News

Rebounding from loss, refocusing on the students

Difficult start to the year gives way to soul-searching, new visions for Palo Alto school district

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.

McGee's 2015

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."

Related content:

School district: decisions made, decisions deferred

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Read other Year in Review stories:

2015: Palo Alto's year of resistance

Palo Alto residents flex their muscle: 2015 was a year of successful citizen activism

Comments

4 people like this
Posted by what the new year may hold
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 31, 2015 at 8:44 am

Nice overview.

As for what will unfold in the coming year, it will be particularly interesting to hear the discussions of items on Ken Dauber's list of the "concrete changes that we need to make":

TA at Gunn (rejected after a committee study and board ruling a few years ago, will that discussion be re-opened and a decision made to replace Gunn's guidance counselors with teacher advisors?)

Teaching approach to mathematics (renew Everyday Math?)

Academic laning in the middle and high school (expanding the collapsing of lanes which was floated last year to reduce English down to one level for Paly 9th graders and the same under discussion in the math department at Gunn for next year?)


1 person likes this
Posted by what the new year may hold
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 31, 2015 at 8:51 am

Superintendent McGee on de-laning

"At a future Board meeting staff will be discussing... the educational pros and cons of laning in grades six to ten."

De-laning Math at Gunn & English at Paly:

"Gunn will propose having one lane for Algebra 1 and Paly is proposing the same kind of lane decision for English 9."

"There are many benefits to this shift...The teachers in those departments are dedicated to this shift and fully supportive of the message it sends that support that must be provided to all students...the shift to one lane for all students in that grade level..serves as an opportunity for all students in a grade level to share the same experience in at least one course. This is an opportunity to build community as well as build a common language of expectations and learning for all students." Web Link


On a concern about laning - the impact it has on minority students:

"the MATD [minority achievement] report reads...'Laning in PAUSD, specifically in mathematics – has created a significant divide among students.'

"The Advisory Committee’s recommendation is: 'Create clear, objective, and well-communicated information about laning decisions and waivers in mathematics in middle school and high school.' " Web Link


45 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 31, 2015 at 8:55 am

I would like to see 2016 the year when PAUSD and other school districts start to put pressure on the colleges to revamp their selection processes. It is so wrong that our students see each other as competitors in getting into college rather than teammates.

I would also like to see every student worthy of an A getting an A and none of this grading on a curve so that only the top x% get As and the rest who are just as worthy get graded low.

PAUSD could start a revolution instead of just being sheep following an antiquated and broken system. The fact that our high school students have no joy in their lives is so wrong and the best solution would be to take the stress of college applications out of the mix. Even a lottery system would be better than what we have at present.

The BoE and Superintendent have the powers to be leaders in this and start a nationwide movement to get the college application process into the 21st century with a complete overhaul of the system and a healthier environment for each of our high school students.


7 people like this
Posted by A
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 31, 2015 at 10:29 am

I think the school board should focus on providing more services/environment for children with autistic spectrum disorders rather than provide a special campus for nuerotypical children. The money would be better spent. Having more psychological and speech pathology services would be also be money better spent.


4 people like this
Posted by George Jaquette
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 31, 2015 at 10:59 am

The article implies that Measure A passed by 77 votes. Measure A passed with 77% of the vote, and almost 14K voters supported the measure while just over 4K opposed the parcel tax. The margin was closer to two thousand voters.


16 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 31, 2015 at 5:44 pm

"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"

How does the district check compliance? Has there been a specific student survey on this subject after the communication in February?


44 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 31, 2015 at 10:36 pm

I am deeply angry with this article's discussion of zero period. It is misleading, inaccurate, and a true disservice to the community. I will begin with the inaccuracies since that is where the Moderator's attention will surely focus first. I will then discuss the ways in which this portrayal of the zero period issue is misleading and a disservice to the community.

First, the story says that the superintendent made a "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."

This is inaccurate in two respects. First, the termination of zero period academic classes happened at Gunn, not "the two high schools." The reason is that Paly already did not have academic classes in zero period, because Paly's principal and faculty had concluded that they should not be offered due to the importance of the research on sleep, as Principal Kim Diorio told the school board. So the decision was whether to allow Gunn to continue a practice that had already been determined to be dangerous to student health and well-being at the other high school, or to allow it to continue AFTER a student in a zero period course took his own life.

After Harry Lee took his own life while a student in zero period AP Calculus, Board member Dauber decided to find out what "zero period" was. As he said publicly, zero period had not existed when his children attended Gunn, so he elicited information about what it actually was after Harry died. He learned that when Gunn moved to a late state in 2012 (following the first suicide cluster) in order to protect student sleep, silently and without board approval or even informing the board then-Principal Katya Villalobos instituted a zero period which subverted and defeated the purpose of the late start for many students. It then grew and by the time of Harry's death, more than 300 students were beginning their classes at 7:20am.

Meanwhile, research linked increased risk of suicide directly to school start times, and the American Academy of Pediatrics as well as the Centers for Disease Control issued warnings and recommendations on school start times, advising that all secondary schools begin no earlier than 8:30am.

