While Palo Alto residents took issue with the city over development and traffic problems, other disruptive forces turned local educational institutions on their heads this year, namely a lengthy and painful civil rights investigation at the Palo Alto School Union District and the shock waves felt from the rise of online-education.
Office for Civil Rights investigates district
A federal civil-rights agency disrupted life for leaders of the Palo Alto school district in 2013.
Spurred by the family of a disabled Palo Alto middle school student, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights investigated the district's handling of the ongoing bullying of the student.
In December 2012, the agency -- which is charged with enforcing civil rights laws in schools and universities -- found that Terman Middle School administrators had violated the student's civil rights in their mishandling of the bullying. For nearly a year since then, the district has been struggling to reform its policies that deal with complaints of bullying. As of this month, however, it has yet to finalize new procedures, which was among the conditions it agreed to in order to resolve the federal case.
Had it not been for the student's family, who shared the resolution agreement with the Palo Alto Weekly, the public may not have known about the investigation and resulting conditions placed on the district. The Board of Education itself was largely unaware of the scope of the investigation and resolution agreement, having been told by Superintendent Kevin Skelly in December 2012 in such a perfunctory manner that the board didn't even discuss the report.
In February, Skelly apologized to board members for failing to inform them fully.
"When this thing came out I informed you about it, but I didn't give you the report or share the findings of the Office for Civil Rights group, and I should have done that, bottom line," he said. "From a transparency issue, I blew it."
Despite calls this year for a board discussion of "what went wrong" in the Terman case, such a discussion was never put on the agenda. Critics have accused the school board and Skelly of foot-dragging on revising its bullying policies and resisting the federal enforcement. The district has said it needs time to strike the right balance between protecting victims and not criminalizing matters that are properly resolved in the principal's office.
"The realm of incidents that used to be handled purely verbally and privately is shifting into a realm that's being recorded and tracked, so it's important to get it right," board President Barb Mitchell said.
The issue is set to be taken up again in January, either by the full board or by its two-member Policy Review Committee.
Meanwhile, other Palo Alto families have filed Office for Civil Rights complaints against the district, several of which remain pending.
In June, the Office for Civil Rights opened its own investigation at Palo Alto High School, saying it had "received information that (Paly) has not provided prompt and equitable response to notice of peer sexual harassment, including peer harassment related to sexual assault."
Though the agency did not specify what prompted its investigation, the notice followed the April publication of a six-part story in the student magazine Verde about a "rape culture" at Paly. The articles included anonymous accounts of two alcohol-fueled, off-campus sexual assaults of Paly students; interviews with victims of rape and other Paly students; discussion of Paly students; attitudes on victim-blaming and an editorial criticizing the mainstream media's "sympathetic" portrayal of high-school rapists in Steubenville, Ohio.
With concerns about bullying running high among some parents, Skelly and board members also have been charged with excessive secrecy in their work to satisfy the Office for Civil Rights.
Until the Weekly complained earlier this month, meetings of the board's Policy Review Committee, where proposed bullying policies are being hammered out, were not properly noticed to the public as required under the Brown Act, California's open meeting law.
Internet disrupts higher education
As surely as it has disrupted music, retail and journalism, the Internet in 2013 shook up education, with many of the disrupters emanating from the Palo Alto-Stanford area.
The year saw the term "MOOC" (for massive, open online course) grow increasingly common in general usage as online classes offered by local companies Coursera and Udacity, among others, attracted hundreds of thousands of students around the world.
Angling to stay on top of the fast-moving and hard-to-predict online education wave, Stanford poured resources and attention into university-wide efforts to test and measure new ways of teaching and learning online.
Education technology "is the beginning of a wholesale reorganization of teaching and learning in higher education," associate professor of sociology Mitchell Stevens said. "It will very soon be an un-ignorable phenomenon.
"This is not the sort of fringe activity of Cambridge and Silicon Valley. This is something that's going to be reorganizing the entire sector."
In July, more than a dozen presidents of colleges and universities -- including the Foothill-De Anza Community College District but not including Stanford -- gathered in Palo Alto to brainstorm the future. Schools represented ran the gamut from the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania to the large University of Wisconsin system to tiny Bates College in Maine to the upstart, all-online Western Governors University.
Foothill-De Anza Chancellor Linda Thor reported that the discussion at the gathering centered on how higher education needs to reorganize to serve students in traditional and new ways, given all the "drivers of change."
"We're moving away from having faculty that were the conveyers of content to -- now that there's so much more information available -- becoming more curators of the content, of helping guide all the sources," Thor said.
She also posed the question: "Are we moving away from students being associated with an individual institution to students aggregating their own educations from a whole variety of sources and players?"
Nobody knows for sure.
In an October discussion group on "education's digital future" at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stanford's Stevens introduced Foothill-De Anza's Thor as a pioneer in the field.
As president of Arizona's online-oriented Rio Salado Community College for 20 years, Thor "created the 25-year history of online learning that Stanford, Harvard and MIT just woke up to and decided they should enter," Stevens said.
Foothill College already offers 20 degrees that can be earned fully online, including associate's degrees in accounting, business administration, history, music technology, psychology and sociology.
In November, Foothill-De Anza was co-recipient of a $16.9 million state grant to pave the way for an online "education ecosystem" that would integrate all 112 of California's community colleges.
The initiative is part of Gov. Jerry Brown's push to expand online education as a way to boost access, degree completion and transfer to four-year universities for hundreds of thousands of students.
Under the envisioned system, California's 2.4 million community college students will be able to accrue credit through online courses at any number of different community colleges.
Regardless of the source of a class, a student's record will be kept in a single file, avoiding the need to petition for transfer credit.
A statewide portal for the classes will be operational by June 2015, with participation by individual community colleges on a voluntary basis.
"This will make the records student-centric rather than institution-centric and will automate and simplify the process of transfer, qualification for financial aid and things of that sort," said Joe Moreau, Foothill-De Anza's vice-chancellor for technology.
The new initiative, said Thor, "is a cutting-edge vision for California. I believe it will transform online learning for millions of community college students."