Palo Alto superintendent to convene achievement gap advisory committee

Group will be charged with issuing districtwide recommendations on minority achievement

During a live call-in show Wednesday evening, Palo Alto Superintendent Max McGee announced the launch of a minority achievement and talent development advisory committee – a group of community members, faculty, students, parents and others who will be charged with making a set of strategic recommendations to help close the district's achievement gap.

McGee called the committee "the most important initiative we'll have this year" and said the application process for interested participants will begin Wednesday, after the board discusses the item at its meeting Tuesday night.

"Their purpose is to develop a set of strategic recommendations after looking at all the data we have and after having some training themselves," he said. "We're going to bring in experts around the field. We're going to talk to other districts that are solving this problem. So they'll make a set of strategic recommendations. We'll have metrics; we'll have timelines; we'll have cost estimates -- and then we'll see how this fits in with the Strategic Plan."

McGee revealed the committee in response to a question from Palo Alto High School junior Melanie Reilly, who along with Gunn senior Leah Hirsh co-hosted the hour-long show with McGee at the Midpeninsula Media Center.

The advisory committee will consist of two administrators, four faculty and staff, four students, four parents, and four members of the community at large, according to the Tuesday board agenda. A district administrator and member of the community will serve as co-chairs. Appropriate staff will be assigned to support the work of the committee and will be accountable for assuring the report is completed in a timely manner.

McGee said Thursday morning that the committee will work to address districtwide two things that have been an "ongoing issue" in Palo Alto.

"School sites have taken some good initiatives (to close the achievement gap), but we really need to approach this as a districtwide system," he said.

The second charge of the committee is to look at talent development.

"It's well documented in America that one of the greatest problems that we have is ignoring the bright and talented ... youth of color and children from socio-economically disadvantaged homes," he said during the call-in show. "There are so many talented students, yet by the time AP (Advanced Placement) classes come around in high school, they're significantly underrepresented."

McGee said in addition to looking at what other school districts have done and successful school-site initiatives and analyzing data such as test scores, grades and enrollment patterns, the district will host public hearings on the topic.

"We want to hear some narrative," he said Thursday.

The committee will also be asked to identify any potential policy issues the board should consider developing and adopting.

"Most importantly, it's going to lead to a set of actionable recommendations across the system that are going to make a difference -- ideally in the short term, but certainly over the long term."

McGee said they're beginning to schedule committee meetings and are aiming to convene the very first one on Tuesday, Nov. 4, election day. Meetings will generally be held on Tuesday afternoon or evenings when there is no board meeting.

According to next week's board agenda, the goal is for the committee to present a final report to McGee in April 2015 in time to bring it to the board either that or the next month.

During the live call-in show Wednesday, McGee also answered the two high school broadcast journalism students' questions about consistency in a district that values school-site autonomy, Common Core, the need for a 13th elementary school, the board's Office for Civil Rights resolution and his plan to address bullying and sexual harassment in schools.

He said bullying and harassment have been a "serious problem" in Palo Alto and the solution is multifaceted. It involves implementing and enforcing the district's new bullying policy, comprehensively training staff and teachers and encouraging students to be "upstanders," not bystanders who speak up when they see their peers being harassed.

McGee criticized the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights for its lack of timeliness on handling some complaints in Palo Alto.

"The resolution was an attempt to, for lack of a better word, encourage the Office for Civil Rights to work more collaboratively and in a timely manner for some of these ongoing investigations," he said.

He held up his handling of the most recent complaint filed with the federal agency last month as the district's model going forward. McGee quickly put together a timeline for the complaint, outlined what changes had been made at the school and district level in response and provided the information in the Sept. 23 board packet. He did not bring in district lawyers and said the case was resolved in less than a month.

"My goal is to work collaboratively to talk directly with the case workers, work directly with families and meet face to face," he said. "The last thing you want to do is call a lawyer. The first thing you want to do is understand the problem."