Dauber asked that Gunn discontinue zero period. McGee said that he would consider it, and Dauber asked that it be placed on the board agenda. It was placed on the board agenda NOT because "the full board discussion that was promised to students," as this story says. It was placed on the agenda because Dauber asked that it be discontinued. No student asked that it be placed on the agenda. Camille Townsend vigorously OPPOSED placing it on the board agenda. She actually voted against Dauber's motion to place it on the agenda. She said it was NOT APPROPRIATE for a board discussion. She didn't want a board discussion. Student's didn't want a board discussion. Dauber wanted a board discussion about terminating it in light of the death of a student in zero period. That is what happened.

McGee met with Shashank Joshi and Meg Durbin and other doctors in the community and he decided that the risk of suicide due to lack of sleep was too high and that the only responsible course was to protect student safety and end zero period. Given that there was already a dead child, that was the only responsible course. That is what happened. It was at that point, that Townsend suddenly reversed course and began flinging accusations -- that were unfounded, untrue, and frankly which violated board protocols in the manner in which they were made - about lack of transparency and that students were promised a discussion.

The story is furthermore misleading in that this transparent public discussion of zero period DID IN FACT OCCUR. There was a board agenda item on zero period. Chloe Sorenson marched to the microphone with her survey in hand. This meeting was reported in the Atlantic Magazine by Hanna Rosin who was on hand to witness the theatrics. There was an agenda item, it was discussed and there were no votes other than Townsends to reconsider zero period. So that is also inaccurate.

Now, on to the misleading and disservice part.

A student is dead. A living, breathing child of this district took his own life after being in a zero period advanced mathematics class. According to all reputable scientific and medical sources, being in that class elevated his suicide risk, and then he died. Over 150 physicians signed a petition asking Dr. McGee to end zero period including every peditrician at PAMF. The Heard Alliance also asked that zero period be ended. There is simply no justification for the implicatoin in this story that the decision was arbitrary or improper or that it was made in a nontransparent manner. It wasn't. It was discussed at the school board, and Dr. McGee carefully considered his responsibility to protect student safety and he acted.

The implication of this story is that he acted precipitously and that is just irresponsible [portion removed.]

Furthermore the implication is that Camille Townsend's concerns are valid. I don't think it would be responsible frankly to allow that to be unanswered. [Portion removed.] Her manipulation of students and whipping up of the emotions of students -- when she should have been reassuring them that the district was acting to protect them was nothing short of demogougery that should have been condemned not implicitly or tacitly approved here. [Portion removed.] It is irrespsonsible on this subject for you to call this anything other than what it is, or to undermine the superintendent's actions to protect the lives of students.

[Portion removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by skeptical
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 31, 2015 at 11:39 pm

@parent

"A student is dead. A living, breathing child of this district took his own life after being in a zero period advanced mathematics class."

source?


16 people like this
Posted by Deep Throat
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 1, 2016 at 12:30 am

Thanks to McGee for eliminating zero period, but he had no choice because of the community pressure. There is no clear evidence that a suicide occurred directly due to zero period but it's clear that zero period was dangerous to most teenagers' bodies. I think most of our students are sleep-deprived. When they should be getting 9 hours of sleep, most are getting 5-7 hours. It is a fact that at least 4 of the students who committed suicide were severely sleep-deprived. Sleep-deprivation impairs judgment and mood, which is why it's used to torture prisoners. Paly and Gunn should stop torturing our students. It's academic Darwinism in PAUSD.

And there is no way the 3-hour per weekday study limit for AP/honors students will ever occur in PAUSD! Doubtful the 10 minute per grade level for regular lanes will be met either. Surprise us, McGee.


21 people like this
Posted by Long-Time Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 1, 2016 at 1:05 am

Elena asks "What school district issues do you think should take top priority in 2016?"

Homework policy must be implemented in a verifiable way, with measurable metrics. With accountable action taken against offenders. No more raises until this is done.

What remains to be implemented? Well, almost everything actually. Teachers are making sporadic efforts, at best. Most have no estimate of homework time. Many feel it is okay to aggregate low homework weeks into one giant lump of work all in one week. This results in a junior English paper assigned on Wed, due on Monday. That's two class days in between, or 4hrs time for ALL CLASSES COMBINED. There is no way this work can get done. It's a ludicrous thumb in McGees eye, and an open abuse of students time.

And this happens all the time.

We need a mechanism to safely report teacher abuses without risk of retaliation. I have no way, as a parent to report noncompliance. It needs to be retaliation free, anonymous, swiftly acted upon, tracked as part of teacher evals, and published in summary form (#complaints by teacher) to the board.

No actual effort has taken place whereby teachers sit with the IS, and demonstrably PROVE that homework assignments have gone down. We had the same teachers two years ago and the same assignments are still being used.

Simply remove the teachers from the classroom on Jan 4 until they can show they are willing to respect students time, respect the board policy, respect the Super's direct orders, and respect their contract. Put them in a closed room, and they aren't allowed back in their classroom until they can show a lesson plan through the end of the year that utilizes 25% less homework.

