The five school board candidates gathered at Gunn High School's Little Theater on Sunday, Oct. 5, for the first of two forums hosted by the Palo Alto Council of PTAs. This forum focused on secondary level education issues.
The forum was moderated by Gunn students Maya Ram and Grace Park, both members of the high school's debate team.
Below are three questions prepared by the PTA and given in advance to the candidates, as well as seven audience questions submitted via card, along with summaries of each of the candidates' answers to all 10 questions.
How much current communication do you have with students? How do you plan to further your communication and understanding of students' experiences and incorporating their voices in policies? How will you implement specific student concerns?
Terry Godfrey said that she gets informal feedback through her work in developmental assets through Project Safety Net, including most recently a Caring Neighborhoods initiative this summer that brought together teens and adults to organize neighborhood events. She said she also lives in an interactive, friendly neighborhood so she talks to her children's friends and others who live in that neighborhood. She said more formally, there are many surveys, such as the California Health Kids Survey (CHKS) or Palo Alto's Reality Check Survey, that can provide feedback. "We do best when we triangulate that data and (it) leads us to things that need solutions. I would hope that going forward, we spend a little more time with that," she said.
Ken Dauber said that "this is a critical question because it's impossible to implement policies that put students first without understanding what students' experiences are in school," but that with 12,600 students in the district, the board cannot know each student individually. What the board should do is use surveys to better understand the student experience and put strategies in place to better use the data the district already has through past surveys. "What we lack around that is data analysis and inclusion of that data in policies," he said. He also said the district should work to create more representative focus groups that reach students from different backgrounds and experiences.
Jay Cabrera said that at a forum at Gunn earlier in the campaign, he did a quick informal survey by talking to about 15 students who, he said, feel that their academic needs are met, but knowledge and practice of real life skills are not. He suggested the district could implement a "real life skills competition" that starts sophomore year. Students would have to get into college or find a job, rent an apartment, learn to budget and would win prizes along the way. He added that he agrees surveys, focus groups and other instruments to involve students in the decision-making process are key.
Gina Dalma said "there are very, very few industries that do not look at customer satisfaction to drive action" and that the district's sole responsibility is to make sure all students feel engaged and are learning in a positive environment. She said the district needs to look at the data more systematically; articulate that using the youth voice is a standard for the district; implement sophisticated surveys that include issues of instruction, environment and student support; plan and implement strategies to use data to drive instruction (an area where she thinks the district has come up short); and communicate back to students.
Catherine Crystal Foster asked, "Why are we all here? We are all here because of our students." She said she gets informal information as a parent of a PAUSD student. When she decided to run for school board, she pulled together an "informal youth advisory council" by reaching out to a broad swath of kids, from current middle and high school students to recent high school graduates, to "find out what their experience was like." She said she met with some kids over coffee and emailed with others. "That kind of thing has really driven my thinking," she said. She said the district should also look at best practices and should involve students in the crafting and interpretation of survey data.
At the secondary level schools, there is inequity amongst teachers teaching the same classes. School policy is that of a "no teacher shopping policy." How will you work to ensure all of the teachers and courses are equal in quality and difficulty? How will you identify and deal with poor teachers?
Cabrera said that the most important part of this question is how to deal with poor teachers. He said it should be "more of a three-year process to get tenure" and teachers should be subject to what he called a "720-degree evaluation system" where students, parents and colleagues are involved in evaluating teachers. He said it's important to accept that classes are going to be different.
Foster said instructional inconsistency has come up in every one of her conversations with students and it often comes up with parents, too. She said the district needs to understand the underlying problems for why that inconsistency exists and what it can do to deal with those problems. She said it's helpful if principals, instructional supervisors and teachers come together with a common understanding of what it means to be consistent, establish common goals and share outcomes. She said it's valid that teachers want to and will approach their "craft" differently, like artists do, but that it's problematic if that results in students not getting equal educational outcomes. She suggested looking at Schoology, the district's online management system, as a way to see what teachers are teaching and assigning across grades.
Dalma said that students in Palo Alto "face incredibly different educational experiences K-12. ... I believe this is 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 the district could do a better job of building site leadership, providing standards for all sites to meet and providing the wherewithal to meet those standards. If standards and goals aren't being met, the district should measure that and readjust investment in activities that do help meet those standards.