One of three callers, named Kirsten, asked McGee how he intends to reward all kinds of learners -- including the "learning disabled and ones who are creative or more visual-spatial learners but not conventional 'academic' succeeders" – in a district so focused on rewarding math, science and verbal communication skills.

McGee said he has experience with that as the parent of a son who did not learn to read until second grade and never went to college, but who has "incredible spatial intelligence."

"You're absolutely right on target when you talk about different learning modalities, different intelligence. I have lived this for 31 years of his life and cannot be prouder of him. Your questions impacts me personally as well as being the leader of this school district. So what are we doing (about it)?"

He lauded the district's special education program for its focus on individual need and team of about 200 teacher assistants who help classroom teachers with special education students.

"We're trying to provide our teachers with the professional development on one hand, the support on the other hand, to work with these students so that they can succeed so we can help them realize what enormous, untapped potential they have. And if we're not doing this, we need to do a better job."

McGee said Thursday that the idea for the call-in show came out of conversations with the district's communications coordinator, Tabitha Kappeler-Hurley, about ways for him to further engage with the community. In the Illinois school district where he served as superintendent for five years, he ran his own monthly talk show, and he said he'd like to do the same in Palo Alto.

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1 person likes this
Posted by pausd parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Oct 9, 2014 at 11:21 am

I didn't get a chance to watch the show, but as a parent in this district who hears all kinds of problems from other parents, too, I wish there were a better way of communicating some of these problems to McGee. It's great the way he resolved that complaint, but the majority of parents experiencing problems aren't filing complaints, they don't even feel empowered to advocate effectively for their kids.

We could really benefit from some of the practices of high reliability organizations, frankly. In the achievement gap but in the district as a whole as well.

3 people like this
Posted by Been There, Done That
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 9, 2014 at 12:12 pm

"bullying and harassment have been a 'serious problem' in Palo Alto".

What? Not compared to other school districts. I know, there should be no bullying, but this is the real world, and there is no way to completely eradicate bullying. Can't tell a student to stop looking at the other student weirdly or stop making certain facial expressions.

Each of my three well-liked children have had some bullying issues but we contacted the administration or teachers and the bullying ended immediately at Duveneck and Jordan. Parents here are more likely to be rational with discussing bullying versus other school districts in the nation. But compliance seems to depend on the staff you are working with, as I know some principals of other elementary schools did not address bullying of their small child even with the parents complaining and even with an easy solution, which was unacceptable.

The other thing to consider is the Palo Altan's viewpoint of "bullying", which is at zero tolerance. My children could have fought back (as we did back in the day) but people here expect a lot from the schools.

When we lived in another state a decade ago, the complacent staff did nothing to stop hitting and harassing so we had to teach our children to fight back through pushing or hitting (in preschool and kindergarten and 3rd grade). One boy apologized for a week after being shoved into the lockers due to his name-calling. I'm not condoning physical altercation as a solution - I'm just stating that we have it good here in PAUSD.

The other aspect to consider is whether bullied elementary school children are provoking other students through odd behavior or comments. I know, I know, it's still not right to bully them, but as adults, we have the discipline to ignore and walk away from the asinine co-worker. Some of the children who are bullied should have parents who teach them proper behavior (like, you don't laugh when someone gets hurt, you don't laugh at others or say provocative things, you don't throw a ball at someone, you stay out of people's faces, etc.).

8 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2014 at 12:20 pm

This performance gap issue has been around for a long time. Who knows how many studies have been done on this topic, here in the US, but it’s clear that the involvement of parents is crucial to students attaining high performance status, via standardized testing, and normal course work grading.

For decades, education proponents have routinely ignored this data, and complained that there needed to be more funding for education. This money has been lavishly supplied the education industry, with little to show, systemically.

There are some examples of schools where racial, and cultural, diversity does not seem to be a barrier to aggregate student performance. But these schools are few and far between, and there has been little investigation into the home lives of the students in these schools.

