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Debate: School board candidates' answers to the Weekly's questions

 

The first portion of Thursday's debate featured answers to seven questions prepared by the Weekly and posed to the candidates by moderator Joe Simitian.

The video of the debate is posted at the Palo Alto Online YouTube channel. The time that a question is asked is marked next to the question, below.

Weekly Question 1: Critiquing the current school board's handling of controversies (Time on video: 05:00)

Q: The school district has been through multiple controversies over the last two years. These controversies have led to a great deal of anger, resentment, divisiveness and drastically different opinions about the conduct of the school board, the administration, school attorneys, the federal government, parents and the media. Please critique the board's performance during this period and explain what specific actions you personally took or advocated as a member of the school community over the last two years as these controversies unfolded? If elected, what specific actions will you support or advocate that might lead to a healing of the wounds of the last two years?

Jay Blas Cabrera said his direct involvement with the school board probably has been less than that of others, but from what he's read there's been a lot of quarreling. He said he would bring a "brand new perspective," with his top priority being "interactivity, building a 21st century communication system" so that anybody can give input, vote on proposals and get directly involved in decision-making online.

Gina Dalma said she would give the current board "a very mixed result, around a B-minus." The board has had some "very clear achievements, including the strategic plan." But there have been two major decisions Dalma has disagreed with publicly: one is the board's resolution in June that challenged the Office for Civil Rights. The resolution was a "key decision that prevented the school district from keeping on learning in terms of becoming an environment to really provide an excellent education to all our student. The fact that we were fighting the OCR instead of collaborating with the OCR was something I didn't agree with." Dalma's second major disagreement with the board was its failure to support a proposal by Palo Alto High School English teachers to de-lane 9th grade English.

Terry Godfrey said that as board president of Palo Alto Partners in Education recently, her main interactions with the board and superintendent had to do with encouraging transparency and clear articulation of why things were going the way they were. Chiefly wanting to make sure donors got the information they needed, she did not take a strong advocacy role. Had she been on the board, she probably would not have supported the June resolution challenging the Office for Civil Rights. "I would have tried to take the information and do better," she said. To heal the wounds, Godfrey would try to make the board meetings more "user-friendly so they don't go on quite so long" and try to increase transparency and rebuild trust.

Ken Dauber said he was disappointed with the board's handling of the Office for Civil Rights investigations. When the first violation came to light, he and others advocated for an "open transparent process where we could understand what had happened, why policies and procedures had not been followed…and then move forward," to face directly the facts and see how we can improve and move on. But the board decided to go in the other direction, going underground into a series of closed meetings. Then they emerged a year and a half later with the resolution challenging the OCR. Dauber said what he did in that period was "be a really strong voice in the community for that cooperation," speaking at many school board meetings. Going forward, he said, he believes closed meetings are a bad idea and that the board should try to repair the relationship between the district and special education families.

Catherine Crystal Foster said it's important to focus on exactly what the role of the board is: to set policy for the district, hire and fire the superintendent and set the overall tone and face of the school district. She'd give the current board "somewhat mixed reviews." She believes the strategic plan is a tremendous service to the district, laying the groundwork for innovative and interesting things and allowing the schools to align. They've also done well on policies such as the homework policy, which needs to be evaluated, but at least it exists. Less positive has been the board's lack of transparency regarding some of the initial decisions of the Office for Civil Rights. She believes the board is committed to protecting civil rights but the way in which they communicated with the community suggested they were not as aligned with protecting civil rights as they really are.

Weekly Question 2: Board's role in past and future curriculum proposals (with reference to de-laning of Paly freshmen English) (Time on video: 16:19)

Q: Earlier this year, the Palo Alto High School principal, with the support of the Superintendent, brought forth a recommendation to eliminate laning in freshman English. How would you have voted on this proposal, and using this issue as a example, explain your views on when the school board's approval should be required for curriculum or teaching changes or innovations proposed by teaching professionals.

Terry Godfrey said it was unfortunate that the teachers had spent so much time trying to figure out what was best for kids in the ninth grade, and then there seemed to be a disconnect with the district staff and office. She doesn't think the proposal's failure had to do with the teachers themselves. So coming to the board with a well-thought-out plan that the board rejected is unfortunate. A lot of these decisions should be made at the teacher level, and come from the people closest to the students. In this case, a lot of time was wasted. Going forward, the kinds of decisions that happen at the board should be more district-wide, and at the school level we should trust our teachers.

