Heidi Emberling to run for re-election to Palo Alto school board

Early childhood educator reiterates focus on personalized learning, social-emotional health

Palo Alto Board of Education President Heidi Emberling will be making a bid for a second term this November, she confirmed to the Weekly Sunday.

Emberling was elected to the board in 2012, along with Melissa Baten Caswell and Camille Townsend, who will be ending their second and third terms, respectively, this fall.

Emberling was recently elected president of the board for 2016 by her colleagues.

Emberling, a parent of two and an early-childhood educator, said in an interview Sunday that she's hoping for a second term to continue the board's work over the past four years. Those efforts, she said, range from increasing support for students' social-emotional health to providing more personalized learning at the district's secondary schools.

She said she has made social-emotional health a priority throughout her four years, starting by adding it as a fifth "pillar" to the district's Strategic Plan in 2013 and then by supporting changes that include moving Gunn High School to a block schedule, hiring a district wellness coordinator and significantly increasing the number of counselors at the high schools.

During her tenure, the board approved significant new policies around bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment and gender identity, she noted.

Emberling has also supported proposals to create more "school-within-a-school" programs at the high schools, a continuing priority for her if re-elected in November, she said.

Despite these efforts, systemic change has been harder to effect than Emberling thought before she was elected. When she wanted the district's 12 elementary schools to adopt one, unified social-emotional learning program, for example, she said it took more than six months to simply get a report on what programs were already in place.

"I think change has been slower than one would like," she said. "I think you learn that really quickly when you first join the board. ... You realize that systemic change takes time and culture shifts take time.

Nonetheless, she said, "I think the seeds that we planted in my first term are starting to grow and come to fruition. To be able to nurture that and see the next phase of the things that I started then is very exciting."

Emberling's top priority, if re-elected, would be to create more personalized and alternative learning opportunities for students, she said. There are already numerous examples of that in place at the school district's two high schools, she noted: Palo Alto High School's Social Justice Pathway, Sports Career Pathway, engineering and computer science pathways; Gunn High School's Positive Psychology course; the Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) program, which is new this year and connects both Paly and Gunn students with external mentors to guide them through a research project of their choice; an early childhood development course that provides high school students with practical experience working with infant, toddler and pre-school children at the district's Greendell campus.

Her support for these programs and courses stems from a desire to create smaller, more personalized and student-driven academic experiences at the district's two growing high schools. She said she's supportive of the idea of a house system for the high schools (a proposal of the district's recent Enrollment Management Advisory Committee), which creates subsets of students who move through school together, often with a teacher-mentor or adviser. Smaller learning communities also bolster connections between teachers and students — another one of her top priorities, she said.

A related change that she said she has long advocated for but has not yet come about is moving Gunn to a teacher-advisory counseling model, which has been in place at Paly for many years. Paly students are connected with a teacher-adviser throughout their four years, whereas Gunn's traditional model has a group of staff members providing guidance counseling, college and career advice and social-emotional support.

"While our teacher-adviser model at Paly isn't perfect ... that doesn't mean that we throw everything away and start over. I think moving both high schools to one guidance model is important," Emberling said.

She said she hopes a newly created committee focused on social-emotional learning curriculum will finally help the district achieve that.

Emberling said her most significant accomplishment on the board was hiring Superintendent Max McGee, whom she described as a "change agent" pushing forward issues that had stagnated without strong leadership, from closing the achievement gap to a recent proposal to implement full-day kindergarten. Emberling said McGee's leadership and her desire to continue working alongside him played a "big part" in her decision to try for a second term.

"I think change happens from the top," she said. "He provides the leadership that allows our district to move in any direction ... and he has done an excellent job doing that."

At a more granular scale, she said, she was also particularly proud of getting the early-childhood-development course approved, which was last spring expanded into a more in-depth, full-year course. The class, for sophomores, juniors and seniors, is designed to give students interested in early childhood development direct experience and prepare them to potentially enter the field.

Supporting the course was a no-brainer for Emberling, a strong advocate for early-childhood education who works full time at Parents Place, a Jewish Family and Children Service's resource center in downtown Palo Alto. In her Parents Place role, Emberling conducts individual consultations for families with young children, teaches workshops on a wide variety of topics (from managing challenging behaviors and positive discipline, to social and emotional development) for both parents and education professionals.

While her top two campaign priorities are student-driven, Emberling said supporting and investing in teachers is her third focus. Facing a "nationwide teacher shortage," it's more important than ever to provide quality professional development and compensation to the district's teachers, she said.

Several teachers have spoken at recent board meetings about being unable to afford living in Palo Alto, facing long commutes and feeling disconnected from their school communities. Many have also said while Palo Alto Unified used to offer competitive compensation compared to other local school districts, salaries have fallen in recent years.

"The cost of housing in our area is prohibitive," Emberling said. "I think compensation is a key piece of creating an attractive package to attract teachers here.

