One of Tom Jacoubowsky's top goals as Gunn High School's assistant principal in charge of guidance counseling was to make the sometimes rocky transition from eighth to ninth grade as smooth as possible. He regularly attended transition meetings at Gunn's feeder middle schools and consistently pushed the message that overloading and overreaching academically freshman year is not the way to start high school.
Jacoubowsky will now be working on the other side of that transition, ending a 14-year career at Gunn to serve as interim principal at Jordan Middle School this fall. He's replacing Greg Barnes, who is leaving after four years to become director of secondary education in the Milpitas Unified School District.
While many Jordan parents describe their experience there as mostly positive, others report negative interactions with teachers, issues with bullying and a need to make the school more inclusive.
Maintaining a positive school climate, along with differentiating instruction to a greater degree, addressing the achievement gap through better use of the district's Response to Intervention (RtI) framework and implementing a "clearly articulated schoolwide writing approach with shared expectations across all grade levels" were identified as the school's top four goals for the next three years by Jordan's school site council, a group of students, parents and staff.
Several districtwide areas of concern and transition will also demand Jacoubowsky's attention, including fuller implementation of the district's homework policy, the rollout of new recommendations aimed at tackling the achievement gap from the superintendent's minority achievement and talent development committee, and continually rising middle-school enrollment.
Described by Gunn teachers and students as a positive, empathetic administrator, Jacoubowsky was also "probably the most visible administrator that we have had in the last 12 years," said teacher and wrestling coach Chris Horpel, who has worked with Jacoubowsky since 2003. Horpel said Jacoubowsky has always been a frequent presence at home and away athletic events, musicals, plays and other school events.
"Tom's sense of humor coupled with his ability to stay level-headed during intense times make him a great leader," Horpel added.
A "huge campus presence," Jacoubowsky spent much of this school year hanging out in the quad in the mornings before school, during brunch and lunch connecting with students, said rising junior Shannon Yang.
"I don't know why he does it, but he would watch people and make sure students were doing OK, and say 'hi' to kids enthusiastically. It's always really nice to see that because it shows how caring adults can make Gunn a brighter place," Yang said.
Danny Golovinsky, who graduated from Gunn this year, spent "countless hours" with Jacoubowsky through Golovinsky's leadership roles in the student group Reach Out. Care. Know (ROCK). He called Jacoubowsky a mentor and a trusted adult on whom he relied on for both academic and nonacademic support. Rising junior Chloe Sorensen, however, said Jacoubowsky was sometimes unresponsive when she approached him for support for the efforts of the student wellness committee, which she and three other students formed this school year in the wake of several student deaths by suicide.
Jacoubowsky began his career in 1995 as a student-teacher at Sequoia Union High School. He transferred the next year to Menlo-Atherton High School, where he taught and coached track and field for five years. Feeling a "pull toward more administrative-type roles," he moved to Gunn in 2001 to serve as the school's new athletic director and dean of students, a position he said perfectly combined his interests.
Jacoubowsky moved up to assistant principal in 2006, charged with overseeing athletics, facilities and budget. In 2011 his focus shifted to counseling, the year before a long-stretching, divisive community debate over the quality and efficacy of Gunn's counseling system -- particularly in comparison to the different "teacher adviser" model at Palo Alto High School -- would begin. In 2013, Jacoubowsky served on the Gunn Guidance Advisory Committee (GAC), which later issued more than 40 recommendations on how to improve the school's counseling services.
In an interview in his new office at Jordan this week, he acknowledged that it was mostly the "low-hanging fruit" in those recommendations that got accomplished. Other improvements he hope will come in the next few years with Gunn's new bell schedule rolling out this fall, which he hopes will allow more time and flexibility in how the school can deliver its counseling services.
He said he plans to continue to prioritize the message, now with middle school parents, about preparing for balance, rather than stress-inducing rigor, in high school. He's a proponent of frequent, transparent communication, and sent a weekly counseling update email to Gunn and others in the community with information about scheduling, signing up for classes, upcoming events and college and career news
Cathy Kirkman, the parent of one graduated and one current Jordan student, said she hopes Jacoubowsky will tackle three top issues: the district's homework policy, school climate and achievement gap. Though homework is certainly a more heated topic at the high school level, Kirkman said middle school is a good time to ensure teachers, students and families understand the policy, "so then when they get to high school they're in better shape in terms of planning on what classes to take, what homework will be like ... I think middle school is a great place to make sure that we get the homework policy right."
