Palo Alto school-board candidates discuss equity, access in forum

Five contenders answer questions on special education, achievement gap

In what ways can the Palo Alto school district better support students with learning disabilities and disorders, from dyslexia to severe autism? How can the school board help level the playing field among students of color and low-income students and their peers?

These were among the questions the five candidates for school board discussed at a forum Saturday morning, Oct. 1, focused on issues affecting special-education, low-income and minority students and their families.

The forum, held at Jordan Middle School, was the first issue-specific debate of the election season. Candidates answered four questions the forum’s sponsors, Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS) and the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (CAC), gave them in advance, and then took wide-ranging questions from the audience.

The five contenders -- incumbents Melissa Baten Caswell and Heidi Emberling and challengers Jay Cabrera, Todd Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza -- agreed that teacher training, early intervention, better communication with parents and close board oversight are critical to moving the needle on virtually all of the issues discussed Saturday.

They lauded the efforts of the district’s Minority Achievement Talent Development (MATD) committee, which last year issued a set of recommendations for tackling what its final report described as a "tale of two cities" in Palo Alto -- "a Palo Alto for a high-­achieving majority of students, with access to enrichment opportunities and high expectations, and a Palo Alto in which access and expectations for students of color and students from low-­resourced backgrounds are limited."

These recommendations have not sat on a shelf at the district office, the candidates said, pointing to progress that has already been made. The district hired a full-time equity coordinator, Martha Castellon (who attended Saturday’s forum), to oversee these efforts and ensure implementation.

Full-day kindergarten is set to roll out in about two weeks at all 12 elementary schools, a result of a recommendation from the group to provide a full day for low-income, minority and struggling students. More teachers and staff are going through training on unconscious bias, which the minority-achievement task force pointed to as the root for many inequities in low-income and minority students’ experiences in Palo Alto Unified.

But the district is still lacking in many areas, the candidates said. Further progress on closing the achievement gap will require a deeper focus on early intervention, which "runs through" many of the minority-achievement task force’s suggestions for improvement, DiBrienza noted. Assessing the effectiveness of the interventions already in place is another next step, Emberling said. Baten Caswell said closer monitoring of students who are identified as needing extra support is needed to combat the disproportionate number of minority students who are placed in special education but don’t necessarily need to be there.

Cabrera suggested that the Minority Achievement Talent Development committee become a permanent group, though it is still a standing committee that meets regularly. And sustained, high-level accountability from the equity coordinator, is also critical, Collins said, suggesting that the board receive more regular reports from Castellon.

Parent involvement and communication repeatedly came up during the forum, including how to engage more parents in the district’s Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) process, which is supposed to encourage districts to work more closely with parents to spell out how they will spend money to improve education for underserved groups like minority, low-income and foster youth. Palo Alto has failed to achieve the level of parent participation in this process required by the state, candidates said. (The board discussion when approving the LCAP this spring was "limited," Collins said, and only three parents attended the last LCAP review meeting, DiBrienza said.)

One solution Emberling offered was a proposal she’s made several times before: to follow in other district’s footsteps and create a diverse, standing parent advisory group that would regularly advise the board on issues impacting their communities.

Baten Caswell said simple efforts -- like sending out notices about meetings via text rather than just by email and in multiple languages -- or holding meetings on the Local Control Accountability Plan and other related efforts in East Palo Alto could help the district reach more families.

The board could also increase the "visibility and importance" of the accountability plan itself by simply including it as a standing item on its agenda throughout the process, rather than as a cursory approval at the end, Collins said.

The district also still has work to do, Baten Caswell said, in helping parents navigate often confusing processes for getting accommodations for their children, which she said she has personally experienced.

While it is harder for the district to have an impact on external factors that widen the achievement gap or impact special-needs students -- such as wealthy families who can afford tutors or special programs -- it can, candidates repeatedly said, affect the quality of the teacher in the classroom.

Teachers shouldn’t be "diagnosticians," DiBrienza said, but they should be better trained to recognize and flag early on the signs of a child who might have dyslexia, for example. The district should also rely more than it currently does on evidence-based evaluations to cut down on any potential bias, unconscious or otherwise, Baten Caswell said.

Currently, many young students with learning disabilities in Palo Alto struggle through their early years of school with no diagnosis and no accommodations, candidates said. Cabrera, a 1998 graduate of the school district who has dyslexia, experienced this himself. He said he performed poorly on spelling exams in elementary school but was not diagnosed and provided the support he needed until after he failed a basic writing class in college.

