Leadership shuffle at Jordan Middle School

Gunn's Tom Jacoubowsky to head Jordan on interim basis

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."

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12 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 10, 2015 at 11:09 am

Congratulations to Mr. Jacoubowsky . We will miss him at Gunn. Very nice and pleasant man.

Palo Alto Weekly,

Do you have standing weekly lunch/dinner meetings with Mr. Dauber? It seems like all school articles have a quote from Dauber in it. Are the other Board Members not talking? It would be refreshing to hear from others. Just sayin....

8 people like this
Posted by Mr J
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2015 at 2:54 pm

Mr J really cares about the students and I hope that parents and staff at Jordan will allow him the time and will also support the eventual changes that may be needed for the school to benefit.

Good luck Mr J, Gunn will always be home to you. The students and parents will miss your presence at most of the after school events. I hope that other administrators will take up the slack. We used to see the former principal, Ms Likens, at many of the events along with Mr J, interacting with students. Since Ms Likens left it has just been Mr J. that seems to care. This will leave a big hole for the students. More than one administrator will be needed to connect with the students and show that they are connected and care about their wellbeing.

30 people like this
Posted by Why the Wait
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jul 10, 2015 at 4:53 pm

If only Barnes could have been replaced before my youngest child graduated from Jordan. Like many other kids, his time at Jordan was nearly ruined by this principal.

Jordan has been the worst school in the district for at least ten years, but the last four were the absolute nadir. With all the parental complaints ( and a few teacher ones) it amazes me that Barnes was not removed a lot sooner.

Thanks to Barnes, there are many Jordan grads who have come to hate and mistrust the school system. That does not bode well for the future.

19 people like this
Posted by ReformJordan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 10, 2015 at 5:15 pm

I am concerned whether Mr. Jacoubowsky is up to the task of reforming the worst teaching practices at Jordan. Clearly Barnes had no interest when teachers bully students and use intimidation, pressure and retaliation tactics.

But I did not really get the feeling Mr. Jacoubowsky was a strong driver of reform in Gunn's guidance program - even he admits they just did the easy stuff: "low hanging fruit". Sounds like minimal effort, don't rock-the-boat kind of approach.

Jordan needs much more serious attention to how staff treats children. Can Mr. Jacoubowsky do this?

In addition to bullying attitudes on the part of staff (look at the IS leaders first), the school in general seems unaware of the issues with homework overload, pressuring students, anxiety and the fact that their actions cause students to develop a real dislike for learning, and turns kids off of education.

Reform Jordan Now!

17 people like this
Posted by Bigger problems
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2015 at 3:09 pm

I think Jacoubowsky is truly a good guy, the trouble is that key people in the district office controlling the strings really aren't, and despite our new superintendent, the culture in the office still wouldn't know honesty and ethical standards if they slapped them with a wet noodle.

I find it interesting that the district office plays musical chairs with site management for a number of supposed benefits, yet doesn't apply any such "logic" to itself. If only we could clean out the barn at 25 Churchill. McGee seems so snowed he doesn't seem to remember snow is supposed to be white.

We had such a great experience in elementary, we did not believe the stories about middle school in PA until it was too late. Honestly don't understand why anyone continues to send their kids or pay so much money while demanding so little accountability.

6 people like this
Posted by Communications
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jul 11, 2015 at 3:45 pm

"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."
Not members of the CAC, but saw at the last Board of Education meeting the Board blocked every effort to create Special Education transparency and communication with the Board.

The Board blocked a motion to assign a Board Liaison to the CAC to allow for communication between Special Education and the District. They ignored reports that the just promoted Assistant Superintendent (promoted that night) does not respond to parent e-mails unless they send them multiple times. It is hard to imagine the Board and Superintendent do not know how bad this problem is. They really never heard parent complaints? Have they forgotten this department and it't leaders won't respond unless parents go up the chain to the Board and Superintendent? It is not possible the Board and Superintendent do not know the severity of this problem in their District.

The Board President even blocked two Trustees who volunteered to be the CAC liaison and said they are willing to take on the extra assignment. At this point it became clear this was an effort to stop District transparency and communications from Special Education.

Heidi Emberling disparaged the CAC saying they didn't hold meetings and she didn't know when they were, and implying the CAC was too disorganized. Again, not on the CAC but this was wrong and insulting to the CAC's incredibly hard working volunteers who put in thousands of hours of work for this District. CAC held regular meetings, they have committees whose members meet and do volunteer work for the District, they sponsored anti-bullying events and meet the Superintendent events. The CAC held District special needs fairs and candidate forums (Ms. Emberling was elected as a candidate based on a platform she is an expert on Special Education). How could the Board of Education not know this?

