Principals discuss teaching 'kid by kid'

In annual review, elementary school heads discuss trends, goals

A Palo Alto school principal has suggested that teachers "explode" the traditional parent-teacher conference in an effort to achieve more candid conversations with parents about how their children are really doing.

The comments, by Hoover Elementary School Principal Susanne Scott, came in a Tuesday gathering in which Palo Alto's 12 elementary school principals updated the Board of Education on trends at their schools.

The principals gave formal presentations about their use of data to customize math and literacy instruction for each child and discussed how the district's increased attention to student social-emotional health has affected their schools.

Scott's impassioned comments came toward the end of the three-hour discussion, in response to a parent's questioning of whether schools are keeping parents sufficiently informed when their child is in danger of failing.

"I'm often really surprised at how little parents seem to appreciate whether their kids are potentially part of this (failing) group," the parent, Sara Woodham, said.

"To what extent are these assessments, and what you are doing, fed back to parents so they understand what they need to do now, what the school is doing, how they feed into it and what the potential impacts are going forward?"

Woodham said that even if some of the parents themselves did not achieve high levels of education, "their level of education doesn't have to be what their children achieve -- the kids have the potential to achieve way beyond (their parents)."

In response, Scott suggested dispensing with old forms to engage parents in more meaningful discussions about their children.

"If we do not have open conversations with our No. 1 client base -- our parents and children -- it really doesn't matter what we say around this table, or all the piles of data we have," Scott said.

Teachers need to dispense with "ritual engagement" and "have hard conversations with parents in a very respectful way, without blame but with candor, because we are keeping from our parents what cannot be kept from parents."

Woodham's and Scott's comments followed presentations by principals on methods they use to track individual student performance and to tailor instruction both for low- and high-achieving children.

Principals collaborate regularly with teachers to perform "kid-by-kid" analyses of individual achievement, they said. Every child in the school district has a red "literacy folder" -- containing standardized test results and writing samples that go back to first grade -- that gets passed from teacher to teacher.

Sobered by discouraging statistics published in June about a persistent racial achievement gap in Palo Alto schools, several principals spoke of a new, more pro-active approach to remedial education.

Data-driven strategies also are enabling schools to provide enrichment to students on the high-achieving end, they said.

"We're moving away from the idea of sending kids (out of the classroom) to the 'fix it' shop," Escondido School Principal Gary Prehn said.

Instead, Palo Verde Principal Anne Brown said, schools are looking for ways to "help (potentially struggling students) before they fail to achieve, to prevent them from going into special education."

The new approach means changing how reading specialists and resource teachers provide services, more often bringing them into the classroom to offer support rather than sending children across campus to them, Addison School Principal Jocelyn Garcia-Thorne said.

"The resource specialists have a dual role -- coaching and support (of classroom teachers) and also direct service to students," Garcia-Thorne said.

"They help teachers be better teachers but also are specialists in the needs our ESL (English as a Second Language) or LD (learning disabled) kids have."

The June report on the achievement gap indicated that 41 percent of all African-American students and nearly 25 percent of all Hispanic students in Palo Alto are enrolled in special education, compared to a district-wide average of 10 percent.

African-American and Hispanic students enroll in fewer high-level classes and perform significantly worse than their Caucasian and Asian peers on standardized tests, according to the report, which was prepared by school district officials.

In their child-by-child assessments, principals said they are paying close attention to social and emotional factors that influence a student's readiness to learn.

"I'm looking to see if the teacher understands each student and how they've developed a relationship with that child," Walter Hays Principal Mary Bussmann said.

"The data is academic, but we cannot leave out the social-emotional side.

"I'm really looking at how the teacher is talking to me about their relationship with a child and whether they know that child inherently."

Nixon Principal Mary Pat O'Connell referred to "the interplay between the science and art of teaching that makes for excellent instruction.

"One of the dilemmas we have as a nation is a tendency to oversimplify complex things," O'Connell said.

"We tend to reduce things down to the most easily measurable items, which are not necessarily the most valuable.

"I appreciate that within this district we do not oversimplify. We accept that what we're trying to do is complicated," O'Connell said.

Garcia-Thorne of Addison, who joined the district as a new principal in August, said she was amazed by the levels of support, collaboration and resources here.

"If there were a heavenly school district, I've died and gone to it," she said.

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Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 3, 2010 at 11:17 am

Suzanne Scott is on target. We need to pass some of this new awareness to our Young 5's and district preschool programs as well.

Like this comment
Posted by Becky Sanders
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 3, 2010 at 11:40 am

Kids will "perform" to the best of their abilities if they are emotionally invested. The way to get them to emotionally invest is for them to know that the teachers and staff are emotionally invested in them. That means that not only teachers but staff must strive to know each child's name and that teachers really be given the support they need to understand as best they can each child in their charge. The secret is to build that crucial mentor-student relationship where a child will know that he/she is cared about and that their culture is not only understood but accepted and honored. And when the teachers and staff demonstrate that level of caring, that teaches all of the kids how to treat and value one another. I will get down off my high horse now.

Like this comment
Posted by mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 5, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Our elementary school claimed that kid-by-kid discussions happened twice a year every school year. I believed this until I found out that the discussion was scheduled for 45 minutes per class. In a class with about 20 kids and several with significant behavioral problems, it was clear to me that normal kids were discussed for 30 seconds, if at all.

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