Close to one year after its creation, grassroots school-reform campaign Save the 2,008 will be coming before the Palo Alto school board on Tuesday for discussion.
A former Gunn High School teacher and current student founded the campaign in November in the wake of two teen deaths by suicide, urging the implementation of "six steps to sanity" at both of Palo Alto's high schools. The campaign was named for the number of staff and students at Gunn at the time.
Save the 2,008's six proposals, which have not changed since they were first publicized in November, are: to shrink class sizes, moderate homework load, foster "wiser decisions" about how many Advance Placement courses students take, forbid cellphone use at school, send home grade reports less frequently and address a "climate of rampant cheating."
"The action-plan of Save the 2,008 has six steps, intended to undo the worst conditions of a modern-day high school crowded classrooms, overwork at home and in AP course loads, all-day student phone use, continual grade reporting, and rampant cheating so as to disperse the toxic mix of stress, depression, and distrust that is brewed by these conditions, so that ties between classmates, and especially student-teacher working relationships, can flourish and bloom again," a description of the campaign provided for the board meeting reads.
Save the 2,008 became somewhat of a touch point of controversy during the last school year, with many students opposing the proposals. Gunn student newspaper The Oracle ran an editorial in December describing the campaign as "ineffective" and one that "misperceived the causes for student stress as purely academic."
"A much more pertinent plan would be to increase the number of resources available to students struggling with issues outside of school, and form a permanent active network of students and staff solely for the purpose of the campus' emotional health," the editorial reads.
However, many in the community have expressed support for the campaign at school board meetings, on online forums, in the community and in an open letter urging the school board and superintendent to consider Save the 2,008's proposals. As of Sept. 4, the letter which has been published in several local newspapers, including this one had close to 400 signatures in support.
"I can think of no bolder action for you to take than bringing up for consideration any common sense action to make (for) our high schoolers more compassionate environments," Corey Summers, the father of a future Gunn student, told the board in December. "The future of our children and, you could argue, that their very lives are in your hands."
Co-founder Marc Vincenti, who taught English at Gunn from 1995 to 2010, has been a persistent presence at district headquarters since the fall, repeatedly urging the school board to consider the campaign's proposals. He submitted a formal request in the spring to place Save the 2,008 on the board's agenda as an informational item, meaning the board will take no action on it.
Several of the campaign's proposals overlap with stress-reducing efforts the high schools put in place during the previous school year. Students at both high schools who choose multiple AP and/or honors classes now have to meet, along with their parents, or talk on the phone with school staff about their schedule and sign an AP contract.
Both Gunn and Paly suggests a maximum of two AP classes per semester. When students opt to take more than two, they and their parents have to sign a waiver that states they understand this recommendation, that AP courses require more homework than regular courses, that their student will sleep eight hours each school night despite this load and that "if the academic workload becomes overwhelming or unduly stressful we will both meet together with the teacher, teacher advisor or guidance counselor to develop a plan to manage the workload and stress level," Gunn's waiver reads.
According to the district, 387 Gunn students and 293 Paly students have enrolled in three or more AP classes for the first semester of the 2015-16 school year. Forty-four Gunn students and 27 Paly students have signed up for five or more.
When students register for classes, they are also now required to fill out a time-management worksheet with their counselors to map out their hours each day, with classes, corresponding work load, extracurricular activities and sleep.
The school district has since 2012 had a homework policy that limits homework load for all grade levels, though its implementation has reportedly stalled at many schools. The board at its Aug. 25 meeting expanded that policy to include for the first time AP and honors courses, with a new 15-hour per week cap for all high school students.
All secondary teachers are also now required to post their course information, assignments and grade to Schoology, the district's online learning management system similar to the Save the 2,008's suggestion that the schools create a "confidential website where teachers and kids can compare notes on minutes assigned and minutes worked, and which teachers can use to avoid 'test stacking.'"
One of Save the 2,008's most controversial proposals that student-cellphone use be banned at school is already addressed in a board policy on student conduct that prohibits the use of cellphones during instructional time.
"Such devices shall be turned off in class, except when being used for a valid instructional or other school-related purpose as determined by the teacher or other district employee," the policy reads.
Though board policy on cheating has long existed, Save the 2,008 urges a stronger approach to the "rampant fraud" that "erodes self-esteem and churns up so much angst with every assignment that it's an issue of mental health."
Paly had 35 incidents of reported academic dishonesty in the 2014-15 year, with the largest number of cases involving juniors (14) and male students (26 compared to nine involving girls), Assistant Principal Adam Paulson reported to the district in an email included in the board packet. Numbers from Gunn were not included.
Superintendent Max McGee also included in the board packet information about related district efforts: collaboration with the city and Caltrain to implement means restriction efforts along the train tracks in Palo Alto; student, staff and parent and education programs; and contact with the Centers for Disease Control to potentially come to Palo Alto to research and analyze the recent suicide cluster.
In other business Tuesday, the board will discuss its 2015-16 goals, which touch on personalized learning; consistency in curriculum, expectations and grading; data-driven instruction; closing the achievement gap; enrollment management and student social-emotional health.
The board will also discuss revisions for the 2015-16 budget and consider approving a full-time communications coordinator position. The district has been without an official communications person since Tabitha Kappeler-Hurley resigned in June.
Though it was originally suggested in the wake of her resignation that the district bring on someone part time to work on communications, McGee is now asking the board to approve a full-time hire.
"The Communication Coordinator is an important function, and since the Coordinator's departure, we have felt the loss," Mcgee wrote in a staff report. "Specifically, we have had several media requests for interviews and photos that were not addressed until deadlines had passed, three sets of individuals who are seeking to prepare documentaries are still waiting for direction, and we had one crisis communication from the police department that came to an assistant, and thus was not distributed as rapidly and widely as it should have been.
"While we now have a point person to receive and distribute crisis communications, we do not have anyone prepared to address them."
McGee also notes that school administrators typically write their own press releases and messages to their school communities "without any support or coordination from an expert, and thus we take a step back from our efforts to foster a collective community rather than a collection of communities."
The salary range for a full-time coordinator is $105,622 to $139,019. A 60 percent position would bring the salary down to $63,373 to $83,411, according to McGee. Last year, Kappeler-Hurley's total compensation was $143,258; in addition, the district-paid benefits for the position totaled $39,076.
McGee wrote that staff evaluations, as well as the board's evaluation of the superintendent himself, identified "frequent and prompt" communication as an area for improvement.
"At this point our office is doing all we can, and we need support to fulfill the expectations of Board members and the Leadership Team and especially the greater community," McGee wrote. "The demands for more frequent, accurate, high quality communication will only increase, so in conclusion, it is recommended this be a full-time position proven by the benefits to our parents, staff, community, and ultimately students, realizing this far outweighs the cost differential between a part-time and full-time employee."
The Tuesday, Sept. 8, board meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave. Read the full agenda here.