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 email@example.com 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 storify.com/paloaltoweekly.