If this committee is not open-minded to all of the data that is available, it will end up making another ill-considered recommendation that “more funding” is required.

Education is a life-long exercise. This understanding starts in the home, and can not be instilled in young people forced to added a public school by the mandate of the State.

3 people like this
Posted by Ellie
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 9, 2014 at 1:20 pm

This is welcome news. Not only is our achievement gap an embarrassment, we must ensure that we walk the walk when we assert that every child counts and that none are expendable. Our success will be among the best lessons our children can learn. Thank you for your leadership, Dr. McGee.

3 people like this
Posted by Help Wanted: Legal
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 9, 2014 at 1:45 pm

I commend Dr. McGee for resolving the recent OCR complaint quickly through engaging in a fast resolution process. That process is the exact same process that was available to Dr. Skelly and to every school district in the country that receives a complaint. The path taken by Dr. McGee is the path chosen by everyone else when a complaint is received. That path was not, however, the path chosen by Dr. Skelly and our school board.

Dr. Skelly and Barbara Mitchell did not collaborate with OCR. Instead they brought in a team of high-priced outside lawyers to fight the federal government for years, concealed the fact of the finding, and the process by which they were fighting it, and engaged in other behind the scenes tomfoolery that ended up costing the district hundreds of thousands of dollars and damaged our reputation.

It is very very misguided for Dr. McGee to contend that OCR took too long. OCR was ready on Day 1 to negotiate with PAUSD but there was no one to negotiate with. It was PAUSD, Fagan Friedman and Fulfrost, and Dora Dome "Esq" who made the entire process drawn out to a ridiculous degree. All of these lawyers were lining their pockets with your and my hard-earned tax dollars, while meanwhile nothing was being done to prevent or resolve bullying and harassment and we got a slew of new complaints.

So Dr. McGee makes no sense. When he says that there were delays, he is right. When he blames them on OCR he is wrong, and I suspect he knows it but I am not sure.

He also said that OCR went on a "fishing expedition." That is a very ill-advised statement for 2 reasons. It's false -- there's no evidence for that, and in fact, the Paly Voice published an article that demonstrated that there were fish. The federal government absolutely has the right and duty to audit districts who proclaim that they are discriminating and that is what happened at Paly. If you want to blame someone, blame Phil Winston who had the job of preventing sexual harassment. Blaming OCR for investigating the sexual harassment at Paly is pretty weak.

It's also just ill-advised to say confrontational things about whether OCR has "overreached" or gone fishing. Cooperating does not include statements like that.

Unfortunately McGee is getting the same legal advice that Skelly was getting. He needs a new legal team.

Posted by parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School

on Oct 9, 2014 at 2:22 pm

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7 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Schools can only do so much to narrow the achievement gap because the gap started long before students went to Kindergarten. It's the families, the resources and the emphasis on education which is the basis of the achievement gap.

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Posted by Legal
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2014 at 2:52 pm

@Help Wanted: Legal - Palo Alto Online posted PAUSD legal fee statements on it's Web page, above under the tab News, School Documents. But it's not complete, they don't include all the Special Education law firms PAUSD uses. Aren't there at least two others that came up in previous Palo Alto Online requests?

4 people like this
Posted by muttiallen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 9, 2014 at 4:24 pm

muttiallen is a registered user.

Now that Ravenswood District is doing as well with its students as PAUSD does with its low-income English Language Learning students, isn't it time to do away with the Tinsley program? Kids do better in neighborhood schools where the parents can get involved and aren't pushed aside by the helicopter parents of Palo Alto

4 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 9, 2014 at 4:56 pm

I know an elementary teacher in another district. Her biggest gripe about achievement for her students is educating the parents. When her students' parents are unable to send back a signed form, a weekly school library book or even read the weekly class newsletter, she knows that she is not going to get them to help with reading practice, spelling practice or multiplication facts. She knows these students are already at a huge disadvantage compared to the families who read together and encourage the children to do their homework. She would love to be able to encourage the parents to help their kids, but many families think it is the schools' job to teach the kids and they do nothing to help.

