Palo Alto's kindergarten through fifth-grade students were assessed this year through a new districtwide writing prompt, created as a result of intensive writing-focused teacher professional development in the last two years.
The new writing assessment is the culmination of about two years of efforts to improve elementary level writing instruction and assessment in Palo Alto.
The board will hear Tuesday night a report on these efforts, much of which revolved around the district's participation in professional development programs organized by the Columbia University Teachers College, whose Reading and Writing Project aims to invigorate teachers' learning around writing curriculum, assessment and collaboration.
"The focus on strengthening K-5 writing instruction and student outcomes grew out of a shared concern on the part of the Board, staff analysis of Strategic Plan Survey data, student writing outcomes, and teachers expressing the need for a high quality, evidenced-based approach to writing," a staff report on the topic reads.
District staff and teachers on special assignment (TOSAs) found this approach in practice at the Teachers College, which is fully aligned with the Common Core State Standards and emphasizes using performance assessments, learning progressions and rubrics to both amp up students' writing achievement and increase teaching consistency. The school also advocates a workshop model that "relies on differentiation, flexible grouping, and individualized learning" as key components, according to the staff report.
A total of 275 K-8 teachers participated in a four-day Teachers College institute in 2013 and 2014, and the district plans to organize a four-day workshop for a small group of K-2 teachers in February. The district spent $115,000 on the K-8 institutes and estimates it will cost $27,000 for the K-2 workshop. Other costs associated with writing professional learning have included $20,000 in support for principals (all elementary school principals also received three days of training from Teachers College senior staff) and $80,000 to provide intense support at two schools chosen as project sites for the Teachers College programs.
The district also spent $80,000 on new writing-related instructional materials for elementary teachers.
The district surveyed participants on the Teachers College experience, with 100 percent of respondents reporting they changed their teaching as a result of the professional development. On a scale of 1 to 4 (1 was no change and 4 was almost complete change), 75 percent answered with a 3 or 4, according to the staff report. The remainder answered with a 2, and all commented they were already trained and/or utilizing Teachers College materials.
In other business Tuesday, Superintendent Max McGee will give an update on the district's latest Office for Civil Rights case, which has been closed, and provide the amount the district has spent on OCR-related legal expenses since September 2011. The analysis will be split into four categories: staff training, policy and procedure development, response to Public Information Act Requests and all other legal expenses.
According to legal bills provided to the Weekly, the district spent more than $200,000 in the first seven months of 2014 in legal fees related to its cases and conflicts with the federal agency, including just under $50,000 for attorneys to research, develop and follow-up on the June resolution. (Read: Legal costs soar as school board begins OCR lobbying)
"It is important to note that these legal expenses were not frivolous and were deemed necessary at the time they were incurred," McGee wrote. "They resulted in some positive outcomes, including high quality staff training and development of a set of exemplary policies. Legal expenses were also necessary in that the District was operating in unchartered territory and needed legal advice in responding to potential litigation, supporting staff, and addressing a significant number of Public Information Act requests that required long hours of redacting personal information regarding individuals.
"Moreover, legal counsel was needed to address problems with the Office for Civil Rights investigative process that appeared not to be aligned with their published procedures."
He wrote that legal support might be necessary if future OCR complaints are filed, but the district's goal is to reduce the number of complaints to zero.
"Our team is committed to resolving concerns collaboratively, fairly, and promptly," he wrote. "That said, if OCR complaints are filed in the future, legal support may well be needed, and we will continue to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of engaging counsel as well as analyzing the risk to the district and our taxpayers of not engaging counsel. "
McGee will also share a letter the board sent to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which is the latest in a series of letters the board has sent to education leaders and elected officials as part of lobbying efforts it committed itself to in a June resolution criticizing the timeliness and consistency of the Office for Civil Rights' investigative practices. Other recipients have included Arthur Zeidman, regional director of OCR at the Department of Education in San Francisco; Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary and head of OCR at the Department of Education in Washington, DC; U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo; California Assemblyman Rich Gordon; California Senator Jerry Hill; and officials at the California School Boards Association (CSBA) and the National School Boards Association (NSBA).
McGee also plans to comment on the school district's partnership with the City of Palo Alto on youth well-being coalition Project Safety Net, whose leadership is again in flux following the loss of two directors in two years.
Tuesday's board meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave. The board will also meet at 10 a.m. to review the Single Plans for Student Achievement (SPSA) reports for the 2014-15 for Palo Alto's three middle schools.