Godfrey said she agreed with what the other candidates said. She said like Foster, her inquiries to students have yielded the same consistent feedback about instructional inconsistency and the stress that that drives. She said inconsistency also makes alignment difficult, so some students might be more prepared than others when they move onto the next level of a class or subject. She said 360-degree feedback would give students and parents a more balanced sense of feedback. If poor teachers go through an evaluation process and professional development and still don't improve, "then you go through due process and do something about that," she said.
Dauber said the issue of consistency across curriculum and teachers is something that Superintendent Max McGee has said that he will focus on and Dauber agrees that it should be an important priority. He said the Strategic Plan survey indicated the majority of students and parents believe that teachers aren't teaching consistently and many teachers themselves also agree. McGee has suggested using the same tests across different sections of the same course to better gauge student achievement. He said the role of the school board isn't to design what consistent curriculum might look like, but to make sure the right things are being measured and evaluated and represent the community's interest on the topic to staff.
Some special interest groups have devoted great time and resources to attend board meetings and speaking out. What would you do to ensure that the views of the broader community are represented and given their appropriate weight? If elected, how do you plan to find out the majority's views?
Dalma said students are the key stakeholder group the board should be listening to. "I always use the phrase, 'We need to be listening to our quiet students and not to our loudest parents as a major stakeholder,'" she said. The board can get quantitative information from surveys, but its role should be to engage with the community to provide qualitative information. She also said board meetings should be more open so more people feel comfortable attending. There is no Spanish translation and the current format of the meetings "restrict the engagement of our community at-large," she said. "I would look for a board that has a format that is open, that is transparent and really looks at having all the opinions at the table."
Godfrey said the board should be anticipating issues coming down the pipeline where it will need to gather data or input in a systematic way to avoid getting tripped up. She referenced the school calendar changes, a hot-button issue that came to the board with little community input and ended up being "really distracting," she said. "The actual instrument is less important than knowing you need to do that to make a decision," she said.
Foster said it's important to think about what kind of input the district wants for its public schools, "one of our most fundamental democratic institutions" led by elected officials. She said it's fantastic when groups come together to lobby on certain issues that they're passionate about, but "we need everyone to be heard." She said listening and being proactive about gathering information from the broader community is key. She said a lot of people don't understand how the school board is structured and its role within the district, and it would be good to do some outreach to provide that information to various segments of the community. She said doing more micro-surveys (very targeted and specific) on issues that the board knows will be of concern along the way would be helpful.
Dauber said "it shouldn't take great time and resources as the question says to attend school board meetings and to participate in the democratic government of our school. I've attended the large majority (of meetings) over the last several years, and can report to you that the meetings are not working to promote participation from parents and community members." He said meetings go too late and the actual timing for when items are scheduled to be discussed is often off. Many parents also face a language barrier, and he would advocate for Spanish translation. He said if elected he would encourage board members and staff to keep their comments short and to the point. He also said the district should get more community members involved in serving on committees, instead of getting people who are repeatedly doing that work.
Cabrera said the primary issue for him is community empowerment, and it is the board's role to promote and encourage that empowerment. He sees the evolution of democracy as what he calls the "democratic trilogy," which is representative, participatory and direct democracy.
All of the candidates have expressed commitment to collaboration. Collaboration is easy when those share your views. It's hard when working with those with opposing beliefs. Please describe a collaboration example that you have led with those who held diverse beliefs. Describe what you did to reach decisions. Be specific (with examples of) actions.
Dauber gave two examples: One, his work as a Google software engineer and team leader; and two, his work in the district. He said Google is an intensely collaborative work environment where people have many different opinions. The role he has "consistently and successfully" played has been to integrate those different perspectives through discussion, debate, research and the gathering of data to move people forward on a plan that can be executed on. In his district work, he cited his work bringing together a set of people concerned about issues in the community and successfully advocating for change. He also mentioned his work on the homework policy committee, a group representing many diverse opinions to which he brought research and data on homework. After nine months, that group emerged with unanimous consensus on what the district homework policy should look like.
