Former teacher Jennifer DiBrienza to run for Palo Alto school board

Parent and education consultant joins race for three open seats

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.

DiBrienza's announcement brings the number of candidates officially running to three. She'll be running against current board President Heidi Emberling and parent Todd Collins.

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.


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18 people like this
Posted by joanna strober
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jul 11, 2016 at 10:30 am

I have known Jennifer for 10 years and think unbelievably highly of her. She is my go-to person for questions in math curriculum, project based education, teacher management. Palo Alto would be very lucky to have her on the board.

14 people like this
Posted by Kate
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2016 at 10:40 am

From what I read here, Jennifer has my vote! (She has first hand experience about the middle school that are often overlooked in this district.) I am eager to learn more about her vision and plans. Go, Jennifer!

13 people like this
Posted by Caitlin
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 11, 2016 at 10:43 am

A former teacher on the school board! Wow! what a concept.
Now that makes a ton of sense to me. Isn't it peculiar ... that is not the norm? Best wishes to DiBrienza's candidacy.

17 people like this
Posted by some more info
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2016 at 11:34 am

Adding this about Jennifer DiBrienza.

Last school year:

1. Jennifer DiBrienza spoke out in favor of putting together a Task Force to investigate investing $65-$70 million of public funds in a "radically innovative" PAUSD secondary school that her advisor and boss Jo Boaler was promoting.

Jennifer DiBrienza told the school board in January that "dollars alone" can't be the reason to nix this idea.Web Link

If the school board had agreed with DiBrienza, the task force would have spent this year looking into how to kick out Cubberly's current tenants and re-purpose Cubberly's campus into a small school for 10% of our middle and high school students, leaving the other 90% largely with nothing more than the status quo at their middle and high schools.

2. She was selected as one of 6 parents on an elementary math textbook committee that the district didn't invite parents to until the end of a full year of meetings despite PAUSD rules requiring parent involvement from the start.

Calling that "reasonable," DiBrienza appears to either think that it is fine to not give parents a meaningful voice in what happens with their children's math education, that it doesn't matter because the outcome was reasonable, or both.

That committee narrowed the math textbooks to 3 which include Everyday Math again and Investigations, a progressive, reform math textbook the Weekly reported Jennifer DiBrienza helped write several years ago. Palo Alto Weekly "Palo Alto school board slows down math curriculum-adoption process" - June 22, 2016.

13 people like this
Posted by Esther
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2016 at 11:35 am

As a teacher in a local private school I had the opportunity to have several sessions of math in-service with Jennifer. I cannot speak highly enough about her knowledge, creativity, openness and inspiration. She would be a fabulous addition to our school board.

19 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 11, 2016 at 12:00 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

It would be very clarifying about who Jennifer DiBrienza is, if she came out and told us which elementary math curriculum she favors.

16 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2016 at 12:38 pm

In response to the post above by "some more info," the purpose of the task force was not solely to investigate creating a new school. Rather it was to explore ways to innovate within the district. The creation of a new school was but one of myriad ideas on the table. The school board would not even consider creating the task force unless the new school was stricken as one of the possible innovations that would be considered. My understanding is that it's not that Jennifer is in favor of the new school as much as she is an advocate of investigating meaningful innovation in the district. To this end, she believes all options (including the creation of a new school) should be explored.

And from an outside perspective, I'm with her. Why would PAUSD create a task force to explore ways to innovate to best serve all students but limit the scope of possibilities said task force is allowed to investigate?

19 people like this
Posted by Sara Armstrong
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 11, 2016 at 2:09 pm

I am thrilled Jennifer is running for school board. She has my complete and enthusiastic support. I have volunteered with her for many years, both at Ohlone and at the district level, and I've so appreciated her wisdom, commitment and positive attitude. She will be an excellent and much needed voice on the board.

3 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 11, 2016 at 2:15 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

8 people like this
Posted by Ohlone parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2016 at 3:34 pm

I have interacted with Jennifer in the context of our children going to Ohlone and think she would be a great addition to the school board. She knows her stuff.

Like this comment
Posted by awesome
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 11, 2016 at 4:10 pm

[Post removed.]