Jacoubowsky said he's eager to talk to teachers, students and parents to learn more about what the homework load and content is like at Jordan.
School climate at the middle-school level has been a heightened topic of community debate in Palo Alto since the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened multiple investigations into bullying and discrimination, including a case alleging racial discrimination in a search at Jordan after $20 went missing from a teacher's purse. (The Office for Civil Rights dropped the case in June 2014, citing insufficient evidence of discrimination.)
The parent of a recently graduated special-education student at Jordan who wishes to remain anonymous criticized the school and district's handling of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for students with special needs.
"All I (saw) was lip service," the parent said. She said teachers provided the necessary services, but goals laid out in her child's IEP were not followed through on. "They were holding meetings; they were going through the motions, but not really adhering to what they put there in writing."
She said she and other special-education parents spent two years trying to talk to both site and district administrators, but it wasn't until staffing changes were made in her child's third and final year at Jordan that the situation improved.
Another Jordan parent said efforts to start a back-to-school night with staff and the Palo Alto Community Advisory Committee (CAC), a special-education parent advocacy group, were "brushed off."
The same parent said her son experienced ongoing bullying last year, beginning with a physical incident that had no repercussions for the student who was bullying her son. Additionally, no record was kept of the initial incident. Her son became depressed as a result, she said.
"We worked really hard on the (district's) anti-bullying policy. ... I think following the policy that everyone worked so hard for could have made a difference," she said.
Middle school quality emerged as an issue in an October 2014 forum of school board candidates. Now-elected member Ken Dauber noted that three of the four candidates with children all had at least one child in a private middle school (himself, Catherine Crystal Foster and Gina Dalma) -- and that they were far from alone in that choice.
"I think that is because we have not yet done as well as we can for providing middle schools that provide social and emotional support for kids, that really meet the needs of all kids ... at that age," Dauber said at the forum.
Kirkman, whose older son co-founded Student Equity Action Network, a nonprofit dedicated to closing the achievement gap and supporting students of color in Palo Alto, recently worked with Barnes to add a multicultural representative to Jordan's student council. Jordan parent Sara Woodham, who is also co-chair of Parent Advocates for Student Success, has worked with Barnes to increase outreach to families of color at the school, forming a parent network specifically for African-American parents two years ago. She said she hopes Jacoubowsky will be intentional in his efforts to create an inclusive community at Jordan.
Kirkman agreed. "We should emphasize transparency, accountability and intentionality around all of these things and how we're running our public school," she said.
Equity-related changes at Jordan will also surely come out of the district's minority achievement and talent development committee's robust recommendations, which were released in May. At the middle school level specifically, the group has recommended hiring math-intervention support personnel, noting that a subjective process for placing kids in math lane 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. Some committee members described Palo Alto's laning process as subjective, potentially impacted by teachers' unconscious biases. Parents can fill out waivers to move their children into a higher lane class, but many parents of color are unaware of the option. Fewer than 10 students of color at all three middle schools requested parent waivers in a recent year, according to the district. The committee suggested that both middle and high schools need to communicate more clear, objective information about how both laning and waivers work.
Two Jordan students of color who spoke to the minority-achievement committee about their experience in the district in December spoke highly of the support they received through the school's Advanced Via Individual Determination (AVID) program (an in-school program designed to help students "in the middle" get on a college-bound path) and an after-school homework center staffed by volunteer tutors.
Jacoubowsky said one of his priorities will be boosting the achievement of students who have traditionally underperformed academically at Jordan. He pointed to the success of Barnes' Project 45 program, under which 45 lower-performing students received more dedicated time and attention with the goal of bringing their work above "C" level.
Jacoubowsky is also taking the helm at a time when Jordan (as well as JLS Middle School) is projected to soon reach record-high enrollment. Both Jordan and JLS enroll about 1,100 students, and Terman Middle School is close to capacity. Enrollment growth expected over the next two years at the middle schools "will put pressure on classroom space requiring the use of relocatables and additional classroom sharing," Superintendent Max McGee noted in an enrollment report in September. A new enrollment management committee began this spring analyzing the district's growing student population, with the option of opening a fourth middle school on the table.
Jacoubowsky will also be tasked with overseeing the first year of a pilot Mandarin-immersion program at Jordan, the first time such instruction will be offered at the middle-school level in Palo Alto. The program will begin this fall with one section for sixth-graders and increase its offerings over the next two years.
Though this is an interim position and a search for a permanent Jordan principal will be reopened in January or February, McGee said he expects Jacoubowsky will be "one of the top candidates for the permanent position."