We'll pay for subs while they spend time in the 'cooler'.

Given their 8 hr workday, I would guess it only takes a few days working full time to trim the workload...


10 people like this
Posted by Long-Time Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 1, 2016 at 7:38 am

...oh oh oh... We could make the project to trim homework from the lesson plan into homework for the teachers. Due in two days.

A little sleep deprivation may shine a light on the situation they are creating EVERY week for their students.

Late = Zero.


14 people like this
Posted by not difficult
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 1, 2016 at 9:49 am

Elena asks "What school district issues do you think should take top priority in 2016?"

#1. Believe our young women when they say they are victims of sexual aggression and assault.


62 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 1, 2016 at 4:09 pm

1. Term limits for school board members. We need a more diverse school board. Right now we have a board comprised of 5 white board members, when the district is majority minority.

2. Enforce the homework policy. We have had a worthless, unenforced policy on the books for 4 years. It is becoming a joke. Students know that no one cares. The reason they fought back on zero period is simple: they have too much homework to finish if they can't start it until 4:00. They need to get out of school early to do the 5 hours of homework that awaits them. The board needs to send the message that it adopted a policy and it meant it. Otherwise, it is clear that the district is a paper tiger, the board is meaningless and worthless, and the teachers are in the driver's seat.

3. Figure out what is going on with mental health at the high schools. Do we only get information and impetus when students die on the train tracks? Can we care any other time? Phillipe Rey came to the school board and said that ACS was desperate for more money and more counselors. He said that there are long waiting periods to see a counselor. The student board reps verified this. Holly Wade, the admin who is supposed to care about that, decided not to even recommend more money for it even though the district is swimming in money right now. Instead, she sat through an entire budgeting process and never asked for more counseling dollars. When Ken Dauber tried to allocate the money, for some stupid reason the rest of the board decided it would be better to vote on that in January instead of December -- why? [Portion removed.]

4. [Portion removed.] Wade was the director of special ed while there was no 504 regulations, and there was an OCR complaint that the district had to settle as a result. Was she held accountable for that failure [portion removed?] Nope. Then she was still the director of special ed when a disabled student was bullied so badly that there were federal findings. Was she then held accountable? Nope. Then CDE found that the district was also out of compliance with special ed law. Was she then finally held accountable? Nope. When you don't hold people accountable for failure, they typically give you more of it. [Portion removed.]


41 people like this
Posted by sped parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 1, 2016 at 5:02 pm

+1 fire Holly Wade. Dishonest.


6 people like this
Posted by Weekly Report
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jan 1, 2016 at 6:09 pm

The Assistant Superintendent of Student Services (Dr. Wade) sometimes posts weekly reports. It's surprising this one was ever posted. Web Link
When families requested her work and policies be less opaque, be posted online or in a newsletter were told it had to be in this weekly report to the Board.

It compliments the Board and the "wonderful Superintendant", who pay her salary and promoted her. This is at the beginning of the report, so the Board will see the praise.

It "reports" on the Magical Bridge playground, as if it were an accomplishment of Wade's and the school District. It was neither. It is on public property, and came about following years of fundraising and work of private citizens.

Next comes a report that a parent meeting parents were allowed to have questions answered, now parents understand all the steps, and the parents all feel more comfortable now. No input from any parent is included. It further reports it was positive and "collaborative" - the word the attorney told PAUSD to include in everything.

Next we are told the departments under her control joined to "celebrate" - again is a word their attorney tells them to say in meetings about disabled children, so as to detract from discussing problems and correcting them. There is a link to another organization on inclusion. Again, this is another group's work.

Next, an item that there was a meeting parents attended, and a reminder parents were told to lean on each other. This is a technique to ensure parents do not ask the District for help or hold the District responsible for failures.

Next, a reporting of the success of changes Registration, but it cannot be determined if that is accurate because the changes won't launch until January 7. We hear again there will be a "Welcoming Center", which is very nice but which does not yet exist.

The Counseling blurb reports many nice efforts. It does say efforts are underway to track 504 plans, but Special Ed and Board Members already said many times all special needs efforts under full inclusion were 100% effective and all students had 100% of all the support they need, so it seems a bit late to check if this is accurate with data.

Next Social Work interns do work that seems very nice. There is a report Interns supported focus groups, but does not indicate which focus groups, and no reports were posted of the results of these groups or the concerns parents expressed. To review Special Education, the Board did approve money for both an initial "proposal" and extra money for another proposal, but the proposals were never posted for the public. The "independent evaluator" funded was chosen by the Assistant Superintendent of Student Services to evaluate her own work, because as the Superintendent reported in a retreat, she said 'it's time.' The Assistant Superintendent was promoted without external competition for her position, and hired before the Board approved her position.

I guess this is what the Superintendent meant that the Assistant Superintendent is always positive and calm, because of writing people in power are wonderful, reports she is all successful (including 100% in the CDE review though although never disclosing the violations cited), has lots of solutions although these are created in advance in the attorney's handbook, and has access to a personal attorney which the Superintendent said she needed to be promoted to this job.








