In late September, about six weeks into his new position as Palo Alto Unified School District's superintendent, Max McGee departed from the district's status quo.
With little fanfare, information appeared in the Sept. 23 school board agenda about an August complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights regarding problems with the district's accommodation of a Palo Alto student with disabilities. Upon learning of the complaint, McGee had worked directly with the student's family to find a resolution, without the costly help of district lawyers. He provided to the public and the Office for Civil Rights a chronology of events leading up to the complaint, including the errors made by the district in handling the student's accommodations, and outlined what the district had already done to both fix the problem for this particular student and to change procedures so it wouldn't happen again. The case was resolved within weeks.
Yet at the very same September meeting, the Board of Education and McGee dug in their heels on their lobbying of local and federal officials, pursuant to a resolution the board passed in June challenging the Office for Civil Rights' investigative practices.
The meeting was emblematic of 2014 in the Palo Alto school district: a year when new faces and leadership jumped onto the boat, trying to steer it in a more productive direction while also being pushed by a strong tide of swirling issues, some of the district's own creation.
The first few months of 2014 were dominated by ongoing Office for Civil Rights investigations and questions about the treatment of special-education students in Palo Alto.
In early January, the school district was exonerated in two cases by the federal agency, which found it didn't violate the rights of two disabled students in its handling of bullying situations. However, the parents of both students reported in the wake that their children continued to be bullied in school. At the time, two other civil-rights complaints, out of nine filed within the prior three years, remained pending.
In February, then-Superintendent Kevin Skelly suddenly announced his plan to resign at the end of the school year after seven years leading the district. Though his tenure had been marred by his failure to promptly disclose a December 2012 Office for Civil Rights finding that the district had mishandled an ongoing middle school bullying case, he also oversaw notable changes in the district: a massive building boom, adoption of the K-5 math curriculum Everyday Mathematics, and the move to a school calendar that ends the first semester before the December holidays.
At the start of the year, the district was still working to revise its policy for handling bullying, which was mandated by its December 2012 agreement with the Office for Civil Rights. Debate raged over the reach of this policy should it simply bring the district into legal compliance by ensuring the safety of legally protected classes (disabled and minority students) or go beyond that to address the complaints of all students?
After more than a year of work, the Board of Education gave the green light in June to a policy that would also cover harassment of students in non-protected classes.
The very same month, the Office for Civil Rights opened another investigation in Palo Alto this time over alleged student sexual harassment at Gunn High School. This case remains open.
In 2014, the board bid farewell to many other school heads: Gunn High School Principal Katya Villalobos, Ohlone Elementary School Principal Bill Overton, Fairmeadow Elementary School Principal Gary Prehn, Addison Elementary School Principal Jocelyn Garcia-Thome, Palo Alto Adult School's Kara Rosenberg and Jordan Middle School Assistant Principal Ellie Slack all announced in March that they would be stepping down at the end of the school year. (Villalobos stayed in the district, however, heading the Adult School.) Two months later, the news came that Denise Herrmann would be coming from Wisconsin to lead Gunn.
And in April, the news broke that former Palo Alto High School Principal Phil Winston, who resigned in June 2013 citing health and "work-life balance" reasons, had been under investigation at the time by school district officials for multiple allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior involving both staff and students. Winston was reassigned to teach special education at Jordan.
The month of May saw the very beginnings of a 2014 changing of the guard on the school board, with parents Ken Dauber, Catherine Crystal Foster and Terry Godfrey expressing interest in the two seats to be vacated by Barb Mitchell and Dana Tom. At the same time, just as seniors were graduating from Paly and Gunn, the board sealed the deal with Max McGee as the district's new superintendent.
McGee, a seasoned and entrepreneurial educator, had a decades-long career in Illinois as a teacher, principal, school- and state-level superintendent and most recently, head of an elite international math and science academy. He hit the ground running on Aug. 1.
At the board's annual retreat in August, McGee brought in six ambitious goals for the year (later cut down to five), that push consistency, collaboration, professional development, accountability and proactive rather than reactive communication.