Cabrera said a board member's role should be one of facilitator, not decision maker. He said in his experience working in student government while he was at UC Santa Cruz, students of color were the primary "holders of power" but that there is a need to step back and allow a more diverse community to come forward and lead.
Godfrey said when she worked at Intel, there was a concept called "constructive confrontation" that provided people with strong, opposing views an opportunity to have very frank conversations about issues. "It isn't, 'I don't like your haircut,' but it's about the data," she said. Through these conversations, people would reach one decision that everyone can get behind even if not everyone agrees with it completely, they decide as a team that they will move forward and do it. She said a specific example of her collaboration was a Project Safety Net development assets survey from a few years ago. The district "wasn't keen" to do it, so she presented then-Superintendent Kevin Skelly with reasons why it was important and worked to set aside all the resources necessary (PTA volunteers) to do the actual survey.
Foster said with 12,600 students in the district, collaboration is necessary in order to get anything done. "In order for collaboration to be effective, it needs to be authentic," she added. She said that means listening and showing respect for others. She gave as an example work she did as an attorney for the local government in the District of Columbia on welfare reform legislation. She came at it from a child advocacy standpoint, while others didn't. She said she lead a process to make sure she listened and understood where other people were coming from, worked to find common ground and steered the conversation "toward what we shared together as some of our goals" to get that legislation successfully passed.
Dalma said she's leading a collaboration between Sequoia Union High School District and eight feeder districts into Sequoia, which draw from very different kinds of communities (Redwood City versus Portola Valley, for example). She said she makes sure everyone involved has a clear vision of success for all children and then builds relationships in order to "have the very hard conversations that you will have to have." The next step is analysis to see what it is going to take to actually achieve the initial vision of success for all.
The admission rates of our students to the UCs have been declining in the past few years. What are your plans to make our kids more competitive for placement into the UCs? How do you plan to provide the best education possible?
Foster said admission rates are declining in part because of the statewide budget crisis, which means UCs and state schools are putting more of an emphasis on accepting students from out of state who pay higher tuition. She asked, "What does success look like for our kids? ... Are the admission rates into the UC system the benchmark that we should be looking at?" She said the district should make sure every student is reaching his or her maximum potential by providing them the kind of support they need, whether its extra support for struggling students; helping high-achieving students continue to soar but also maintain a healthy approach to doing so; or making sure that students somewhere in the middle don't feel lost. All students should have a path to college after school that is "authentically representative" of their choices and definitions of success.
Dalma said the district has not done a good job of "investing in key levers for student success." Professional development should be geared to making kids critical thinkers armed with "21st century skills" to make them competitive not only for the UCs, but all over the country or wherever they want to go to college. She said teachers also need to teach the "non-cognitivies, or productive persistence skills. How do we give kids the grit and resilience to apply to all the schools they want and to be successful once they're there?"
Dauber said "one of the keys to success in a large organization is to choose the metrics that you're going to manage to. My sense is that managing to the admission rates at the University of California isn't the best metric for us in part because, as Catherine pointed out, there are other factors beyond our control that affect (that) ... and second, it's really too narrow a definition of success for ourselves as an academic institution." He said what the district should do is devise an understanding of what achievement looks like across the student population, from the lower- to higher-achieving students and those in the middle, and then evaluate against that. "That work of devising metrics and producing accountability for them is exactly the role of the school board," he said.
Cabrera said one thing that is doable to better prepare students for college is to provide more access to college-level classes through Foothill, De Anza or the Foothill extension at Cubberley. He said vocational training options should also be provided. He said that with the increasing cost of education, even for public state schools, it's important to directly advocate the state government and to build resources throughout the entire educational system. He said this is not just an issue at or for Gunn; it's an issue of the entire educational system needing to be revamped. He said there's a much larger picture regarding this issue in which Palo Alto could be a state leader.
Godfrey said the two questions posed are similar. "There's a reason they feel similar to me ... when we talk about the best education possible, we can step back and say, the best education possible for each individual student, because it's different for every student … and it should be different," she said. If a student's definition of success is graduating with a UC degree but it's becoming more difficult to do so, students should consider alternative paths, such as starting at a community college like De Anza or Foothill and then transferring to a UC. She said it's also important students have the space in high school to explore their passions and "find their spark" so they have something besides grades and test scores to bring to the college admissions process.
