Pool of Palo Alto school-board candidates grows to six

Parent-engineer, former candidate join race

A total of six candidates are officially vying for three open seats on the Palo Alto Board of Education in this November's election, with two new candidates filing before a Wednesday deadline.

Srinivasan Subramanian, an engineer and parent in the district, and Jay Cabrera, who billed himself as an outsider when he ran in the 2014 school-board election, filed this week, the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters confirmed.

They're competing against incumbents Heidi Emberling and Melissa Baten Caswell as well as newcomers Todd Collins, a Palo Alto parent and private investor, and Jennifer DiBrienza, a parent and former teacher.

Stephen Schmidt, a lawyer and parent in the district, also pulled papers, but told the Weekly that he decided not to run.

Emberling and Baten Caswell's terms are up in November, as is Camille Townsend's. Townsend has said she does not intend to run for re-election.

Srinivasan Subramanian

Subramanian, a principal engineer at Cisco who came to the United States 30 years ago from India to pursue a master's degree in computer science, is a strong advocate for using more technology in the classroom. The parent of two is "passionate about evolving education in our public schools by investing in innovative technology to help all students develop 21st century skills and become enthusiastic lifelong learners," his official candidate statement reads.

Subramanian said in an interview with the Weekly that technology could help the district improve in many areas, from reducing academic stress to increasing transparency at the board level.

Student stress is what got him more involved in the school district several years ago. After his older daughter graduated from Palo Alto High School in 2012 (his son is a senior there this year), he started noticing the ramping-up of the college admissions process and students who were getting good grades, but were not passionate about school. He started going to board meetings and speaking out during open forum about these and other topics.

He arrived at a solution: "Teaching needs to evolve," he said. "I think we've been teaching the same way that I learned."

And technology can help, Subramanian said. Instead of students hoping to get the teachers with the best reputations each year, those teachers could video record their lessons and share them with other teachers and students, he suggested. Lessons could be posted on the district's online learning-management system Schoology so they are widely and easily available, he said. If instruction was "more prepackaged and consistent," teachers could focus the classroom experience on critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, which he said were lacking in his own children's education.

Palo Alto schools should also move away from traditional assessments, which Subramanian said contribute to students' eroding passion for learning.

Technology can also help the board itself be more transparent and engaging, Subramanian said. He said it "took a lot of guts" for him to start speaking during open forum at board meetings, and if elected, he would work to engage community members beyond the usual suspects who attend board meetings or volunteer through their schools' PTA groups.

When asked how he would handle specific issues the new board will face this fall, Subramanian said he "come(s) from a different perspective" with no "preconceived notions." His metrics for addressing any issue will be first, staying student-centered; second, investing in teachers; and third, maintaining fiscal responsibility.

Subramanian came to the U.S. in 1986, after graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. While pursuing his master's degree at North Dakota State University, he taught undergraduate mathematics and computer science courses. He eventually moved to Palo Alto, and both his children have attended the Palo Alto Unified School District from kindergarten through high school.

Subramanian, who recently became an American citizen, has served as executive vice president of the Paly PTSA, as a parent representative on the Paly site council and also participated in the school's Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation process. He is also a 2015 graduate of Leadership Palo Alto, a 10-week leadership program organized by the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce.

Jay Cabrera

In an interview given after deadline for this story, Cabrera described himself as a social entrepreneur and outsider political candidate who is committed to "always be there on the ballot (so) people have the option to vote for an alternative" candidate.

A 1998 Gunn High School graduate, Cabrera has run unsuccessfully for public office several times, including for mayor of San Francisco, mayor of Santa Cruz and Palo Alto school board. This spring, he ran unsuccessfully for Rich Gordon's state Assembly seat. In the June 7 election, in addition to his Assembly bid, he took out papers to run for the U.S. Senate, and two seats in two different districts of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the 2014 school-board election, Cabrera received 2.75 percent of the vote, or 998 votes.

Cabrera grew up in Palo Alto, attending Nixon Elementary School, Jane Lathrop Stanford (JLS) Middle School and Gunn. After graduating from Gunn, he attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he studied environmental science and biology, was elected to student government and worked on sustainability issues.

