Gunn High School students got a taste of where the five Palo Alto school-board candidates stand on several issues that affect student life, from student voice and choice to inconsistency between courses and teacher quality, at a student-organized forum Thursday morning.
Current trustee Melissa Baten Caswell, social entrepreneur Jay Cabrera, investment manager Todd Collins, former teacher Jennifer DiBrienza and current board President Heidi Emberling answered a series of questions that students submitted in advance to the forum's organizers, student newspaper The Oracle and Gunn's student government body, the Student Executive Council (SEC).
All candidates agreed that the board should do more to proactively solicit student feedback, from holding "office hours" on school campuses to polling students regularly on issues that come before the board. They encouraged students to attend board meetings and speak out on issues they care about.
They also lauded the two current student board representatives for successfully lobbying to get a preferential vote at the dais this year. Cabrera, who graduated from Gunn in 1998, said he would support having one student representative for both schools serve on the board — and giving that person full voting rights. (Cabrera was the only candidate to definitively respond to a question asking if the candidates would support this change to a full student vote.)
New anonymous surveys that students at both high schools are now filling out at the end of each semester for every course are also yielding much-needed specific feedback from students to guide teacher improvements, the candidates said.
Still fresh in many Gunn students' minds is the sting of the district's decision last year to eliminate early-morning academic classes, which came from Superintendent Max McGee over spring break rather than as an agendized item at a board meeting, as district leadership had promised.
Many students opposed the decision, not only because they supported zero period (many said it gave them needed flexibility and reduced rather than added to their stress) but also because they said the decision felt like an affront to the board's oft-cited commitment to student voice. The removal of zero period followed local and national medical professionals' advice that later school-start times protect students' physical, mental and academic well-beings.
The two board incumbents said Thursday that they, too, were "frustrated" with the process to remove zero period and characterized it as an administrative decision made out of their hands at the district office. Last spring, zero period had been placed on a board agenda -- which then-board president Baten Caswell and then-vice president Emberling set with the superintendent -- but was removed after McGee's decision and then folded into a discussion on Gunn's bell schedule the next month.
"I believe we had a process breakdown on this decision," Baten Caswell said. "It wasn't brought to the board. It was made at the administrative level."
"We have too many passionate parents, teachers and students to have decisions that aren't vetted in an open public setting," Emberling added.
Collins, who thought the rationale for eliminating zero period was sound but the process for doing so was "inappropriate," said he was "a little surprised to hear two incumbents with 13 years of board experience between them blame the superintendent and the district for how it was handled.
"The board has a lot of influence on how those processes are handled," he added, "and I think the buck stops at the board's desk."
DiBrienza, too, said she would have supported ending zero period given "clear" research on teenagers and sleep, including a correlation between sleep and mental health, but that any decision that affects the students' day-to-day lives should include student input.
Within the context of zero period, Cabrera reiterated his commitment to "participatory, direct democracy" -- making sure that every decision that the board considers is posted online for all community members, including students, to weigh in on directly.
The candidates also discussed a persistent source of student stress that is reported anecdotally and in surveys year after year in Palo Alto: differences in grading practices and homework load between common courses. A well-documented problem, a recent research report commissioned by the district found 15 different grading practices between the two high schools, Emberling said.
This report, paired with feedback from the new student surveys, is now being used for more targeted professional development and in teacher evaluations, the candidates said. To have a deeper effect on students' experiences in the classroom, the district must also work to give teachers more time to meet with each other to talk about their approaches to grading, curriculum and homework assignments, Emberling suggested.
The board, DiBrienza said, is due for a conversation about the merits of grading on a curve versus criteria-based grading.
Collins said that while the nitty gritty of course alignment falls to teachers and their supervisors, "what the board can do is make it a priority and persistently pursue it."
When asked, none of the candidates said they would support limiting the number of Advanced Placement classes that students can take, but suggested that the board should continue to find ways to encourage conversations between students, parents and teachers around academic stress and wellness.
Thursday's debate was the first student-organized forum of the election season, but not the last. Palo Alto High School students 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.