Gina Dalma said she was so disappointed by the district's withdrawal of the Paly English proposal in February that she wrote a guest opinion on the subject that was published in the Palo Alto Weekly. The proposal came from innovative teachers who are on the front lines of looking for opportunities for kids to excel and for ways to avoid labeling kids that would truly have consequences for them in terms of their own belief systems as to whether they could succeed. Why not pilot something that was evidence-based? This was not even a decision that should have reached for the board. These decisions should be made at the school level.

Jay Blas Cabrera said he believes in empowering teachers, and that there must be a clear division between academic freedom and administrative processes.

Ken Dauber said he had supported the Paly English teachers' proposal. He said the teachers had worked very hard over a period of years to address concerns expressed in an accreditation committee concerning low expectations in the basic lane of English that minority students were concentrated in. Working hard to raise expectations, the teachers were doing the right thing. Dauber said he does believe the board has a role to play in curriculum decisions, but he does not agree with how the issue was handled in this case.

Catherine Crystal Foster said she was delighted to hear that the English teachers were planning together to try to reach the needs of all students. The trouble was with the process by which it came to the board. The teachers worked hard, but the proposal had not been fully vetted by the superintendent, and the special education community felt blindsided. Also, at some of the hearings the teachers said there was some information they had not yet gathered. Gunn has less of an achievement gap than Paly, so changing Paly to be less like Gunn raises questions.

Weekly Question 3: District versus school-site decision making (Time on video: 23:18)

Q: Individual school sites operate very autonomously in PAUSD under the mantra of "site-based decision-making." This "bottom-up" philosophy has allowed innovation and local school flexibility, but has also resulted in inconsistencies and inefficiencies, including different bullying prevention programs, disciplinary & cheating policies, high school counseling programs, school handbooks, websites and differences in many other areas. Parents with children at two or more different schools can experience entirely different rules, procedures, programs and bell schedules. What changes, if any, do you support to this model? When and how should inconsistent practices or variations in programs be evaluated for effectiveness and either implemented across all district schools as a "best practice" or terminated?

Ken Dauber said he recently heard Superintendent Max McGee say that consistency is good for kids. The district should make sure that its guiding philosophy actually is guiding the work of individual staff members, and make sure that it provides every child the best the district has to offer no matter what school they go to or no matter what teacher they have. The key is evaluation. If we see inconsistent practices across the district we should evaluate them for their success, identify the ones that are working and propagate them across the district.

Catherine Crystal Foster said Palo Alto has a culture of autonomy of school sites that has both a beauty and a cost. What works well is that it lets creativity and innovation bloom. What works less well is that can create a kind of inconsistency that can lead to concerns, and sometimes resentments, among students and families. If we have inefficiencies where we're constantly re-inventing the wheel every time we innovate in the district, that points toward a need to change site-based autonomy, she said. On issues regarding student safety, health or legal mandates, it's imperative that we have consistency across the district. But we need to enable our teachers to innovate and spread good ideas.

Jay Blas Cabrera said he strongly supports autonomy for schools and that decisions made by the board should be a 50-50 collaboration with schools. If schools need resources to implement their plans, it's the board's responsibility to see that resources are provided. What he does not want to see is a mini-No Child Left Behind situation, referring to the federal program that evaluated schools based on state standardized tests.

Terry Godfrey said as a student-centered district, Palo Alto should make sure the thousands of decisions made every day remain closest to the students. She cited the model of her former employer, Intel, which centralizes decisions relating to health, safety and product quality and provides site autonomy on other decisions, as long as outcomes are defined and agreed to. Palo Alto would do itself a service to define that model as it relates to the school district and school-site autonomy.

Gina Dalma said at her workplace, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, they're always looking at scalability. Innovation truly comes at the very local level, but unless we're documenting it, evaluating it and understanding what it means in terms of student achievement and whether it's scalable, then innovation will only serve that specific set of kids. We need to create a learning institution where we foster and embrace innovation and truly measure it to see if it scales. It's the district's role to create continuous improvement at every level.

Weekly Question 4: Opinion of Common Core (Time on video: 30:31)

Q: Common Core is alternatively being heralded as an important and innovative step toward strengthening curriculum and performance standards across the country ... and as a disruptive and harmful intrusion on local school autonomy and control. What are your views of Common Core? Are you an enthusiastic supporter or a skeptic? And, are you concerned about the lack of standardized tests to measure student performance while new assessment tools are developed for Common Core?

