Within three months of taking over as principal of Gunn High School last August, Denise Herrmann found herself confronted by several challenges that were especially huge for an administrator new to the district and not yet fully familiar with the parent community or her own school staff.
From the outset, Herrmann heard Gunn parents raising alarms about the volume of homework and the lack of consistency in how teachers were using Schoology, an online program the district adopted to standardize communications with students and families.
Then two teen suicides -- one on Oct. 15 by a 2014 Gunn graduate and another on Nov. 4 by a Gunn junior -- brought renewed trauma to a campus just beginning to feel it had moved beyond the cluster of student suicides in 2009 and 2010.
Then another gut-punch. On Monday, Nov. 10, just six days after the second suicide, the teachers union served Herrmann with a formal grievance, accusing her of violating the union contract by asking all teachers to use Schoology to post their homework assignments beginning with the new semester in January.
The union demanded that Herrmann issue a written retraction to the parent community and teachers and explain that the teachers' contract only requires that they "electronically post" homework assignments, without mandating that it be on any particular platform.
Eventually, after many drafts and confidential meetings involving Palo Alto Educators Association (PAEA) President Teri Baldwin, a union representative from the California Teachers Association and Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers, Herrmann in late November verbally apologized to staff and made clear she understood teacher compliance could not be required but repeated her hope that her request be followed.
The entire tussle over homework and the grievance itself would normally have never come to light, since the union contract also requires that any grievance be kept confidential. When the Weekly in December heard rumors of the grievance, Herrmann, Superintendent Max McGee, Bowers and Baldwin all declined to comment, asserting its confidentiality and stating it had already been resolved.
Two weeks ago, however, responding to a Public Records Act request made in January by the Palo Alto Weekly, the district turned over the grievance documents and emails among school officials about the dispute.
In concept, more consistent use of Schoology would reveal, on a day-to-day basis, the total homework load on each student, enabling teachers to better coordinate their assignments and course plans and prevent any unnecessary burdening of students. It would also allow parents easier access to information about their children's schoolwork.
But the union's grievance against Herrmann -- the first such formal complaint in more than a decade in the Palo Alto Unified School District -- claimed that her "directive" to use the online system violated the union's collective-bargaining agreement.
The one-page grievance cited meetings between union members and Herrmann over use of Schoology as early as September, in which they warned her about pressuring teachers to use the platform. Then on Oct. 22, Herrmann sent a message to parents explaining her expectation that all teachers post their homework assignments on Schoology, along with time estimates for how long the assignments would take to complete. This expectation had been communicated to Gunn teachers at a staff meeting earlier that month.
Herrmann's expectation -- later characterized by her as an admittedly "naïve and bold" yet "passionate" request -- and the ensuing debate over Schoology revealed fissures in the relationships between the new principal, the union and some, but not all, teachers. Her efforts to relieve student stress were perceived by some at Gunn as dismissive, pushed out quickly from top down without consideration of the teachers themselves, some school sources said.
But Herrmann saw Schoology as a system, already in place, with which she could fulfill her required role as school administrator to ensure compliance with the district's homework policy, which was adopted in 2012 but is widely acknowledged to have been implemented irregularly at the schools. Herrmann said she "took that on" herself in terms of pushing out that message to the school's instructional supervisors, who oversee each department.
"In the (homework) policy, it clearly states that the principal will have a system in place to make sure the staff is following the homework policy and things like that," Herrmann said. "I thought it was a pretty simple solution. I definitely underestimated that the reluctance that some staff members would have to taking that on (as) a regular part of their work."
As a compromise to Herrmann, the union offered that teachers post links on Schoology to external websites that many of them have built over the years, Baldwin said, accomplishing the goal of having everything in one central place. Many teachers post homework information and much more -- videos, Powerpoint presentations, links to resources -- on independent, self-built Google sites and some reportedly objected to having to transfer or duplicate this elsewhere, Baldwin said.
Herrmann called this idea a "step in the right direction," but one that doesn't take advantage of the "power of the Schoology software" -- particularly a calendar feature -- to provide students and parents a full picture of their school loads.
"Again, it's trying to say, we have this tool that can do all of these amazing things to support kids in their time management," Herrmann said. "Are we doing our part to try to make sure that they are benefiting from that?"
Baldwin said the union's expectation and impression after the first meeting was that teachers would not be expected to use Schoology. But the grievance states that Baldwin and Gunn union representatives met again with Herrmann -- who stuck to her vision of teachers using the software -- on Oct. 17 to "remind" her that the requirement violated the union contract.