5 people like this
Posted by Just another hard working teacher
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 1, 2016 at 6:24 pm

This is a minor detail, but it bugs me to no end because The Weekly has never gotten this right: teachers use INFINITE CAMPUS to post grades. Schoology, the latest bright shiny object to capture everyone's attention, has a gradebook function that is OPTIONAL for teachers. This is small but important, because posting grades for 150+ kids at a time is no small task.


3 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 1, 2016 at 6:33 pm

[Post removed.]


4 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 1, 2016 at 11:23 pm

January 1, 2015

Dear Weekly Readers,

Happy New Year! I hope many people enjoyed a thrilling, historic football game this afternoon

All of us writing here are deeply concerned about the health of our schools and kids. Here in Palo Alto, a community, grassroots initiative--Save the 2,008--is calling for some simple steps to undo the climate of stress and depression in our high schools, replacing it with trust, a sense of belonging, and the kind of working connections with teachers that can sometimes become lifelines.

High schools, I think, don't cause teenage despair, nor can they cure it—but there’s plenty they can do to make it more bearable, more survivable.

Our coalition of 423 citizens--parents, students, docs, profs, artists, authors, rabbis, venture capitalists, martial arts and yoga instructors--is advocating for:

1) classes of smaller size (Gunn and Paly have 407 classes with 30 or more students) so that human bonds are healthier and stronger;

2) a user-friendly, online communications tool to give kids a voice in their nightly homework loads and teachers an easy way to listen (and to avoid test-stacking);

3) a timely guidance-counseling conversation--a flashing yellow light (“Expect Sleep Loss!” “Expect Less Time for Everything!”--for families and students about to speed into in multiple APs;

4) a high-school prohibition on student cellphone use, just as in our middle schools, for less distraction and insult on campus;

5) grade-reporting less relentless--so kids will have time to recover from the bruises and heartaches of adolescence;

6) an end to the rampant cheating--which poisons schoolwork with unease and mistrust.

Stand with us, won't you? We're the only group in Palo Alto with a comprehensive, principled, experience-based plan to bring change, and it's time to remove our name from the national headlines.

Our school officials have summarily dismissed Save the 2,008—except for Ken Dauber, who has publicly called it "a git to the community."

Please visit savethe2008.com and consider signing our open letter to the superintendent and the school board.

Sincerely,

Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Campaign Coordinator
savethe2008.com
savethe2008@gmail
facebook.com/savethe2008


26 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 2, 2016 at 5:17 am

The burden of instruction is still totally on the kids the parents and tutors. Nothing has changed. No one is monitoring curriculum, programs or delivery of instruction. Teachers at PALY have full discretion to do as they please. In other districts, this is not the case because admin. knows their families and treats them with and attitude of service. Parents at PALY are like beggars at the Queen's doorstep.

They can pay or create hype around themselves but there is still no adherence to state curriculum and teachers do as they please. Even asking for simple clarification can cause retaliation. A typical teacher at this school has pre done power points, video lectures with videos notes and a handful of rubrics that take hours to explain. Many teach just half of the block schedule and then go on their computers during class and are unavailable for instruction or help.

It is a good school if your child plans to homeschool themselves or you can afford tutors for 3/4 of the classes. Many gifted kids collapse when put into the tiny, ill fitting rubrics each teacher has decided on their own. Delaning will just make their boxes even tighter and dim the bright kids. Really not a good school if your kid is bright and thinks teachers will respond in any way to anything that will make them have to make any change. The teachers at this school value and protect their own free time and doing anything that is not pre programmed is considered out of contract. They are happy to take credit for efforts of out of class. You will see big articles about the extracurriculars that the school has no hand in at all but wants to brag about.

For free, The district could just follow state curriculum guidelines and best practices. No need to come up with any more new people or programs to pay. It seems like they have not passed the college classes that I know they all took to get their credentials and continue to be asking for help themselves. It is as if we have to hire tutors for them.

It is not as difficult as they are making it. I am not sure why the admin has allowed teachers to do as they please. It seems lazy to the admin to pass off their jobs to teachers and a waste that so much money is going into things they should be able to accomplish without help.

Give instruction, check for understanding, know you families and support them. All free and what they went to school for.


14 people like this
Posted by Analyze This!
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 2, 2016 at 3:18 pm

I find it interesting that the retrospective review of the parcel tax is on the implication of whether its passage had anything to do with district administration or not, or support for the kids, and not a peep about the fact that the supporters presented it to the public on grounds that largely proved false by the end of the year. The district said they needed the money for our kids' emotional health and that dozens of teachers would have to be fired if it didn't get passed. Detractors said it wasn't necessary because the accounting of property taxes was too conservaticpve. Lo and behold, the district ended up with a year-end surplus that (if you include the exorbitant cost of a special election that clearly wasn't necessary) nearly equalled the amount raised by the parcel tax.

