The five candidates for Palo Alto Board of Education gathered Friday afternoon at senior center Avenidas for the last scheduled forum of the election season, discussing in a much more conversational setting topics from student stress to the state of the youth well-being coalition Project Safety Net.
One audience member, who identified herself as a founder of Girls Middle School, asked candidate Gina Dalma why her daughter attends the private middle school. Dalma responded that she knew her daughter would benefit from a smaller educational environment and needed time to develop her sense of self before moving on to Palo Alto High School. Girls Middle School enrolls about 200 students, while the city's public middle schools, JLS and Jordan, reported enrollments of about 1,100 students this year.
Dalma said Palo Alto Unified would benefit from learning from best practices implemented at local institutions like Girls Middle School.
Candidate Ken Dauber noted that one of his children and one of candidate Catherine Crystal Foster's also attend private middle schools -- and they are far from alone in that choice.
"I think that is because we have not yet done as well as we can for providing middle schools that provide social and emotional support for kids, that really meet the needs of all kids, as Gina said, at that age," Dauber said.
He cited the Connections Program at JLS Middle School, which focuses on project-based learning and offers teachers who serve more as mentors or coaches for students, as an example of a model for how all the middle schools should approach learning.
Candidate Terry Godfrey echoed that, saying enrollment in the Connections Program has doubled recently as families increasingly "vote with their feet" regardless of what the board or district might do.
Foster, who has identified middle schools as a main campaign priority, said that the community spends a lot of time talking about elementary and high school issues and is due for a more comprehensive conversation about Palo Alto's middle schools.
"In addition to all the social emotional support and project-based learning and such that families are really valuing and (the) Connections (Program), there are also opportunities to prepare our kids for high school in a way that is really engaging and enriching and gets them really excited as they head to high school," Foster said. "So having community conversations about what it is that we want middle schools to look like is really important."
The conversational forum, held in a small room at Avenidas with about 10 seniors in attendance, took a more serious turn when one audience member asked how successful Project Safety Net has been in stopping teen suicides. A young man, whose identity has not yet been disclosed by the county coroner, was killed at the Charleston Road train crossing Wednesday.
Godfrey, one of the co-founders of the broad mental health coalition formed in response to a cluster of teen suicides in 2009 and 2010, said the group has done a lot of work to put social-emotional programs in Palo Alto schools, teaching staff and others to look for signs of stress and depression early on, connecting medical professionals with schools and getting schools to pay for referrals to psychiatrists.
However, "It takes one death to feel like you've done nothing," she said.
"The school district over the years unfortunately has become much smarter about how to deal with postvention right away," Godfrey added. "Within hours of the young man dying, (staff) had gone out to the schools with counselors and gone to the parents and said, 'This is what you can expect your kids to see tomorrow in school when they get there.' They had meetings at the campuses in the morning so the teachers were prepared to deal with the kids in a much more organized and calm fashion that we did five years ago.
"This is a terrible thing to be good at, but we're better than we were," she said.
Foster said that she had attended a Project Safety Net meeting the week before, at which representatives from partner agencies discussed the future of the collaborative, which just lost its second director in two years.
"People were talking quite a bit about seeing all of these things in the rear view mirror," she said, "and it's just a reminder that we're not there yet."
Dauber said it's important to remember that through work Project Safety Net has done, there are simple things that have already been identified that would make a difference on student stress: implementing time limits on homework, avoiding test and project stacking, looking at block scheduling, further analyzing the impact of the schools' guidance counseling systems. But it's been a challenge to actually get these things done, he said, and Palo Alto students need a board that is committed to that action.
"It's important that we understand that we have a list, we have a plan and working that plan is something we've only done fitfully so if we do it fully, we're going to make a lot of progress," Dauber said.
Susan Spangler, a Palo Alto physician and mother of a Paly sophomore and freshman college student, told the candidates she hopes whoever is elected to the board in November will address the rising levels of stress in Palo Alto schools.
"I feel like the stress level is going back up," Spangler said.
Her daughter has 10 to 15 hours of homework just on weekends and has observed issues with inconsistency across teachers and classes. She also said her daughters sees, for example, math teachers holding students up to the very high standards of a few accelerated students, leaving others behind.
"I'm a little sad about it, I guess. I feel like we were going in a good direction and we've kind of fallen back as a district," she said. "I hear, 'We want to address student stress at the schools,' but then I don't see things happening that way."
Godfrey responded that for subjects like math, for which tests are so high-stakes, the district should work to find other ways of measuring and assessing achievement.
Dalma offered the example of Downtown College Prep, a public charter school in San Jose that has implemented design thinking in its math curriculum. She said in math classes, students are instructed to choose a problem in their community for example, a dangerous traffic intersection in front of the school -- and can only use math skills to solve it. They are graded on their teamwork and how they solve the problem, she said.
"The good news is it's possible," Foster echoed, "but it's going to require our teachers to think creatively; it's going to require us as a community to accept the fact that there's going to be some experimentation that happens and accept the fact that there are multiple ways of doing things."
Candidate Jay Cabrera, whose defining campaign promise has been to increase use of technology at both the district and school level, changed his message a bit on Friday. In an increasingly technologically driven, fast-paced world, he said, "schools can be a space to create a buffer from that."
There is a delicate balance to strike between innovative technology enhancing or hindering learning, he suggested.