"Making a child fail before they get support isn’t the right way to do it," Baten Caswell said.

The candidates also answered questions about a death of child-care options in Palo Alto, ensuring that special-education students get to college, the phenomenon of "summer melt" (when low-income and minority students get into college but ultimately don't attend by the fall) and how to improve the district's inclusion efforts, among other topics.

The district is likely on the brink of launching a more concerted effort to improve special-education services in the district. A group of Harvard University researchers brought in to evaluate the state of special education in Palo Alto is expected to present final recommendations to the board next month.

Like with the Minority Achievement Talent Development committee’s work, the success of these recommendations will depend in large part on the persistence of the five people who sit at the dais, Collins noted.

"Progress takes commitment over time," he said. "Asking the same question over and over again at a board meeting isn’t glamorous but in my experience, it’s what really works in focusing people’s attention on what they need to do."

Watch a video recording of the forum here.

The candidates will gather for three more scheduled debates in the coming weeks:

• Barron Park, Ohlone and Fairmeadow elementary schools' PTAs are co-hosting a K-5 forum on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Barron Park, 800 Barron Ave. To submit a question for the candidates, email by Oct 3. Spanish and Mandarin translation will be provided. The event will be live-streamed on Facebook.

• Gunn High School students will host the candidates for a debate on Thursday, Oct. 6, during school hours, 10:05-11:25 a.m.

• Palo Alto High School students will host the candidates for a debate on Friday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m. in the school's Media Arts Center.

The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture ongoing coverage of the school-board election. To view it, go to


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20 people like this
Posted by retired guy who follows the schools
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 1, 2016 at 9:04 pm

retired guy who follows the schools is a registered user.

A fellow on here encouraged me to post this once more, so, well, with everyone's permission....

Just my two or three cents herein, and a video most people haven't seen. It shows an even deeper side of two candidates than these useful debates.

To make good decisions, our leaders need to have a heart. So I hope you’ll watch--if it’s not too upsetting--the first part of this board meeting from March 10th of 2015.

Web Link

This was only one day after the death of a Paly boy (I am sorry to say) who was the 4th student who passed away that school year. You’d expect board members to be sad or at least serious, out of respect for people grieving.

But the president (Melissa Caswell) gavels the meeting open, laughing happily. Then, after the superintendent speaks (saying it's a “dark hour” and offering lots of appreciations), you’ll see that starting at 4' 45" he and board members laugh and banter, make tributes, smile for a photo-op, watch a slide show, giggle and joke for 20 minutes--as if they’re throwing a party.

And just the day before, only a block away, trains and traffic were stopped, with squad cars and terrified PAUSD parents and kids. And the Paly boy was lots of people’s student, and friend, and son.

Finally Paly’s board representative, who’s been sitting right there, who knew the boy, and the board members know her, has her turn to speak (at about 24', 20") and because she feels the tragedy deeply breaks down in tears.

In the U.S. presidential election going on, there's a lot of archive film, and I find it very helpful. This clip is too. People show you a lot about themselves during the hardest times, including how much they really care. I remember watching all this and feeling sad, angry, and wanting a school board election to happen ASAP.

Sitting in the middle in dark clothes you can watch the two incumbents now up for re-election: Heidi Emberling and Melissa Caswell.

10 people like this
Posted by LAP
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 2, 2016 at 11:48 am

Since the moderator is allowing re-posting stuff from other threads:

Academic Performance results to be presented to Board Tuesday 9/27/2016 show Special Education students have the lowest achievement of all student categories in PAUSD. Only 38% meet standards in literary and math. The data tries to show this in a good light by comparing scores of other Districts, who are doing worse.

It is telling what the data left out. Data only shows "Meet" and "Exceeds" categories, but does not show break data for categories with lower rating. The EOY Writing does not break out data for Special Education scores, even that is the subject where Special Education students usually struggle and need the most support. DRA Reading does not break out four Special Education. It is strange DRA is included at all, because Special Education parents were told it was not used anymore and could not be used to demonstrate a child was struggling.

Results will be presented to Board Tuesday 9/27/2016 (Item 8 on Agenda, beginning at page 35 in Board Packet.)
Web Link

According to Superintendant McGee's memo, "These data are powerful evidence of the quality of education our students are receiving as PAUSD scores are the tops in nearly every category."

