New committee addresses Palo Alto Unified's achievement gap

Minority achievement and talent development group to explore changes, solutions

From seasoned school administrators and special education teachers to parents of color, the first meeting of Palo Alto Unified's new minority achievement and talent development committee Tuesday night heard frank and sometimes personal accounts of the harsh realities that many students of color face in the school district.

"I think there is a palpable amount of distrust and unease about this district's ability to do right by our children," said April House, a parent who works at Palo Alto University and did academic research for many years on underrepresented communities. "There's a real fear in this district's ability to attend to our children the same as everybody else."

Parent Ze'ev Wurman added, "I'd rather be a poor child in Inglewood than Palo Alto."

A group of 25 committee members and Superintendent Max McGee gathered at district headquarters Tuesday night to discuss the most critical issues facing Palo Alto's students of color, including lack of parent engagement to class misplacement and teacher belief systems.

Judy Argumedo, a district administrator who runs the English Language Learners and Voluntary Transfer programs, said her daughter, a freshman at Gunn High school this year, is the reason she was there Tuesday night.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm on the edge – I know how the system works and I know what to do but it's still a tough go," Argumedo told the group. "If it's difficult for my children, I can imagine the difficulties and the challenges for other families."

Other parents echoed that sentiment, expressing the need for the district to better connect with parents of color who feel like they're left on the margins.

Parent Carmen Munoz, who's originally from Puerto Rico, said she first noticed these issues when her children entered Walter Hays Elementary School. She began translating emails and much needed school information for other Spanish-speaking parents and started a parent education group for families of color.

Gina Dalma, a recent school board candidate and also a Spanish-speaking parent, similarly started a group for Spanish-speaking parents at Palo Alto High School that meets monthly.

Dalma and Kim Bomar, parent and co-chair of Parent Advocates for Student Success, said that the district needs "positive parent engagement to remedy the sense of exclusion."

Similarly, April House said that her definition of success for the district is "restored faith of parents of color" – something it remains far from accomplishing.

Teachers and school principals spoke directly to the classroom experiences, from the elementary to high school level.

Anna Reyes, who works in special education at Jordan Middle School, said her classes are often disproportionately filled with students of color, some of whom might not actually belong there.

"One of my passions is making sure that students who are in special education belong in special education and are qualified because they have an actual disability," she said.

A metric of the district's success, she said, would be that the percentage of a school's students of color in special education matches their percentage in the overall school population, rather than being overblown.

Other committee members called for data on students of color and low-income students' academic pathways – math laning in sixth grade, participation in AP courses, recommendations for where to apply to college, for example -- to analyze the sometimes subjective decisions teachers make when placing students.

Many urged that the district will need to take a closer look at its teachers, and offer specific, tailored professional development on these issues when necessary.

"Many of our teachers are graduates of schools in Palo Alto and have come from a certain background and I think that many of the teachers, when it comes to students in special education or students of color, don't feel equipped to teach the students and that comes across to these students," Reyes said. "They internalize it completely."

Though Tuesday's conversation was fruitful, some expressed slight frustration with all the talking.

"Inevitably, we're going to need to move from this room and this group of passionate and dedicated people who already know there's an issue to people who maybe don't even believe that there is one," said Terman Middle School principal Pier Angeli LaPlace.

McGee has said that part of the group's work will include future public meetings and interviews with all stakeholders involved -- students, parents, teachers and community members.

The committee will next meet Tuesday, Dec. 16, from 7 to 9 p.m. at district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave., Palo Alto. For more information, go to the committee's web page.

Related content:

Superintendent names members of achievement gap task force

'Broad action' encouraged to fix district's achievement gap

Palo Alto superintendent to convene achievement gap committee

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3 people like this
Posted by Thunderchild
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 3, 2014 at 9:48 am

This racial divide problem has been going on for years. I saw it when my kids were in school here, and I still see it now. My youngest told me of a teacher who had no problem letting the kids of color know how stupid she thought they were when they'd ask a question in her math class. That's why we don't live in Palo Alto any longer. The attitude of many is disgusting for this day and age. All I can say to these parents of minorities is don't expect a miracle. The "superiority" attitude is well entrenched.

13 people like this
Posted by Maria
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 3, 2014 at 10:42 am

One word for this gap: PARENTS

--parent's education, parent's finances, parent's time, parent's values, parent's involvement.

11 people like this
Posted by Experienced Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 3, 2014 at 10:56 am

Agree with Maria. I know minorities, both in Palo Alto and EPA, who have caring parents and they do fine in school. No committee can change the mechanics of a family. But if it concludes the same, at least it was studied and the box is checked. From our experience, teachers at Paly are genuinely concerned about their students (even the ones who are unreasonable with workloads). Most stay after school and are at Tutorial - failing students must have the desire to succeed for success to follow.

9 people like this
Posted by 37 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 3, 2014 at 11:35 am

[Post removed.]

