Jennifer DiBrienza, a former teacher, Palo Alto school district parent and now education consultant, will be running for a seat on the Board of Education this November, she told the Weekly Friday.
DiBrienza touts her years as a classroom teacher and experience as a consultant to school districts across the country and internationally as reasons why she's a prime candidate to serve on a school board that next year will be comprised of, at the very least, a software engineer and a financial director.
"There should be a voice of someone who's been in a classroom, who's worked in school districts, who's worked in schools, who's worked to make change and bring parents in, bring teachers in," she said. "I feel like I've played a lot of those roles and I really have something to offer in bringing (those) groups more together and establishing trust."
DiBrienza, who grew up in Oakland, New Jersey, began her career as a kindergarten teacher in the New York City public school system. She attended New York University as an undergraduate, obtaining a degree in psychology, and then stayed at NYU for a master's degree in education. She specialized in elementary mathematics, a professional focus that continues to this day.
While teaching in New York City, she did her literacy professional development at the Columbia University Teachers College Reading & Writing Project, whose curriculum is also used at all Palo Alto Unified elementary schools. (The district itself has sent teachers there for professional development in recent years.) She received math professional development from the City College of New York as part of a program called
"Mathematics in the City," which she described as innovative at the time in its real-world approach to teaching and learning math.
DiBrienza taught early-elementary grades for the next seven years, from 1993 to 2001, before she became a staff developer for kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms. The New York City school district, looking to nurture not only administrative but instructional leaders, she said, also funded her participation in an administrative credentialing program at Baruch College of the City University of New York.
In 2001, she moved to San Francisco with her now husband and began a doctorate program in education at Stanford University. Her advisor was Jo Boaler, a well-known math professor and researcher. DiBrienza worked as an elementary math specialist with Boaler's YouCubed at Stanford, which seeks to make research and resources on math instruction more widely available to teachers and parents.
Both during and after she finished her doctorate degree, DiBrienza taught math methods courses to students in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP). She'll often visit the classrooms of graduates of that program who teach locally to work with them; one such connection brought her to a Hoover Elementary School classroom this spring.
Since she completed her dissertation in 2008, DiBrienza has worked as an education consultant for many schools, both public and private, as well as education-technology companies. She's helped districts implement new math curricula, was a contributing author to a national math curriculum and consulted with education-technology companies on how to best align their content to the Common Core State Standards. She worked closely, for example, with San Mateo company Duck Duck Moose to help create curriculum-based mobile apps that teach children math, reading, writing and other skills.
As a former classroom teacher, it comes as no surprise that one of DiBrienza's priorities is to improve the relationships between teachers and parents and teachers and the school board. There have been instances over the years, she said, where teachers have felt undervalued and parents have felt not heard, breeding unnecessary contention and mistrust.
DiBrienza pointed to a process now underway to select a new math curriculum (she's one of six parents on the district's new Elementary Mathematics Curriculum Adoption Committee), which for some has been déjà vu of a problematic, controversial adoption in 2009. Parents and school board members have expressed concern that parents were not involved early enough in the process, while district staff defended an "exploratory" time this year that was mostly focused on teachers testing out new curricula in their classrooms.
DiBrienza thought the district's process was "reasonable," but lacked communication about the natural common ground that parents and teachers share about their priorities for teaching students math.
It is the school board's role to facilitate better communication and build trust between parents and teachers, no matter the topic, she said.
DiBrienza's top three campaign priorities are student well-being, equity and "potential." All three are linked by one sentiment: That while the Palo Alto school district is highly ranked and serves most of its students very well, others are not well-served, both academically and emotionally, she said.
"There are a number of students in our district who are surviving school and not thriving," she said. "We need kids to know there are lots of different paths and we can support all of them so that they are not only academically successful but (also) emotionally, mentally healthy."
Equity has been a focus in Palo Alto over the last several years, and DiBrienza pointed to the district's Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee as a good start to address the gaps in achievement between historically underrepresented students and their peers.
That last, more abstract priority potential describes her view that while there are pockets of innovation throughout the district, from Palo Alto High School's Social Justice Pathway to the Connections program at JLS Middle School, they are piecemeal and layered on top of an existing system that doesn't work for all students.
"We're in Silicon Valley. We innovate and create and invent for the world," DiBrienza said. "Our schools don't reflect that.
"There are pockets where they do ... but our potential is so much greater than where we are," she added.
Last Winter, DiBrienza was involved in conversations among a group of Palo Alto parents who advocated strongly for the district to open a new, innovative secondary school, pointing to deficiencies in the current system, overcrowded schools and a strong, unmet desire in the community for a completely different kind of educational experience.
Opening a new school site is less important to DiBrienza than finding a way to support more innovative programs, she said.
She's also personally familiar with the community demand for the district's choice programs. Her oldest daughter, Katie, who she described as benefiting from a smaller learning environment, was zoned to attend Jordan Middle School, whose size DiBrienza said, felt "overwhelming" even to her as a parent. So they applied for a spot at JLS' Connections, a school-within-a-school program that is focused on interactive, project-based, experiential learning, as well as the private Girls Middle School in Palo Alto.
Katie is currently No. 102 on the Connections waitlist, DiBrienza said. They decided to send her to Girls Middle School instead a difficult decision for DiBrienza, a product of public schools.
DiBrienza hopes that her two younger children Elias, an incoming kindergartner at Ohlone, and Briar, a rising fourth-grader at Ohlone will stay in the district for middle school and beyond.
Since moving to Palo Alto, DiBrienza has also volunteered in the schools in several capacities. She served on Ohlone's PTA executive board for two years as vice president of parent education, as well as two years on the school's site council, including a year as chair. She is also a member of the district's LGBTQQ committee and sits on the math advisory board for Dreamcatchers, a tutoring nonprofit for underserved Palo Alto middle schoolers.
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. While Townsend has publicly said she does not plan to run, Baten Caswell has yet to officially confirm her decision.