PTA parents parse youth wellness data

'Developmental Assets' advice mirrors that in existing character education programs, they say

Stressed out Palo Alto parents may lack the attention span to absorb "one more thing" –- the implications of an emotional wellness survey taken by more than 4,000 local students.

But many "character education" and sports programs that already exist in Palo Alto dovetail with the goals outlined in the survey report, known as the Developmental Assets Initiative, a group of Palo Alto PTA parents said Wednesday.

About 20 parents -- mostly mothers -- attempted to tease out the relevant findings in the massive trove of Palo Alto student opinion. Wednesday's meeting also attracted three members of the Board of Education.

The Developmental Assets Survey was taken last fall by nearly all of Palo Alto's high school students, as well as by nearly all fifth- and seventh-graders. Hundreds of pages of results –- including school-by-school numbers –- were released in March.

On the positive side, Palo Alto students "feel a high degree of family support and love" and most do not engage in risky behavior, said Micaela Presti, the PTA executive vice-president for health and safety.

On the downside, most students don't feel valued by the community and rate their schools poorly in the category of "caring climate."

The survey, created by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute and given to millions of students across the country, measures how many of 40 "developmental assets" –- such as family support or a caring neighborhood –- a student possesses.

Kids with 20 or more assets are viewed as "adequate" or "thriving," while kids with fewer than 20 are considered "vulnerable" or "at risk."

In Palo Alto as elsewhere, kids tend to lose assets as they move into the teen years.

The percentage of "adequate" or "thriving" students in Palo Alto declines from 83 percent among fifth-graders to 68 percent among seventh-graders to 53 percent among high school students.

"Our goal is for every child in Palo Alto to have more than 20 assets and for everyone to become an asset builder," Presti said.

"Asset building" can be as simple as knowing the names of kids who live on your block and greeting them as they ride by on their bicycles, she said.

The PTA, along with the school district, the City Council and variety of community groups, adopted the Developmental Assets model amid concerns about teen well-being following a student "suicide cluster" that began two years ago.

Presti noted that the Palo Alto data on suicide attempts, gleaned from the survey, mirrors national statistics on the percentage of teens who say they have attempted suicide.

"We're concerned about (suicide) as a community because we had a cluster, but our numbers are really no different than the national numbers -- that's just one thing to keep in mind," she said.

As results of the student survey filter out into the community, different schools and community groups are using them in different ways, Presti said.

Some campuses, including Palo Alto High School, JLS Middle School and Palo Verde Elementary School, have hosted meetings to analyze school-specific results with parents.

However, another mother noted, "If you ask most parents about the Developmental Assets, they have no idea what you're talking about."

Other parents said many existing school and youth sports programs, including the character education programs Steps to Respect and Six Seconds as well as the Positive Coaching Alliance, are perfectly aligned with the goals of the Developmental Assets Initiative.

"We should articulate what we're already doing and frame it within the Developmental Assets," parent Sigrid Pinsky said.

"That will launch a conversation and make people feel great because there's so much under way already in our schools -- it just looks different at every school."

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Posted by Marielena G-M
a resident of Midtown
on May 19, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Shocking to hear this but not surprised:

On the downside, most students don't feel valued by the community and rate their schools poorly in the category of "caring climate."
Luckily SainT Marks Advocacy Group/Pia and the Daubers started to work on improving connection before the results went out. Let's hope the district works diligently on improving the climate.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on May 20, 2011 at 12:24 am

The data is really hard to use in its current state (dozens of PDFs). It would be much easier toutilize sensibly and to analyze if it was in electronic form in a database. We have requested the data in electronic form as a California Public Record. It is no wonder Chris thought parents might not have the "attention span" for this in its current form. Who analyzes data based on paper pdfs when there are dozens or even hundreds of items and variables. Urgh.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 20, 2011 at 9:30 am

Michele - I suspect that the dozens of PDFs are deliberate, much easier to bury negative info in a complicated document. Thank you for efforts for our students.

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Posted by Kathy Sharp
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 20, 2011 at 11:08 am

We should articulate what we're already doing and frame it within the Developmental Assets," parent Sigrid Pinsky said.

"That will launch a conversation and make people feel great because there's so much under way already in our schools -- it just looks different at every school."

I see the opportunity to not only celebrate the successes already in place in our schools but to planfully implement these across the district. A program aimed at helping students make connections, such as the Paly Advisory program, rated highly by both parents and students, can and should be implemented at Gunn. Site based administration has prevented best practices from being effectively evaluated and implemented in a uniform manner so as to provide equitable services to all youth in the district. Different may not mean better - it may be separate and unequal. We Can Do Better Palo Alto urges the PAUSD Board to affirm the implementation of Advisory at Gunn based on the data provided by WASC which points to the large disparity of satisfaction levels with counseling services between the two campuses. For more information about the WASC findings see the Counseling Gap Fact sheet by joining the We Can Do Better Palo Alto group on Facebook.