What are your thoughts on the role schools and the district should play to support student health and well-being, including mental health?
Godfrey said the district has more than 12,000 students who spend the bulk of their week on campuses with teachers, administrators and other students. She thinks what schools have done so far to keep kids healthy training teachers, adding resources around counseling, adding peer counseling services has served students well, but the end goal would be that there is no stigma around taking advantage of mental health services. "We have a role to play," she said. "We're responsible for these students when they're with us."
Dauber said one of the things the community learned from Project Safety Net and the wave of student suicides at Gunn some years ago is the "importance of understanding the relationship between the life of kids at school and their social-emotional well-being." That issue called him to the schools to advocate for "very simple, mundane but powerful changes" that improve students' lives at school, such as the homework policy. He said what should give the community some optimism is the fact that the district does "have the levers to pull" to improve students' social-emotional well-being: homework, test and project scheduling, pre-break finals, modifying guidance systems so adults have more contact with students. He said understanding that the health of kids is formed in all the institutions that they live in, including school, is really critical and powerful.
Cabrera said this is one of the most important issues in Palo Alto and that they have not been getting enough time in the forums or as a community to really address it. He said the "answer should be" having more sports and getting adults and students out and having fun via physical activity. He said the correlation between parents and student stress over homework should be addressed, possibly through parents taking a "homework class." He said there should be a system that tracks how much time students spend on homework so teachers can see how much they're getting from other classes beyond their own.
Dalma said it's incredibly encouraging to have five candidates that really prioritize students' social-emotional well-being. She said if the community's value could shift to defining student success as having kids be "socially, emotionally and academically proficient," that would change a lot. She said there should be more community conversations around mental health issues and parents should think about how they drive students' stress. She said the schools have great mental health programs but they're not being documented, evaluated or scaled.
Foster said this "brings us back again to the question I keep posing, 'Why are we here?' We are here because of our students and making sure they can learn at our schools." She said teachers know and research shows that "learning happens when health happens" so when kids are not healthy physically and/or mentally, they are not only not able to reach their full potential as individuals, they're also not going to learn. She said schools and the district play a key role and should reach kids where they are by providing all kinds of support that they might need. She said one thing learned from the suicide contagion was "the importance of speaking and giving voice to pain and concern." She added that these are problems shared by the entire Palo Alto community, not just the schools.
How would you diffuse the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) conflict? Would you advocate withdrawing the board's letter to the OCR? In favor of what?
Cabrera said he is in favor of repealing the resolution in context of increased collaboration and complete transparency. He said the idea of closed-session meetings are ridiculous and there should be a parent or community representative appointed to attend all closed-session meetings. He said he thought the issues surrounding the OCR conflict are a result of flawed leadership.
Foster said the most effective way to diffuse the conflict is "to understand where we all stand together," which is on protecting the civil rights of all students. "We diffuse it when our school board takes a stand saying, 'We will enforce these laws to the letter,' and that we will be open, we will be transparent and we will work hand in hand with our civil rights agency to make sure cases are brought to swift, just, fair decisions that really protect all of our kids." She said she thinks the district is "on the road in some ways" to more transparency and open communication with Superintendent McGee.
Dalma said she has been clear since the resolution was adopted in June that she was incredibly disappointed in and disapproved of the resolution. She said it's also "ridiculous" that the district is "spending money on lawyers versus spending money on our kids. I do believe that we have lost, in the past, an opportunity to become a better school district by maintaining our stance to fight our district." She said the words used in the resolution connote confrontation, not collaboration, and she would completely reverse the board's course on OCR.
Godfrey said rebuilding trust with the community will help diffuse the conflict. Though trust is at a low, there is a new opportunity with Superintendent McGee who in the last board meeting recounted the most recent OCR complaint filed against the district that he worked through "pretty quickly and pretty transparently." He also has started to provide monthly updates on OCR cases and has promised to do so until all the cases are closed. "There's some comfort in knowing whether its good, bad or ugly, every month you get to see what's happening," she said. "It's not a red flag moment. It's just part of what we do." McGee has also asked that the director of special education report directly to him. She said she thinks the district is on the right road and it "feels much better than it did. If the board feels like OCR needs some feedback, it could work with other organizations who have experience with the federal agency to do so.
