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Palo Alto school board candidates meet for last forum

Middle schools, teen well-being discussed at Palo Alto senior center

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.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Sad day for all
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 18, 2014 at 5:31 pm

[Post removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Fellow
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Oct 18, 2014 at 7:17 pm

Connections is at JLS, not Jordan. Candidate and or PAOnline should get basic facts straight.


6 people like this
Posted by FixJordan
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 19, 2014 at 7:35 am

Our two kids suffered through Jordan. It is a hellhole, and I am glad it is finally getting some attention in this election. While a few of the teachers are great, many are abusive, intimidating or simply uncaring.

I agree with the parent's comments on teacher inconsistency. As for the difficulties when a teacher holds all kids up to the standard of the highest kids in class , that is one of many pressure tactics used there. Along with excessive homework, and regular threats of impending failure: "it will only get worse next year" and "if you don't do your (mountain of) homework, you'll fail high school"

Intimidation tactics abound: kept after school for late homework (with no help, no credit), teacher tearing up kids homework in front of the class as 'unacceptable'', and issuing harsh grades to start the semester as a negative start. I could go on.

The entire experience can be summed up as a place where kids are presented material - if they learn first-pass or teach themselves from the book or tutors, then they are sorted higher , if not they are sorted lower.

It is one large disappointment factory more focused on sorting kids than teaching all.

(And don't bother complaining to the Principal -he supports this approach completely)

Hopefully these candidates will shine a light on this dark corner of our districts social emotional poor treatment.


Like this comment
Posted by Et tutu Brutus?
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 19, 2014 at 8:03 am

I heard about a teacher at Jordan who made boys wear a tutu in the quad for failing math test. Is that true? How is that teacher not terminated? Maybe he/she can co teach with Winston in special ed, which appears to be the dumping ground for sexually harassing teachers.


3 people like this
Posted by Strike 3 on Jordan
a resident of Walter Hays School
on Oct 19, 2014 at 8:12 am

My oldest son also had bad experiences at Jordan. I now understand why so many Walter Hays parents are sending their children to Menlo, Sacred Heart, GMS, Casty, and Priory for middle school. Kudos to the candidates for acknowledging this issue and talking about it. The fact that Dauber, Foster, and Dalma all have children in private middle schools speaks volumes. And that was also true of Melissa Baten Caswell's child, until recently. I agree with Dauber and Godfrey that we need to be looking at what parents are actually doing, and fixing what is broken here.


2 people like this
Posted by Experienced Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 19, 2014 at 11:29 am

@Et tutu Brutus: Had two children graduate from Jordan within the last 4 years and never heard of such a thing. The last two principals, Milliken and Barnes, would not allow such nonsense. Milliken was the first to crack down hard on bullying.

My children disliked Jordan too. The quality of teachers is weak - There are some good teachers, but overall, disappointing. The English department isn't teaching writing skills - it's the worst department. Plus, kids get weird in middle school. They should do social bonding activities. Lunchtime is like a fishbowl.


Like this comment
Posted by David Cohen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 20, 2014 at 11:49 am

David Cohen is a registered user.

I'm disappointed to see comments offering broad, negative generalizations about schools and departments here. I will refrain from such generalizations and stick to personal knowledge, having only worked with a subset of hundreds of students among the thousands who have gone through our middles school in my twelve years at Paly. Actually, let me just say this: the 50+ freshmen in my Paly English classes last year were, overall, very well prepared for high school, as writers, readers, thinkers, technology users, and overall citizens and scholars. I'm grateful to them, their families, their prior teachers and schools. I'm also a highly satisfied middle school parent.


1 person likes this
Posted by Jaguar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 20, 2014 at 12:02 pm

I had 2 kids at Jordan in the past 5 years (both have graduated to Paly). I saw nothing wrong with the school, but quite a lot wrong with parents' view of ages10-13, the tween years. It seemed to me that parents were very hands on in elementary school, and then "took a break" on parenting. Middle school is when the MOST parenting needs to happen. It's when the kids are really forming who they are going to be. If that happens in a positive way, the teen years are a breeze. If it doesn't, you will spend the teen years trying to do damage control. But it's up to the parents individually, not the school.


Like this comment
Posted by Happy Terman Parent
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Oct 20, 2014 at 2:47 pm

I'd like to add my comment to the list of those who are very happy with our schools. I have children at Terman and Nixon and both are excellent schools with a caring and supportive environment. I was worried about the middle school experience, but it has turned out to be a great one for my daughter. The teachers, principal and staff at Terman are all outstanding!


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

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