School board candidate profile: Catherine Crystal Foster


Age: 48

Education: Bachelor's degree in history from Yale University; law degree from Harvard Law School

Current occupation: Founder and principal, Policy & Advocacy Consulting

Family: Husband Jon, sons Eric (at Palo Alto High) and David (at Nueva Middle School)

Favorite book: "Common Ground" by J. Anthony Lucas

Campaign website:

Catherine Crystal Foster has said she has developed the kind of thinking, understanding and expertise required of a school board member through her "life's work," 20 years of working at both the policy level and on the ground on education and youth issues.

The parent of two has emphasized her breadth of experience as setting her apart from the other candidates. Foster most recently served as executive director of nonprofit Peninsula College Fund, which helps low-income, first-generation students get to and finish college. She helped expand its service area to include Palo Alto's two high schools.

She began her career as an attorney for battered immigrant women and their children, headed a child advocacy program at a national nonprofit and later founded her own consulting firm, working for organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Locally, she served on the first Palo Alto Partners in Education (PiE) board and the Palo Alto Community Fund board.

Through her consulting work, Foster has used data for program evaluation, in areas in which she has said the district has much room for improvement. In the second debate of the campaign season on Sept. 16, she said evaluation is her top budget priority.

"We need to have more focus and staffing in the evaluation side of the house so we can do all the other kinds of teaching and learning that we want to do and make sure it's the best it can be," she said.

She has said that the district's lack of evaluation on achievement gap issues, in particular, has concerned her.

"We have students who are not succeeding in the way that we all want them to succeed and that we have an obligation to help them succeed," she said at the Sept. 20 debate.

She said the district needs to put together a catalog of all the programs addressing the achievement gap and then evaluate them against specific goals it wants to reach. She cited Walter Hays Elementary School's voluntary transfer program and Dreamcatchers, an after-school tutoring program, as particularly impactful models that could be spread to other schools after further evaluation.

Foster, like the other candidates, has said that she would commit to setting more concrete goals and collecting the metrics necessary to set Palo Alto Unified on the right path to reduce its achievement gap.

Foster has also expressed support for investing in teacher professional development, especially in relation to the achievement gap, writing instruction and advances in innovation.

Where Foster has notably diverged from the other four candidates is her position on the board's resolution in June criticizing the U.S. Department for Education's Office for Civil Rights, which has investigated the school district.

At the first debate of the campaign season, she said she would have, albeit reluctantly, voted to adopt the resolution if the allegations the board has made about the federal agency's investigative practices are true. These allegations include evidence tampering and refusing to correct alleged errors in its investigation processes, which current board leaders called "purposely confrontational and disruptive." The resolution also commits board members to seek redress of the alleged errors through meetings with elected officials and other organizations, a lobbying campaign it began this summer.

"As someone who has worked for social justice for 20 years, this is terrifically troubling to me," Foster said. "The OCR is an organization that needs to function well and needs to protect our kids. We need to cooperate absolutely, fully and completely with the OCR, but to the extent that we see an issue of concern, I think that all of us share the concern that we want that agency to be functioning as well as it can."

Foster said in recent years, she chose to not speak before the board on Office for Civil Rights issues because she did not "believe that some of the tone and tenor of these conversations were particularly productive." She said she instead talked personally to board members about it.

"The most important thing if you're trying to decide whether I should be on the board is what I will do as a board member," she said, "and what I will do as a board member is not behave the way our current board did with allowing the superintendent to hide the ball, having all of those closed sessions. That's not the kind of way that I would be as a board member."

Foster also said she "does not support expending district funds to engage in a fight with the Office for Civil Rights, period."

Foster has repeatedly expressed her top priority as ensuring that each and every student realizes his or her potential.

"I think that this moment right now, where we have all of these changes and this new superintendent, we have Common Core -- this is a moment where we can do something really impactful. What I want to do more than anything is to maximize the potential of every single student in our district," she told the Weekly.

How Palo Alto defines student success is critical to Foster, and she posed the question to the other five candidates at the first debate of the campaign season.

Her own response was that students must be given the space and independence to define success in their own terms.

"Success is not just about their personal best academically, but it's also about their personal best as independent thinkers, as resilient people, as people who value and are valued by their community," she said. "Our students can be successful when they fail, when they feel they've had the opportunity to fail and the opportunity to pick themselves back up again -- when they have gotten that level of support and independence that allows them to do that."

To view a video of the Weekly's interview with Catherine Crystal Foster, visit our YouTube channel.

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