The day before mail-in ballots were sent out to California voters, the five Palo Alto school board candidates gathered at Gunn High School to discuss the issues affecting the district's nearly 4,000 high school students, from mental health and college readiness to the differences in culture at the district's two high schools.
The candidates answered three questions they were given in advance by the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, which hosted the Sunday, Oct. 5 forum, along with seven questions from an audience of about 25 people.
More than one question struck a familiar chord for Palo Alto parents and students: The topic of inconsistency between classes and teachers, as well as offerings at Palo Alto High and Gunn.
One audience question asked the candidates if, considering each high school's different strengths and weakness, they support allowing parents to select the school and environment that is best suited to the needs of their children.
"This conversation and this question is actually a symptom of what we've been talking about," said candidate Gina Dalma. "Autonomy has driven our schools to a place where we are having kids that have an unequal K-12 experience."
She said in order to avoid a situation where parents want to choose between the two schools, the district should provide more space and time for teachers to collaborate and share best practices.
Dalma said there are opportunities "at the margins" such as Paly's glass-blowing program or Gunn's robotics program where students should be able to "share the excellency that we have in our high schools."
Ken Dauber and Terry Godfrey said that differences are less important than if students at both schools have equal access to quality services.
Dauber said the right way to respond to the differences between Paly and Gunn is not to choose one over the other, but to measure those differences and then take action to raise the level of services at one school until it meets the other. He gave as an example his and other parents' work to change Gunn's counseling system, which was sparked by data that demonstrated that Gunn's counseling services were less effective for students than Paly's.
Catherine Crystal Foster said enabling parents to choose between schools "might be a valid thing."
"I think we always have to remind ourselves that this is a unified school district and we have an obligation to every single student in the district to have a school … that will let them maximize their potential," she said.
Students should never feel like they're in a situation where they can't do that because of the school they go to, she added.
"That said, I think that enabling parents to make choices in schools based on what their children's interests might be is a valid thing," she said. "We value choice in this community."
She added that the district should focus on equality of outcomes and "making it easy for schools to be aligned on things where there's no reason they shouldn't be."
Gunn graduate Jay Cabrera said his parents went through the process to switch him from the Paly district so he could attend Gunn. Any parent should have the option to take advantage of that process, though it shouldn't be a "free-for-all," he said.
One of the prepared questions probed the candidates on instructional consistency, asking how they would identify and deal with poor teachers.
"I was talking to teacher this morning who said, 'You wouldn't want to ask a Monet to look like Van Gogh.' You have artists who approach their craft in different ways and there's validity in that," Foster said. But if the classroom and school autonomy is creating unequal outcomes, "that's problematic," she added.
Foster suggested looking at Schoology the district's online management system for courses, schedules, and teacher-student and parent communication as a way of measuring horizontal instructional consistency.
Cabrera similarly suggested that the district should implement a system by which students track the amount of time they spend on homework so teachers could then see how much work students are getting in other classes.
Dalma called the district's range in academic rigor, homework load and grading a "complete disservice to our students."
"Much of this effect has been a result of our closely (held) value of autonomy in each classroom and autonomy at site level," she said.
Dalma said the district needs to build a better "line of leadership" drawing from the superintendent through principals to teachers.
"What building leadership means is making sure you're providing standards and then providing the wherewithal to meet (those) standards," she said.
Dauber and Godfrey spoke to the importance of getting feedback from students, parents and teachers on consistency and then using that data to guide the school board's action.
The theme of collecting meaningful feedback from students also ran through the forum, with all of the candidates pointing to the district's flawed process for doing so.
"One of the things that really, in my mind, (incentivizes) people to do surveys is knowing that it's worth it. If you do nothing with the data, all you've done is really disenfranchise them. They don't want to do it again," Godfrey said.
"We've taught (students) over time that the surveys don't matter," echoed Foster. She said the district should encourage participation by inviting students to "have a hand in the design of the questions and interpretations of the answers."
Dauber said there are two areas where the district is "flying blind" because it has failed to collect meaningful data through talking directly to students, parents and teachers: the district's recently adopted homework policy and changes made to Gunn's counseling program.
He said the district has failed to assess the implementation of the homework policy, as well as to redo a baseline student survey from 2011 that guided his and others' work around the Gunn counseling system.
Cabrera, who has advocated for making all board decisions and district information completely accessible online, said survey results should be published online immediately so students have direct access and are empowered to engage in the process.
In response to a question of paramount interest to high school seniors what the candidates would do about Palo Alto students' falling admission rates to the University of California system most candidates said that rate should not be a metric for success, in part because of external factors contributing to that decline and in part because it narrows students' definitions of success.
Godfrey said that even if a student's definition of success is graduating from a UC school, there are alternative routes to get there that should be viewed as acceptable.
"If a degree from a UC is what you want, perhaps what you should do is go to De Anza or Foothill. ... Many students have been down that path and it works great. For many students, that's the best path from an affordability standpoint," she said.
Similarly, Foster said that the district should be providing the support and resources necessary to make sure that all students have a path to college that is "authentically representative" of their own definition of success.
She attributed declining acceptance rates to the statewide budget crisis and public universities' increasing inclination to accept more out-of-state students who pay higher tuition.
The last audience question pushed the candidates to provide evidence of their commitment to innovation, asking: "Who among you has the courage to lead us to innovation in our schools and to withstand our community's inevitably pessimistic response to innovation in schools?"
"I feel like our schools in many respects look like the suburban New Jersey high school I went to in the early '80s and we can change that," Foster said.
She suggested service-learning opportunities; year-long, hands-on projects; internships; and design thinking as possible innovations that could be easily brought into Palo Alto's classrooms.
Foster said her career has been about "standing up to those in power," from her work as a domestic-violence lawyer to her advocacy for changes in legislation at the national level.
"It's been about doing things that aren't always easy but that are important. If you take a look at the past few weeks, some among you might say it is courageous to say sometimes you are not going to leap to judgment on something when other people might want you to do so," she said, referencing her position on the board's June resolution criticizing the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.
"That is absolutely the essence of my campaign." she said, referring to her focus on change and innovation.
Alternatively, Dalma referenced her opposition to the June resolution as an example of her courage and commitment.
"I've been a parent that hasn't had the privilege of being able to be a volunteer just because I have to work, and nevertheless ... in June, I was incredibly angry with the board's resolution and I stood up for it at that time," she said.
Dauber said he defines courage as "commitment informed by judgment," which is the kind of work he's done as a parent advocate serving on the committee that developed the district's homework policy.
"I think that we have in our district an immense resource in terms of teachers and staff members who want to be innovative, who are innovative and are looking to us and looking to the board to design programs and policies that lift those innovations up and give them resources they need to try them out," he said. "This is for us about empowerment and providing support and not so much about coming up with ideas ourselves. I think we have an organization that's full of those ideas."
Godfrey said in order for the board to take risks on innovative programs and practices, it must first rebuild trust with the community. She said the board has taken risks that weren't properly mitigated for or that it wasn't fully transparent about, and the next iteration of the board has the "hard work" of regaining the community's trust before implementing innovation.
The next PTA forum will focus on elementary education and is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 15, from 7 to 9 p.m. in the multipurpose room at Fairmeadow Elementary School, 500 East Meadow Drive.
For complete coverage of the 2014 Palo Alto school board election, visit the Weekly's Storify.