Five days later, Herrmann sent her message to parents.
"I am appealing to the 'spirit of the law,' not the 'letter of the law,'" Herrmann wrote. "I presented this expectation as a challenge -- not a directive. Just as hospitals use a consistent medical electronic record system to improve patient care, I believe schools need to use a consistent learning management system to improve student learning. Electronic medical records allow any medical professional in the hospital (doctors, specialists, nurses, CNAs, etc) to access real-time information about the patient and coordinate care. Electronic learning-management systems allow any education professional in the school (teachers, special education teachers, counselors, administrators, etc.) to access real-time information about the student's assignment to coordinate assignments across departments."
Teachers have said that Schoology does not differentiate between types of assignments or tests, so a journal entry for an English class and a biology midterm exam are weighted the same, creating a color-coded "red flag" day that indicates a heavy workload or multiple conflicts.
Some also complain that entering assignments in the system's calendar function can take up to four hours of additional time each week that would be better spent on working directly with students.
"It's a difficult tool to use," Gunn physics teacher Lettie Weinmann told the Weekly in a January interview about homework. "I think it would be better if it were a better tool, but it's all we have right now, so let's use it and it will help us to understand homework (loads) a little better."
Minutes from the Oct. 29 meeting of Gunn's Instructional Council, a regular staff meeting with the heads of all departments, note that "some teachers are reluctant to spend time transferring their assignments from Googledocs to Schoology. Though the PAEA contract states that assignments must be posted online, it doesn't specify with which software."
The minutes mention offers for tech support, an upcoming Schoology training and Herrmann's commitment to "work with teachers not yet on Schoology, asking what they need to ease the transition."
But Herrmann's attempts to help teachers move toward use of Schoology, and her continued direction on that point, became for the union the "catalyst" for filing the grievance, Baldwin said. The union saw Herrmann as unwilling to settle and called the Oct. 22 letter to parents "an attempt to undermine teachers and influence current negotiations."
Baldwin hand-delivered the grievance to Herrmann on Monday, Nov. 10, when Herrmann was coordinating the school's response to the suicide days earlier.
"The timing was awful," Baldwin said, but under the teachers contract, the union was under a 10-day timeline (not counting weekends) to file the grievance.
The grievance alleges that Herrmann violated Appendix C, Section 1 of the union contract, which states that "In order to provide readily available and inclusive access to learning expectations, secondary teachers are expected to electronically post homework assignments, instructional materials, and test and quiz dates ... in a timely manner."
Baldwin said it was not a single teacher or group of teachers who prompted the grievance but rather the decision of the union's executive board.
"When the contract was being violated, in what we saw, the executive board decided (to file a grievance)," she said. "Some teachers weren't necessarily in favor of it, but we have a contract that we need to uphold."
In fact, several teachers wrote to Herrmann the week the grievance was filed to express their support for her and their disappointment that the union did not take into account all teachers' voices on Schoology, according to emails released to the Weekly.
"Please know that you have the support of many people on our staff, and I know I'm not alone when I express my utter gratitude for your commitment to us as a staff and school community!!" wrote one staff member, whose name was redacted to protect privacy, on the day the grievance was filed.
On Nov. 16, another staff member wrote to Herrmann: "I hope this skirmish is but a regrettable bump in the road of a long period of your valuable presence at Gunn. I deeply hope that we can overcome this current difficulty and can devise a way to have a real and (dare I say it) full-throated conversation about this and many other issues certain to arise as a faculty and come to an understanding in which all teachers feel heard, parents' concerns are taken into consideration, and our students are given the very best education we can possibly give them."
One staff member criticized the union directly for the timing of the grievance.
"I just wanted to share that I wish the same kind of mindfulness of the mental health (of) our principal was used when serving her a grievance on Monday afternoon," the staff member wrote in a Nov. 13 email, copying Baldwin. "We all are very emotionally exhausted, and it seems rather insensitive to serve our new principal with a grievance at this very moment (especially since our entire staff was not in agreement that we wanted this grievance to be filed)!
"Teri, I hope that moving forward that you can encourage our staff to work through our differences with our principal first before filing grievances," the email continues. "I do not agree with this line of action at all, and am rather upset that the union is not listening to my voice!!!"