During a live TV interview with two high school journalism students in October, McGee announced that he would be convening a committee tasked with analyzing and issuing a set of specific, actionable recommendations on Palo Alto's achievement gap. December saw early work of the committee dedicated to aiding lower-performing minority students, with meetings set to continue through April.
With McGee at the helm, the district also achieved a breakthrough on negotiating the city's lease of Cubberley Community Center, the sprawling Middlefield Road campus whose future remained in limbo for the past two years.
Yet it has largely been business as usual when it comes to Office for Civil Rights issues, save the complaint that McGee expeditiously resolved in September. 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 Office for Civil Rights, including just under $50,000 for attorneys to research, develop and follow-up on the board's June resolution. McGee has expressed an unwillingness to withdraw two outstanding Freedom of Information Act appeals that the district filed in 2013 over two Office for Civil Rights cases, one of which is closed, despite the urging of newly elected board member Dauber.
The same month McGee began his post in Palo Alto, the roster of Board of Education candidates solidified, with Gina Dalma, a parent and senior education officer for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and Jay Cabrera, a Palo Alto schools graduate and the only non-parent in the race, joining Dauber, Foster and Godfrey.
The election saw some divisiveness over civil-rights issues, but the five candidates otherwise found much common ground on the main issues facing the district: a need for evaluation and data to make more concrete, evidence-based decisions; the cultivation of innovation; the importance of social-emotional health and reduction of student stress.
On Nov. 4, Dauber earned an early win. In a September interview with the Weekly, he said he hoped a win would indicate backing for the actions he specifically, repeatedly promised during the campaign: opening a 13th elementary school, improving the district's relationship with special-education families, curtailing Office for Civil Rights-related legal costs, bringing foreign-language instruction to middle schools, more careful use of data, and a focus on student mental health and well-being.
Foster and Godfrey were locked in a tight battle for the second open seat for more than a week after election night, as votes continued to be counted. Foster conceded on Nov. 13, and Godfrey eventually secured the win by about 200 votes.
The new board will oversee even more school construction, as a $378 million Strong Schools bond that voters passed in 2008 continues to bear fruit throughout the district. At Paly, the state-of-the-art Media Arts Center and a two-story classroom building finally opened as construction on the school's Performing Arts Center got started. A new classroom building opened at Duveneck Elementary School this school year as talks over the need for a 13th elementary school continued, with McGee urging the board to gather a committee that would research and then issue an informed decision to the board on the topic. The new board will also oversee Gunn's Central Building Project, which includes a "wellness center" that will consolidate all student health services in one space.
Student mental health returned to the forefront of the community's mind this fall after two young men one a current Gunn High School student and the other a recent Gunn graduate died by suicide at the train tracks.
The schools' crisis response teams, as well as community organizations, sprang into action, providing counseling and other forms of support to students and staff at Gunn. The high school held a meeting with a panel of mental health experts that was attended by hundreds of parents yearning for answers and help. A Gunn mother helped organize a similar meeting for the Mandarin-speaking community, which more than 100 parents attended.
Students spoke out in their own circles but also publicly on YouTube, social media, blogs and a Gunn parents' email list, sharing their experiences directly with parents, teachers, school administrators and community members. Many said they did so in the hopes of steering the emotional conversation away from finger pointing to a deeper understanding of the culture that makes many students feel like they're emotionally drowning.
One of those students, Martha Cabot, also teamed up with former Gunn English teacher Marc Vincenti to launch Save the 2,008, a grassroots campaign to create a happier, healthier life for Gunn's 2,008 students and teachers. Cabot and Vincenti have become a regular team presence at board meetings, hoping to keep issues about stress, mental health, homework load and AP classes at the forefront of everyone's minds.
Also this fall, Palo Alto's broad-reaching youth-health coalition Project Safety Net found itself at a crossroads after losing its second director in two years. The city also called on its main partner, the school district, to boost its commitment during this transition period. McGee said in October that the district has two proposals for supporting Project Safety Net: either taking the lead and hiring the staff necessary along with procuring more financial support, or working to develop the new wellness center at Gunn.
With the book not yet quite closed on Office for Civil Rights cases, a still-fresh superintendent and two new board members who have yet to make their mark, 2014 might well be remembered as the year that, by its end, left the district poised on the brink of more serious change in 2015.