9 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jul 11, 2016 at 5:45 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

Monday afternoon, July 11th

Dear Onliners,

This is good news. Welcome, Ms. DiBrienza, to the race!

Democracy is hard work (as we see especially now, at the national level!) and public service requires thoughtfulness and courage. All the more so, in a community struggling through a youth public-health crisis that has unnerved one and all--especially parents with teens in public school.

So my hat is off to anyone willing to throw her hat into our challenging local ring, and I'm heartened to read: "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."

I think this is right-on--a sound diagnosis of problems that Save the 2,008 and its 500 supporters hope to help solve.


Marc Vincenti
Campaign Coordinator

8 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 11, 2016 at 11:13 pm

I am also glad that Jennifer is running. She seems eminently qualified, certainly at least as much as the other school board members. It bothers me that some members don't have any children in our district, and that the current members don't reflect our community's diversity.

Indeed, it would be helpful if she would share her thinking on which elementary math curriculum she favors.

And, I recall her support last Winter to form an exploratory task force to re-examine multiple aspects of our highly stressful secondary schools -- including a new school or accelerated innovation at our existing schools. Unfortunately that proposal was voted down 3-2.

12 people like this
Posted by All that glitters
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2016 at 11:46 pm

She sounds great on paper, but then again, so do Emberling and Collins, and we're hard pressed to do worse than them. As someone who voted for Emberling and promoted her candidacy, but will never again, I wish I had better ways of understanding what these candidates will really be like in office. For example, here is someone who understands the value of Connections, yet doesn't realize that the actual program is really only different in 6th grade. After that the district tries to funnel the kids back into the regular program and there is no similar project-based program in high school.

I just read that Michael Moore ran for school board right out of high school and set about removing employees who had been abusive and incompetent. He made the district send contracts for work out to bid. He began recording all the meetings because it was the law, to which the rest began meeting without him secretly and began a recall election against him (he won and also got them arrested for violating the law). The members who wouldn't record the meetings or be accountable for misbehavior? That's the kind of thing we have in our current board, with the exception of Dauber. I want to know, is this candidate going to stand up for truth, get rid of dishonest employees (do the hard work involved in investigating), take the hard look at administrative costs that we need, codify parent involvement so the really is some local control not just lip service? Make McGee start being transparent? Is this someone who can stand up to the vacuous bullying element on the board? Or will she pile on? I had no way of assessing that before the current board took office.

I'm intrigued by the Jo Boaler connection, though. We do need innovation, but unless we also get at least a majority who care about old fashioned stuff like honesty, strong financial stewardship, checks and balances, transparency and fairness, the board will continue to be ineffective in their oversight role.

18 people like this
Posted by Seniors Line Up to Get Housing
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 12, 2016 at 12:25 am

Seniors Line Up to Get Housing is a registered user.

She lost my vote when she left the district because she didn't get into Connections. I have two kids. One went through JLS regular program and one through Connections. They both were very well prepared for high school, did lots of project-based learning, and they both developed wonderful friendships that they still enjoy.

JLS is a terrific middle school. Connections was a fine program, but it's not so precious that you need to leave the district if the lottery doesn't go your way.

9 people like this
Posted by some more info
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 12, 2016 at 6:28 am

Questions for Jennifer DiBrienza on "All that glitters'" qualities of a good school board member:

"Strong financial stewardship" - Isn't it good fiscal stewardship for a school district to first determine whether it makes sense to spend $65 million for a new school for a few students BEFORE tasking a Task Force to design it?

"Checks and balances" - Is it "reasonable" to you, as one of Palo Alto parents' representatives, that the district skirted its rules on parent involvement in the selection of their children's math textbook?

"Honesty" and "Transparency" - Did you share that you were an author of Investigations before PAUSD selected the committee members? Did you share that with the committee before it voted in Investigations? What math textbook did you vote for?

5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 12, 2016 at 7:34 am

I like the fact that she has a classroom teaching background. I like the fact that she still has younger children in the district who will be there for several years, but it does bother me that she chose to take one of her children out because they couldn't get into Connections. I would prefer someone who could see exactly what our middle schools were like from personal experience.