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Posted by Becky Sanders
a resident of Ventura
on May 20, 2011 at 11:09 am

Once again Chris you are there for us! Thanks Palo Alto Online for keeping on top of this important topic. Yeah the stats are startling to sift through and that's great Michele that you are getting the data direct.

I want to invite folks to support the 2nd annual Palo Alto YOUTH FORUM tomorrow at Cubberley! Here is a link for high school kids to sign up to participate.

Web Link

It's a great chance for kids to come together, do some workshops on topics they asked for and tell the adults of this city what they want. Registration is at 1:30. Event kicks in at 2 with a keynote from amazing LaDoris Cordell and then the kids workshop and create solutions and there's a bbq at 6 and a performance in the Theatre that runs from 7:30-9. Everything is free... due to the generous support of some amazing donors with the city kicking in a chunk of change to make this happen.

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Posted by Barbara Slone
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 20, 2011 at 11:09 am

Michele: Thanks for your past diligence in presenting information to our school community in a way that is easily digested. As a concerned parent group we can continue to move this community forward with action steps. One of those steps is implementation of the districts own P-8 of Project Safety Net. For those who would like to get involved, please check out "We Can Do Better Palo Alto" (facebook group) and join us in moving the district forward. I really appreciate the way "We Can Do Better" is working with the whole community towards positive change for our kids. After all, we are all interested in providing a safe place for our children to learn. There should be no issues with the status quo being maintained if only our community could imagine the gains our kids could realize by change (without, of course, sacrificing quality education). I am glad that some members of the board attended the meeting. Please let's move forward and forget the animosity that has been generated by so many parents resistant to change! We Can Do Better Palo Alto!

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Posted by Respect Must Be Earned
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2011 at 11:57 am

> most students don't feel valued by the community ..

Let's see .. the community is spending about $16,000 per student to pay for their gold-plated education. The community has voted a number of parcel taxes, and a whooping $750M (cost to retire the bonds) to pay to create state-of-the-art facilities for their education.

In the past, kids used to work in the community in after school jobs. They bagged groceries, they delivered the paper, they worked in the drug stores, the cut grass, they trimmed hedges, they walked old folks here and there, to keep them company. But here in Palo Alto, PAUSD students don't do any of these things, at least not in any large numbers.

So .. what is the community supposed to think of children? We don't expect them to help pull their weight, as children did in previous generations. We don't expect them to go into the military to protect the community, or the company. We don't expect much of them, because they don't seem to want to give back in proportion to what the community is giving them, and because the intensity of the "education process" takes so much of their time that they probably are not able to "give back", and hence, earn the respect of the community beyond that of "student".

So who is supposed to teach these children that fact of life?

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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Interesting survey results that are consistent with the many other surveys that have been done.

PDF format or not, students do not feel valued or listened to by the community. And yet, you see that PAUSD students across all ages are very involved in youth programs/extracurricular activities ... much higher than across Santa Clara County. (Consider the time commitment outside of school.)

If you look at the results (and the corresponding questions to each "asset"), you will find also that homework at the high school level is strikingly high... and reading for pleasure is strikingly low. This stands out very clearly among assets that pertain to the school community.

No wonder the plea for a "real" break - studious and active kids with little time to breath.

What has been done to address this? The homework-free break policy didn't really work (survey results said average homework over break was ~4 hrs over 2+ weeks).

So, the calendar shift is supposed to enforce a homework free break... enforce a "real" rest.

Consider, however, that teachers still have a curriculum which must be covered to meet standards. PAUSD has an academic reputation to uphold... they always say people move here for the schools. With the compressed calendar, are they going to move curriculum to be taught in earlier years in order to alleviate stress in Juniors and Seniors? Will college essays move to Junior or even Sophomore years? Assign more summer reading?

It's rather ironic that just after state legislation was passed to raise the age when kids can enroll in Kindergarten (initiated by several PAUSD Kindergarten teachers), we may find teachers need to push down the curriculum to make sure winter break is truly a chance to hibernate.

