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.