With differences in family backgrounds making such a big difference even in the younger elementary ages, it is almost impossible to think that we are going to close the achievement gap by having committees, spending money or having after school clubs when it is parent education that is the biggest problem. When families do not value education or just expect the kids to learn without putting in the effort, then we are not going to get anywhere.

This is a sad situation for these kids, but that is the climate in which we are operating. Don't blame it on EPA/Tinsley kids, there are parents like that even in Palo Alto. They feel that living here with good schools is all it takes for a good education. That, and they are more concerned that their kids don't get involved in gangs or crime.

1 person likes this
Posted by Domad
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 9, 2014 at 9:02 pm

Well he's already made progress now that 90% of the minorities in PAUSD are being displaced with the closing of Buena Vista. Maybe he will offer some of his interest free $1,000,000 loan to help those students continue their education in PAUSD. Who cares about building a community anyways. Let's just raise a bunch of sociopathic VCs and CEOs. Get me outta here!!!

4 people like this
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 9, 2014 at 9:35 pm

@Domad there are 64 PAUSD students living in the trailer park, nothing close to 90% of the minority population. Excluding Asians of course, because they are aren't a minority, because, why?

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Posted by Joe Kool
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 9, 2014 at 9:57 pm

Joe Kool is a registered user.

Im sure Domad was referring to the fact that Asians account for at least 27% of Palo Alto's population, compared to less then 8% black or Latino.

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Posted by Groucho
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 9, 2014 at 10:00 pm

@parent - "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others." G. Marx

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Posted by Domad
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 9, 2014 at 10:04 pm

@mr recycle - actually Asians are the majority population at Gunn. Check the stats.

But that's not the point. The point is our school system is going to become less diverse when we take away a huge chunk of our minority and lower socioeconomic students when BV is leveled, turned into homes, and sold to wealthy white/Asian families. Very sad.

4 people like this
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 10, 2014 at 12:23 am

@Domad - You probably mean plurality, not majority. But given Asians outnumber and are doing better than white students at Gunn, should we get a commission together investigate the white achievement gap?

1 person likes this
Posted by Smoke, mirrors, skill
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2014 at 6:38 am

Good job admitting there is a problem with the opportunity gap, McGee, and yes, it's wise to actually to call the lawyers as a last resort, not as a first step, but then again this is not your first rodeo. Let's give Skelly a break in running to the lawyers so much, after all he was a rookie superintendent, and he didn't reveal his true feelings about Latinos until his second year. But back to McGee, it's barely his third month and we still have to see what is going to be revealed after the election.

2 people like this
Posted by Paly parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 10, 2014 at 9:36 am

It's about proficiency: the schools need to be able to educate the children to a proficient level regardless of the parents. A child may not do as well without parental support and involvement compared to a child with all the advantages of engaged, educated parents (though hopefully they will given the right academic supports and learning climate), but we need to get all kids at least up to a proficient level. The schools have them all day (and from kindergarten for VTP/Tinsley) and can teach them to read and write at least at a proficient level. Far below basic and below basic status is a reflection on the schools, as it is the role of the school to provide all California children a free public education, regardless of their personal background.

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Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 10, 2014 at 9:56 am

I'm not sure, so please correct me if I am wrong, but I think we are succeeding in educating all our students to the level of competency. I don't think we have kids who are unable to pass the CAHSEE. I don't think we have kids who are failing the graduation requirements.

If we are talking about an achievement gap, which I think we are, then it is all about the difference between the highest performing students and the lowest performing students. If we are talking about kids not being able to graduate, not being able to read and write and do basic math, then that is not just a gap, that is an awful situation to be in.

