Palo Alto schools Superintendent Kevin Skelly Monday night apologized to about three dozen mostly minority parents for his skeptical statements about closing the achievement gap between Latino and African-American and white and Asian students.
"I think I owe our community an apology," Skelly said. "Some people could interpret my comments as giving up on kids. … I wish I had chosen my words more carefully."
Skelly earlier said it isn't possible to expect that average children who come to the United States without speaking English and whose parents have little formal education to match achievement levels of youngsters whose mothers have advanced degrees in English and can afford to stay home and supplement their children's educations.
Some parents were upset that Skelly said schools cannot overcome the influence of the community and home life in improving student learning. Some were also upset that Skelly did not know why the achievement gap had widened for African-American and Latino students in the district.
After apologizing, Skelly discussed ways to address the achievement gap. Currently, African-American and Latino minority students in the district fall about 100 points behind white and Asian students according to the California Department of Education's academic-performance index.
"What we need to talk about is our children that come into school with high expectations, but by high school they're not there," Marvina White, a member of the Parent Network for Students of Color, said.
"It feels like there is no energy being put into finding out what is happening, which to me feels like an emergency."
White suggested that the district assign a staff member to focus on finding ways to improve the achievement gap for minorities, a recommendation Skelly said he would take into account.
White also recommended that the district take a systematic approach to eliminating the achievement gap.
"It's important to access the data in terms of race and ethnicity, otherwise there's no way to figure out the problems," she said. "It does have to do with race. If you don't see it that way then you can't solve the problem."
Palo Alto parent Lisa Daniels said parents and teachers need to take an individualized approach to improving education for minority students. "My son is the only black kid in the classroom," Daniels said.
"Self esteem is probably the biggest thing we need to work on for our children."
Nearly half the parents in the room nodded in agreement.
"I have to make sure that my child's self esteem is high," Daniels continued. "Our gap is that children need to be encouraged."
Skelly said student success depends on a myriad of factors. "To me the right metric is talking about getting kids ready for colleges," he said. "It's a universal metric."
Skelly said the district should look at its students' college readiness to measure academic improvement.
"I think we need to survey the kids and see what they're thinking," parent Michelle Kasper said.