Palo Alto school board discusses vision, role in annual retreat

Group to set focused goals in second day

The Palo Alto Board of Education met in its annual retreat Tuesday and, with the added opportunity of a new superintendent's fresh set of eyes, struck an optimistic tone on ideas for improving and strengthening protocol, communication and the district's long-term visions.

In the first half of a two-day retreat, the board's five members and Superintendent Max McGee focused on both small- and big-picture ideas, from requests to distribute board agendas further in advance and create a marketing-like tagline for the school district to streamlining internal communication and identifying ways to better cultivate professional development.

One theme that emerged was the need to clarify the board's purpose and role, both for its own members and for the community and schools it serves.

"I think many in the community are hungry for a vision -- a vision of our education and what we see ourselves doing," board member Camille Townsend said. "I think its time we have that.

"You've had some great experience that we want to capture," she said to McGee.

With the goal of clarifying that vision, McGee asked each board member to come up with a short tagline for the district that would "capture the essence" of its mission.

"I think it's important for people to have a sense of identity with the district," McGee said.

The taglines ranged from board president Barb Mitchell's "where learning comes first" to

Dana Tom's "cultivating our children's futures."

"I think we need to be future oriented," Tom said. "Our children are going to be in a future we can't even predict right now and they need to be prepared for it."

McGee echoed that sentiment throughout the retreat, emphasizing the importance of answering the question, "How do we prepare our kids for careers that don't exist?"

McGee's said his tagline – "developing thoughtful learners, deepening knowledge and curiosity and empowering world-class potential" – is about effecting change in the district and beyond.

"I always get asked, 'Why did you come here?'" he said. "I think what we do here can really inform other districts across the state and country."

A significant part of the board's visioning discussion focused on a book McGee asked the board members to read, "The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way" by Time Magazine journalist Amanda Ripley. Through three young American students who travel to three countries considered global "education superpowers" – Finland, South Korea and Poland – Ripley explores different educational cultures, styles, paths and experiences.

Townsend said the chapter that most resonated with her was one about the perception of a "math problem" in American schools – that students in the U.S. typically don't perform as well in math as students in other countries and that student achievement most commonly drops off during middle school. Townsend urged the board to look at Palo Alto's own data on this to inform a solution to the problem.

Board member Heidi Emberling agreed, saying that the discussion about learning and teaching math should be reframed as another way of building critical-thinking skills.

"My daughter came home in first grade and said 'Girls aren't good at math,'" she said. "I liked the metaphor that math is a language. ... It is the basis for logical thinking, for processes and for persistence. And you have to follow a rigid formula in terms of trying things step by step to get your answer. It's a discipline of thought."

McGee said he faced similar issues with math achievement at schools during his career and that at one point he made an effort to hire teachers who had majored in math in college.

McGee also gave a presentation based on research from another book, "Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago," which came out in 2010 and tracked over seven years various data in Chicago's public elementary schools. (McGee served as the Illinois state superintendent from 1998 to 2001, and almost all of his career before and after was spent in the Illinois school system.)

The book identifies five essentials that produced the strongest, most improved schools in Chicago: instructional leadership, ambitious instruction, professional capacity, student-centered learning climate and family and community involvement. McGee said he believes strong leadership is a primary driver of change at all levels.

He also cited snippet quotes from the book such as "the importance of 'relational trust,'" "professional development must be systemic" and "strategic plan guides leaders." He did not offer concrete ideas for how these concepts can or will be applied to Palo Alto, but the group is set to discuss specific priorities and goals at the second day of the retreat on Wednesday.

"This is a very different conversation than we normally have at these meetings," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said. "I appreciate the external information. ... It's helpful to get some new juice into our discussions."

The board's most recent annual focused goals, adopted last September, range from increasing small-group instruction, integrating Common Core standards and improving the district's website to making communication with the community more transparent and frequent.

The board will meet for the second day of the retreat Wednesday, Aug. 13, beginning at 9 a.m. at the University Club, 3277 Miranda Ave., Palo Alto. The board will convene for a closed session discussion around 2:30 p.m. to discuss the evaluation process for McGee. View the agenda here.

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Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 12, 2014 at 7:10 pm

[Post removed.]

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Posted by a parent
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 12, 2014 at 9:47 pm


"I think many in the community are hungry for a vision -- a vision of our education and what we see ourselves doing,

It's good to refresh visions, and to look at external things, and seek identity. I feel these are about the what and why, but the the issues I've noticed in PAUSD are more about the how.

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Posted by parent with a vision
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2014 at 12:53 am

Can the public address them at this retreat? There is mention of it in the link but no indication of when or how.

Like this comment
Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Aug 13, 2014 at 7:57 am

Transparency? Accountability?

Like this comment
Posted by Goals
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 13, 2014 at 8:43 am

Evaluation Process for McGee needs to give him goals to:

-Establish a system so parent concerns are responded to, not routinely ignored
-Establish a system so Board members respond to issues parents bring to them, and ensure follow up and action. Administrators only care about problems if you on Board pay attention.
-Reorganize senior administration. Too much power and span of control is under the same people
-Redo goals of senior administrators so they are not focused on succeed at all costs
-Change Special Education Director to someone who does not make the Board look so foolish in the press with bullying, OCR, and silly claims. Manage Special Education Director better.
-Policy to mainstream disabled children may be good, but change goals to no longer pursue it at all costs. Demand true measures of the success or failure. Claims of 100% success by doing nothing but sticking kids in a mainstream classroom with less help cannot be accurate. Failure of this policy has lead to bullying and harm to all students
-Get all new law firms.

