New buildings, better budgets dominate school news in 2013

Calendar issue resolved, but board contends with facilities, counseling

The Palo Alto school district opened dozens of new classrooms across town in 2013 and toyed with opening at least one entirely new school.

And a local family stepped forward to fund a $20 million state-of-the art athletic center for Palo Alto High School, where they have sent three generations of students.

Those were some of the highlights in local education in 2013.

Even as the school district contended with multiple complaints filed through the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (see story on page 8) , Palo Alto students continued to rank highly on standardized tests, and the share of local students graduating with a four-year college-prep curriculum inched up to 85 percent.

But the district battled an ongoing achievement gap as it prepared to stiffen graduation requirements for all students -- except for those who negotiate "alternative requirements" -- beginning with the graduating class of 2016.

Three issues -- facilities planning, high school counseling and the academic calendar -- enduring concerns of the Board of Education throughout 2013.

One of those, the calendar, was resolved in December, when the Board of Education approved district-wide calendars through 2016-17. A key feature of the new calendars is that the first semester will continue to end before the December-holiday break, as was tested for the first time this last year.

The board continued to monitor high school counseling services after a number of parents complained that different counseling models at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools resulted in services that were not comparable. The parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto persistently called on the board to order Gunn to adopt Paly's counseling model, in which 40 "teacher advisers" augment a small professional counseling staff.

A Gunn committee of parents, school staff and students representing all sides of the touchy issue issued a 104-page report in March with 40 recommendations. The recommendations did not include adoption of a teacher advisory system, though if implemented would result in more student contact with counseling staff.

Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos said the counseling reforms would take several years to implement and could require a change to the school's bell schedule.

At year's end, counselors from the district's five middle and high schools reported they had been conferring to agree on a common "framework" for counseling and activities and outcomes.

The counselors said they would return to the board in March 2014 with reports from individual high schools.

With school enrollment growing -- but a tad slower than expected in the past two years -- the school board hesitated this year on its plan to open a 13th elementary school.

An original plan to make a decision on location and programming for a new school by May 2013 was pushed off for a year after headcount growth in 2012-13 came in on the low end of projections.

The postponement came after a 12-member citizens advisory committee spent three months considering the options and recommended a new elementary school be opened at 525 San Antonio Ave., combined with the adjacent Greendell campus at 4120 Middlefield Road.

The board recently voted on a timetable to make an elementary-school decision by the end of the current school year.

After years of tight budgets, the Palo Alto school district loosened the purse strings in 2013 as property-tax revenues, boosted by a booming real-estate market, rose more than 6 percent yearly for two years running.

Teachers and all staff except for Superintendent Kevin Skelly got two raises. The first, a 3 percent raise plus 1.5 percent bonus, was awarded in May, retroactive to fall 2012. The second, approved this month, provided an additional 4 percent raise for 2013-14 plus a 2 percent bonus.

The district also restored some programming that earlier had been cut, including discretionary funds for principals.

A major push by Skelly and the board to beef up professional development led to a $5 million, three-year commitment to improve programming for teachers and to help them implement the new Common Core State Standards, which begin their rollout in California schools this year.

Two new principals took the reins this year following Paly's Phil Winston's decision to return to teaching and the reassignment of Terman Middle School's Katherine Baker to become the district's director of secondary education.

Kim Diorio was named in July to become principal of Paly, and Pier Angeli La Place, a longtime administrator at JLS Middle School, became principal at Terman.

In East Palo Alto's Ravenswood School District, Superintendent Maria De La Vega retired in June and Gloria Hernandez, a longtime school administrator in the Sacramento area, was named to the head job.


Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 27, 2013 at 11:01 am

Bulling is UP. The bullies come in all shapes & sizes. They range in age from 6 to 60. They are students and administrators. They can be found on the playground and in the board room. For example, a teacher at one of the PAUSD high schools is being bullied right out of his/her job by an inapt VP, weak principal, and misinformed HR staff. It is such a shame to see a good person put upon by a bully or should I say bullies. Maybe he/she should get help from outside federal like EEOC? The bullies may back down when going face-2-face with a more powerful force than themselves. Does the school board know that Skelly & company have received yet another complaint from a federal agency for discrimination???

Like this comment
Posted by K. Smelly
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 27, 2013 at 6:28 pm

If Kevin Skelly were to be dismissed once and for all, it would save money, lawsuits, embarrassment, and PAUSD's reputation.

However, the school board hired him, and is loathe to fire him, because they would have to admit their grievous error in hiring him without vetting him first.

So PA suffers on....

Like this comment
Posted by All in it together
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 27, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Yes, if the board did dismiss Skelly, it would be the admission of a mistake, just as if they ever held Charles Young accountable for the myriad errors as the Compliance Officer, or Holly Wade responsible for the special education mishandling, or Katherine Baker for her sophisticated handling of a simply bullying case. Or any teacher. If one person took responsibility for the lawsuits, violations, or por performance, then that would quickly expose the others. It was so much more effective to throw together a PowerPoint on the great counseling services at Gunn and give Skelly, Young, Wade, Baker, the principals, and the teachers two raises in less than a year. Because it was a great year in which every single employee deserved two raises, right?

Like this comment
Posted by Patrick
a resident of another community
on Dec 28, 2013 at 4:31 am

Why dont you have the school counselors adopt the American School Counseling National model - Web Link

It can use advisors too - but is the most sound model.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 28, 2013 at 6:57 pm

This article does beg the question: What is the latest with the two Paly construction projects (they were delayed, then scheduled to open on 1/6/14) the lawsuit (and counter suit) with the contractor.

Why do I get the impression that the buildings are not ready for use?

Like this comment
Posted by One more thing.....
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Dec 28, 2013 at 9:37 pm

There is only one thing that would have made this school year a better one. That is if Skelly, Young, Wade, and Baker all received their marching orders and were shown the door. It would be a huge relief to PAUSD parents and students alike, as well as a huge benefit to both.

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

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