Like this comment
Posted by Ellen
a resident of Green Acres
on May 20, 2011 at 12:21 pm

As I was reading this, I thought to myself - hmmmm, I wonder if my daughter took the survey and I wonder if she possessed 20 or more of the assets that would make her "thriving" or "adequate" or "at risk". I then wondered, why wouldn't this test be administered to all students as diligently as STAR testing with results sent home to parents. Quite honestly, I'd be much more interested to know where my daughter is on acquiring crucial life skills than to know how smart she is in science or math.
It is now commonly proven (see harvard business review) that Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a stronger determinant of success in all areas than is IQ. Six Seconds (mentioned in this article) has a strong educationally focused track for teaching EQ at all age levels. It would seem that by looking at behavior (standardized STAR testing with results sent home vs. optional assets survey with no direct communication of results), our school district is still putting IQ ahead of EQ. I applaud and appreciate the efforts being done on many fronts, and hope for the day when the school district will TRULY embrace SEL (social and emotional learning) from the ground up by implementing models like Six Seconds teaches.

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Posted by Jon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm

The survey is interesting but does not in my view support some of the more extreme statements, eg that the availability of optional AP courses at Gunn and Paly causes psychic harm to our children. The thing that causes psychic harm is when parents (and the community) focus on narrow definitions of success and push them on to their kids. Some kids benefit from AP courses some do not. We should be equally supportive to both....

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Some of the questions in the survey seem too abstract to solicit a meaningful response, and we can't read too much into the responses to such questions. For example, what does it mean by "community values youth"? Even as an adult, I don't really know what that means. If I don't know what the question means, I'll more likely put down "no" as an answer. I think that probably goes with the kids as well. No wonder only a low percentage (34%, 40%, and 22% for elementary, middle, and high school, respectively) of students in the survey found that the community values them.

What's more revealing are the fact-based questions, e.g., risky behavior. I find it shocking that 6% of middle school students reported to have attempted suicide. That figure is only slightly lower than the one from the high school students (8%).

Also, both Gunn and Paly have the same percentage of students reporting attempted suicide (8%) or depression/suicide (17%). This appears to indicate that the risk for suicide in those two high schools may be quite similar, contrary to the perception formed in the wake of the recent suicide cluster at Gunn.

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Posted by E-IQ?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 20, 2011 at 5:41 pm

@Ellen - I did a little digging on E-IQ, since I found your statement interesting that it is more important for success than IQ (which only so-so related to anything - "grit" I believe is the magic characteristic right now). The wikipedia article was mixed at best (see below). I'm not sure I'm ready to change the curriculum to chase that particular fad, though the idea giving kids tools and skills for controlling their emotions and those of others seems like a good thing. An after-school program perhaps?


Mayer (1999) cautions "the popular literature's implication—that highly emotionally intelligent people possess an unqualified advantage in life—appears overly enthusiastic at present and unsubstantiated by reasonable scientific standards."

Research of EI and job performance shows mixed results: a positive relation has been found in some of the studies, in others there was no relation or an inconsistent one.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 20, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Whether EQ or IQ win out, people skills, leadership skills and the ability to work with others matter a great deal in the work place - yet are undervalued in our schools.

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Posted by E-IQ?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 20, 2011 at 5:58 pm

@palo alto mom - How do you figure "undervalued"? My kid has four group projects going right now, plus team sports and extracurriculars, which of course have meaningful impact on college prospects (as well as life in general). Plus, school is the ONLY place you can learn biology, algebra, etc. - you can learn people and leadership skills in all sorts of settings. So you'd expect them to put more emphasis on their unique mission.

Seems like it is appropriately valued to me. They don't hand out letter grades, but there is plenty of attention to leadership and group activities at schools.

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Posted by I beg to differ
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Kathy Sharp,

Not sure where you are getting your information from but it doesn't track what the district's Strategic Plan survey shows. Check out the 2008 survey results where, years before the brouhaha raised by We Can Do Better started, the district concluded that "opinions of counseling services do not differ significantly by high school." In fact, Gunn students gave their system higher ratings than Paly students did (parents went the other way).

Look at page 17 - Web Link


You said: "You will find also that homework at the high school level is strikingly high." I guess it depends where you are coming from. Over half of our high school students have 2 hours or less homework on a school day. The rule of thumb is 10 minutes per grade (12th grade x 10 minutes = 2 hours/night) so that actually sounds like the right amount to me and is surprisingly low given all the screaming about homework on this forum.

You must have stayed up late the night the board voted the new calendar in because you mention Dr. Skelly's comment that kids only worked 4 hours total on average during the two week winter break. Again, I guess people can differ on whether that is too much - but most would say that that number is surprisingly low and all would likely refute your claim that 4 hours of work over 16 days gives "studious and active kids" "little time to breath."