However, I would like to see the make up of a board with more men. I think a balance between men and women is important on educational boards as fathers and mothers see child related issues very differently.

Thank you Jennifer for being willing to take on our district.

11 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 12, 2016 at 10:40 am

john_alderman is a registered user.

As "some more info" points out, Jennifer DiBrienza was a contributing author to the Investigations math curriculum, participated in the selection group, and Investigations somehow ends as one of our 4 recommended curriculums in spite of it being the LOWEST ranked of the curriculums considered.

Non-profit evaluated it and gave it unsatisfactory scores for Investigations in every category. It makes no sense that it is even being considered. Jennifer needs to answer whether she was advocating for it, and what curriculum she would endorse as a candidate and possible school board member.

11 people like this
Posted by All that glitters
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2016 at 12:29 am

@Seniors line,

Connections isn't what it once was. I'm glad JLS was a fine school for you, but our experience was that it was mostly a terrible school for anyone very creative/gifted. Connections wasn't what we were promised, didn't involve any deep project-based learning after 6th grade, and the school overall was so large, favoritism played a big part in whether families had good or bad experiences. I think the quality of education in many elementaries rivals private school, but I don't think that's true at all of any of the PAUSD middle schools. You have to find what your child needs. I do not blame her or anyone else for finding a better match for their child's learning style.

Propping up our schools by just saying we are the best - rather than being the best - leads eventually to collapse from which recovery may be impossible. Palo Alto has already gotten a bad reputation because of the suicides and depression.

One thing I'm curious about - the article above says that the study mentions that Palo Alto has a higer than avrage suicide rate but lower than average rate of kids with suicide ideation. What about the number of kids being hospitalized with depression? Two years ago, almost 50 kids were taken from Gunn and hospitalized because of serious mental health breakdowns. I have never in my whole life seen that happen even once, and I went to an even bigger high school.

I want a school board member capable of asking the hard questions and demand good answers. I am not bothered at all about her sending her children to an outside school. I am very bothered by the math testbook conlict. I would love to see an explanation.

Like this comment
Posted by Jackie Reses
a resident of Woodside
on Sep 13, 2016 at 9:39 pm

So excited to support Jennifer. Smart. Empathetic. Well reasoned and trustworthy. Its an honor to support her. Jackie

10 people like this
Posted by FoxInHenHouse
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 14, 2016 at 7:54 am

How does putting a teacher in charge of the district help us manage the teachers? Isn't this a huge conflict of interest?

For example in the recent debacle with the giant raise give-away to the teachers it is hard to imagine DiBrienza would argue for fiscal restraint. More likely would just be about what is best for teachers.

For too long this district prioritizes staff over students in almost every aspect. Putting staff on the board will just further stack the deck to the detriment of students.

NO on DiBrienza.

Let's put students first, ahead of staff. For once.

5 people like this
Posted by CountingHens
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 14, 2016 at 1:08 pm

@ FoxInHenHouse,

I haven't met J. Dibrienza, but I would recommend that you actually ASK her how she would have voted on the teacher raise and for her perspective on the teacher raises, budget, etc. rather than vote (or tell others how to vote) based on what you can or cannot "imagine".

Otherwise we hens just get our feathers in a fluff - and worry about a fox that may not be there?

10 people like this
Posted by Conflict
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 14, 2016 at 1:44 pm

Conflict is a registered user.

If she is a FORMER teacher, as frequently reported, how is this a conflict?

[Portion removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 14, 2016 at 4:21 pm

There's no indication whatsoever that DiBrienza was ever a PAUSD teacher. She clearly favors project-based learning, so her educational choices are quite consistent. She seems like a good choice to me.

6 people like this
Posted by Know Weigh
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 14, 2016 at 6:06 pm

Know Weigh is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by EC
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 13, 2016 at 7:33 am

[Post removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Transparency Please!
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 8, 2016 at 1:06 am

NO on DiBrienza.
We need somebody else who has better sense of responsibility in spending $$ of PAUSD.

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

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