The analysis probably shouldn't stop there, as the renewed citizen activism on the civic level almost certainly stemmed from Measure D - which proponents privately knew would have significant future political consequences if City Hall understood that citizens could in fact mount and win a land use referendum - the power issues did strengthen citizen resolve and power. The opponents of Measure A talked some in TS but there was no movement or organization against it, because by and large people here support the schools and kids regardless of how they feel about people running them. But an analysis should have included the larger political implications and perhaps how unwise it was for those opposed to suggest an interpretation of the vote while making no sincere political effort to ensure that outcome.

Since eventually it was clear opponents had been correct that the district didn't really need the money as they claimed,I would think the 4th estate would at least ruminate on whether the district lied to the public in order to get the money or if administrators really are that fiscally incompetent. What are the fiscal obligations of trying to find new ways of spending that money as the district is now doing? Clearly, this district never made a position it could cull without the person resigning first. I personally suspect there is a short-term need as an artifact of how basic aid districts get their funding - and that it comes down to timing, not dollars and cents. But that's just a guess, try getting any actual honest info out of the district to figure something like that out (good luck). Honesty and transparency remain a troubling problem that bodes ill for our future: lack of openness, as well as untrustworthy behavior by some staff going completely unmonitored and unmitigated had everything to do with the previous troubles.


4 people like this
Posted by not so fast
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 4, 2016 at 8:42 am

Parent,

Those who watched the zero period discussion unfold were justified walking away with the sense that "the decision was arbitrary or improper or that it was made in a nontransparent manner."

Go back and review what transpired because much of what you write is unsupported:

Big:

1. "AFTER a student in a zero period course took his own life"

Source?

2. "According to all reputable scientific and medical sources, being in that [zero period] class ...directly...increased risk of suicide...[zero period is] dangerous to student health"

Source that establishes a DIRECT tie between an optional 7:20 am school start and suicide?

I know students need sleep and lack of sleep is a symptom of distress/depression common in students considering such an act. But optional zero period is NOT dangerous for students who get enough sleep before it starts. And getting rid of zero period does not mean that students at risk will suddenly get the sleep that they need.

Little:

1. "Paly's principal and faculty had concluded that [zero period] should not be offered due to the importance of the research on sleep, as Principal Kim Diorio told the school board."

If true, why did Paly allow 102 students to take zero period PE that year, with an earlier zero period start than Gunn had?

2. "There was a board agenda item on zero period. . .Dauber asked that it be placed on the board agenda... Student's didn't want a board discussion."

There was no board agenda item on zero period that I see.

Ken Dauber happened to ask about zero period at a board meeting when the high school principals gave the annual general report about their schools in January 2015.

Zero period was mentioned in open forum in March when students effectively asked for a formal board discussion/agenda item on it. It needs to be on the formal agenda for board members to ask questions and opine.

It was mentioned by students again in open forum in April, AFTER the decision to get rid of zero period was made, where many expressed disappointment that it wasn't brought to the board as promised. (Weekly: "Gunn Students Slam School Leaders on Zero Period...Zero period had been placed on the April 21 agenda...after McGee issued his decision over spring break, it was removed...McGee... repeatedly apologized to the students" Web Link)

3. "Dauber wanted a board discussion about terminating [zero period] ...That is what happened."

Then why did Dauber press Dr. McGee to make and announce an executive decision to get rid of zero period during spring break, that would make the board discussion that was requested by students and Dauber's other board members, promised for April 21st, irrelevant?

4. "physicians signed a petition asking Dr. McGee to end zero period"

Ken Dauber drafted this petition, asked doctors to sign it, and told them to send his petition to his 4 other board members under their own names. Dauber’s role in this may be perfectly legit but not mentioning that he instigated it doesn't fall into the "all that transparent" category either.

Web Link

Web Link

Web Link


12 people like this
Posted by Reality check
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 4, 2016 at 2:59 pm

[Portion removed.]

It's remarkable to me that anyone, in the face of a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, at least one student death, and unanimous support from local doctors, would still be arguing for early morning academic classes for students.

As to the school board, zero period was on the agenda in early May at the same time as the Gunn block schedule was approved. Students spoke, doctors and sleep experts spoke, board members spoke, and no one on the school board (with the exception of Camille Townsend, I don't remember) had any interest in ordering Gunn to restore academic classes in zero period. Thanks Dr. McGee for making a decision to protect student health and safety. Thanks to most board members with the exception of Camille Townsend for recognizing that it was the only responsible course. Thanks to Ken Dauber for raising this issue and pressing for McGee to do the right thing.


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Posted by Why?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 4, 2016 at 3:17 pm

@reality check - maybe I missed something. Where does the AAP, or the local doctors' letter, or any of the research distinguish between academic zero period and other early morning activities? If that's the case, why are non-academic early activities (PE, early practice, other pre-school activities) any different from classes?


