2015 in the Palo Alto Unified School District was, indelibly, a year of immense loss but also one of significant change and growth.
In the wake of several teenage deaths by suicide, the community collectively mourned -- and jumped into action. Many high school students started regularly attending and speaking at Board of Education meetings, pitched student-wellness reforms to their administrations -- several of which were eventually implemented -- and did not shy away from challenging elected officials when they felt their voices were not being heard.
Youth spoke out on social media, during community forums, in student publications as well as this newspaper. (PaloAltoOnline.com's most-read story of 2015 was Palo Alto High School school board representative Carolyn Walworth's guest opinion piece, "The sorrows of young Palo Altans," with 283,831 views.)
School staffs worked hard to support students and reduce stress during what Superintendent Max McGee and others called a public health crisis. They offered increased counseling services, flexibility around workloads and deadlines, a new process to deter students from taking multiple Advanced Placement (AP) classes, mindfulness programs and efforts to decrease the perceived stigma around mental-health problems.
Gunn High School shifted to a modified block schedule, which had a significant impact on the daily pace for students. There were fierce debates around academic pressures, societal definitions of success and the impact of sleep on student wellness. Local and national experts weighed in through writing and visits to Palo Alto.
In February, McGee also communicated to all K-12 staff that compliance with the district's homework policy -- largely seen as unevenly implemented throughout the district -- was not simply encouraged or recommended but required. The 15-hours-a-week limit was later expanded for students taking honors and AP classes at the high schools.
Another requirement -- that all secondary teachers use the district's online system Schoology to post all course information, homework and grades -- was included in a newly negotiated contract with the teachers union. This followed the airing of the Palo Alto teachers union grievance filed against Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann in November 2014, accusing her of violating the previous union contract by asking all teachers to use Schoology.
In a sign of the times, and amidst repeated reports from students, parents and school-community members about long wait lists to see both on-campus and other counselors, the school board in March committed $250,000 to hire two new full-time mental-health therapists, one for each high school. The new hires serve primarily as coordinators (though they counsel as well) -- providing much-needed bridges among each school's myriad mental-health support services, programs and efforts.
The school board nonetheless continued to receive feedback throughout the year about a spike in demand for counseling from students (alarming, but also a potentially positive sign that the heavy stigma around seeking help might be decreasing, some said). Philippe Rey, executive director of Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS), the nonprofit organization that provides on-site counseling at the district's middle and high schools, told the board in October that his organization is "trying to find ways to either reduce or completely eliminate a waitlist at the sites that we serve so when a student is in need of seeing us, then they can actually access the services."
The new year promises a renewed discussion of the high schools' counseling models, and it could be the year that Gunn finally shifts away from its more traditional system and toward Paly's teacher-adviser system. While staff has recommended the district convene a joint Paly-Gunn committee to investigate and recommend a new counseling model for implementation by fall of 2017, several school board members have indicated strong support for taking action sooner rather than later.
Because of this year's emotionally charged finger-pointing and desire for action in the midst of the suicide cluster early in the year, district staff and supporters became concerned that a typically well-supported parcel-tax increase would not pass this May. (In the end, it did, with a wide margin of 77 "yes" votes.)
Despite the difficulties of the year, many saw a silver lining: a renewed focus on the social-emotional well-being of students in Palo Alto.
"There has been a shift toward taking more responsibility for how the organization of life at school affects the social-emotional wellbeing of students and how that in turn contributes to learning," school board member Ken Dauber told the Weekly, reflecting on his first year in office.
"This is an accomplishment in the sense that there's been a shift in focus," he said. "We have not yet, I think, made the kind of concrete changes that we need to make in order to deliver on that focus."
He pointed to high school counseling, implementation of the homework policy, use of Schoology, a discussion about the practice of academic laning, adoption of more project-based learning and an evaluation of the district's teaching approach to mathematics as several examples of concrete changes.
"That's a project that should occupy the board and the superintendent for several years," Dauber said.
In his first full school year, McGee made his mark on the district, eliciting numerous times from school board members the sentiment, "This is why we hired you."
For many, this was made clear with his Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee, which has been hailed for taking a renewed, meaningful stab at a longstanding problem. And unlike many district committees of past, this group's ambitious recommendations, presented to the board in May, have not sat on a shelf but have been put into action throughout the district. (Key to watch in the new year will be the impact of a brand new equity coordinator, hired to oversee the implementation of the committee's proposals and other related efforts.)
Another critical group created by McGee, the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee, spent six months diving deep into enrollment data and trends, looking closely at schools' capacity and preparing proposals for how to best address the student population in coming years. The enrollment committee will surely deliver the most-anticipated report of 2016 on whether the district should open a new elementary, middle and/or high school. The committee is set to present its final recommendations to the board in January.
McGee also moved forward on issues near and dear to his heart: launching an independent research and mentorship program for high school students; taking an inaugural group of those students to Singapore over spring break to conduct high-level research in a university lab on topics like "identification of novel anti-biofilm compounds" and "two-dimensional materials as catalysts for the oxygen reduction reaction"; and starting an after-school coding program for disadvantaged students at Palo Alto software company Palantir.
And the superintendent who vowed open, transparent communication would be one of his top priorities did deliver on that promise in some ways -- participating in a live call-in TV show less than two months into the job, hosting a live webcast with his staff, providing regular updates on investigations by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights at board meetings -- but failed in others.
His decision to ban academic classes during early-morning zero period at the two high schools -- communicated in a message to students, staff and parents over spring break rather than during the full board discussion that was promised to students -- became one of the most controversial episodes of the year. (Gunn's then-school board representative, senior Rose Weinmann, called it "misguided paternalism.")
Gunn students in particular defended their right to choice and voice, expressing feelings of disenfranchisement and of being unheard by school leaders. Board member Terry Godfrey told the Weekly that finding ways to incorporate students' opinions more broadly in district processes is a top priority for her in 2016.
Some board members, primarily Camille Townsend, also criticized the lack of transparency around McGee's zero-period decision. It led to a discussion on the board about the superintendent's authority, a theme that continued throughout the year.
The topic emerged again in November, when the news leaked that McGee had helped to author a preliminary application for funding for a new secondary school without the board's or public's knowledge. He and members of the enrollment task force's secondary subcommittee -- which in October presented a rousing early recommendation that the district look into opening an innovative, alternative 6-12 school at the Cubberley Community Center site -- teamed up with other parents and representatives from the Stanford University d.school to submit the proposal. The application was for early feedback from the XQ Super Schools Project, a national education-reform initiative launched by Palo Alto resident Laurene Powell Jobs.
Looking forward to 2016, the board and superintendent have their hands full with scheduled discussions on enrollment, counseling, academic laning, a master plan for Cubberley and more. It's also an election year, with Camille Townsend nearing the end of her third term, Heidi Emberling (the new board president for the year) her first and Melissa Baten Caswell, her second. There are no term limits on the school board.
Legal findings against district also look to be on the way in two sexual-harassment investigations at the district's high schools by the Office for Civil Rights. McGee is currently in talks with the federal agency to work out draft resolution agreements, which will likely include monitoring stipulations, McGee has said. Monitoring can last two to three years, the agency told McGee, and can include obligations to send documents "in a timely manner," updates on efforts like creating new policies or implementing extra staff training, as well as to allow site visits and interviews with staff and students.
McGee told the Weekly he is not sure whether the process will result in findings or not for Palo Alto but that the Office for Civil Rights is "moving forward."
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