FYI, the Board's role is not to do what NSBA tells them to, nor to fight the Federal government, nor to do what PAUSD Administrators tell you to do. Stop fawning over PAUSD Administrators in adoration. It is not your role to motivate them and tell them they are wonderful. That's the job ov Senior Administrators at great expense. Provide oversight instead.

Like this comment
Posted by Goals
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 13, 2014 at 9:08 am

@parent with a vision
The meeting is held when children are out of school, when parents do not have child care, so many parents cannot attend the meeting or address the Board.
Is the meeting broadcast?

Like this comment
Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Aug 13, 2014 at 9:21 am

@Goals -
Who will check? How?
Who will balance? How?

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Posted by Rajiv Bhateja
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Aug 13, 2014 at 11:50 am

One only hopes that the new superintendent will have the courage to *REQUIRE* all homework to be posted online, along with grades in a timely manner.

This type of communication with students has been implemented in thousands of schools worldwide but here in tech-central, it's been only talked about for 10 years.

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Posted by Goals
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 13, 2014 at 1:22 pm

@ Village Fool - For checks and balances, the Board of Education is supposed to be the Check, but that didn't happen last year. Fortunately there are citizens who paid attention and voiced displeasure, although it was ignored.

Another thread proposed a complaint process for the Special Education department that could be written and tracked. That way citizens could see if there are trends, if the same issues keep coming up, if staff responds or ignores written complaints.

For it's own employees, the Board of Education should be tracking if staff meets the goals it sets for them.

Board of Education could, like other elected officials, have a form of constituent services that tracks issues and ensures response. Right now, all there is for a check is Freedom of Information Act requests by Palo Alto Online, which are posted but take some time.

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Posted by parent with a vision
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2014 at 1:53 pm

I have a really fundamental question, and I would ask people to really mull this over.

In this day and age, why, really, do we allow schools to dictate how our children spend all of their time after they leave school, to the point that it seriously impinges on family time, social development, and health? Isn't this a boundaries issue? The relationship between schools and modern families is different than in the 19th centruy. Families need to expect schools to teach kids how to work hard and learn the curriculum during the school day, not just tell them to learn at some other time later in the day. In this day and age, one of the greatest challenges is time management, and we should be teaching work-life balance.

Our kids are not coming home to watch I Love Lucy reruns, they're learning languages, playing instruments, programming computers, doing sports and research projects, seeing their friends. The benefits of having dinner with family are well known. There is so little time left in the day after school, isn't it time modern parents established some boundaries for healthy family time?

For every parent who wants no more homework, there's another who wants more: families have different expectations. Kids thrive on different pedagogical approaches. There should be room for both.

But right now, there is no option that favors work-life balance.

That's not the vision I hoped to bring before the board today, but apparently there is no opportunity for public input in this meeting.

Like this comment
Posted by Checks
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Aug 13, 2014 at 6:38 pm

@village fool
Some good ideas for checks and balances are on the thread about Tenure Web Link
It is toward the end of thread, after a discussion about lack of faith in Special Education at Addison and PAUSD legal cases

Like this comment
Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Aug 13, 2014 at 9:27 pm

@Checks -

How can checks & balances work without transparency & accountability?

Like this comment
Posted by legal fees
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 26, 2014 at 8:34 am

PAUSD Board votes tonight 8/26/2014 on $94,000 law firm payments for June, 2014. Is it voting to approve them?
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Aug 26, 2014 at 10:26 pm

@Legal fees - I do not understand.

Is this the common practice? Board approving legal fees post fact?

Also, The recent unanimous decision to challenge the OCR comes to mind. This must be a an expensive ordeal.
Does it mean that the board will approve any amount? No discussion before?

Like this comment
Posted by legal fees
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 27, 2014 at 9:39 am

@village fool - Yes it is common practice. It was a voice vote item on a consent calendar.
In this case, the Board approved an increase in the budget for legal fees earlier in the year, which you brought to public attention in this forum. Then the vendor (in this case the law firm) bills, and PAUSD submits payments (Warrants) to the Board of Education for approval. It is usually approved on consent vote without discussion. Consent votes help public meetings move faster by allowing quick approval of routine items and District's administrative management decisions (such as change of school for an aide) without requiring discussion of every item. (Board members can request an item be taken off consent and discussed in a meeting.) Minutes for 8/26/2014 Board of Education meeting are not out yet, presumably it was approved on consent vote.

To your second point, the fees could relate to OCR Resolution. PAUSD documents from Palo Alto Online's Freedom of Information Act Request is include documents of Board Members and the law firm working on the OCR matter, attending meetings, lobbying, writing memos. These are avaialbe at:
Web Link

PAUSD posts the records disclosed in public records requests on it's web site at:
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by legal fees
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 27, 2014 at 9:51 am

Should add that just because an expense has been budgeted, does not mean the District has to spend the money.

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

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