Cabrera, who is running as a "low-money and small-contribution candidate," said he is a "visionary candidate" who wants to reinvent the high-school educational experience by making it more like college. This means more real-world learning and life skills (he said he has surveyed current Palo Alto high schoolers and the top thing they said their schools are lacking is instruction on relevant life skills) as well as student choice and empowerment. High school students should have the freedom to either explore academically, or focus in on what they know they're interested in pursuing, like college students do, Cabrera said.

He also proposed lowering the voting age to 15 years old so that high schoolers can become civically engaged earlier, and thus are more prepared for college and beyond, he said.

Cabrera is also a strong proponent of teaching coding earlier, in elementary school, and making it more mainstream to better prepare students for a "21st century economy," his official candidate's statement reads.

In his last run for school board and now, Cabrera has pointed to technology as a vehicle to increase transparency and civic engagement, as well as to improve governance and instruction.

When asked what he thinks are the most significant issues the new school board will face this fall, Cabrera did not have an answer, but rather emphasized his outsider candidacy.

"I could make something up but I would prefer to see what's actually coming up and pick and choose which ones I thought were the most important," he said. "And again, I see myself as an outsider. A lot of people who do run for school board run as an insider. They go to school board meetings every single week; they basically know everything going on on the school board, which is not a bad thing at all, but at the same time I think there is a utility or an interest in having an outside perspective, someone who hasn't been immersed in every single detail of the school board and all the issues."

Cabrera currently serves as executive director of Community LIFE Foundation, a nonprofit whose main program teaches students poetry and video-production skills. He said he's also working on various political projects, and hopes to form a "broad, nonpartisan political coalition" that would organize interactive, even fun, informational forums to brief voters on what's on the ballot this November, from the local to federal level.

This story was updated to include information from an interview with Jay Cabrera given after initial posting.


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7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 18, 2016 at 8:34 am

Thank you to these and all those willing to run and serve on the BoE.

I like what I read about Subramanian. It is about time we looked to other methods from other parts of the world which have proved successful to tweak them in order to improve what is a broken system. He appears to see the big picture which is lacking in many of our attitudes about education. I hope he does well. We need to look and put pressure on the college application process and I feel that he can see how we can do this.

37 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 18, 2016 at 8:36 am

Melissa Caswell is running for a third term. She said it was because there weren't enough candidates. Now that there are 6, will she drop out?

5 people like this
Posted by NSperling
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2016 at 11:37 am

I want to understand what Mr. Subramanian is saying in suggesting lessons could be video recorded and posted on the site and then the classroom experience would focus on critical thinking and problem solving. All the teachers must be engaging and highly competent. I don't think doubling the amount of time the student must spend by both watching a lesson at home and then having class time would be a solution, and questionable if this would raise passion and motivation. Does he think this would be in lieu of giving homework? I'm all for new ways of approaching education and taking advantage of newer technologies but it seems to me that high school kids now suffer from an overload of school work, extra curricula activities and an abundance of social media. Not their fault, colleges now require resumes of well rounded students and not just academic transcripts. We need to insert some time management skills as well as creative stress management skills. I think it takes an in class expert teacher to connect the dots of subject content and then networking that material into creative thinking and problem solving. In my opinion it needs to be done at the same time so the relationship of the subject matter is clear and with a manageable class size so the teacher can "read" the students' experience.. Based on this short article I probably would not support his candidacy with my vote. We will see what more information is available as the election nears.

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 18, 2016 at 11:50 am

N Sperling

I think, although the candidate himself should explain, but on any given day there are students who are either absent or out of the classroom for some reason. If all the lessons were videoed and then put on the website, a student who missed a lesson or needed to have the material presented a second time, would be able to do so. Also if one teacher was better able to present a lesson, that particular teacher would get more "hits" than the poor teachers. It would also mean that parents could actually view what the teacher was presenting and possibly help their student if necessary or indeed see how able the teacher was teaching.

I think this would not be a doubling up of work, but an extra tool for the students and also, which may help a lot, be an indication of how effective each teacher's ability to teach the material would be. As it is, nobody is in the classroom apart from the students and there is no method of ascertaining whether a teacher is good, bad or indifferent, apart from ""

I only wish my lessons had been videoed!