So let's call it what it is, a gap between the highest and lowest of educational standards that are well above the basic standards that many other school districts aim.

I strongly suggest that even our lowest performers are still competently educated and well able to graduate.

As I said at the beginning, forgive me if I am wrong. But, if we are failing to graduate students then let us discuss that.

3 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 10, 2014 at 10:08 am

"correct me if I am wrong."

You are wrong.

1. "I don't think we have kids who are failing the graduation requirements."

About 15% of our students, including an overrepresentation of minority students, and many special ed students, do not pass our graduation requirements which mirror the state a-g requirements.

2. "If we are talking about an achievement gap, which I think we are, then it is all about the difference between the highest performing students and the lowest performing students."

We have an achievement gap between Asian and White students and poor, black and brown students. But we also have a second, much more troubling achievement gap between the achievement of our poor, black and brown students and similarly situated students elsewhere in the state who are doing much better. That is true even though PAUSD has more money and fewer of such students. That is a big deal.

3. "So let's call it what it is, a gap between the highest and lowest of educational standards that are well above the basic standards that many other school districts aim."

This entire statement is false. See above.

4. I strongly suggest that even our lowest performers are still competently educated and well able to graduate.

No. Special ed students are being miseducated and often receive only a certificate of completion. The new a-g grad requirements will make it impossible for most of our minority students to graduate unless the district really gets to work, which is thankfully what Dr. McGee is doing.

We still suffer from low expectations for our minority students, and your post is a pretty good example of that. Our strategic plan goal of 85% meeting the a-g requirement (which is the graduation requirement) in a district that is only 15% minority is cynical and appalling. As candidate Gina Dalma (a national expert on closing the gap) has stated, this district does not even aspire to 100%. That is very telling. Gina seems to be a better candidate than Foster on this subject and I wonder why the Weekly didn't take a closer look at her.

1 person likes this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2014 at 11:08 am

> It's about proficiency: the schools need to be
> able to educate the children to a proficient
> level regardless of the parents.

Of course, the word “proficient” is subjective. As the bar is raised, so is the level of achievement that one must exhibit to be considered as “proficient”.

> About 15% of our students, including an overrepresentation
> of minority students, and many special ed students, do not
> pass our graduation requirements which mirror the
> state a-g requirements.

There is a difference between the CAHSEE and the PAUSD graduation requirements, which may well be a bar set too high for many students—particularly those not suited for higher education, or those more interested in occupations that don’t require a college degree—like virtually every job in the US. Certainly young people who want to become members of the US military should will not need a college degree to enlist.

Isn’t the CAHSEE failure rate in the 5% range? This test is so easy that its value is virtually useless to anyone, by the way.

> We have an achievement gap between Asian and White students

A couple of points, at best. Claiming that this is a problem is not meaningful commentary. Whites and Asians in this district perform very well, in the aggregate. This achievement gap between the major ethnic groups in the US is well-known, and not something that exists only in the PAUSD.

> Special ed students are being miseducated and often
> receive only a certificate of completion.

This claim that special education students being mis-educated is clearly an opinion, and not provable fact. Given the wide range of intellectual, and physical, problems kids in special education exhibit, it makes no sense to compare their performances with kids we would otherwise call “normal”.

3 people like this
Posted by Be the change you want to see
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 10, 2014 at 11:38 am

@muttiallen I feel that my kids have greatly benefitted by the bump up in diversity provided by the VTP students but often wonder whether the VTP students are receiving a better education here vs. their neighborhood school. In checking the 2013 Ca STAR test results it appears that our students are outperforming the Ravenswood students by a range of 5-20% in the categories of economic disadvantaged, EL, Hispanic and Black or Afircan American students.if you have data to support your statement that Ravenswood is doing better now I would be very interested I seeing it posted on this thread. To @ Bob's point about the advantage of having parent's invested in their student's education; some of our higher test scores may be attributed to this factor in that VTP parents show investment to the academic success of their children by seeking out the VTP program.