Dauber said he would vote to rescind the board's resolution. He said it's important to understand what the resolution authorizes, which is a lobbying campaign directed against OCR's investigative procedures and investigative authority in Palo Alto schools. It also authorizes the district to seek to reopen closed cases, in particular a bullying case at Terman Middle School, and to reargue the agency's finding on that case. "Neither of those actions has any benefit for students in our district," he said, and they're also expensive. The district has spent just under $50,000 on the preparation and follow-up for the resolution. "It's impossible to talk about going forward while we are still pursuing activities that take us backward," he said. He said it's important for voters to listen to the candidates talk about this issue and "to think about the judgment you're seeing" because the way the district got to this point was by taking its eye off the ball and not understanding the district's overarching purpose to put students first. The time and money being spent on OCR-related legal fees is taking time and money away from students, he said.
Considering that candidates spent a lot of time talking about surveys, and that students have negligible input in the creation of surveys, do you think surveys are representative of the student climate/needs?
Dalma said this is where she becomes more of a parent than a candidate: "There's nothing that works better than a good bribe." She said surveys work well when there is high participation, and the district can make high participation happen. She also said the more students feel their opinions are trusted and valued, the more they will participate.
Godfrey said there are multiple ways to get input and surveys are just one of them. She said focus groups also work well. She said what really incentivizes participation even better than bribes of free pizza, she joked -- is knowing that it's worth it. "If you do nothing with data, all you've done is really disenfranchise them," and they won't want to do it again, she said. She said the district should make sure it clearly "closes the loop" with students and tell them what kind of surveys they're taking, what the results were and what might happen as a result of the information.
Foster said in order for students to participate in surveys/the gathering of input in a meaningful way, they need to understand the impact of their participation. "They need to see how their life is going to be different if they answer the questions," she said. "We've taught them over time that the surveys don't mater." She said her son, a high school junior, has told her surveys are applied inconsistently some teachers give them out and some don't and that students might not want to answer questions honestly because they fear retribution from teachers. She said students should have a hand in the design of survey questions and in the interpretation of the answers. The district should have a clear plan for every piece of data it collects.
Dauber said the district is spending $185 million a year, which represents a lot of resources, planning and "hope that things we're doing are going to be effective." Where surveys play a role though not the only role is measuring the effect of those expectations and using data to guide the next phase of innovation, iteration and so forth. He said two areas where the district is "flying blind" because it's not collecting the right kind of data is the homework policy and Gunn's guidance counseling program. He said the district doesn't know whether the homework policy is being implemented or if it's having the positive effect its crafters expected. He said a baseline survey at Gunn on the counseling system was conducted in 2011, but has not been redone since.
Cabrera recounted his own frustrating experience with filling out surveys, putting in effort and feeling like it just disappears. He said the first change that should be made is that students have direct, immediate access to survey results online. He also said it's key to "assess the entire assessment process. What is more important than surveys is getting students civically engaged."
Paly and Gunn have very different cultures and strengths. Do you support allowing parents to select the school and environment that is best suited to the needs of their child?
Dauber said he would point out that Paly and Gunn are actually quite similar. They are both located on the Peninsula in an affluent community; they have somewhat similar demographic makeups. He said there is no reason the two school should be significantly different in a way that would drive such a parent decision. He said the district and board should instead be committed to ensuring that all students get the same excellent education and educational services no matter what school they go to or what neighborhood they live in. He said this is why he and other parents spent time on issues like guidance counseling, where they discovered and demonstrated via data that the quality of services in terms of effectiveness at Gunn were less than at Paly (and thus that there should be changes made so its level would rise to meet Paly's). There are "marginal areas" such as a German class not offered at one school or the other that can be accommodated.
Cabrera said the answer is yes and no. He said yes, of course, any parent should be able to ask for their child to go to another school (which his parents did for him, switching him from Paly to Gunn). But it shouldn't be a complete free-for-all.
