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.