After years of piecemeal efforts to reduce the achievement gap between minority and other students in the Palo Alto school district, the Board of Education expressed support Tuesday night for a set of robust and ambitious recommendations on the issue.
Superintendent Max McGee's minority achievement and talent development committee presented Tuesday its top 12 recommendations, which urge the district to tackle problems as complex as an underlying and unconscious narrative of bias that "permeates the system at all levels," one committee member said.
Other recommendations include regularly testing young students on reading and math to provide early intervention help when necessary; evaluating the district's myriad intervention and support programs; and creating an "equity coordinator" position to monitor the district's efforts to increase opportunity, access and diversity.
"This is the beginning of a historical day in Palo Alto Unified School District," McGee told the board Tuesday. "While we have seen episodic improvements in serving (historically underrepresented students) ... it has been far too long since we've seen a systemic approach."
Several board members stressed that early intervention and the placement of students into subject-matter lanes deserve heightened focus and attention. The regular diagnostic testing of pre-kindergarten through second-grade students in math and literacy is the committee's No. 1 recommendation.
Board member Terry Godfrey reflected on a "College Readiness" report prepared by a former district administrator in 2013 that showed elementary school students' proficiency scores on standardized tests in elementary school were powerful predictors of their ability to complete A-G subject requirements in high school. (A-G, the coursework required by the California State University and University of California systems, is considered one measure for college readiness.)
"I carried that report with me for ages. ... I just thought, 'Oh my god, how can we let this happen?'" Godfrey said. "Being there early often feels like the right thing to do."
Parent and co-chair of the group Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS) Sara Woodham echoed Godfrey's sentiments, saying, "It's so much easier to solve these problems with our younger children than it is to ask our high school staff and teachers to address issues that literally they get these kids overnight, but these issues with the kids have been building for years and years. It starts with early education."
Board member Heidi Emberling suggested that further "low-hanging fruit" around early education could be to expand enrollment in the district's six-month Springboard to Kindergarten program, aimed at children about to enter Palo Alto schools with no previous preschool experience, but noted that child care and transportation are barriers for some families.
Board member Ken Dauber raised the topic of laning, which begins in middle-school mathematics classes. The committee, unable to find consensus on what has historically been a contentious topic of debate in Palo Alto, recommended that the district start by creating clear objective and well-communicated information about laning, especially for parents of historically underrepresented students.
Committee co-chair Judy Argumedo, who oversees the district's Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) and English Language Development, said that she herself as a new parent in the district was unaware of how to get her daughter who loves math and gets straight A's in the subject into a higher lane math class when the family moved to Palo Alto from Los Angeles.
Parents must fill out a waiver in order to do so, but fewer than 10 students of color at all three middle schools requested parent waivers in a recent year, Argumedo said. She added that documents about the waiver process were not translated into other languages, only one informational parents night was held and the district's rubric for determining assignment to various lanes was not provided to parents ahead of time.
"It's not transparent. Parents aren't aware and it becomes this really dicey situation that's really not clear and ultimately is harming students," said committee member Avani Patel, a former teacher from the Ravenswood City School District.
"Parents shouldn't have to know the system in order to get their kids into a position to take advantage of the opportunities that we have," Dauber added.
In its report to the board, the committee also notes that a subjective process for math laning in middle school "has created a significant divide among students." Sixth-grade teachers recommend students for a certain lane based on a nine-point rubric and placement test, the results of which can affect students' opportunity to take higher-level classes in high school. Committee members described Palo Alto's laning process as deserving of further review.
Eighth-grade Algebra 1 is also often considered a gatekeeper class to success in high school and college, and subjective misplacement for minority students can have a devastating, long-term impact. A 2010 study that looked at math placement in nine school districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties found that disproportionate numbers of African American, Latino and Pacific Islander students were forced to repeat Algebra I in freshman year, which derails their path to completing the A-G requirements.
Dauber noted that the end of sixth grade "is a very early time to be making kind of decisions that have this kind of consequence" and urged the committee to further explore the process.
Board President Melissa Baten Caswell pointed to the Cupertino Union School District, which she said recently created an expectation that all students get to algebra by eighth grade, with positive results.
Community and board members, although optimistic and supportive of the committee's report, expressed concern that the ambitious set of recommendations could, like much of the district's past work on complex equity issues, fall by the wayside.
"If you don't have the follow-up plan, you really suffer," said Godfrey, citing the failed implementation of the district's homework policy, which was similarly crafted over several months by a large committee committed to solving a pervasive issue in the district.
One of the committee's recommendations is to continue the group as a standing district committee that will run throughout the year. The new equity coordinator will also be a dedicated, district-level person charged with overseeing implementation at both the district and site levels.
"If we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always gotten, as the saying goes," McGee said. "We hope this report changes these current practices that have led to historically inequitable outcomes."
The committee's 12 most urgent recommendations will return to the school board for approval as part of a budget discussion at its June 9 meeting.