In a sometimes tense discussion, African-American students and a parent challenged the Board of Education Tuesday night to set higher expectations for black students in Palo Alto schools.
A group of seniors from Palo Alto High School told the board that none of the 17 black members of the Class of 2011 from Paly and Gunn had completed all the entrance requirements for the University of California or California State University, known as the "a-g requirements."
The discussion came as administrators parsed data on the 20 percent of last year's seniors -- 170 out of 828 -- who graduated without completing the requirements. Palo Alto has set a district-wide goal of having at least 85 percent of graduating seniors meeting the CSU and UC requirements by 2012.
Contrary to what people might assume, most of the kids missing the requirements -- 63 percent -- were white or Asian, officials said.
"That's not what our assumptions would tell us," said Diana Wilmot, the district's research and evaluation coordinator, who presented the data.
"However, African-American and Hispanic students are overrepresented in students not meeting a-g," Wilmot said.
Black students made up 2 percent of the Class of 2010 but comprised 10 percent of students not completing a-g. Hispanic students were 8 percent of the class, but 23 percent of the students missing a-g.
While officials cited overall progress toward the goal, the Paly students and parent Kim Bomar took issue with what they said was an "unnecessarily congratulatory" presentation.
"I have two black children and I'm not going to stand here and congratulate you when zero percent (of black students) are making the a-g requirements," Bomar said.
"In a district with the resources we have, where students are supported to the heights, to still have the vast majority of black students failing is disgraceful. I consider it a crisis.
"I hope you consider these figures regarding African-American students -- and Hispanic students, which aren't a whole lot better -- as disgraceful and unacceptable as I do and have the same sense of urgency about it...."
Bomar and other members of the Parent Network for Students of Color have advocated making the a-g requirements a condition of graduation as way to force the district to raise expectations for minority students. Palo Alto's current high school graduation requirements are not as academically rigorous as the a-g, which comes as a surprise to some parents.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly said the district is still considering instituting a-g as a condition of graduation. But when he proposed that idea to the Board of Education last May, members expressed worries about possible unintended consequences on special education students and others, who could have difficulty graduating under those rules.
Skelly corrected the students' data, saying that 3 of the 20 black students graduating in June actually had met the a-g requirements. "But the bottom line is this data is not good," he acknowledged.
Paly senior Tremaine Kirkman, a member of the Student Equity Action Network (SEAN), noted that the district's own pie chart showed the data as 0 percent, rounded down from 0.5 percent.
Kirkman, who was recently named a National Merit Semifinalist, urged the board to adopt the a-g requirements as a condition of graduation, thereby raising expectations.
"We've interviewed the students of color and we personally experience it," Kirkman said. "They drop off from kindergarten and there's just nothing being done to help them.
"These are some of our best friends that we've grown up with since diapers."
Unless a-g becomes a graduation requirement,"We're going to be in the same place" when his younger brother reaches high school, Kirkman said.
School officials, including the principals of Gunn and Paly, told the board about a wide array of focused efforts to help struggling students complete the a-g requirements.
Those include expanded summer school offerings to allow students to make up credits, individualized scrutiny of students earning Ds and Fs and programs such as College Pathways at Gunn.
Gunn is piloting a program with the online Khan Academy for students who are re-taking algebra 1, said Director of Secondary Education Michael Milliken.
"We're experimenting and trying new things to ensure success for a broader range of students," Milliken said.
In a separate presentation later in the meeting, Greendell School Principal Sharon Keplinger said a pilot early-intervention program for high-risk students, Springboard to Kindergarten, has shown positive results.
"Kids entered the program with need across all dimensions of (kindergarten) readiness," Keplinger told the board.
"Their skills improved dramatically across all four of the readiness dimensions. Every single child showed statistically significant improvement in all the areas we were looking at," she said.
Keplinger said she evaluates children at the start and the end of the program using the Pre-Kindgergarten Observation Form (P-KOF).
Springboard recruits pre-kindergarten children who have not had a high-quality preschool experience and provides five-day-a-week programming from February through June.
It has served about 40 children a year for the past two years under a three-year grant provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation.
Board members acknowledged concerted staff efforts to support struggling students, including particular focus at the elementary level.
But several expressed frustration that little seems to have changed.
Results for African-American and Hispanic students "are shocking, dismal and embarrassing," board member Dana Tom said.
"The hard part is we've talked about this year after year after year and haven't made any real traction."
Board President Melissa Baten Caswell said, "I'm incredibly distressed about this. We can wring our hands or try to figure out what to do," citing other school districts such as San Jose's Eastside Union High School District who are "handling success of children of color better than we are."
"Maybe we need to go figure out what they're doing differently than we are that's helping them be more successful."
Board member Barbara Klausner described her recent visit to the East Palo Alto Charter School, whose African-American and Hispanic students have earned top test scores.
The success of the independent Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto in preparing its students for four-year colleges also was cited.
Referring to the 170 members of the Class of 2011 who failed to complete the a-g coursework, Wilmot said that in many cases there were early signs of struggle.
About half of them had scored "below proficient" on standardized tests in elementary school, she said, "indicating that there's early intervention and identification that's possible."
English and math are where students have the most difficulty, Wilmot said, but noted that many don't give up easily and are still trying as late as senior year to complete algebra 2 or geometry and to make up English credits.
Overall, 90 percent of the Paly and Gunn classes of 2011 went on to college, 80 percent to four-year colleges, Wilmot said.
But many private, four-year colleges do not demand a-g as a condition for entrance.
Among members of the Class of 2011 not completing a-g, half went on to two-year colleges and another quarter are attending four-year colleges that do not require a-g as a prerequisite, Wilmot said.
A group of parents approached the podium during the meeting's "open forum" segment to urge the board to revisit its decision to change the 2012-13 academic calendar.
The board voted 3-2 in May to switch to a mid-August school start date in 2012 in order to complete the first semester before the December holidays.
The parents, who have launched a Facebook group called "TIme To Thrive Palo Alto," argued that the new school calendar is not consistent with the school district's new focus on the youth-wellness framework known as Developmental Assets.
In a separate discussion late Tuesday night, board members endorsed suggestions by district staff members to seek short-term tenants for property the district plans to acquire at 525 San Antonio Road. The $8.5 million acquisition of the old Peninsula Day Care site is scheduled to close Nov. 1.
Skelly said it's likely to be at least two years before the district is ready to build on the property, and staff would seek to lease the site in the interim.