The five candidates vying for three seats on the Palo Alto school board discussed issues affecting elementary-school students and families, from fundraising parity to cyberbullying, at a Tuesday evening forum focused on the primary grades.
The debate, co-hosted by the Barron Park, Ohlone and Fairmeadow elementary schools' PTA groups, was the fourth of the election season.
The very first question, prepared by event organizers, asked the candidates whether they’re concerned about "disproportionate" PTA fundraising among the elementary schools and if so, how they would address it.
While the district's major fundraising organization, Partners in Education (PiE), distributes dollars equally to all schools on a per-student basis (and is the only fund organization allowed to pay for personnel salaries), PTAs are allowed to support materials, programs, events and school improvements at individual schools.
The five board hopefuls, the majority of whom themselves have served on their children’s PTAS, agreed that there are fundraising disparities between the elementary schools, and that the board must uphold its own adopted value of "progressive parity," under which the district must "provide adequate and comparable school facilities, learning environments, educational experiences, opportunities, and staffing ratios throughout the district, including shared resources."
Current Board President Heidi Emberling suggested that the site-level PTA's umbrella organization, the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, should initiate conversations about the issue.
Fellow incumbent, Melissa Baten Caswell, said those conversations have already been happening over the years as PTAs have ramped up what they raise money for -- "it started to include things like computers and bus rides for going on field trips and special programs -- and then it becomes a problem," she said.
Baten Caswell said she was a proponent of pairing schools that raise the most money with those who raise the least to help them work together, but that proposal "never came to fruition."
Jennifer DiBrienza suggested looking to PiE to help support schools with less PTA dollars, perhaps using some of the money it raises "to backfill places that are inequitable to help reach that parity," she said.
Todd Collins pointed to a change in policy made this year at the middle schools as a potential model. Money the schools were previously retaining from site-based facilities revenue, he said, has now been put into a "centralized pool" that is redistributed to the schools on a per-student basis.
One audience member probed the candidates' positions on another disparity in the district: the perception that despite being a K-12 unified school district, more attention and focus is given to the secondary than elementary schools, "particularly from the highest level of district management."
Most of the candidates disagreed with this perception, though DiBrienza, herself an elementary-school parent, said she often hears from parents who say, "We're a K-12 district, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it."
Collins said he thought the "misconception" might actually arise because the elementary schools are, in fact, doing so well.
"I don't think it is a reflection of lack of attention or somehow neglect," he said. "I think it is more of a reflection of the fact that we’ve got such strong elementary schools ... that there's meaningfully less drama and attention there."
Baten Caswell pointed to several efforts and initiatives underway at the elementary schools, including launching a new writing and reading program several years ago, bringing full-day kindergarten to all sites and the district's current work to find a new mathematics curriculum that better aligns with the Common Core State Standards. The board also recently voted to release $60 million in bond funds to support capital improvements at the existing schools, she noted.
Baten Caswell, Emberling and DiBrienza said where the district should, however, invest more at the primary level is in early intervention for struggling students.
"I think looking at putting resources where we need them the most and where they can have the most effect certainly means we need to look at our early-ed environments," Emberling said.
The candidates also discussed the evolution of direct instruction, the teaching practice in place at Hoover Elementary School’s choice program and its alignment with Common Core. Some noted that the traditional notion of direct instruction has evolved over the years in Palo Alto, with teachers incorporating more projects and hands-on learning as schools work to meet the new state standards.
The lines between choice programs are not drawn firmly in the sand, Baten Caswell said, with teaching styles from one often bleeding into the others and vice versa.
DiBrienza, an education consultant, said direct instruction largely does not align with Common Core’s "practice" standards, which, instead of traditional content standards, outline how students should be developing more complex skills like "persisting in solving problems that are unknown previously." She noted the Hoover administration and teachers have "worked really hard over the past few years to look at what works for kids and what aligns with the Common Core," resulting in positive changes for students.
As all of the district's choice programs evolve, there's an opportunity, Collins said, to assess what has been done in the past and what the community will want in the future.
The board hopefuls also discussed a persistent achievement gap at the elementary schools, illustrated most recently in student performance on the state’s new standardized test. While the majority of all elementary students met or exceeded standards in math and English, students of color, low-income students and students with disabilities lagged behind in both subjects.
The candidates pointed to progress that has been made in the wake of the district's Minority Achievement Talent Development (MATD) committee, from adding literacy and math intervention specialists at the elementary schools to requiring all teachers and staff to undergo unconscious bias training.
The minority-achievement committee is continuing its work this year on developing a comprehensive equity plan for the district with specific goals and measured outcomes, DiBrienza noted.
Jay Cabrera repeated a proposal he’s made to reduce the district’s reserve cap from 10 percent to 5 percent to release more funding to support new programs, such as ones that might help close the achievement gap.
Collins said the district must replace its "broad-brush approach" to assessing the achievement gap with a "laser focus" that identifies the specific students, grade levels or subjects where gaps continue to persist, and then specific interventions.
"We really need to not be afraid to delve deeply and take a look and say how can we serve these populations that aren’t doing quite as well in our district," echoed Emberling, adding that Palo Alto should look to other school districts where minority and low-income students are faring better.
The event organizers and audience members also asked the candidates for their thoughts on how well the district supports high-achieving elementary-school students, cyberbullying and a proposal to rename some of the district’s schools.
There are two more candidate forums coming up, both hosted by high school students. Gunn High School will host the candidates for a debate on Thursday, Oct. 6, during school hours, 10:05-11:25 a.m.
Palo Alto High School will host the candidates 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.