CAC has a web site should the Board care to check it before they demean it's members. Only listening to Special Education and no one else will get you one sided information. Some Board Members have managed to come to CAC meetings and events, so somehow they knew they held meetings. Didn't Special Education use it's legal funds to overturn the CAC's election because it did not like who they elected? If the District prevented CAC from holding meetings and says it should not have a Board liaison because it doesn't have meetings it prevented, that is too much. This needs to be more transparent.

14 people like this
Posted by another dauberism
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 12, 2015 at 11:21 am

"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,"

Actually, no, the real reason we have 3 candidates with kids at private schools is because we don't do enough differentiated learning. We need far more rigorous academic focus for middle schools.

3 people like this
Posted by Bigger problems
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2015 at 2:49 am

Well, actually, for us it comes down to the district office adopting the Google motto: Don't be evil. I won't speak for the candidates but read that to them, I'm guessing you'll get a knowing laugh and perhaps even an admission of same from at least one.

4 people like this
Posted by middle school athletics parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 13, 2015 at 11:04 am

really hope he can get the middle school athletics program back on track. seems like the recreation department has lost its way. there are a lot of young people in charge of the sports programs in middle schools that don't have the necessary experience to handle situations or become part of the problem. it also seems to us as parents that some of these decision makers get too chummy with the students. we constantly are asking our daughter what they did in her volleyball sessions and did anything interesting happen. we are concerned and we do observe carefully.

3 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2015 at 9:44 pm

How long before the teachers, board and parents drive this one way.

11 people like this
Posted by Broken
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 13, 2015 at 11:18 pm

@Bill asks:"How long before the teachers, board and parents drive this one way."?

About 3 years:

Year 1: big dreams arrives, starts by trying to build respect with staff. Meanwhile staff are busy undermining him on day one: bullying kids, pressuring homework, ignoring 504's, and ...well business as usual.

Year 2: issues with parents start to grow. Works to resolve some issues, but staff is busy convincing him the problem is the parents. He buys this story for a while as it is easier than confronting his own staff. Retaliation begins to suppress dissent among parents. Only works for so long.

Year 3: parents are in all out revolt. He has, unfortunately sided with his teachers, but realizing the mistake he made, cannot reverse course without looking a fool. The trust he thought he had built with staff year one evaporates when he asks them to change behavior. District throws him under the bus. Knows the end is coming, starts to interview.

Yeah, I've seen this movie before...

4 people like this
Posted by Experienced Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 14, 2015 at 2:52 am

@middle school athletics parent: Off-topic of thread, but don't expect any of the school sports teams to train athletes much. As for many of the coaches in middle school athletics, they are parents or warm bodies. Training occurs outside of school in clinics, camps, club teams, private lessons. Find a good club for your daughter, as there are many. Some teams are too difficult to be selected, but your daughter can still attend their clinics and learn lots. Palo Alto Elite is not considered a competitive club, but there are competitive clubs out there in neighboring towns.

As for Jordan, there is someone who always bombs the threads with rants of teachers bullying, students bullying, special ed being ignored. We have had rude teachers, but never teachers that bullied. I have had two children through Jordan with Milliken and Barnes as principals and both children were physically bullied. Administration took it seriously and halted it immediately and I was impressed. Staff was also involved and took it seriously. Some bullying cannot be contained by schools - usually the mental bullying, such as facial expressions, sarcasm, excluding, etc. People complain about bullying as such, but how can the schools contain it? Any suggestions? People expect too much hand-holding here!

Sometimes students who are consistently bullied are provoking others. The students in Palo Alto are nice compared to schools in the rest of our nation.

There are some teachers who were rude but they are no longer teaching.

The biggest improvement needs to be the English department. Teachers need to assign more papers and correct them and return them to students rather than using peer corrections. By the time students hit Paly, they should know how to write a good 5-paragraph essay. Any English teacher who doesn't write feedback on papers is incompetent and lazy - it's part of the job as an English teacher to teach writing skills!

1 person likes this
Posted by Won't rock the boat
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2015 at 5:01 pm

Tom Jacoubowsky will do fine at Jordan, but he doesn't represent greatness. It is sad that he is only being appointed as the interim principal. The PAUSD routine was usually a simple appointment to principal so I am not sure what happened. As for Greg Barnes, he definitely had a high opinion of himself, but in the end there was a lot of frosting and not much cake.

Like this comment
Posted by Jordan Parent
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jul 30, 2015 at 4:12 pm

I would rather have someone who is good rather than have someone who thinks they're great and doesn't do anything.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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