Several years ago when Ken Dauber was advocating in support of Dr. Skelly's initiative to reduce the Achievment Gap by instituting the expectation of A-G for all; Mr. Dauber brought data to the board comparing PAUSD CST results with other districts. He highlighted some districts with similar demographics to ours that showed much higher results for economic disadvantaged, Hispanic and Black and African American minority groups. He urged the board to reach out to these districts to determine if there were best practices we could employ here. I am so glad to hear that Dr. McGee will be doing this with the new advisory committee on minority achievement.

I also applaud our new superintendent for launching this talk show to create an open community conversation about issues affecting our students.

1 person likes this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2014 at 2:57 pm

This issue of student performance comes up every year, when the SAT/ACT scores are released. The following article in the Washington Post deals with the basic issue of no change this year over last year—

Web Link

In the user comments section, the following was posted by someone who understands the issue of dealing with testing statistics fairly clearly—

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). Digest of Education Statistics, 2011 (NCES 2012-001), Chapter 2.

SAT mean scores of college-bound seniors, by race/ethnicity: Selected years, 1986-87 through 2010–11

1987 1997 2001 2005 2011 Group

507 505 506 508 497 All students
524 526 529 532 528 White
428 434 433 433 428 Black
457 451 451 453 451 Mexican American
436 454 457 460 452 Puerto Rican
464 466 460 463 451 Other Hispanic
479 496 501 511 517 Asian/Pacific
471 475 481 489 484 American Ind/Ak

This is the basic performance gap with which every school in the US is having to deal. It is nothing something that seems to want to go away any time soon.

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Posted by Domad
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 10, 2014 at 8:41 pm

@mr recycle clearly you didn't read my post that you responded to where I said "that's no the point. The point is..." Re-read please. Nowhere did I say anything about a white achievement gap. I was expressing sympathy and empathy for MINORITY students who are unfairly treated and being literally bulldozed out of Palo Alto. Think about it. Put yourself in someone else's shoes for once.

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Posted by Legal Bills
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 11, 2014 at 4:21 pm

The legal bills obtained by Palo Alto Weekly (Under 'News' Tab, above, then 'School Documents')from Fagen, Friedman & Fulcrost show:

-Payments to a Communications Consultant, Terilyn Finder - her bio says she works with Board of Educations on crisis communication and to be collaborative (explaining why we now hear the word from PAUSD every few minutes, even when they are adversarial such as suing disabled students).
This has not worked. The Board's public image is worse, not better.

Is it a coincidence threads on Town Square on legal articles and on the PAUSD election all get closed? Do these two topics automatically become too incendiary, or is it a request from someone?

-Payments for FFF meeting with to L. Smith - L. Smith is another PAUSD paid lawyer. Is PAUSD was paying FFF and L. Smith, including paying both to talk to each other?

-Payments to FFF for meetings with PAUSD staff, not just Board of Education.
This means legal costs are much higher, if employee time is added in. Of course staff they meet with includes Holly Wade, but also Brenda Carillo, head of Counseling, also a PAUSD Marriage and Family Therapist (left out names since not Sr. Level employee).
The Head of Mental Health in PAUSD shouldn't work with law firms against disabled students. Staff paid to provide confidential counseling to PAUSD mentally ill students should not be consulting with lawyers on legal strategy or testifying against these children. Do they disclose their work with lawyers when they counsel children? How can the Community trust these PAUSD employees?

-Payments for lots of things a District should be able to do on their own without lawyers: costs for meetings about Independent Educational Plan meetings, meetings at Children's Health Council. Can't PAUSD management do this on their own?
There are costs for handling complaints or IEE (independent educational evaluation) requests. Do all complaints go through the law firm? Maybe PAUSD could just answer the complaint directly, help the children involved, and learn what caused the problems for next time, then stop doing what caused the complaint. This is basic management, it's what most organizations do.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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