The Palo Alto school board and members of the public Tuesday night looked back at the district's history of attempts to improve minority achievement and lauded Superintendent Max McGee's creation of an advisory committee as a promising, fresh step forward in a more actionable direction.
"In the entire time that I've been here, this issue of minority achievement has been woeful and sad and horrible, especially to parents of color," said Kim Bomar, parent and co-chair of Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS). "The need for this task force has been woefully obvious."
The superintendent's committee, for which he will start taking applications this week, will be made up of students, parents, teachers, staff and community members. The 18-member group will be given the task of diving deep into district data; gathering input by talking directly to current students and recent graduates, their families, faculty and staff; and looking to other districts and experts in the field for best practices on closing the achievement gap.
McGee released with this week's board packet an ambitious package with internal and external data, a draft application, a meeting schedule and the goal of getting the committee's final report to the board in April or May.
"We have been talking about and working on the achievement gap for a long time," said board member Camille Townsend. "Is this anything new? The visibility is. And that in and of itself is worth something."
All board members expressed excitement and support for the advisory committee, with a few suggestions for how its work could be enhanced.
Heidi Emberling advised McGee to contract with an outside expert to lead the work. She said there are "tough and sensitive issues" surrounding the achievement gap unconscious biases, institutional racism, gender equity, stereotypes and cultural competence and an experienced facilitator with expertise around such issues would help.
Parent and school board candidate Gina Dalma similarly said that simply looking at data and creating metrics won't be enough.
"For us to close the achievement gap, we have to have those courageous conversations around the unconscious biases that happen in each and every one of our classrooms," she said.
Emberling pointed out that a professional facilitator has been hired before to help with committee work, in 2012 for the Gunn High School Guidance Advisory Committee.
President Barb Mitchell said she would support hiring a facilitator if McGee and staff decided they needed one.
"It's an ambitious undertaking given the timeline," she said. "It looks reasonable right now, but we know how these things go and there are so many ways this could go deeper. I would certainly support the concept if it would support you and staff members and committee members."
McGee said he hadn't considered the option yet but would look at it before finalizing details about the committee.
Others urged McGee to include in the committee's evaluation an internal analysis of existing district and community work around the achievement gap.
"I am particularly pleased to see the reference to research, timelines and metrics in the committee's charge," said Sarah Sands, speaking on behalf of school board candidate Catherine Crystal Foster. "I hope that you will also assess our existing programs and practices to evaluate their effectiveness in addressing the achievement gap and causes for that gap."
Vice President Melissa Baten Caswell said that, as someone once told her, "'It's hard to find that one silver bullet.' It's a combination of things. We have to make sure all of our programs work together."
Townsend echoed that sentiment, suggesting the committee look not only at past data but at work individual teachers are already doing in their classrooms that yield results on minority achievement.
"What do we have already? It may not be some new program," she said. "It may be going back to some basics."
Baten Caswell also asked McGee how he plans to recruit people for the committee, suggesting he take advantage of Palo Alto's robust neighborhood association groups to advertise. He said he is planning to send the application out with the next edition of "Max mail" his email update that is sent to all district parents and anyone else who signs up for it.
Townsend also suggested that McGee look to the many community members who have worked on these issues for years and take advantage of their historical knowledge.
Mitchell also urged the superintendent to look at alternative sources for recruitment, such as recent graduates and Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) participants.
Parent and school board candidate Ken Dauber said the committee should look no further than across El Camino Real to tap expertise at the Stanford Graduate School of Education -- and not just for the work of this committee. He said Stanford doesn't send student-teachers into Palo Alto's high school math and science classes, though it does for some surrounding districts.
"We are missing out on the benefit of having that resource across the street," he wrote in an email after the meeting. "I think we should be doing everything we can to engage that expertise about best practices, not just in the context of the committee."
Dauber, who several years ago brought to the board the 2010 and 2011 California Standards Test (CST) scores to illustrate the need to address the achievement gap, presented the 2013 CST scores Tuesday night to further underscore the point.
The scores for Hispanic students in Algebra II showed that 33 percent left the class at proficient or above (which ranks Palo Alto at No. 84 in the state), compared to 38 percent in 2011 (then No. 59). For socioeconomically disadvantaged students in the same class, the proficiency rate in 2013 was 29 percent, and Palo Alto ranked at No. 129 in the state (compared to 33 percent and No. 114 in 2011). For African-American students in biology, 32 percent were proficient -- No. 152 out of the 218 districts with enough African-American students to report. In 2011, the rate was 37 percent and the district was at No. 129.
"That is a lot of districts statewide who are doing better than we are in educating similar students, and that represents a real opportunity for us to learn from them and do better," Dauber said.
One recent Palo Alto High School graduate and a frequent speaker at board meetings, Al Brooks, returned Tuesday night to reiterate his and others' interest in participating in the committee work. Brooks graduated in 2012 and also co-founded nonprofit Student Equity Action Network (SEAN) after years of experiencing and working on the disparity in achievement between minority students and their peers in Palo Alto.
"We will be involved in this process as much as we can be," he said. "This is something we can't let continue to occur in our schools, something I (was) afraid would be continued to be ignored, but luckily this work will continue to go on."
Brooks also stressed the importance of gathering community input. McGee has said part of the committee's work will include hosting public forums or hearings with the community.
Baten Caswell also asked McGee if he had any sense of the price tag for the committee yet.
"Is this 10 percent of our budget? Is it 5 percent of our budget? Is this going to be net-zero because we're going to be replacing programs that aren't working as well (as we anticipated)?" she said.
McGee replied that he's not sure yet but knows there will be additional costs. Included in the committee's charge is estimating the cost for implementation of each recommendation it issues.
Many of the members of the public implored the board to give McGee and the committee a long leash when it comes to this work.
"I believe and hope that you agree that in order to fix what's broken, we're going to need broad action. We're going to need bold steps. We're going to need to do things differently," Bomar, PASS co-chair, said. "My encouragement and advice to the board is that you've done great work recruiting and getting Dr. McGee out here. ... I would encourage you, as a parent, to give him broad latitude so that he can be as successful as possible with this task force."