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School board candidate profile: Gina Dalma

 

Age: 47

Education: Bachelor's in economics from Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México in Mexico City; master's in economics from University of London; master's in international policy from Stanford University

Current occupation: Senior education program officer, Silicon Valley Community Foundation

Family: Husband Gabriel, son Jacques and daughter Tess

Favorite books: "The God of All Small Things" by Arundhati Roy, "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel and anything by Alain de Botton

Campaign website: ginadalma.com

Gina Dalma has repeated throughout the campaign that a culture of complacency is one of the Palo Alto Unified School District's greatest weaknesses, impeding its progress on the achievement gap, innovation and evaluation -- three of her main priorities.

"We need to make sure we are pushing the boundaries," she said at a Sept. 16 candidates debate. "We cannot rest on our laurels as a school district."

She has touted her background as evidence for her being the kind of board member who will be able to push the boundaries. She is currently working as Silicon Valley Community Foundation's senior program officer and, prior to that, was the Silicon Valley Education Foundation's director of innovation. This work has taken her around the country, looking at other districts that are, perhaps, innovating more than Palo Alto.

"I have not spent hours and hours volunteering in classrooms," Dalma said in an interview with the Weekly. "What I bring is hours and hours looking at programming, evaluating programming and evaluating systems where programs actually work in terms of increasing student achievement."

Born and raised in Mexico, Dalma holds bachelor's and master's economics degrees from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México in Mexico City and the University of London, as well as a master's in international policy from Stanford University. In Mexico, she held several positions in the federal and state public sectors related to urban economic development and regulatory economics. She and her husband moved to Palo Alto 20 years ago and have two children who have attended Ohlone Elementary School, Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School and Palo Alto High School.

She said in the second debate of the season that the first thing she would do differently if elected is "reach across El Camino," referring to the dividing line between district headquarters on Churchill Avenue and Stanford University.

"We've got some of the best minds in education that are influencing the world of education globally at Stanford," she told the Weekly. "We should be having lunch with these folks once a month. We should be convening them and inviting them to pilot things in our school district."

She attributes the district's failure to establish such partnerships to a complacency with being, overall, a high-performing school district.

"I really believe that it's a feeling of, 'We've achieved so much and our kids are succeeding -- why shake the boat? Why move it?'" she said. "But what we don't understand is if we don't keep innovating, we're going to lose that level of world-class education."

Dalma has expressed similar criticisms about the district's progress -- or lack thereof -- on the achievement gap.

Palo Alto's most recent state Academic Performance Index (API) scores showed four major subgroups -- African-American, Hispanic or Latino, socioeconomically disadvantaged and students with disabilities -- still falling short of the state standard for proficiency (a score of 800). In 2013, African American students scored at 761, Hispanic or Latino just below the 800 mark at 795, socioeconomically disadvantaged students at 768 and students with disabilities at 734. Though Palo Alto ranked fifth out of the top 10 unified school districts in the state, its subgroup scores are not as high as in other districts.

"I think there has never been a real push to close the achievement gap," Dalma told the Weekly. "I can't see it."

She said she would look to other school districts in the area doing better by their minority and low-income students and bring best practices back to Palo Alto.

Dalma, who is bilingual, also started a group for Spanish-speaking parents at Palo Alto High School last school year. She said when her son, now a sophomore, arrived at Paly, many school communications were only provided in English. A group of about 12 or 13 parents now meets once a month to informally talk about "how we believe we need to influence the system to improve the education that a bunch of our Latino kids get," she said.

Dalma, like the other candidates, advocates for putting the right metrics and systems in place to evaluate current programs aiming to address the achievement gap.

She has also repeatedly said that the Strategic Plan should be more aligned with the more flexible framework provided by the state's Local Control Funding Formula in order to invest funding where it is needed.

Dalma has also spoken out in support of Palo Alto High School teachers' proposal to "de-lane" freshman English -- and her disappointment in the board's failure to support it -- including in a guest opinion published in the Palo Alto Weekly on March 28.

"In our school district as well as others, parents of higher-achieving students and school administrators have strongly advocated for differentiated paths that put students into lanes according to their level of proficiency -- the assumption being that this provides them with more of an individualized instruction, but in fact it does the opposite," she wrote.

At the Sept. 20 debate, Dalma said laning "makes absolutely no sense when talking about core subjects, like freshman English at Paly," but that she supports specialization in other subject areas or at higher grade levels.

"I think the single most important thing is belief system," she told the Weekly. "This is why the laning issue matters so much to me. If you tell a kid, 'This is your level of achievement,' that is exactly what the kid is going to do."

Dalma, a member of the National Common Core Funders Steering Committee, identifies Common Core implementation, which she said has been inconsistent, as a high priority for evaluation.

She also said she would immediately evaluate the district's professional development policy, which she said "doesn't work."

She thinks the district can improve by aligning types of teacher development to the goals they are supposed to achieve -- such as increasing instructional consistency from classroom to classroom -- and establishing a metrics system to know whether they are effective or not.

"All these resources that are being thrown into professional development are wasted if we can't measure their success," she said.

To view a video of the Weekly's interview with Gina Dalma, visit our YouTube channel.

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