A Saturday morning school board debate hosted by two Palo Alto parent groups that represent special education students and students of color took on a more personal tilt, with almost all of the five board hopefuls sharing their own experiences with the district's special education offerings and treatment of minority students.
Jay Cabrera, Catherine Crystal Foster, Gina Dalma, Ken Dauber and Terry Godfrey are in the running for two open seats on the Palo Alto Board of Education in this year's election.
Cabrera introduced himself Saturday to a group of about 20 to 30 community members as a recent product of the Palo Alto school district who had trouble in school but did not receive the help or resources he needed until he was diagnosed with dyslexia in college. Dalma referenced her son's hearing impairment, which led her family to seek out an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which she said was a successful, positive process. Two of Dauber's five children also had IEPs, and Godfrey said her children have too been "involved in special ed."
In many of the candidates' comments Saturday -- in response to questions posed by the Palo Alto Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (CAC), Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS) and the audience -- they again overlapped in opinion. They agreed the district has significant work to do on addressing the achievement gap, providing equal opportunities for students with disabilities, hiring and retaining a more diverse teacher pool and better implementing and managing inclusion programs. They again all stressed that evaluation, data and fresh leadership will pave a more fruitful path to actually accomplishing these goals.
Many of them also pointed to decisions that new Superintendent Max McGee has already made that indicate his commitment to, and their confidence in, spurring concrete change in these areas. Godfrey said that he has asked staff who work on special education to report directly to him; Foster said he is "taking a stand" on the district's efforts to recruit more teachers of color; Dauber said McGee has committed to "doubling the rate" of teacher equity training.
"It isn't always easy to talk about this," Dauber said. "(McGee) is taking a risk in raising the issue of unconscious bias because it's difficult to hear. I think that our job as board members and a community is to get behind that kind of realism and compassion and really support him in that work."
Such optimism was in stark contrast to many of the candidates' criticisms of problematic leadership that has kept the district from moving forward on the issues most important to special education and minority students and families in Palo Alto.
"What we have here with the achievement gap in our schools is, as I've often said, a shame on our district," Foster said in response to a question of getting all graduating high school seniors, especially African-American and Hispanic students, to meet A-G course requirements for state universities.
Cabrera also condemned current district leadership for "not meeting the community on this particular issue (the achievement gap)."
"We need to empower people who are of the demographics and of the community who need to make the changes … that means that as a school board, our goal needs to be to provide the resources and funding and staff to empower leaders in our community," he said.
Dalma said if elected, she would ensure that the goal of recruiting a more diverse teacher population is added to the district's Strategic Plan. She said the district's biggest challenge in regards to supporting students of color and children with special needs is that "we believe we're the best performing school district and the biggest challenge of that is to see where we can learn and grow."
One audience question -- submitted anonymously via card to the debate moderator -- pointedly expressed "extreme distrust" in the district as a result of his or her experience with the IEP process.
"I had to hire an advocate to get the accommodations my child required. What will you do to ensure my very negative experience is not repeated for other students?"
Godfrey said her neighbors had gone through a similarly frustrating process for their 13-year-old daughter.
"We felt as a team supporting her that we weren't getting all the information. There were things we should be asking that we didn't know to ask … and that really feels wrong," she said.
Foster said she hears both positive and negative feedback from families who go through the IEP process, but that "the best you can get is 'trust, but verify.'
"It tends to be the prevailing way to get what you need through an IEP. We need to set the tone that district needs to link arms with every special ed family … and part of that is about communication."
Godfrey also advocated for adding a CAC board liaison, one member who would sit in on the organization's meetings and hear directly how such processes need to be improved.
Dauber took the question as an opportunity to repeat his promise to repeal the resolution against the Office for Civil Rights that the board passed this June, which declares that the school district will "expand its pursuit" to have OCR change its investigative practices and to review mistakes the board asserts occurred in one of the several cases investigated.
"The first thing we need to do is get the district back on the right path with special ed families … and the other thing we need to do is get right on civil rights," he said. "We cannot be engaged in conflict with the federal government over the role of the federal government in enforcing civil rights laws in our schools and still claim ... that we are keeping faith with that."
One audience member asked the candidates to confirm whether, if elected, they would "clearly and unambiguously oppose" the resolution. All but one replied that they would, with Dalma calling the resolution "outrageous" and Godfrey expressing interest in conducting a "postmortem" with OCR to "understand how things can go more smoothly." Cabrera said his priority is collaboration, transparency and "ensuring that we as a school board and as a district accept our faults, accept that mistakes were made on potentially all sides and work mutually on solutions".
Foster said she would "absolutely oppose (the resolution) unambiguously" if the allegations against OCR made in the resolution are false, but that there is not enough information publicly available to be able to know that.
Dalma told Foster that she disagreed with her.
"I believe even the board said enough information was out to decide for the charges that they were putting in the resolution," Dalma said.
The candidates also discussed a subject of particular interest to special education parents, inclusion programs, with all agreeing that investing in more professional development for teachers will yield more successful programs.
"High-functioning schools and districts are those that provide the least restrictive environment for all students and are as inclusive as the needs of students allow," Dalma said. "We know that full inclusion is a best practice, but it assumes that a certain support system is in place. The more I talk to parents and teachers, that's exactly where our school district has not done the best job."
She and other candidates added that setting concrete goals, collecting data, getting direct feedback from students and parents, and learning from other high-achieving districts' inclusion programs will help improve Palo Alto's.
The board candidates will next appear publicly in two forums hosted by the Palo Alto Council of PTAs. The first is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 5, 2 to 4 p.m. at Gunn High School, and will focus on secondary education. The second will focus on elementary education and is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 15, 7 to 9 p.m. at an elementary school to be determined.
Read a full recap of the questions and answers at Saturday's debate.
To view the latest Board of Education election coverage, visit our Storify.
Watch a video of the first debate of the election season on Thursday, Sept. 11.