2 people like this
Posted by Why
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 4, 2016 at 3:22 pm

Sorry, hit submit too soon. My point is that the research seems to be about sleep, but our actions focus on academic stress. This matters because we consistently conflate the issues of suicide prevention with perceived "stress" which while in some ways related are in fact quite different issues. Many people have played the "suicide card" to argue their point for "less stressful" academics - this seems a case in point. That seems like a real disservice to our students and our educators.


8 people like this
Posted by Yes
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 4, 2016 at 4:32 pm

Ditto to outsider's post. Teachers at Paly are incredibly lazy because they know the students, parents, tutors will pick up the slack. All the other students are SOL. Most English teachers use peer corrections instead of correcting papers themselves. Students dont know as much as teachers with teaching degrees. Total outrage.


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Posted by not so fast
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 4, 2016 at 4:50 pm

[Portion removed.]

Placing zero period on the agenda in May - AFTER Superintendent McGee acted on Ken Dauber's urging him to act quickly and outside a public hearing - isn't exactly what people think of when they seek "transparency." That term means that they have access to and input in the decision making process, not just hear rationalizations about it after its been decided and so is too late to change.


8 people like this
Posted by Reality check
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 4, 2016 at 8:32 pm

When Skelly and Gunn administration decided to schedule academic classes during zero period after telling the board and the community that they were changing the start time for student health, they lacked transparency. They said one thing in public and did another quietly. In this case, McGee exercised his authority, made a decision, and explained why publicly. Transparency doesn't mean every decision is made by the board.
It's ironic that the same people, notably Townsend, who participated in [portion removed] secret meetings on issues such as OCR, are now crying crocodile tears over transparency when the real issue is that she disagrees with the decision and lacks the votes to reverse it.


1 person likes this
Posted by not so fast
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 5, 2016 at 6:32 am

Reality Check and Parent,

I find your two's definitive-ness perplexing since many of the facts cited to support your arguments lack authority.

"Transparency doesn't mean every decision is made by the board."

Taking your logic to the next step, it was Gunn's principal Herrmann who had the discretion to offer zero period actually, not McGee. After all, it was a day-to-day school operation sort of thing and Diorio and Villalobos had made bell schedule decisions up to then. Herrmann's decision last year to re-offer zero period should have been the end of the story.

And it was, until Ken Dauber spent upwards of 45 minutes pressing Gunn Principal Herrmann on it, after Gunn students had already signed up for the following year's classes, while she was presenting her WASC plan [portion removed due to inaccuracy.]

[Portion removed due to multiple inaccuracies.]

I understand political maneuvering has a place but IMHO not in local politics and not when promises were made to students that adults broke without flinching.

McGee, looking sheepish and under the gun, addressed the disappointed students, visited them on campus to talk about it, apologized, and said he'd do better next time after the disappointing process reached its end.

[Portion removed.]


6 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 5, 2016 at 7:23 am

@not so

Most of what you write is either inaccurate or wildly distorted. But rather than engage in some pointless hand to hand combat over your incorrect facts, I will simply address the key fact that is missing from your very long post:

There was a suicide cluster that took the lives of four young people, and showed no signs of ending. One of the students who died was in a zero period advanced math class. While the public did not know that, the school board, McGee, Hermann, Diorio, and all of Gunn's teachers and many of Gunn's students did know it.

To continue to discuss whether or not zero period played a role in sleep deprivation after we had the evidence of a dead student would have been irresponsible. Fortunately McGee did not do that. The fact that the students railed at him about their lost "choice" even though they did in fact know that Harry Lee died after being in zero period (and therefore knew that there was a good reason for the action he took) is a sad commentary on their values, ethics, and their teachers and parents, [portion removed] -- who continue to both elide the medical emergency situation and to send the false message that they experienced an injustice.

[Portion removed.]


10 people like this
Posted by PAUSD Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 5, 2016 at 7:30 am

It does feel like the school district has made a lot of progress for a healthier environment for students. I appreciate all the changes that Max McGee has promoted and hope that the school district continues in this direction and leverages best practices in education.

Quality teaching is a big issue for our family. My high school students are disillusioned over the poor quality of teaching. My freshman just stated at breakfast yesterday that there is nothing that excites her about school. No joy.

I also would ask for better ways of providing feedback on teaching as retaliation is the norm. Approaching a teacher directly does not work for more serious issues. These teachers have figured out how to cover up their bad practices and do just enough to "get by". Speaking with administration doesn't provide enough documentation or trend to establish a problem teacher/issue. It would be great to have a way to identify issues in the classroom that could be used constructively to improve teaching with specific teachers or recognize trends. I feel hopeless on the experience that my children have in the classroom. It is mediocre at best. Combine this with the stress for high grades and it is still a ripe environment for mental health issues.

Teachers harbor so much subtle discrimination and bias. I am truly amazed that teachers can get away with some of the things that they say and do. There is not a feedback loop to start educating them on the silly things that they do to stunt the potential of a student. Even well meaning teachers have biases that come out in assignments or examples that should not be shrugged off. Better feedback is needed to help rise the tide.

I am happy with the direction and vision that Mr. McGee projects. We had so much need that the changes have really improved the schools. Let's hope that we can make real improvements in the way that our students learn that are beyond the traditional model of teacher stand and drone on for hours - no thinking required.

