Around a table littered with napkins, stacks of documents, car keys and carafes of iced tea, Palo Alto Board of Education members Monday grappled with challenges of the upcoming school year.
Two questions dominated the day, reflecting the razor's edge balance in the district:
What specific things can schools do to support the social-emotional health of students?
How can schools boost college readiness among low-achieving students while helping top students realize their Stanford and Ivy League dreams?
Both questions are set in a context of a district spanning 19 campuses with nearly 12,000 students from kindergarten through high school.
The setting was the board's annual two-day retreat, held this year, as it was last year, in donated space at the University Club of Palo Alto.
But there was no swimming or tennis. Except for restroom breaks, board members never left a small conference room where sandwiches and cookies were delivered to fuel the conversation.
The retreat offers board members and Superintendent Kevin Skelly a chance to step back from daily distractions to hammer out broad, long-term goals and priorities.
Ways to bolster the social-emotional health of students dominated the day's discussion, though there was little direct mention of the four student suicides in 2009 that catapulted that issue to community-wide -- even national -- attention.
Board members sought to define a policy to assure emotional health is addressed on every campus while giving principals' leeway to tailor specific approaches to the needs of their particular school.
"I don't want to be prescriptive about specific tactics, but I would like all the schools involved," board member Barb Mitchell said.
"I want it to be a limited number of initiatives ... that are manageable and realistic."
Mitchell expressed concern that the lengthy to-do list in last month's report of the community-wide coalition Project Safety Net is not realistic.
"We need to communicate a much narrower set of expectations than we have right now," she said. "We have to communicate what we're taking on from (Project Safety Net)."
"I think this community is so much on the same page, and we're just struggling over different documents and language."
Board member Camille Townsend said she welcomed the involvement of the city, non-profit agencies and religious groups in the broad question of teen well-being.
The vast majority of parents – 80 percent, according to surveys – think their own children are "doing fine," she said.
"I want to have a balanced statement that recognizes that," she said. "On the other hand, there are kids in particular distress and those are the ones you want to work on this year."
Last year the board spent great effort on the "tip of the pyramid with kids who are especially at risk," board chair Barbara Klausner said.
In the academic arena, board members also said they want to help vulnerable students while not neglecting the top achievers.
"It's similar to what we say about social-emotional health," board member Dana Tom said.
"We're interested in helping the kids who are at risk, but we want to help all kids.
"Are we doing enough for our middle and higher-end students so they have strong advocates to help them get into the stronger colleges?
"Our schools are so strong. If they're subject to any kinds of quotas, or some kind of cap (on admission to top colleges) ... that's not a fair thing.
"Is there some kind of advocacy we need to be doing with colleges?"
Board members expressed concern that repeated survey results show many elementary parents feel their children are not sufficiently challenged in math.
Another complaint often heard from parents is that their child has been identified as "gifted," but has not been given extra challenges, members said.
Several members noted an increasing number of district children are taking some "high-end" classes out of the district at private institutions such as Lydian Academy, the School for Independent Learners and St. Francis High School.
Members urged greater attention to "relationship-building" between the district's counseling staff and admissions officials at top colleges.
"What do our counselors do to develop relationships at schools our community cares about?" board member Melissa Baten Caswell asked.