Ken Dauber said he's an enthusiastic supporter of the Common Core State Standards. It's good news nationally and it's good news for Palo Alto. For Palo Alto the Common Core is consistent with what we want for our kids -- to think critically, synthesize information and reach across disciplines. Critical thinking and writing are 21st century skills that we should all be on board with. We need to have standardized tests aligned with the Common Core to hold schools accountable. Supporting teachers in their transition to the Common Core is also very important.

Terry Godfrey said she's also a supporter of Common Core, describing it as the first federal curriculum standards that we've seen in decades. Some of its components are a little newer to some of the districts around us, but Palo Alto has always had a lot of back-and-forth interplay between teachers and students. As far as testing, we do need to keep ourselves on track and know how our students are doing so that we're prepared when the Common Core-aligned test shows up. Overall our teachers are enthusiastic about the Common Core, and the district has done a good job giving them the time and space to prepare.

Catherine Crystal Foster said she's also bullish on the Common Core State Standards. They were developed by experts to ensure students will be able to be the kinds of critical thinkers and learners we need at this time. She's very excited about the opportunity for students to be exposed to this and teachers are also excited about it, using it as an opportunity to learn and to examine their practices. Palo Alto as a district can use it as an opportunity to dig deeper.

Gina Dalma said Common Core is the single most important education reform in several decades for California. It truly focuses on 21st century skills -- that students will be able to better communicate, collaborate, create and do critical thinking. Dalma is on the steering committee of a national funders' network that's investing in Common Core and has learned through this work that there are several states far ahead of us in implementing Common Core. Their classrooms are noisy, kids are discussing issues and solving problems together and the teacher is not center stage but more of a facilitator.

Jay Blas Cabrera said he's been told over and over again by students at Gunn that they feel completely prepared academically. What they need is real-world skills such as how to do taxes, how to get an apartment, things like that. Students in Palo Alto would greatly benefit from Common Core, but the board needs to make sure to assess it.

Weekly Question 5: Opinion of school board's June 2014 resolution criticizing federal Office of Civil Rights (Time on video: 37:13)

Q: In June, the school board adopted a resolution that criticized the federal Office for Civil Rights' handling of its investigations in PAUSD, made allegations of evidence tampering, and committed the district to working with elected officials and national education groups to lobby for change OCR practices. How would you have voted on this resolution and why? Do you support use of district financial and other resources to lobby for changes in OCR's authority and investigative practices, as called for in the resolution?

Catherine Crystal Foster said that without knowing all the confidential information that was in front of the board she doesn't feel she's in a position to opine one way or another on the resolution. She said it's "very concerning that the school board felt it needed to pass that resolution." If all the allegations in the resolution were true, she very reluctantly would have voted yes on the resolution.

Gina Dalma said she would have voted no on the resolution and also would have voted no on investing resources to fight the OCR.

Jay Blas Cabrera said he most likely would have voted for as much transparency as possible, "which brings it more to a 'no'" in this case. As far as lobbying for changes, he believes the board can be involved in lobbying as a direct conduit from the local level to the county and state, and it's important to do that. Whether the board should have done so on this issue is up to the community to decide, he said.

Ken Dauber said he would have voted no, and said so at the time because the details on the allegations about evidence-tampering were inconsistent with the facts as they were known. The facts and the evidence was clear, Dauber said, because the board published the items they said their decision was based on. The board's resolution was just diametrically opposed to Palo Alto's community values on civil rights.

Terry Godfrey said when she listened to the June board meeting at which the resolution was passed, the board's frustration was palpable. She would not have voted to support the resolution, but much of the discussion was about changing and improving the process. While she would not want to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to change the OCR, there are times when one might participate in a kind of post-mortem with the agency.

Weekly Question 6: District's effectiveness in easing student stress (Time on video: 41:10)

Q: Is the district doing too little, too much or about the right amount to address student stress, the hyper competitive high school environment and the emotional and social well-being of its students? If too little, what further steps or programs do you advocate? If too much, what would you drop?