More like the data are powerful evidence Special Education results have not improved despite hiring more Administrators, hefty pay raises, Response to Intervention reports, and full inclusion policies that removed supports placing kids in mainstream. Some Board members claimed all students were completely supported under their full inclusion policy.

If students are failing in subjects which demonstrate basic literacy and where they are expected to need the most support, the Board's policies did not work.

5 people like this
Posted by Pearl Chow
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 2, 2016 at 10:44 pm

Dear Ms. Kadvany,

In your article, you wrote, "These recommendations [ie MATD's recs] have not sat on a shelf at the district office, the candidates said, pointing to progress that has already been made"......."Full-day kindergarten is set to roll out in about two weeks at all 12 elementary schools."

Reading this, readers are led to believe that MATD recommended FDK for all Kinders. They did not. Please read the recommendation which states, "MATD
recommends a full-­day kinder for HUR [Historically Underrepresented] students – and others which diagnostic observations and assessments reveal need additional supports -­­ with an emphasis on academic enrichment activities and curriculum during the extended time.
See page 18, Web Link

In other words, the MATD recommended FDK as a targeted intervention for only those students identified as needing additional supports, NOT for every kinder student.

I hope the PA Weekly will report this recommendation accurately.

Thank you.

6 people like this
Posted by FDK for all
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 3, 2016 at 7:22 am

Pearl Chow,

FDK helps HUR students so PAUSD does get to check that MATD Task Force box off. That PAUSD opened it up to non-HUR students who would benefit from extra support too does not negate that.

Under Prop 209, FDK can't just be open to specified races. Web Link)

I may be OK for FDK to be restricted to kinders with special needs but, apart from the fact that 5 year olds don't start school pre-screened, HUR kinders who don't have special needs would not be able to attend then. That would NOT meet MADT's recommendation that FDK be open to ALL HUR students.

11 people like this
Posted by Tutoring
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 3, 2016 at 9:16 am

Tutoring is a registered user.

Ms. Emberling said there is no measurement of families needing to obtain extra tutoring for their children outside of school to keep up. This is inaccurate. It is part of the Strategic Plan/End of Year Surveys given yearly.

9 people like this
Posted by Tutoring
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 3, 2016 at 6:25 pm

Tutoring is a registered user.

Superintendent's report now says Special Education Review will not be presented until November 1. Web Link Let's hope the fact it is a campaign point by incumbents will motivate PAUSD's Administration to finally get it done (after a year, or it is a year and a half?).

Board members are promising to use this report to make improvements to Special Education, even though we were told for the past 4 years all Special Education students were 100% supported and successful. For the money spent, wish these upcoming improvements were made sooner.

24 people like this
Posted by Get Real
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2016 at 12:46 am

"Making a child fail before they get support isn’t the right way to do it," Baten Caswell said.

Exactly. You make them fail and then if families have the nerve to try to get support, you treat them in such a bullying and untrustworthy way, they leave the district before they take up services, isn't that right Melissa?

If that's not the right way to do it, as you say, why do you overtly support a staff culture that does exactly that?

15 people like this
Posted by Grrrrr
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 4, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Why is PAUSD so downright mean to children, who through no fault of their own, were born with Learning Disabilities? It REALLY intensifies by sixth grade.

Worse, this district and its teachers and administrators are absolutely cruel and accusatory toward the already guilt-ridden parents: "Didn't you have decent prenatal care?" " Did you have a home birth?" " Did you consume a lot of alcohol during pregnancy?" " Could you have picked up some disease in your travels that affected his brain development?" " Was he oxygen deprived during delivery?" " Does anything like this run on either side of your families?" " What did the grandparents do for a living?" "What did you do differently with your other children that you didn't do with this one". And, of course, " How old were you two at the time of conception?"

Always blaming the parents, ESPECIALLY the mothers!

9 people like this
Posted by Tutoring
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 4, 2016 at 4:44 pm

Tutoring is a registered user.

@Grrr - Agreed, PAUSD is a culture of blaming mothers for children having disabilities. They are trained to make comments like, "child only behaves that way for mother at home", "only mother sees that (deficit). We don't see that at school", or "you just see child negatively", "disabled child knows how to do it, child just does not want to", "all disabled children are bullied" and "parent just wants to get more free services".