Godfrey said she agrees that the way to approach it is to make sure students at both schools have the same access to the same quality education. She said there are things the district could do to improve, though. Something that has come up for her Paly children is wanting to take a particular class at Gunn, but not being able to because the two schools have different schedules. "There are some structural things we could do to make it a little easier for very rare situations where a kid might want to do that," she said. "There is a process by which you can apply, but you don't want it to be the run of the mill, the norm" and there will be differences between the schools no matter what.
Foster said it's important to remind ourselves that this is a unified school district and the district has an obligation to provide every single student a school and education that will allow them to maximize their potential. That said, allowing parents to make that choice based on what their children's interests might be "might be a valid thing," she said. "We value choice in this community." She said schools are "human places" filled with human beings, so there are bound to be differences. She said the board should stay focused on the fact that the goal is equal outcomes for all students. She said it should also be easy for schools "to be aligned on things where there's no reason they shouldn't be."
Dalma said, "This conversation and this question is actually a symptom of what we've been talking about. Autonomy has driven our schools to a place where we are having kids that have an unequal K-12 experience." She said this is the time for the district to strengthen its leadership system and do more professional development to provide teachers the space and time to collaborate and share best practices. She referenced Paly's glass-blowing program and Gunn's robotics program as opportunities that should be at the margins rather than the overall standard.
Dr. McGee has stated that we need to prepare students for jobs that don't yet exist. In the future, success depends on what you can do with what you know but our school system is risk averse, failure is penalized and learning is passive. In addition, our community is proud of our schools and when you're good at something you naturally resist change. 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? Please provide supporting evidence of your courage.
Foster said innovation is one of the themes of her campaign and she thinks it's important that the school district reflects the creativity, energy and "embracing of failure that Silicon Valley is all about." She said in many ways, she feels like Palo Alto schools look like the suburban New Jersey high school she went to in the 1980s, but that can change. It can change with "courage" and drawing on best practices from around the country. She gave as examples of potential innovation Palo Alto could incorporate, including service learning opportunities, year-long projects, internships and design thinking. She said courage is standing up to those in power, which she has done throughout her career as a domestic violence lawyer and legislative work. "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 added, referencing her position on the board's OCR resolution.
Dalma said she has had the privilege of seeing best practices of innovation at the local, state and national level through her work and that is something she can bring back to Palo Alto. She was in Kentucky a few weeks ago and observed what a 21st century classroom looks like it was loud, with engaged students discussing and the teacher serving as a facilitator. She said the learning and engagement was at a "rigorous level I have not been able to see in our classrooms." She said as a working parent, she hasn't had the "privilege of being able to be a volunteer," but when the board passed its OCR resolution in June, she was incredibly angry about it and stood up for it at that time.
Dauber said he defines courage as commitment informed by judgment. Courage requires first that you make a decision about what the right course of action is and that you are willing to be accountable for that decision. Commitment is then standing up and doing the hard work of implementing the decision. He said in this district, he sees a lot of willingness to respond to courage defined in that way that is, to evidence-based decisions and policies that focus on putting students first. This is the kind of courageous work he's done on issues like homework and the calendar, he said. He said the district has an immense resource in terms of teachers and staff who want to be innovative and who look to the board for support and resources for doing so. "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."
Cabrera said the most important principle is being true to yourself regardless of what people might think of you. He said he is willing to say things that aren't necessarily popular because he wants to be an independent thinker that provides an innovative, alternative perspective. He said he put his "entire life on the line" by following his dream to start up his nonprofit in 2007, right before the economy fell apart.
Godfrey said if the district/board wants to take risks and do things that are bold to prepare students for jobs that don't exist yet, it must first work to rebuild trust with the community. The community won't let the board take risks when in the past, it has taken risks that weren't properly mitigated for or that it wasn't properly transparent about. She said in her work at Intel, her sub-specialty was rebuilding teams, which was an unpopular job to have because she sometimes had to get rid of people, move people or make hard decisions. "You have to be courageous and say, 'This is what's best for the organization, this ultimately is what's best for you. It isn't very sexy, but sometimes, it takes courage," she said.