Terry Godfrey said we've been talking about stress for a long time, and academic stress weighs heavily on students. Things like a homework policy that actually rolls out will help, although it does not cover honors or AP classes so is not perfect. Addressing project and test stacking (when many deadlines fall on the same day), instead of having teachers independently doing their own things, could go a long way to help. It's also very stressful for students when there's inconsistent teaching -- for example two students taking English 10 from different teachers, with one doing a lot of work and the other not doing much work. So investing in having teachers get together to improve consistency would also help.

Gina Dalma said she thinks kids, especially in the high schools, are impacted by an incredible amount of pressure -- peer pressure, parent pressure, pressure from the community and from our schools. We have to do more. We need a community conversation on what we mean by socio-emotional and academic success for all our students and make sure we build the non-cognitive skills such as persistence. We've done a lot in terms of a homework policy but the policy is not applied consistently. There's a lot more we can do.

Jay Blas Cabrera said stress is never going to go away. Society puts an immense amount of pressure on students, and students feel it. There's no perfect way. There's a role for parents to play in alleviating stress, and it's also important to have activities that get students out of the classroom.

Catherine Crystal Foster said that from every survey and every conversation it's clear that stress is a problem. There's a certain amount of stress that can be positive, motivating and move a student forward, but we've also learned that a student's attitude toward stress affects the ability to cope. As a district we need to help students become more resilient and cope with it, and eliminate stress that's unnecessary. We need to take a hard look at the way our homework policy is implemented and the way test and project stacking is working and ensure that everything we do for our students that adds to their stress is something that also adds to their learning.

Ken Dauber cited surveys indicating that students think we're doing too little about stress. Twenty-five percent said they were dissatisfied with the social-emotional climate at school and 87 percent said homework is a big stressor. For years Palo Alto has had P8, listed in a plan by Project Safety Net, that addresses a supportive school environment, including a plan for addressing homework, project and test stacking, guidance counseling and curriculum. If we enacted that plan, as he has urged for years, we'd make progress, he said. We need to put in some metrics to evaluate the homework policy to see if it's working. If we do this, we'll get progress. If we don't our students will continue to suffer.

Weekly Question 7: How can district close the achievement gap (Time on video: 47:39)

Q: Palo Alto has struggled to make consistent progress at closing the achievement gap, and it is generally agreed that too many students are entering high school unprepared for the rigor of high school curriculum. What initiatives do you support in our middle schools to address these problems?

Terry Godfrey said one of the ways the gap shows up is in which students graduate with the a-g requirements (the prerequisites to California's public four-year colleges) and which students don't. Our underrepresented minorities are graduating college-ready at a lower rate. There's a high correlation between that and early education and also standardized test scores in grades 3 to 8. The district has made some decisions around that and you can see the gap closing, but middle school is a tumultuous time for anyone and if you have that extra burden (of being behind) it's even more difficult. We need to make sure kids have the support they need at that time.

Catherine Crystal Foster said the achievement gap is "really a shame on the district, and something we need to address aggressively." Middle school is too late -- the achievement gap starts a lot before middle school. We need to understand and unpack all the factors. We have a number of programs, but what we don't have is a comprehensive catalog of those and a full set of evaluations of what's working. We need to take different initiatives through a process and say, where are we making a difference for our kids?

Gina Dalma said she's incredibly proud the district has a strategic plan, but one thing she disagrees with in it is it says that 85 percent of kids should be proficient or advanced at the end of five years and that's not OK -- it should be 100 percent. Underrepresented minorities are performing worse in Palo Alto than they are in some other districts around our region, and that's a shame. It has to do with a belief system. We do not have the same expectations for all kids, and she would very seriously work to make sure we have the same level of expectations and rigorous curriculum for all. We also need to connect with the schools that have closed the achievement gap and know how to do it.

Ken Dauber said he has worked to shine a light on the achievement gap and then has supported policies like boosting the graduation requirements so that all graduates are college- ready. There's a range of things we can do, and one has to do with data and metrics. Understanding the problem is critical to addressing it. We're doing worse than other districts, and that's a wake-up call. We need to instill a growth mentality in our students -- (Stanford University psychologist) Carol Dweck has shown that if you tell kids they'll do better if they work harder, they will do better. We can create that kind of teaching style with professional development.

Jay Blas Cabrera said we need to have a community discussion, and there certainly are a lot of ideas. Middle schools create a bottleneck in terms of space, so how can we increase middle-school space and reduce class size? We need to be empowering the faculty and staff and people directly involved in the community.

• Go to Questions candidates asked one another

• Return to School board candidates answer 20 questions

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