in control. If you start in first grade, you have a progression every year and if you stop, you are leaving children with a gap. If you start at sixth grade, then you can go at any pace you want to implement it.
Hausser: We need to really hear the community on this. ... What are we willing to do? Are we willing to extend the school day? Is there a way to incorporate it into what we're already doing? ... Exposure at a young age makes it easier to learn languages [but that's far different from becoming proficient. ... We're about to have a new strategic planning effort, and we need to roll that into this.
Klausner: I think the most important thing is to figure out what the community wants. I don't think this is an absolute requirement. ... Because of the costs that would be involved if we did a full-fledged proficiency program, I think it's really important that we check in with the community. ... If I were on the board, I'd suggest [the district study group come forward with ... a range of options, from a low-cost basic program to high-cost proficiency program.
Liu: I don't use the none-or-all attitude. If you cannot implement a comprehensive foreign-language education, you will not have nothing. ... I support this early foreign-language exposure. ... For low-level kids foreign-language exposure is enough. I don't ask that first- or second-graders are fluent.
Townsend: [There are two paths: one is of fluency and the other is of general understanding. I'd like to see how much [each costs us ... and the ease with which we can implement [them. ... On Wednesday students start at 8 a.m. and leave at 1 p.m. ... We'll have to look at the option of adding more instructional minutes. ... Another idea is online instruction, or could we have PE in another language? ... We'll look at all the models ... and see what might work for our district.
How would you avoid the bitter feelings generated in the school community last year, both by the Mandarin-immersion debate and the management crisis?
Baten Caswell: It's not enough for the superintendent to write his own review. The board needs to be actively soliciting feedback. ... If peer review was part of how everyone was reviewed through the system, we would catch problems quicker. ... And I believe we need to have some structures for making decisions like a clear strategic plan. ... Then decision-making is not emotional. You can say either this fits with your priorities or it doesn't, and it leaves personal aspects out.
Ezran: I would've talked directly to the employees. ... [The board brought in consultants to talk to them ... but a lot of these employees just wanted to be listened to. That would've helped diffuse a crisis. For Mandarin immersion or another contentious issue, I would've asked leaders from both groups to get together with the help of mediator ... and encouraged them to find common ground and make some compromises towards a solution. It's important to remember that in a school community people probably share 95 percent of objectives.
Hausser: You should have a system in place that, regardless of personalities, allows for that sort of feedback to happen. One component of it would be some kind of confidential feedback mechanism in multi-directions, between staff level and the superintendent, between parents and principals, so people can feel like they can raise issues without feeling retribution. ... Part of active listening is to repeat back what you've heard. I never heard [the objections to Mandarin immersion being address by people voting the other way.
Klausner: I think what we saw last year was a breakdown in information flow. ... The community comes forward and says, "I'm looking at this, and I don't understand why this costs 'X,'" [because the board sometimes referred to information on their own that the public hadn't seen. ... I do think under the new superintendent there seems to be a much different method. The Web site has been worked on, which I think is to increase the amount of info available to the public, which is great.
Liu: We need to set a direct e-mail system from the board to concerned parents. ... There's a new superintendent. I trust him and think he's honest, straightforward and gives very strong leadership. ... This is a very good starting point. ... [And the way I do research [is to collect more data, ask myself many questions, so if somebody asks, "What if this? What if that?" I'm prepared for all the questions.
Townsend: The board and superintendent formed new protocols for communication and ... [and there's great framework moving forward. ... The new protocols the board set for itself as well -- on time, on how long meetings should last -- [is modeling some behavior for the community to show we don't take an inordinate amount of time to make decisions as an entire board. ... The entire board is really pleased with how we're moving along.