The school district's 2015 Strategic Plan survey results, which the school board will discuss Tuesday night, offers insight into students' and parents' perceptions of many of the top issues the district hopes to tackle this year, from academic consistency and classroom innovations to social-emotional well-being and communication.
The results of the survey, which is administered annually to parents and students, align closely with the six goals the school board approved in September for the year. The goals seek to address personalized learning; consistency in instruction, curriculum, assessments and homework; better use of data; support for historically underrepresented students; enrollment; and both student and staff social-emotional health.
A higher rate of parents responded this year than last, but student response rates were significantly lower this year. Only 715 students approximately evenly split between Gunn and Palo Alto high schools participated in the survey, which was voluntary.
A staff report on the results cites survey fatigue as the likely culprit. Students (and parents) were asked to participate in several large surveys during the last academic year, including two Hanover Research Group studies on alignment and world languages, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) surveys for the high schools' accreditation and a Challenge Success survey at Gunn, soon to be administered at Paly.
While the majority of students (70 percent) indicated they are either satisfied or strongly satisfied with the social and emotional experience they have had in the school district, their level of satisfaction for the 2014-15 academic year, which was marked by several student deaths by suicide, was far lower (46 percent).
There were also relatively low rates of student satisfaction with the non-academic counseling services at both high schools this past year. Only 39 percent of students were satisfied or strongly satisfied, compared to 15 percent who were mildly dissatisfied and 17 percent who were either dissatisfied or strongly dissatisfied. Two students recounted in an open-ended response section their frustration at not being able to get in to see their counselors because they were overwhelmed with student demand.
Yet students reported high levels of satisfaction with both their teachers and school counselors during the 2014-15 school year. And the majority of students said there is a caring adult at their school who they go to with a problem.
Students were less satisfied, however, with how the district, school board and their school administration communicates with them likely a remnant of last spring's divisive zero-period decision and other discussions around decisions related to student health and well-being, which left many students feeling like they weren't being heard by the adults in power in the district.
Only 31 percent of students said they were satisfied or strongly satisfied with the district's and board's communication with students while 28 percent of students reported high rates of dissatisfaction.
"When making fundamental changes to student life, please consider student opinion," one student wrote in the open-ended response section. "I'm disappointed in the school board's capabilities, and I hope to see more interaction between the students and adults in the future." (The school board and superintendent have several times this year discussed how to accomplish this, including scheduling regular meetings with student government leaders and other groups.)
Close to 40 percent of students said they were either dissatisfied or strongly dissatisfied with how well their school administrators communicate with them.
The district's No. 2 goal this year is to "foster conditions that provide a coherent district approach for aligning course curriculum frameworks, grading practices, homework expectations, project and testing schedules, and summative assessments instruments."
Hanover Research's alignment study already yielded more in-depth data about these topics, but students reported in the Strategic Plan survey that curriculum, instruction and grading practices are not as consistent as they could be.
Forty percent of students said they agreed or strongly agreed that curriculum and instruction is consistent across their teachers and classes. Forty-one percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that teacher quality and difficulty is consistent cross schools and courses. Close to half of students reported grading is fair.
"One's success should not depend on one's teacher," one student wrote in the open-ended response section.
About half of students agreed their homework assignments are "useful and appropriate" and that the amount of homework they receive is reasonable.
About half of parents agreed or strongly agreed that grading is fair across their child's teachers and classes and that the amount of homework assigned that year was reasonable. (Parents with multiple children were asked to answer questions with only their oldest child in mind.)
More parents than students thought curriculum and instruction were consistent across their children's teachers and courses. Only 30 percent of parents, however, agreed or strongly agreed that teacher quality and difficulty is consistent across schools and courses.
Levels of satisfaction were lower with individualized teaching and consistency and teacher difficulty and quality than with any other questions related to teaching and learning, according to an analysis of the results conducted by Hanover Research.
A "sizeable portion" of respondents also disagreed that the school district follows fair and transparent decision-making practices, Hanover noted. While most agreed that this is the case (67 percent), a third of overall respondents disagreed (33 percent). (Hanover's analysis collapses "strongly agree, agree and mildly agree" into "agree" and "strongly disagree, disagree and mildly disagree" into "disagree.")
"The current feeling is that decisions are made behind closed doors and that lack transparency," one parent wrote in the open-ended response section. "This may or may not be true, but in times of transition, more communication is better."
The school board will also discuss Tuesday night a new gender-identity policy that supports transgender and gender non-conforming students; the reporting structure for a new general counsel position; procedures for the board's policy review committee; and the next phase for a major renovation of the Paly library.
The Oct. 13 meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the board room at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. Read the full agenda here.