"Even though we are fortunate to be a destination district, we really have to be vigilant and focused on attracting and recruiting the best and brightest teachers entering the profession or looking for a new opportunity," she added.

Emberling, a former journalist, said she will continue a campaign commitment she made in 2012 to transparency and communication on the board. Emberling was an Emmy-nominated producer, writer and editor for 12 years before shifting careers to become a parent educator.

Every month since she was elected, she has sent out an email newsletter to subscribers updating them on the board's recent work and actions. She said she tried to get the district to do something similar (which didn't happen).

"I want the public to feel more involved in their school district," she said.

Two other community members have announced their intent to run for a school-board seat: parent and private investor Todd Collins and Gina Dalma, a parent and Silicon Valley Community Foundation adviser who ran unsuccessfully in the 2014 election.

Townsend has said publicly that she does not plan to run.

Baten Caswell, who was first elected in 2007, told the Weekly that she has not made a final decision but is "strongly considering" running for re-election. If she runs again and wins, it would be her third term.

Baten Caswell said Monday that the question is not about how many terms she serves, but whether her many years of experience as a board member and parent offer "unique strengths" that help to serve students best.

"The question is," she said, "am I going to add something that's going to make a difference for kids that they wouldn't get if I was not on the board?"

Read a 2012 profile of Emberling here.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include information from an interview with board member Melissa Baten Caswell.

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50 people like this
Posted by Two less votes from us this time
a resident of Juana Briones School
on Apr 17, 2016 at 11:10 pm

Of course it took months to get information that an afternoon of phone calls should have provided - Emberling has only helped continue the culture of secrecy and defensiveness. She's a very nice person, but with all due respect, we really need people on the board who are not just yes men for the superintendant but who will take the responsibility of oversight seriously. The public doesn't need newsletters for involvement, they need honest answers to their questions, records requests, and problems. Heidi has been a disaster in that regard.

48 people like this
Posted by ABE
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2016 at 9:55 am

Don't bother running, Heidi. Let someone more qualified, more interested, more vocal have a turn.

[Portion removed.]

18 people like this
Posted by Supporters
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 18, 2016 at 12:02 pm

That she is introduced by development advocate Marc Berman tells me most of what I need to know.
Amusing sidelight, Marc's own election committee was co-chaired by Nancy Shepherd.

32 people like this
Posted by yes and no...
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 18, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Yes, systemic change and culture shifts take time, but no - taking 6 months to gather a basic list of what is currently in place is not acceptable (nor is it an example of things "taking time"). Sadly, it is just one example of this district's work ethic and practice: delay, delay, discuss, delay...form a committee, change the name of the committee, change the goal of the committee, discuss, delay.

If Max is the change agent you hired him to be, Heidi - holding him and his directors to REASONABLE progress on stated goals would be most welcome - and refreshing. The Board members who do that will get my vote.

Higher standards of work and follow through, please.

31 people like this
Posted by Parents of a Bullied Student
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 18, 2016 at 1:21 pm

I had so much hope on Heide because when she ran for the seat she said she was against bullying in the schools, but then when I needed her about my young child who was being bullied, I e-mailed her asking for help, but she took more than one month to replied, and at the end did not move a finger to solve o protect the victim. [Portion removed.] Now that we know the way you do not work or advocate for our students, no thanks.

19 people like this
Posted by Know Weigh
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Apr 18, 2016 at 6:50 pm

[Post removed.]

23 people like this
Posted by No no no
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 19, 2016 at 1:04 am

[Portion removed.]

As to Heidi, the above article takes credit for a number of things she either opposed or had nothing to do with. It is particularly infuriating to see her say she supported TA at Gunn. She supported no such thing and the one time she had the opportunity to vote on it she voted against it. [Portion removed.]

Heidi Emberling taking credit for the sexual harassment policy is like Robert E. Lee taking credit for Reconstruction. Well, yes if you hadn't voted to put Phil Winston back in the classroom [portion removed] we wouldn't have had to take all those remedial actions.

6 people like this
Posted by No no no
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 19, 2016 at 11:00 am

[Post removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Apr 19, 2016 at 11:43 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

I am supporting Heidi for the school board. I recently met with her and am especially impressed with her commitment to pre-K education, her professional experience and her concern for the difficulty in hiring qualified people given our high housing costs and her commitment to explore solutions to this challenge.

9 people like this
Posted by Won't Go, Go, Go
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 19, 2016 at 2:06 pm

[Post removed.]

14 people like this
Posted by Brown Act
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 19, 2016 at 2:45 pm

She is a nice person and "cares" but she is just ineffective. Part of being in a public body covered by the Brown Act is that you have to speak and act at the meetings - there is no "behinds the scenes" way to add value - the public's business is conducted in public. So if she is not contributing in the meetings, well, she is not contributing.

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

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