3 people like this
Posted by Technology solves everthing
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2016 at 12:34 pm

To a man trained in technology, solutions to real problems are to be found in technology.
More and more technology. Fixes that do not require real understanding. Trendy, but lacking in wisdom. I'm looking for understanding, not technical fixes.
To a hammer everything looks like a nail.

15 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 18, 2016 at 2:16 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.


I don't have the slightest doubt of Mr. Subramanian's good will or commitment to young people, and he's been diligent and brave in speaking at board meetings.

But I believe his ideas would prove disastrous for the learning climate in our high schools.

Our kids don't need more time on screens and less with human beings. Our kids don't need anything more that is "prepackaged," rather than tailored and adjusted to their individual needs and sensibilities and daily moods.

Our kids don't need to watch one-way, videotaped lectures from teachers they won't also get to know in the classroom, and who might therefore take an interest in their struggles or come to see their sporting events or music recitals.

Any teacher worth his salt, or who cares to know whether her students are learning or not, prefers to teach them in person where the kids' faces and postures, raised hands and diligence in note-taking, provide immediate feedback on who is getting it and who is not, who is confused, who is delighted, who is bored, who needs a quick joke or a minute's banter in order to keep paying attention, and whether or not the class as a whole needs a spur-of-the-moment brain-teaser followed by, "Turn to your neighbor and discuss for 60 seconds--go!"

In learning, engagement with the material and with the passion of the teacher are key.

If we condemn our kids to passively watching more videos the we're assigning them more of the experience they already get in spades on their televisions, computers, and other devices, in an interaction that diminishes focus and concentration because it is always subject to clicking to another channel or clip, or an incoming message from a friend, or a pop-up promotion, or a distracted meander onto the Internet, or to a feeling of, "Well, no need to really listen to this, because I can always re-wind and re-play."

Not to mention the problem, for a teenager, of having to decide whether to replay the video so that mom or dad can weigh in. I would think that most healthily developing young people like to put some distance between themselves and their parental units.

I admire anyone with the moxie to join the school-board race--who cares about the community and is willing to put up with critical postings such as this one! But, in our marketplace of ideas, I believe that what Mr. Subramanian is offering should be viewed with skepticism, and rigorously questioned.


5 people like this
Posted by Mom of Jordan student
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Aug 18, 2016 at 2:53 pm

I am not sure if Mr. Subramanian is aware of all that is currently happening in the classrooms around technology. Our son is at Jordan Middle School and so much of his work is on the computer. The teachers include their lessons, videos, various tools to use, and all the English this year will be done on the computer with an individualized program. It may be helpful for parents to check in at back to school and find out how technology is being used in the classroom. Our son even has a flipped class this school year.

Personally I feel that the board would greatly benefit from someone with financial skills, like Todd Collins. Given the budget short-fall we have at this point, where even the technology refresh is in jeopardy, it would be terrific to have a set of eyes always pointing out the budget ramifications of the board's decisions.

I encourage all, including Mr. Subramanian, to learn what is in place at this point and what the PAUSD strategic plan includes. Much is already in place and evolving. The challenge is the budget for somethings. The teachers are actually really evolving into using technology where is a tool versus just a cool and hip thing to do since we are in Silicon Valley.

15 people like this
Posted by NoMoPa
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 18, 2016 at 6:22 pm

@Marc Vincenti & @ NSperling - Mr. Subramanian is basically talking about the reverse classroom concept, which has tons of data supporting its efficacy. Instead of the classroom being a lecture, then sending the student home to work, you watch the lecture at home, and work on the subject collaboratively with the teacher and classmates at school. It is a good concept because it quantifies and limits the amount of work at home (just watch the video and you are done), and it maximizes the value of the teacher in class.

1 person likes this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 19, 2016 at 2:47 am

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

to NoMoPa,'

Thanks for reading my post, and I hope you can clarify some data for me. You write that the reverse classroom concept shows tons of data supporting its efficiency. But these studies inevitably look at whether grades are up or down, test scores are up or own, time on task, with the governing question being whether academic achievement has been raised.

Here in Palo Alto, where our students often feel fear around learning,find school sterile, sometimes give way to despair--many are regularly hospitalized during the school year--our chief concern should not be to raise performance (it is already so high!) but to improve the social-emotional world of the classroom.

I'm willing to believe that reverse classes raise test scores, but I have trouble believing they build connections between students or with teachers, or that the loss of time in class does not rob kids of some amount of useful social experience, building the human and cooperative skills that are now at a premium in, say, Google job interviews.