This is the main reason PAUSD Special Education is in such a mess, despite vast amounts of money spent on it's Administrators. It is why there was so much bullying (which we saw daily at school), suicidal talk by children ("we see it differently"), and why now we see so many 11th graders with disabilities who do not meet minimum math or language standards. We are about to send them into the world prepared with nothing.

If you have followed Palo Alto Online, you know some of this was the training by the past legal firm, who advised PAUSD employees to interrupt parents, to talk over parents, and say 'we are the experts, only we know'. It is also the tone set by the current Board members which all employees follow. These Board Members attacked disabled children who were bullied and accused their parents of committing perjury to get out of their horrible behavior in an OCR finding. These Board members would not listen to parent warnings about the reorganization and problems with behaviorists and counseling services under control of one person. They hired and paid highly a Superintendent who said he investigated all legal cases he brought against disabled children, without him every presenting that investigation in writing.

This is the "Us vs. Them" Board. Anyone who disagreed with them, who had a negative experience with their employees, anyone who said they saw children bullied when the Board was supposed to protect them: these were all evil and emotional parents. Board members only wanted good news.

Watching them insult and attack each other over valid policy budget concerns was the last straw. Then it turns out, the people who raised the concerns were correct.

10 people like this
Posted by BP
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 5, 2016 at 12:21 am

Emberling and Caswell MUST be replaced!

7 people like this
Posted by Get Real
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2016 at 11:50 am

I agree. I'm even in favor of Cabrera over the incumbents.

The problems with special ed have not been fixed. Even at their best, the district practices deliberately create a huge disconnect - even an ostracizing - of the children and their families that the other kids really pick up on. It carries into daily life at school. The district employees and thus teachers keep special ed families at arms' length, making it impossible to even have the connections and interactions that ordinary kids would have. There is no doubt a lot of backbiting playing into it too, negative gossip behind families' backs - as a poster above points out, full of blame and often just false - that never gets corrected because connections are never allowed to grow. It's horrible. One of the boys who ended his life was a special ed student who said he was never allowed to forget it - that is still happening, and district systems and practices are in large part to blame.

The incumbents Emberling and Caswell won't even face these issues and are definitely entrenched in district office culture and unwilling to impartially look at problems. Emberling admitted in the story today that the OCR letter was done in "anger" - that would be, anger against families trying to get the district to follow the law and focus on doing the right thing for students. The district, Emberling and Caswell, were willing to spend considerable funds in anger - and sue families - but never found a way to overcome the personal bile and misinformation to solve the problems that began that whole mess.

2 people like this
Posted by Police on Elementary Campuses
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 7, 2016 at 1:29 pm

Police on Elementary Campuses is a registered user.

Some of the Candidates did not know what School Resource Officers (SRO) are and were not able to answer the question about their involvement on elementary school campuses. They are Police Officers. This is enough of a parent concern it rose to a debate question asked by Minority and Disabled parent groups. Board candidates may want to research this better. They can search Palo Alto Online for SRO or School Resource Officer.
There was SRO involvement at Jordan Middle School and Addison Elementary. It is hard to find this out from the District, because the District only reports SRO involvement when an arrest is made. The District does not report when an SRO is involved with a child. Some families only find out by searching the officer's name or Palo Alto Online, and some families never know.
It valid to ask why police officers are involved with disabled and minority children. Children on the autism spectrum are too fearful to speak about it, or may not speak at all. Children may not understand what happened. Police have little training in this. If PAUSD is so successful at full inclusion and Special Education, then teachers and principals should be handling children, not police officers by another name.

2 people like this
Posted by Special Education Review Delayed
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 22, 2016 at 8:58 pm

Special Education Review Delayed is a registered user.

The Special Education Review results delayed for over a year will now be delayed again until 11/15/2016, according to the Superintendent at the 10/18/2016 Board of Education meeting.

This means the report will not be available to the public until after the November 6 election.

While the Superintendent said the District will begin public input meetings without the report based on the preliminary results in June, you have to wonder why. How much can this accomplish if the public has no access to the data or report? For example one very major part of the review was the District's handling of behavioral problems. It not reported in the preliminary results at all.

Changes in Special Education cannot be made or even considered without information for the public.

This says a lot about the Board's ability to manage contracts, resources and expenses.

