As a result of intensive self-studies Palo Alto's high schools undertook over the last year, both Gunn and Palo Alto High have committed to tackling the achievement gap, implementing more consistently aligned courses and engendering a major cultural shift at their schools.
Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann and Paly Principal Kim Diorio presented their top goals for the next several years to the board on Tuesday. Their goals, which overlap and speak directly to many community concerns surrounding the high schools, are the result of a year-plus long Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) process the high schools complete every six years.
Both principals said they are committed to working to close the achievement gap at their schools through more targeted, personalized learning, increased professional development for teachers and improved intervention programs.
Gunn set a series of specific goals around the achievement gap, including developing and implementing a "robust, universal academic and behavioral intervention program" by the fall of 2018; reducing the percentage of Latino students who get Ds and Fs from 45 percent to 20 percent or less by the end of the 2016-17 school year; and by 2018, boost Latino and African-American students' enrollment in Advanced Placement (AP) and honors courses by 30 percent.
Herrmann said that some lanes of courses at Gunn such as varying levels of biology (1, 1A and honors) can "lead to a sorting of students that is unhealthy."
"We're not saying every student should be in honors (classes) ... but we are saying that we might have an artificial boundary there and that we want to examine that and to make sure that as many kids who want to take APs or who want to challenge themselves feel that support, but that we're not down-laning any kid," she said.
School board member Ken Dauber offered data that shows the district's white and Asian students performing in the top percentiles in the state, for example, on math and science, while African-American, Hispanic and low-income students don't do as well, especially when compared to other districts statewide.
"Why it is in a school district that is as highly resourced as we are and does so well for certain students that we do less well for others compared to other schools statewide?" Dauber asked.
He urged Diorio and Herrmann to think about what strategies could be developed to address differences between what Palo Alto Unified is doing to close the achievement gap and what other districts might be doing more successfully.
Board vice president Heidi Emberling stressed that any efforts to tackle the achievement gap must start before high school, with processes in place to connect with and analyze student achievement in elementary and middle schools.
"Where are the processes in place for reflecting back at elementary school teachers and principals?" she asked. "How can we begin that analysis earlier?"
And as the district commences on a deep-dive research study of consistency at the two high schools, Paly and Gunn are, too, prioritizing course alignment in response to student, parent and staff dissatisfaction voiced through surveys administered as part of the WASC process.
Most Paly students reported in a WASC survey that they would like to see inconsistent grading practices addressed, citing grade "deflation" and differences among teachers of the same course. Thirty percent of Gunn students disagree and 14 percent strongly disagree that teacher quality and difficulty is consistent across courses. Similarly, 19 percent of Gunn students disagree that grading is fair across teachers and courses.
Diorio said Paly will be working to develop common summative assessments and common syllabi in all courses that don't yet have them to make sure that homework, assessments and curriculum are better aligned.
Herrmann emphasized that alignment, though critical to addressing student stress, doesn't mean a loss of teacher autonomy.
"It doesn't matter if you have teacher 'A' or teacher 'B;' you know that the outcomes for the course, what you're going to learn, are going to be the same," she said. "Every teacher has their own style; that's not saying that teacher personalities aren't going to shine through or their sense of humor all of that is what builds the relationship part. Relationships can't be aligned, but the curriculum and the instruction and the assessment can be aligned."
Diorio and Herrmann also identified data collection and analysis as an area of improvement for their schools.
"We don't right now have a culture of using data to guide decision-making at our school and we want to improve that," Diorio said. "We want to change that."
Herrmann, too, said there is a lack of access to data to answer ongoing questions about student achievement, wellness and teacher effectiveness, among other areas.
Dauber said data is necessary to create a better understanding of what the schools are doing well, where they can improve and to "break the commitment to the status quo way of doing things."
"I would expect to see from staff, from Dr. McGee and from you folks a request about what you need in order to actually make that happen," he said.
Perhaps the high schools' most ambitious and overlapping goal is shifting school culture from one that values a narrow, traditional path of success to one that is more empathetic, creative and accepting of multiple definitions of success.
Herrmann said Gunn plans to accomplish this with some big-picture steps, such as ongoing work through a partnership with youth well-being research group Challenge Success and creation of a comprehensive social- and emotional-learning curriculum, Herrmann said.
More short-term changes include a new time-management tool students will be required to use when signing up for classes this spring and consideration of switching over to a more forgiving block schedule, where classes meet less frequently but for longer periods of time throughout the week. Paly switched to a block schedule five years ago.
Gunn students and parents have been urging the school in recent weeks to adopt a block schedule, and Herrmann said last week that a committee will be looking at the possibility this spring, with the goal of implementing a change in the fall of 2016.
Superintendent Max McGee told Herrmann that she has the district's "full support to get moving" on the bell schedule, stressing that a "sense of urgency" infuses each of the schools' goals.
"These plans aren't going to sit on the desk for six years," McGee said at the school board meeting Tuesday night, recapping the WASC presentations. "They are data driven, they are actionable and they are urgent."