8 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2014 at 2:11 pm

It's hard to believe that this so-called commission will have the courage to talk about parents as the key to their children's success in an educational setting, and in life. This is too obvious, and can not be easily dealt with by the public education process--which is about spending money in an unaccountable way.

[Portion removed.]

The idea that by throwing a lot of money at the “achievement gap”, we are going to fix it all up in a year or two has failed miserably. Education, and/or knowledge, can not to painted on a young person like the final coat of paint is added to a car to make it ready for the show room. Education needs to start the moment the child enters this world, and does not stop until that child, turned adult, leaves this world.

If Max McG. and his commission don’t start with these reasonably well understood facts, he will not do much but spin his very-expensive wheels.

3 people like this
Posted by Experienced Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 3, 2014 at 2:23 pm

@37 year resident: Just clarifying, Asian students (including E. Indians) are not considered minorities in the education system. Because of their academic success, they do not qualify for affirmative action in college admissions or the Tinsley (VTP) program.

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2014 at 4:28 pm

It would be interesting to know if any of the committee members have under achieving kids themselves? It would also be interesting to know if any of the committee members are from "minorities" (however you want that to be defined)?

Otherwise, is there any way that this committee will achieve anything?

Unless you have walked a mile in their shoes, it is very difficult to know the life in which they have to live.

9 people like this
Posted by Paly Grad
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 3, 2014 at 4:45 pm

It's really sad that some people immediately blame the parents, and question whether some races value education. That's racially insensitive (dare you to say that to someone's black/brown face), and it's also a red herring. The district is responsible for educating all the children, period, as all of our children are entitled to a free public education. Even if some parents do more enrichment here so their kids are more advanced, that doesn't change the fact that the district's role is to teach the kids to be at least proficient at their grade level, regardless of background. Otherwise, what are they doing as educators, babysitting while we all homeschool our kids at night? Why are places like Fresno doing better in teaching algebra to children of color?

13 people like this
Posted by yusnd
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 3, 2014 at 5:03 pm

A college counselor for disabled students once told me that the best accommodations for the disabled are the ones that can be extended to everyone -- studies show they make little difference to those who don't need them, but allow the range of those who do need them to participate without an added burden of constantly asking for accommodations.

This may seem like a silly example, but wheel-chair accessible bathroom stalls -- aren't necessary for most people, are helpful for people with a range of issues like mothers with bags and really young kids in tow, the elderly who need the grab bar, etc. And they are critical for people in wheelchairs. Simply requiring that bathrooms be designed to be inclusive makes it possible for everyone to participate, and can be beneficial beyond just allowing wheelchair access.

Our district could be doing a lot of things that they need to do for all students, that will help with the achievement gap at the same time:
Learning how to better communicate with families
Learning how to better work with families
Simply learning how to practice what they preach and learn from mistakes, apologize properly when they are wrong, or just not constantly work from a position of defensiveness in general
Re-open the third high school to make more optimally sized school communities in which people really know each other
Ensure the school systems are in top condition so that things like air quality -- since asthma disproportionately affects traditional minorities and low-income students and allergy can cause sleep and attention problems that may disproportionately burden those already burdened for other reasons -- are not a factor
Work at an attitude of public service (i.e., change out a few of the big problem people in the district office, McGee should be allowed to bring in his own team, A-players who aren't just poison and unable to change since the last administration).

Those are just examples. The point is, many of the systemic things we could be doing to reduce the achievement gap, such as more optimally sized schools, will also have benefits to all children, while narrowing the achievement gap. I'm not suggesting those things to take the place of the specific recommendations of this committee -- I'm saying I hope the committee will be looking at specific and general/systemic ways to reduce the achievement gap.

To the above posters who want to fix things with parents: As much as you may wish to control parents and people, the fact is, this is a public educational system and it's incumbent on the educators to figure out how to best serve everyone, not bend everyone to suit their will or weed them out the ones they don't like or don't find easy. Parent education MAY be a part of it, but simply saying It's the Parents is defeatist and unhelpful. There are many things that are known to influence achievement gap, such as school size, and we haven't always made decisions around those things for the right reasons. Skelly decided to enlarge Gunn and Paly with additional classrooms rather than re-opening Cubberly because, by his own admission, he did not want to argue over boundaries. The achievement gap worsening in larger schools fell on deaf ears.

8 people like this
Posted by Paly mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 3, 2014 at 5:37 pm

The Paly math letter should be a required text for this committee. It's not just a random set of anonymous commenters on PA Online who believe this stuff: Web Link

4 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2014 at 8:19 pm

[Post removed.]

5 people like this
Posted by ugh
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 3, 2014 at 8:32 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Dec 3, 2014 at 8:51 pm

@Paly mom -
Here is another link where the comments related to that letter - Web Link

@Anonymous - I second. independent investigation? Once upon a time even couple of board members announced their support of such investigation. Never happened, of course.

4 people like this
Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2014 at 9:53 pm

Paly Alum is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

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

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