The Board will benefit from new members after the election and those valued members who have served many years should feel proud of their service but should take a break for fresh perspectives.


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Posted by not so fast
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 5, 2016 at 8:35 am

Parent,

So the need for transparency is situational then and is not needed if there is a health crisis to attend to?

OK. I see that. But that is not what happened here.

If zero period posed a real and imminent risk to students' lives as you claim, Dauber would have pressed to cancel zero period immediately, mid-semester so that whomever was at risk did not remain at risk. In your words, to do nothing "would have been irresponsible."

But he did not do that.

The urgency here was political; McGee was pressed to make a decision in response to Ken Dauber's pressing. McGee understandably had an interest in minimizing controversy right before a parcel tax vote.

A decision about zero period made on April 10 versus 12 days later after an April 21 board meeting made zero difference to students' health. A decision mind you that would not take effect until August.

So why did Ken Dauber believe that this needed to be decided before students returned to campus after Spring Break? It could have been because he feared that his arguments wouldn't hold up under scrutiny or it could have been just because he could.

Re-reading what he said about zero period in the Weekly and Atlantic articles, it appears to be the first; he said that zero-period-caused "sleep deprivation" [portion removed due to inaccurate citation.]

[Portion removed due to inaccurate factual assertions.]

Here we have no proof that the elimination of zero period resulted in clinically depressed students getting the sleep they need. What we do have is lots of students who said that the lack of scheduling flexibility would make their lives more stressful.


9 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 5, 2016 at 9:21 am

I am not going to continue this back and forth unless you respond directly to the fact that a student, Harry Lee, was in zero period AP Calculus and took his own life while enrolled in that class. If you cannot respond directly to that point you are just pushing an agenda and grinding an axe with Ken Dauber. Dauber had the guts to stand up for our students [portion removed.]

My impression from reading your long posts all of which avoid the core issue (a dead student) is that the student death in zero period is an inconvenient fact for you, given what you want, and so you choose to ignore it. Address it directly or stop posting.


15 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 5, 2016 at 11:25 am

Missing from this school district is current teaching practices. Power point and only communication online leads to a feeling of disconnection and leads to gossip and feelings of lonliness. Face to face teaching and communication seems to be lost at PALY. Teachers can do and say as they wish and their time is much more important than students stress level while waiting for corrected work or getting feedback on how to become successful learners.

Administrators are still starry eyed over any technology or buzz words and are overlooking real results in the classrooms. If you teach at Nixon or Walter Hayes, your amazing newsletter bragging in detail is accepted as educational results. You can have 6 kids reading below standard, but if you brought in a guest speaker from Google and wrote about it, your boss is happy.

There needs to be better norms that are not subjective used as teacher evaluations. Teachers evaluating teachers is silly. Teachers mentoring each other based on admin. evaluations could be great. Going to National and State workshops on gifted education or minority education rather than just doing what the static bubble likes and accepts could be great. Other districts are going outside for help, using their successful teachers as mentors to new or struggling ones and focus on the kids rather than their own special rubrics . Clinging on to powerpoints used year to year and not being able to correct work or respond to parents in a way that should be service minded should be a dealbreaker. I do not know why admin is so mamby pamby and would rather see kids suffer and have stress rather than mentor or enforce teacher standards that the rest of Ca schools seem to have in check. Is if because they do not want to make teacher feel bad, are they lazy, are they incompetent, do they like seeing these kids suffer? What could it possibly be. Why is this so difficult for this district to just follow standards. Their own ideas and norms are so out of date and obviously have hurt their student body.


18 people like this
Posted by For Cryin' Out Loud
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 5, 2016 at 2:00 pm

These are CLASSROOMS, not boardrooms! Palo Alto schools become oppressive and cold-hearted starting in SIXTH grade, with mere eleven-year-olds.

All this has done is I still in the majority of middle and high school students a hatred and mistrust of teachers and the educational system, as well as a sad dislike of learning which these middle and high schools have made downright PAINFUL!

No wonder there are so many burn outs at such young ages in Palo Alto!


10 people like this
Posted by Paly Alum 1981
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 5, 2016 at 2:03 pm

Re Yes' comment, Jordan and Paly English teachers should be teaching how to write, assigning one-page essays, and returning the papers within a week with red pen marks of correction. Instead, there are few assignments, no teaching of the rules of writing, and students exchange papers in class to correct each other's (peer corrections). The only way to learn how to write is through learning and practice. Most of the Paly alums have flawless grammar due to the strong PAUSD English teachers of yesteryear. An English teacher should accept that they will have to set time aside after school to correct papers but ours don't do this. It IS an outrage.


9 people like this
Posted by Not fast enough
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 5, 2016 at 2:55 pm

@Not so fast: I don't understand your point. The American Academy of Pediatrics, CDC, local doctors, Stanford sleep experts, etc., are unanimous in advising against early start times for student health and suicide prevention. We are experiencing high rates of student suicide, apparently involving at least one student in zero period. What responsible administrator would not pull the plug on this? Are you seriously saying that we should have zero period in our high schools? I give credit to Dauber for raising the issue and to Dr. McGee for doing the right thing, although frankly this is a no-brainer and pretty darn obvious.


