'Innovation' is a word we all love to use to distinguish our region's culture and values from other places and to impress upon our children as important to their future in a rapidly changing world.
Innovation within a start-up or a large corporation is much easier, however, than in a public agency, where risk-taking is rarely rewarded and policy-makers can become balled up dealing with many diverse and competing interests. After all, government agencies aren't supposed to pick and choose whom they will serve, nor cater to those with wealth and influence in a community.
This tension is one of the reasons the preliminary recommendations of a school district task force on the state of our middle and high schools are simultaneously exciting and a bit worrisome.
The committee, dubbed the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) and convened in April by Palo Alto Superintendent Max McGee to address enrollment growth, has outlined a set of recommendations that could bring about the most significant change in the Palo Alto school system in decades, if not in history.
Seizing on a confluence of events, the committee has recommended the district open a new combined middle and high school at the former Cubberley High School site (now Cubberley Community Center). As proposed, it would offer an innovative project-based experiential learning model and serve as an incubator of new programs for the rest of the district. It is envisioned as a 'choice' program similar to Ohlone, Hoover and the Spanish and Mandarin immersion programs, with enrollment likely determined through a lottery.
The ambitious idea emerges at a time when almost everyone agrees the current middle and high schools are too big, the district is swimming in money and a new generation of highly affluent parents with strong (and divergent) opinions on education is financially able to consider sending their children to any one of dozens of local private schools. Palo Alto's public schools have more competition today than ever before.
Thus the committee's recommendations set the stage for a much-needed discussion about the future of Palo Alto's secondary schools.
The school board has a challenging process ahead of it. We share the excitement about the possibilities and are pleased to see McGee instigating the conversation. We are also happy that McGee preceded this initiative with a similar assessment of the needs of under-represented minority students, who consistently perform not only well below other district students but also less well than minority students at high-achieving districts comparable to Palo Alto.
Shrinking this achievement gap has been one of McGee's personal priorities since arriving more than a year ago and must be woven into contemplated new middle and high school models.
The committee tried hard to balance its enthusiasm for a design-from-scratch new school with recommendations for also improving the current middle and high schools, which it said should implement smaller learning groups, schools-within-a-school and other strategies for improving social-emotional connectedness and making the schools feel less overwhelming.
As further exploratory work takes place in the months ahead, we urge McGee and the school board to look carefully at the challenges of creating a special 'choice' secondary school, with distinctly different offerings from other secondary schools. While a third high school will almost certainly have to be a smaller magnet school with more limited and distinct offerings from Paly and Gunn, it is more difficult to see why innovations envisioned for the new middle school should not be equally applicable to Jordan, JLS and Terman. Why shouldn't it function as a simply a fourth neighborhood middle school, where all four schools move forward together in adopting new learning strategies so all students and families can benefit equally?
With a deeply entrenched, decentralized district culture in which each school is given broad authority to operate independently with programs of their choosing, we can think of no example of where a great innovation developed at one site has been replicated elsewhere. This is, for example, how we currently have two high schools with different bell schedules and counseling systems and three middle schools with different approaches for providing smaller learning environments and 13 elementary schools using different bullying-prevention programs. It's also why we haven't seen the enormously popular "Ohlone Way" philosophy implemented across the district.
The vision presented by the enrollment committee is exciting, but the district needs to demonstrate that it can create a great program and then effectively implement it across the schools. Otherwise, there is great risk of starting yet another innovative and exciting program that can only be enjoyed by a lucky group of families, an outcome that would only deepen feelings of there being "haves" and "have nots" within our district.