Like this comment
Posted by I beg to leave us alone
a resident of Midtown
on May 20, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Please I beg to leave Paly and Gunn alone.

Like this comment
Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on May 21, 2011 at 9:27 am

@"I beg to differ"

Your tone is extremely condescending toward Kathy, which is kind of annoying given that you are wrong.

The document you are citing is a draft. It states very clearly on page 5 that it is "preliminary." It does not include all the respondents, and more analysis had to be completed. This is a draft, and the graph you are citing was not used in the final version. That is likely because the claim it makes that there is no satisfaction gap did not actually turn out to be accurate on further analysis.

The final version of the Strategic Plan survey shows that the number of parents and students at Gunn indicating that they are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with counseling differs radically from that at Paly.

Parents and students at Gunn indicated in 2008 (parents and students) and in the 2010 update (parents only, students not surveyed) that they are approximately twice as dissatisfied with every aspect of counseling including availability, college counseling, psychological counseling, and so forth. Both the amount and intensity of unhappiness among Gunn parents and students with the counseling program is 100% more (double) than that among comparable parents and students at Paly.

This shouldn't have surprised anyone, given that the WASC reviews have repeatedly found the same thing.

Here is a link to a slideshow that summarizes the final data and includes data from the 2010 strategic plan survey and the WASC reviews as well:

Web Link

I think the main point, on which no one can intelligently differ, is that Gunn offers a 360:1 student/counselor ratio, and at Paly the ratio is 75:1. At Gunn, students see their counselor once per year until senior year, when they get more attention during the college process. At Paly, students meet in small groups of 25 with their teacher-advisor nearly every week during freshman year, and then around 10 times per year for sophomore, junior and senior year. I don't care how good your counseling staff is, at 360:1, they aren't going to be able to see your child or deliver the kind of connectedness Paly does. It is not a serious matter of debate.

The question is what to do about the fact that we have levels of dissatisfaction with counseling at Gunn that are so much higher than those at Paly? I think we should implement advisory at Gunn. Academic research strongly supports advisory as a superior model for connectedness. We have a suicide and depression epidemic at Gunn, and connectedness is a district focused goal on which little if any progress has been made.

Maybe you think we should hire more counselors. Even under the best scenario of hiring counselors I doubt we could get beyond 200:1 which is still way more than the 75:1 they are getting across town.

But whatever solution you like better, our current course of pretending that students at Gunn and Paly are getting equivalent opportunities is not tenable. It just isn't true. We shouldn't be distributing connectedness and services by zip code. Parents, look at the data and decide for yourselves whether you think it is fair that you are paying the same tax dollars but getting worse services for them.

We need to make reforms that are sensible and data-driven rather than emotionally driven. Being snarky to Kathy or to me will not change the facts.

In 2008, 63% of Gunn parents compared with 39% of Paly parents indicated that improving counseling should be a top district priority. That fact alone should make you realize that Gunn counseling has issues that need to be addressed. It should be noted that Gunn parents were calling for this improvement before the suicide cluster began. Had that improvement been made, perhaps we would have had boots on the ground when we needed them.

Hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, but sometimes in Palo Alto even hindsight is myopic.

This is no time to stick your head in the sand. The data says what it says, and it says that there is a problem at Gunn. That doesn't mean that the counselors at Gunn are bad workers or that they don't care. On the contrary, we are asking them to fight a raging forest fire with a squirt gun. As a community we need to step up to the plate and give them the resources to do the job that they have over at Paly and at other schools that have a faculty advisory system.

We Can Do Better.

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Posted by I beg to leave us alone
a resident of Midtown
on May 21, 2011 at 10:14 am

I am very clear who is helping,who is not.

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Posted by don't think so
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 21, 2011 at 2:59 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on May 21, 2011 at 5:17 pm

"We have a suicide and depression epidemic at Gunn"

@Michelle - that seems like inflammatory hyperbole to me, since it appears to blame to school, which is very wrong in my opinion. I believe the numbers who the kids at Gunn and Paly are about the same as each other and the same as kids around the nation. We had a suicide cluster at Gunn, a tragic event yes, but one that happens at schools all over the world. As you know, one of the four suicides was a child who had attended only orientation at Gunn - underscoring that the suicides are more about mental illness, not about the school.

Paly had its own cluster in 2003, when two children died, both on the tracks. Should we focus on changing Paly?

I'm sure there are ways to improve our schools and the lives of our children, but those inflammatory statements and innuendo divide the community and drive people away from listening or working with you and your group. I get that you feel a sense of urgency and want to share it, but I wish you would stop using suicides as a reason to change things like college counseling!

