A close look at homework policies and high school counseling will be among the top priorities of the Palo Alto school district this fall.
In 12 hours of discussions over two days, Board of Education members this week hammered out a rough list of "focused goals" for 2011-12, which will be refined and voted on in September.
Much of the conversation was about fostering school climates in which students feel supported and parents think their kids are getting a fair shake.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he wants policies that "weave together" academic excellence and social-emotional support for students so that "when you're talking about one of those things, people don't think you're choosing."
The tentative list of goals pleased parents who have lobbied schools to explicitly address issues of academic stress -- and their possible link to a devastating cluster of teen suicides that began two years ago.
"I want to thank the board and the superintendent for ... taking steps to reduce academic stress and also for addressing counseling and connecteness," said parent Ken Dauber, a founder of the school lobbying group We Can Do Better Palo Alto.
"We don't have to balance social-emotional well-being and academic success, because our kids are most happy when they're successful at learning, and they're most successful at learning when they're happy," he said.
Dauber's group has pressed Gunn High School to scrap its traditional college-counseling system and adopt Palo Alto High School's "teacher advisor" system, which uses teachers to augment the counseling staff.
Neither Gunn nor the district has agreed to that -- but officials did promise to bring in an unbiased outsider to evaluate the two systems and "share best practices."
In the homework area, board members said they may adopt a specific "homework policy" as a nudge to drive change in practices.
"We'd have to form some sort of committee, get some PTA input and appoint some people," Skelly said.
"Pleasanton has been through this process, and I have their board-policy markup. We'll do it with the board values of transparency."
Skelly said the faculties at Paly and at JLS Middle School have already taken steps to examine homework policies.
Both Skelly and board members referred frequently to parent focus-group meetings held last month, in which randomly selected parents were invited to talk about their experiences with the schools.
Many parents raised concerns about inconsistency, in which a child's experience -- and level of preparation for the following year -- too often depended on the teacher he or she happened to have.
For high school students, differences in grading policies also were raised as a concern.
"It's not a good system if there's inconsistent grading between classes and students think, 'If I get this teacher I'm going to get hammered with no chance of an A, but if I get this other teacher it's an easy A,'" board member Dana Tom said.
Some board members worried that unduly harsh grading -- particularly in high school math and science classes -- could undermine students' confidence and possible pursuit of the subject as a career.
"I don't know if anyone steps back and says, 'Why do we give the grades we do, and what's the rational objective,'" board member Barbara Klausner said.
She wondered why, in one Advanced Placement biology program, 72 percent of students earn a 4 or 5 on the AP test but only 38 percent of them get an A in the class.
"Are we asking our students to do more than the AP test requires or is there some other purpose we're trying to achieve, because it certainly has an impact on students' social-emotional health," Klausner said.
Board President Melissa Baten Caswell worried about potential consequences beyond high school. "The danger we're creating there is that only the rocket scientists are going to be enthusiastic about studying those subjects in college and beyond," she said.
"Are we doing a disservice to a student who might be engaged and great at math but will never take another math course?"
Skelly noted some grading disparities may reflect the behavior of a student who, while competent at the subject, "never does the homework and is always tardy."
Tom cautioned against imposing "top-down directives" regarding homework and grades, saying, "You won't get much compliance."
Skelly and board members advocated more "professional development" opportunities for teachers as a way for them to collaborate and potentially foster greater consistency in approach.
Board Vice-President Camille Townsend cautioned that a goal mentioning "consistency" could be misinterpreted and have the effect of "tamping down" particularly creative teachers.
"As long as we have a base of consistency, I want to capture the individuality and excitement of each teacher," Townsend said, mentioning in particular the historic re-enactments created for years by former Paly social studies teacher Mike McGovern.
Board members said new structural policies, including the school calendar, start time and block schedules, have great effect on school climate.
"If we look at this through school culture, we want to make sure we have a culture we designed rather than a culture that happens to us," Caswell said.