Herrmann verbally summarized the grievance to staff at a meeting on the afternoon of Monday, Nov. 24, she said. In an official written response, Herrmann apologized for any miscommunication and defended what she intended as a "passionate request," not a directive, to post assignments to Schoology. This response was provided to union leadership but never sent to staff, as the union felt that Herrmann's Nov. 24 verbal communication was sufficient, she said
"I would like to characterize my actions as a bit naïve and bold but not manipulative or dictatorial," she wrote. "I wrongly assumed that the request to consistently use Schoology school-wide would be readily accepted by the Gunn staff. As a new principal, I saw a student need and a parent need, and I also saw that we had no data about nightly/weekly homework load and thought a small adjustment in our communication as a school could meet that need."
Herrmann wrote that she stands by the request so that "students can more easily plan and manage their time" and staff who provide academic and non-academic support can find students' workloads in a single place.
Some teachers and the union have objected to this reasoning, saying it places an excessive burden on the teachers to "nanny" their students. In a statement sent to the Weekly, Baldwin said, "There is apprehension that programs like Schoology do not promote the sort of organization and self-management skills that young people need to acquire for success in life after high school. Teachers know that one-size-fits-all approaches to education are never in the best interest of the students they strive to serve every day."
In an interview, Baldwin added that inter- and cross-departmental communication and coordination is essential to monitoring homework loads and practices.
"All teachers are all on Google Apps and can share information through their Google Drives, which many already do. They collaborate via Google Docs and Calendars and this can help them monitor homework loads," Baldwin said. "I am sure there are many other ways, that if the teachers were asked which ways would be the most productive/useful for them while they are creating lesson plans, they would be happy to collaborate with administrators to implement."
Central to the debate over Schoology is the district's homework policy, which mandates limits of the amount of homework per night for each grade level and expects assignments that are designed to "deepen understanding and encourage a love of learning," the policy reads. The policy also requires teachers to post assignments so that they are available to students inside and outside of school, to monitor time spent on homework and to coordinate with each other on deadlines and tests to "minimize student over-extension."
In February, shortly after a third student death by suicide, McGee sent a districtwide memo requiring all faculty and staff to take immediate steps to review and follow the policy, stressing that "compliance is expected and required," not encouraged or recommended. McGee asked all principals to work with their staffs to develop a plan to ensure implementation. He also echoed Herrmann, writing that he frequently hears that "one of the biggest stressors" for students and parents is having multiple tests or assignments due on the same day.
McGee also pointed to a segment of the homework policy that requires teachers to "post assignments in a manner that is clear, consistent and easily observed by the student both in and outside the classroom. The use of online communication tools is strongly encouraged at the secondary level."
"While recent public conversations repeatedly relate to Schoology, the first and most important sentence ... is neglected, and that is the requirement," McGee wrote.
Meanwhile, Herrmann is continuing her efforts to better grasp the amount of homework assigned and teachers' modes of communication around homework. She said some parents reported to her that they saw an increase in use of Schoology at the start of second semester in January.
Herrmann and Gunn's instructional supervisors also created an online survey that teachers took this month, answering questions on average amount of weekly homework assigned, strategies for finding out the actual time students spend on assignments, methods for electronically posting assignments, policy for accepting late work and ideas for streamlining the implementation and monitoring of the homework policy, according to minutes from Gunn's March 4 Instructional Council meeting.
Herrmann said she and staff plan to look at the survey data after spring break and "highlight the areas that need our greatest attention," including targeting specific courses where there are discrepancies between teachers' and the course catalog's homework estimates or between individual teachers instructing the same course. She said she hopes to tackle quantity first, then shift gears to focus on teacher support and training around quality of homework assignments.
Herrmann stressed that while she disagrees with the teachers union, she has the utmost respect and support for Gunn's teachers.
"My greatest goal was to make sure that staff understood any reasoning or greater good that I was trying to accomplish and how much I respect the teachers and that I would only ask them to do something in such a consistent way if I thought (a) they would be able to do it because they're really talented people; and (b) because it would make a difference for kids," Herrmann said.
Meanwhile, school sources say the debate over Schoology is a major sticking point in current union negotiations, perhaps because the district is seeking clear authority under the contract to require use of the program.
One thing is certain: The grievance against Herrmann revealed details about the union's role in school politics that rarely are seen by the public, including a willingness to challenge a brand new administrator.
Barbara Harris, the district's director of elementary education, wrote a sympathetic email to Herrmann after the grievance was filed last fall: "You will be just fine. This is just showing you the real deal of what you will be facing leading in this district."
View the full set of documents provided by the school district under a Public Records Act request here.