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Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 21, 2011 at 5:42 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

We have no idea what caused the individuals to commit suicide. Until or unless we have evidence to link school pressures to suicide then bringing the suicides into the conversation about school stress is moot.

We haven't experienced Gunn counselling, but we have experienced Paly counselling and it varies considerably.

The biggest sources of stress in our home are not pre-break finals, or counselling, but homework. It is not necessarily the homework load either, but the type of homework. The amount of time may vary due to required reading, or length of papers, but at least it can be scheduled to suit the individual student. Coordinating with a group for a project is downright stressful - not only for the kids but also for the families.

My family has spent time waiting for a sport project partner to finish the sport event and we get a phone call and everything has to stop to get the students together. Whether it is dinner time, or late in the evening, or inconvenient for parents to drop everything to drive someone somewhere, we are expected to kowtow to those group projects.

We have also had cooking and artwork homework assignments which not only require a ridiculous amount of time and energy with little educational value, but also necessitate being driven to school as they cannot be transported by bicycle or even taken to school the afternoon before.

I would appreciate the emphasis to be taken away from the Gunn/Paly counselling comparison, which may only be useful for Gunn (and that could be questionable) and turn to the homework situation which is similar for both schools.

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Posted by everything
a resident of Community Center
on May 21, 2011 at 8:08 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on May 21, 2011 at 8:33 pm

It is not blaming Gunn to acknowledge that we have had an epidemic at Gunn. It is appropriate to look at the school in a focused to way to ensure that we are doing everything we can to get the resources we need to prevent other tragedies. It would be foolish in the midst of an epidemic not to look for changes that can be made at Gunn that would increase connectedness.

That is what Project Safety Net did. That is why connectedness is a district focused goal. That is why Project Safety Net includes Item P-8, Supportive School Environment, and that is why the first item on P-8's Next Steps is "advisory."

PAUSD also (in response to pressure from the community) made connectedness a focused goal for 2010-11. Experts agree that the primary mechanism for increasing connectedness is advisory.

This is not about "college counseling." It is about guidance counseling. They are different. Paly has a guidance system that is designed to improve student connectedness and Gunn does not. It is not me, or We Can Do Better, that says that advisory is a step that will prevent suicides, it is Project Safety Net (and all academic experts as well).

Absolutely yes we should also focus on changing Paly. TA can be improved as well. But there is an urgent need at Gunn, because the contagion continues. Because a suicide contagion is ongoing, children continue to be vulnerable to that contagion. This has been said many times by many professionals in our community. Increasing connectedness is an urgent matter, it is extremely important now while we are in this contagion, and we should implement those things that will work to increase it.

Homework (amount and purpose) is also in P-8. I agree that this is an important topic and deserves serious attention. We have been making this argument and will continue to do so. We had a presentation on district data on homework at the last We Can Do Better meeting. You can see the presentation here:

Web Link

This is not a time to reflexively defend the schools. It is a time for intense analysis of what we are doing that can be improved, facing it squarely, and urging our leaders to step up and get it done.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 22, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Thank you Paly Parent for your comment regarding group projects! Just the mention of a group project sends the stress levels in our family soaring. Even if we carefully orchestrate our PDF time (Pope-lingo for play time, downtime, family time) around the two activities each child has, it's a major scheduling challenge for us as a family. Add one or several other families to the equation and it becomes impossible to make it happen. Group projects that are expected to be completed outside of school hours are just not worth it.

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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on May 22, 2011 at 7:54 pm

It is not the right time to reflexively attack the schools either. The Daubers fired the first shot calling for the Superintendent to be changed. That's not "looking at the schools in a focused way" - that's ready, fire, aim.

To say "we have a suicide and depression epidemic at Gunn" is wrong and alarmist I think. We have a suicide cluster (or had - hopefully it is done). You imply that the school is to blame and focus on making changes that the district has declined to do, at least with the urgency you think appropriate.

Unfortunately, there are many parents in Palo Alto (as well as other communities) who think they know best what the schools should do, on just about every topic. This usually leads to rancor, headaches for the school, and sometimes just bad decisions.

By all means analyze data, make suggestions, and get involved. Join the site council. Volunteer on the PTA. Talk to Board members, principals, district personnel about your ideas and concerns. That is all good citizenship in my view. But when you organize the public to push for particular programs or actions, I don't support that - just as I didn't support people organizing to support pushing for Mandarin immersion, Singapore math, etc. We elect a school board to hire a staff and work with them to run the schools. If we don't like them, we can run a campaign to change them (as perhaps you will). But groups organized to push their own agenda on the Board and staff is divisive and generally unhelpful.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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