UPDATE: The League of Women Voters of Palo Alto will host a candidate forum for this race on Thursday, Oct. 13, at 6:30 p.m. at the Los Altos Public Library, 13 S. San Antonio Road.
Palo Alto residents Grace Mah and Sheena Chin are running for Mah's seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Education this November, both confirmed to the Weekly.
Mah has served on the county school board for almost a decade, overseeing Area 1, which includes the Palo Alto Unified, Los Altos, Mountain View Whisman, Mountain View-Los Altos Union High school districts, a majority of the Sunnyvale School District and corresponding portions of Fremont Union High School district. A longtime schools volunteer locally, Mah was first elected in 2007, and is now seeking a third term on the board. (There are no term limits.) Mah has two sons in the Palo Alto school district, one a current middle-schooler and the other a recent Gunn High School graduate.
Chin, the parent of three current children in the Palo Alto school district, is also a longtime community volunteer. She said she offers voters a fresh perspective, and hopes to be elected to the county school board in order to improve early education and better support underserved minority students in Santa Clara County, she said in an interview with the Weekly.
Mah herself has focused on early education during her time on the board. If re-elected, she hopes to continue the work she does as chair of the county's Strong Start initiative, a coalition of school districts (including Palo Alto Unified), elected officials, nonprofits, businesses and other organizations working to expand access to high-quality early-learning opportunities for children age 0 to 8 in Santa Clara County, she told the Weekly. The coalition, which launched in 2012, works to raise awareness about the "need for preschool for our kids," goes to Sacramento with a lobbyist to push early-education legislation and is starting now to work with local city governments as well, Mah said.
Getting more students into high-quality preschool means less special-education referrals down the line, fewer students dropping out of school or entering the juvenile justice system and not starting school behind their peers, Mah said. It also makes good fiscal sense, she said, pointing to research that shows for every dollar spent on quality early-education programs, between $7 and $16 is saved in future healthcare, social services and public safety costs.
The Santa Clara County Office of Education itself is the largest early-learning provider in the county, offering a variety of programs for young children, families and districts, including Head Start, a federal program that provides free preschool to eligible children; Early Start, which serves children with disabilities; and state-funded preschool programs.
Mah said that Head Start has space for only about half of the children in Santa Clara County who are eligible for the program, which has an income eligibility level of about $23,000 per year for a family of four.
Even in more affluent communities like Palo Alto, preschools have long waitlists, and it's difficult for families to assess the quality of some programs. Mah said the county board is hoping to make a new child-care and preschool rating system more widely used than it is now in order to increase transparency and accountability, and help parents find the best early-education option for their child.
Another priority for Mah is the county board's work to close the achievement gap. The board is looking now at revising a goal set in 2010 to completely eliminate the county's achievement gap by 2020, she said, but efforts made in recent years -- around preschool access, professional development, parent engagement and charter schools -- are helping, Mah said.
Mah is a strong proponent for charter schools, of which there are now more than 60 across the county, according to the Santa Clara County Office of Education. She was at the center of a controversial effort to bring an elementary Mandarin-immersion program to Palo Alto Unified, and launched a charter-school petition in 2007 after the school board initially voted down her bid for the program. In 2008, she was successful, and Mandarin immersion has been a popular choice program at Ohlone Elementary School ever since. (It also expanded to Jordan Middle School this past school year.)
In 2007, the county board voted 5-1 to appoint Mah to fill a vacancy created by Hoover Institution research fellow Bill Evers, who resigned to become an assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration.
The following year she was elected to a full four-year term with 71 percent of the vote. She was re-elected in 2012 with 66.76 percent.
Professionally, Mah has 18 years of experience in the high-tech industry. She holds a bachelor's degree in engineering and applied science from the California Institute of Technology and a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California, Berkeley.
Mah has also served as a board member at the Palo Alto Family YMCA, a parent volunteer at Hoover and Ohlone elementary schools and co-chair for fundraising at Partners in Education (PiE). This past school year, she served on the district's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC), along with Chin.
Mah said that despite being on the board for close to a decade, she feels "I'm now hitting my stride." She's always planned to run for a third term, she said.
Mah's opponent points to her length of service as a reason for a new face on the board.
If elected, Chin will bring "new energy, new vision, new direction to the county board of education," she told the Weekly. She described herself as a skilled communicator who is passionate about community and education.
Chin, a native of Taiwan, holds bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism. A longtime TV reporter and host, she first came to the United States in the 1990s to conduct research for a book on digital broadcasting and interviewing management at media outlets like NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox, she said. In 2000, she published her book, "The Digital Revolution in TV Industry" and moved to the U.S.
Since moving to Palo Alto in 2007, Chin spent many years traveling throughout the Bay Area to read to children, mostly at libraries, and created a YouTube learning channel dedicated to sharing stories with children. She also volunteered in local libraries, helping to organize activities for children around events like Halloween and Chinese New Year, she said.
Chin joined the city's Library Advisory Commission in 2013 and was elected as the group's chair twice, in 2014 and 2015. She just stepped down from that post at the end of June.
As an immigrant, Chin said she was unfamiliar with the American school system when her children started school in Palo Alto. She decided to volunteer to learn more. In the 2014-15 school year, she served on the school district's Minority Achievement and Talent Development (MATD) task force, and then on the enrollment-management committee in 2015-16.
Chin has set her sights on the county school board because she "want(s) to help more students" -- particularly those who have less resources than most in Palo Alto.
Chin's campaign priorities are to increase quality preschool programs; "study complex issues that hamper students' achievement;" focus on early identification and intervention; and generate more mentoring and tutoring options for students, her official statement reads.
She also hopes to engage more people in the county school board's work. She said when she started telling people that she planned to run, "most people said, 'What is the county Board of Education?'"
As a former journalist whose "specialty" is communication, she would work to bring a level of visibility to the board's work that the incumbent has not been able to, she said.
"Ten years is a long period of time. I think the incumbent's contributions are really under many, many peoples expectations," Chin said. "I think it's time to make (a) change. It's time to have new ideas."