And because the teacher is not giving the lecture in the presence of the student--the student is watching it at home--the teacher has no way of shaping or commenting on or slowing down the speed of the lesson (as one does in person), not only to accommodate the child but in a way such that the child understands he has a a co-partner in learning, a buddy in making it through difficult and even boring material, someone who will catch the student when he falls.




5 people like this
Posted by NoMoPa
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2016 at 3:08 am

@Marc Vincenti - I think you are missing the point on how reverse classrooms work. You should take the time to read about it because the concept directly addresses your issues. It limits work outside of class (which has been the #1 complaint), and it increases connection between student and teacher, because it replaces lectures to the class with working with the class. There is much more opportunity to build connections, and have differentiated learning, when the classroom goal is working through problems instead of stand up lecture. Seriously Marc, how often at Paly and Gunn do teachers slow down teh speed of teh class lecture because a couple students falling behind? If you want to be an advocate for reform here, own the responsibility to read up on some the proposals before you dismiss them.

9 people like this
Posted by Kerry Yarkin
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 19, 2016 at 7:31 am

So happy to support Srinivasan for School Board. I interacted and got to know him during last year's Leadership Palo Alto seminars. He is a good independent thinker who will ask tough questions and get to the bottom of issues. Also, he can handle Budget issues, which have been so poorly managed! GO Srinivasan!

3 people like this
Posted by Non Sense
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 19, 2016 at 1:42 pm


I don't have the slightest doubt of Mr. Vincenti's good will or commitment to young people, and he's been diligent and brave in speaking at board meetings.

But I believe his ideas have been disastrous for the learning climate in our high schools.

3 people like this
Posted by Non Sense
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 19, 2016 at 1:45 pm

There is a segment of society that will oppose any kind of change. If you propose technology, they'll say it doesn't solve everything and offer up the tired cliche of hammer and nail. Or say, oh, that's not the problem, students need more face time.

First off, no one claimed technology is the solution to every problem. Get a grip.

Second, it's absolutely valid that allowing students to watch lectures on video at home allows teachers more 1 on 1 interaction and opportunities to engage more personally with students in class.

But to the blockers in our society, any change is bad. And look, it's not the solution to everything, so let's just forget it, ok?

Gotta wonder which universe that logic comes from.


1 person likes this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 19, 2016 at 1:53 pm

Videotaped classes for those who wish to re-watch them or were absent sounds like a great idea. But how will they keep the students attending class? There are plenty of parents who are willing to state that their child was absent due to health and it's undebatable. Part of encouraging passion in learning is the personality of the teacher in real time, in front of them.

Mr. Subramanian must know that college admission is not like it was 30 years ago. Thirty years ago, one could be accepted into UC Berkeley with a 3.4 GPA and okay SAT scores, versus near-perfect SAT scores and 4.2 GPA today. And PAUSD has more competition amongst the students than in other non-college prep schools.

Some teachers rely on the students to pay tutors so they don't need to teach as well. Paly was not like this in the 80s when I attended. We all could do well without tutors and still learned. There is no reason our students need to be overworked. It's the massive homework loads that are affecting our students' passion, along with the college admissions' standards. Unless PAUSD makes attaining A's easier, and lowers the homework load to the promised "10 minutes per grade level", the lack of passion will continue as students will continue to just "do school". Once the students no longer need to worry about their GPAs being tarnished, they will relax and enjoy and learn from the class. When pigs fly.

Posted by Ducatigirl
a resident of Midtown

on Aug 19, 2016 at 4:12 pm

Ducatigirl is a registered user.

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8 people like this
Posted by AnybodyButCaswell
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 19, 2016 at 10:18 pm

Regardless what you think of other candidates, there is now enough choice that Caswell can sit this one out.

Thank you for your two (plus) terms. They were a disastrous setback for student well being. Please just stand down - we got this from here.

4 people like this
Posted by Srinivasan
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 21, 2016 at 9:18 pm

Thank you everyone for your comments and support! I look forward
to listening to you and sharing my thoughts. Please follow me
on Twitter Web Link #SrinivasanForPAUSD
a newly created page.

Thank you to the Weekly for publishing the story!

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

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