2 people like this
Posted by CAC Member
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 22, 2016 at 10:16 pm

@Special Education Review Delayed - the review is an embarrassment. The delays are ridiculous, and the content has been totally unimpressive. There is very little detail and no meaningful assessment of whether we even do what we say we do. Really an embarrassment, that reflects on McGee, Holly Wade, and of course the board.

5 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 6, 2016 at 1:40 pm

We have experienced nothing but heartache in PAUSD special education. There are 2 main problems:

1) The special education team members we have encountered are not competent. The evaluation administered to our son was flawed- it was re-scored (at our expense) by an outside expert and felt to be so highly flawed as to be invalid. Yet, the district continued to use the evaluation as a valid assessment of achievement. The general education teacher administered a reading assessment but did not follow the written instructions to use a lower level assessment based on initial performance, yet the district continued to used that DRA as a valid assessment of achievement. The psychologist who administered the evaluation did not understand basic elements of the evaluation, such as the definition of working memory, or how to calculate specific learning disability based on standard deviation discrepancies. When we pointed out these issues, we were met with nothing but platitudes and resistance, without correcting the underlying situation.

2) The more serious problem seems to be an overarching desire for the administration to fight any kind of recognition of disabilities or to provide appropriate services. This seems to be deliberate, and the pervasiveness of it suggest that it comes from the top. This descends to the level of the general ed teacher as well. I don't really understand this, but general ed teachers seem to be either genuinely unaware of learning disabilities and how they manifest, or feel compelled to ignore behaviors that are very characteristic of disabilities- I'm not sure what they get out of this, as I imagine most of them have tenure. However, perhaps it affects their quality of life within the system if they don't toe the line and instead choose to advocate for their students.

Many families seek legal recourse as a last resort- yet these cases are settled confidentially, therefore other families don't know that so many others have gone through similar things, and have fought back with varying degrees of success.

Many families, like us, start off (and for too long) trusting the system, believing that the school actually wants to help the child. Too late (these developmental years are critical!) we realized this is not the case.

I honestly don't know how the district members who actively enforce or do not seek to change this broken system can sleep at night. The human cost of these failed policies is enormous- not only are critical developmental years lost in terms of intervention, the repeated frustration and failure takes an enormous toll on the child, and the psychological effects can be permanently damaging. It is equally hard on the parents, who only want to help their child. Many of us do not know anything about disabilities, and rely for too long on the school "experts" to help guide us through this new terrain.

I don't know why special ed and general ed teachers are not evaluated by students and parents to bring many of these issues to light.

Like this comment
Posted by Varies by school
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 7, 2016 at 9:40 am

Varies by school is a registered user.

Our experience with Special Ed varied hugely by school. At Addison under John Lents (long ago principal) it was terrific. He made sure kids who needed help got it, even kids who weren't technically "special ed). At Jordan it was very hit or miss, some teachers were great but one teacher totally refused to come to the IEP meeting. Paly was totally unhelpful, with most of the teachers refusing to abide by any accommodations.

Like this comment
Posted by Still the Same
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Nov 7, 2016 at 7:52 pm

Still the Same is a registered user.

Will the Superintendent publish the Special Education Review before the election? Guess not.

@Varies by School - Addison is pretty horrible now. The principal is the Gatekeeper, or more accurately Gate blocker. Bureaucratic, creates delays, wastes meeting time, talks in lawyer platitudes. She thinks every child is like her child, so every child must be doing really great with no help. It is very sad for every one involved. The Speech Language Therapist is the Case Manager for most kids, and does not understand social cognitive issues, saying no child needs help. [Portion removed.] She refuses to follow District policy and conduct social groups or push into classrooms. If families go to the District and get her to do it, somehow she always fades away or can't seem to do it. Addison is known as a "Not Social Skills School." The psychologist is useless in her field, misses serious psychological problems in children. [Portion removed.] Don't try to report problems to the District, they will not respond. Some families refuse to work with the Addison special ed staff, which the District wants because then the kids don't use services. Addison's reputation as a horrible place for Special Education children has been known for a long time. It has gotten worse over time, not better. [Portion removed.] Regarding Jordan, the Superintendent has Holly Wade who heads Special Education and Counseling interview new principals, which sends them a message if they seek help for children or advocate for kids in their schools, they will not keep their jobs. [Portion removed.]

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

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