Three of Palo Alto's five school board members courageously and emphatically said 'no' Tuesday night to initiating a months-long intensive study into the possible creation of an expensive new third high school at the old Cubberley High School site in south Palo Alto.
It would have been far easier to acquiesce and give Superintendent Max McGee the green light he wanted for at least a study of a project he has been promoting in various ways for months, one described by supporters as a bold educational 'moon shot' for Palo Alto.
But instead of placating the community members with whom McGee has aligned himself over the last nine months, trustees Melissa Baten Caswell, Ken Dauber and Terry Godfrey made clear McGee's dream of creating a unique small high school that would showcase and incubate "project-based learning" was dead for now.
While McGee and proponents of the new high school certainly didn't help their cause by their submission last November of an application for funding to the national XQ Super School competition, done without informing the school board or the public, their biggest misstep was in thinking something of this magnitude could be quickly pushed forward purely through political pressure and without regard for the many inequities that it would create in our public school system.
They and McGee seemed to think that if they could just get the ball rolling among a few influential parents it would gain irreversible momentum. Fortunately, a majority on the school board recognized the many ways in which McGee's recommendation were flawed and were willing to assert their proper role as elected policymakers.
It was a bitter setback for McGee, who had invested enormous time and effort into advancing the new school concept. He even boldly refused at the Jan. 12 school board meeting to rule out using private fundraising to boost per-student spending at the new school if it was established, even though doing so would violate district policy.
Then, just a week later at a "town hall" meeting McGee reversed himself and told the audience he would "guarantee" that no private funds would be used for operating his hoped-for new high school, funding that supporters considered a necessity in order to create the desired "radically innovative" high school program that would feature smaller classes and more individualized instruction.
But McGee's quick turnaround appeared more a concession made to garner support and an attempt to keep his plan alive than a commitment grounded in the principle of equity for all students.
The premise of the effort to start a new high school was a belief among some community members that it was virtually impossible to successfully reform and innovate within our current high schools and that a new high school was the only path to achieving a new paradigm for the education of teens.
Only a new school, supporters reasoned, could attract a faculty and students that shared a common interest in bringing about more fundamental change focused around new learning models and an environment and culture that embraced innovation and experimentation rather than test scores and AP classes.
Among the many problems with the proposal, however, is that by the time a new school could be built and opened in several years the expected enrollment bubble at our high schools being used to justify a third high school will have passed. McGee's proposal also chose to ignore survey results that showed parents and students alike prefer that improvements be made to the current high schools, not at a new school available to a limited number of students.
We absolutely do need a moon shot in this district. We agree with those advocating for the new high school about the need for a radical reinvention of secondary education. But we cannot morally, ethically or financially reinvent education for a lucky few. All our students deserve an exciting and innovative education that fuels a love of learning and discovery of personal passions.
To achieve this, we must let go of our delusion that grades, excessive homework, AP classes, rankings and college-application-padding with excessive extra-curriculars are what our kids need to succeed and be happy. And we must have faith that most of our teachers are just as frustrated with today's education system.
Public high schools all over the country with far fewer resources than Palo Alto are undertaking profound changes to their teaching and curricula in many of the ways sought by the parents advocating a brand new high school. Pockets of such innovation already exist at Paly and Gunn, and with the district's financial surpluses and resources, almost anything is possible.
With the board rejecting McGee's new high school proposal, let's now challenge him to marshal his abundant energy and enthusiasm and lead a broad-based planning process for the same "radical" reinvention of our existing secondary schools that he promised for his desired new school.