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.