17 people like this
Posted by Basic math
a resident of another community
on Jan 5, 2016 at 3:05 pm

Since 10 minutes per grade is recommended by all sorts of educational organizations, what does that really look like in practice?

Grade
9: 1 hour, 30 minutes
10: 1 hour, 40 minutes
11: 1 hour, 50 minutes
12: 2 hours

Avg 15 minutes per class per night
or
about 50-68 minutes for each class per week
Total 7-10 hours per week for all classes

Since teachers are not willing to enforce the homework policy, and kids are routinely doing 25+ hours of weekly homework, perhaps the administration needs to quickly figure out how to truly stop the overload.

Teens have sports, music, family time, social lives, side jobs and interests.

Time for parents to organize and boycott this craziness that is causing extreme depression and stress in far too many kids. It shouldn't take suicides for parents and administration to stop unhealthy practices.

If you are a parent that hasn't complained to the teachers or administration, you're not doing your job as a parent.

If you are a teacher assigning more than 50-68 minutes of homework each WEEK, then you are not doing your job either.


13 people like this
Posted by Homework hell
a resident of another community
on Jan 5, 2016 at 3:22 pm

Homework averages for other countries:

Web Link

Even Russia and Singapore clock in at less than 10 hours per week for a 15 year old, with the Finnish at less than 3 hours. Yes, per week!

The benefit of homework has been proven to erode after 2 hours per night, and I'd argue that anything more than an hour per night is more likely to kill love of learning and radically increase parental/teen conflict at home.

What's more important?


1 person likes this
Posted by Residend
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 5, 2016 at 3:38 pm

Taking those figures on homework from other countries, it has to be countered with the number of days in a school year and how many hours are spent in school each day. Also it is interesting to look and see how many academic subjects a 15 year old in those countries are taking.

I would guess that US comes way down the list on how many hours and days are spent in school and also for many of our students who take several AP classes, they are also taking more classes than most 15 year olds in other countries.

I am against too much homework though, but when you pull up figures like that you have to balance them with the other figures also.

I would prefer to see an extra hour of school each day and an extra couple of weeks in the school year as well as getting rid of the Algebra II requirement as well as reducing the homework load. We may have less days and less hours in school, but we have a lot more homework, agreed.


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Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 5, 2016 at 4:29 pm

Not fast enough,

Frankly, I don't know enough to determine if pulling the plug on zero period made sense because there is not enough information publicly available to make that call.

We don't have that information because of the decision making process' lack of transparency [portion removed.]

The AAP statement? It is nuanced. What does that nuance mean to school policy makers?

[Portion removed.]

I suspect that each doctor who signed Ken Dauber's petition, if asked, would share that it is way too simple to conclude that starting at 8:20 am instead of 7:20 am makes a dent in the health of a clinically depressed teen who has trouble falling asleep at 1, 2 or even 3 am and so will save his/her life. I could be wrong, but again because of the lack of transparency and ability to ask questions we will never know.

[Portion removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 5, 2016 at 4:44 pm

@not so fast has finally addressed the issue.

"For arguments sake assume that the student was in zero period. What if sleep was not a challenge for him? The Weekly reported that the child had been suffering from clinical depression and that academics was not something he struggled with. Web Link. I'd think that the parents understood their son's challenges far better than an anonymous poster on this forum or Ken Dauber or any of the other school board members who didn't know the child for that matter."

[Portion removed.] A student was in zero period, which required him to get up very early. He actually made a film about his life that included a segment showing it was difficult for him to wake up that early, but that is beside the point. The point is that having an early start time is risky. The risk is known and quantifiable. When he died, it ceased being a theoretical risk and became a fact. Your idea is that Dr. McGee was required to wait for board direction to address something well within his purview as the Superintendent. My idea (and the idea of other parents by a great majority I am sure) is that he should take action to protect student health and lives.

Having taken that action over spring break (and informed the board member of it) the board was free to put the issue on the agenda and order him to reinstate zero period at Gunn. I suppose that they could also have ordered Diorio to begin offering it at Paly as well. They didn't do that. The reason they didn't is because other than Townsend, they didn't want to because they agreed with the decision, because they all knew full well that Harry Lee had been in a zero period class when he died.

Your effort to grapple with this is highly revealing. You are looking for a way to be able to argue, against the evidence, that maybe it was unrelated. Maybe it was. And maybe it wasn't. Schools should err on the side of safety. That much is obvious. The use of the word "transparency" here is not really about transparency at all -- you have all the information you need now, so you aren't complaining about the lack of information. You are complaining about the decision -- which you think the information about the dead student does not justify (is 1 dead student not sufficient for you?). Saying you should have known about the information BEFORE the decision doesn't change the fact that you DO know the information now [portion removed.]


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

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