Palo Alto school-board hopefuls turn to student-centered issues in forum

High schoolers probe candidates on past, future decisions that affect student life

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


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3 people like this
Posted by Ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2016 at 11:42 am

If we're going to give students more choice, especially on whether they load up on AP classes, we should also have transparency on how students do in those classes. Let students know the grade distributions, drop-out rates, tutoring rates, etc. Also, it would be extremely informative to have the AP class grade paired with the AP exam grade.

I have heard extreme comments about APs. Examples:

1. One teacher stated [to a parent] that her student shouldn't be concerned about getting a C or D in the AP as she would still get a 5 on the AP exam. This implies the teacher is making the class far more difficult than necessary, which can undermine student confidence and denigrate the environment.

2. One student told our son that a blended Living Skills class was far more difficult than his APs. What is going on there? Do teachers have a bias towards AP students--they're working harder, smarter, more valued, etc.?

3. A parent told me that her son's AP teacher [sorry, don't recall the subject] told him "Don't bother taking the AP exam." because he wasn't doing well in the class. The boy scored a 5 on the AP exam.

2 people like this
Posted by fact checker
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2016 at 1:46 pm

Todd Collins is confused.

On "none of the candidates support limiting APs":

At the League of Women Voter's Forum a few weeks ago the candidates were asked this same question and Collins was clear - "there might be a role for sensible limits." Cabrera said a certain number limit would make sense too. Web Link

Ditto Todd Collins' comment about zero period. Collins blames the incumbents but he seems to have his facts wrong.

At a board meeting Ken Dauber pressed to get rid of zero period saying that the superintendent, alone, should make this decision. But Gunn students felt strongly about having a voice, so a majority of the board trustees instructed the Superintendent to put "zero period" on their April 21 agenda so they could hear the students out before the decision was made.

Despite that, for some reason Dr. McGee decided that he liked Ken Dauber's approach better and before the meeting on the 21st he announced that he had nixed zero period, later explaining that he just didn't want to "drag this conversation out at the Board and Committee level." Web Link

Gunn Oracle: "The decision was not meant to be made this way; it was going to be discussed and voted on at the April 21 board meeting. Many board members were in favor of student choice and wanted to keep the option of zero period, perhaps with some changes. However, it never came to a vote, because McGee was forced to make an executive decision.” Web Link

McGee's boss, the school board, found out about it when everyone else did - AFTER the fact.

6 people like this
Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2016 at 2:05 pm

Lots of misinformation. The board did actually discuss zero period at the first board meeting in May, as part of the item on block scheduling. There was a long discussion with comments from parents, doctors, and students. The board members with the exception of Townsend decided not to overturn McGee's decision. It sounds like some of them have forgotten that, or would rather attack McGee than take responsibility.

Like this comment
Posted by fact checker
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2016 at 3:22 pm

Not misinformation. I report what happened up to the time Dr. McGee acted and you report after it.

It sounded like at least 2 of the other 4 board members were leaning toward getting rid of zero period so the vote to get rid of it was in the bag. But, out of courtesy to the students, the 4 wanted to hear them out just to be sure or to tweak the proposal based on what they said before they voted.

What was Dr. McGee's rush anyway? A fear of a negative headline or op-ed on the eve of the parcel tax vote?

Anyway, that does not change that the board was in this pickle BECAUSE the superintendent ignored 4 board members' clear direction.

As the Gunn Oracle reported, students were quite disappointed and upset at Dr. McGee. Rightfully so.

4 people like this
Posted by Jet pilot
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 7, 2016 at 3:29 pm

Sharply limiting the number of AP classes students are permitted to take each year is an important issue for the school board to address this year. Since misguided pressure from parents on their children is a big part of the problem, the current process of letting the parents "sign off" on more than 2 AP classes/year is ineffective. This will not be popular with many parents nor their "over-achieving" children, but needs to be done.

2 people like this
Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2016 at 3:53 pm

The misinformation is also about what happened before McGee acted. The Board didn't direct McGee to put it on the April 21 agenda. McGee doesn't set the agenda anyways. That's Caswell and Emberling. McGee made a decision consistent with board policy and the Board decided not to change policy.

1 person likes this
Posted by fact checker
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2016 at 5:08 pm

Gunn parent,

The Weekly also reported that the board leaders - Caswell and Emberling - put zero period on the April 21st agenda but that later Dr. McGee said, after he sent out the nix to zero period notice, that it is not "'up for debate or discussion.'"

Instead of debate or discussion, on April 21 he heard Gunn teachers and students "deliver a fierce condemnation" of his decision. Dr. McGee "repeatedly apologized"" adding that he will "'do better [to] include students in the decision-making'" in the future.

Superintendent McGee took full responsibility for this.

That Todd Collins thinks that the incumbents are somehow to blame does not make it so.

Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Oct 7, 2016 at 5:18 pm

The board could have put the item on the agenda any time, before or after what Dr. McGee did. They chose not to - so be it - but it is silly to suggest that they didn't make a choice here. They could have said "We made a mistake and we wish we had handled it otherwise" but they didn't - they seemed to blame Dr. McGee.

It is disingenuous for Board members to blame somebody else - it was completely under their control whether they discussed and voted on the matter or not, with or without input from students and other stakeholders. If somehow they feel they can't stand up to Dr. McGee, well, that's problematic for a board member to admit.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Oct 7, 2016 at 5:22 pm

It looks like Townsend agreed it was the board's choice to discuss. They made the choice not to. From the article linked to above:

Board member Camille Townsend said she was concerned about the lack of a transparent, open board discussion on zero period. The board discussed the issue at the end of Tuesday night during board operations, with Townsend requesting that zero period come back to the board agenda as a stand-alone informational item.

"It's time to come back and make good on our promise that we're going to have a conversation about this," Townsend said.

6 people like this
Posted by Board watcher
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 7, 2016 at 5:42 pm

Zero period was discussed at great length on May 12, 2015 during the item on the block schedule at Gunn. That was the response to Townsend's request to have it on the agenda. When it was discussed, it was clear that the Board didn't want to overturn McGee's decision because they agreed that it was a safety issue.

The idea that McGee could set the board's agenda without permission from Caswell (who was the board President) or Emberling (VP) is inconsistent with board practice.

From a parent and voter perspective, Collins is smart to support the decision, since criticism of it is confined to some students and one board member who is leaving the board.

5 people like this
Posted by a high school teacher
a resident of another community
on Oct 9, 2016 at 8:11 am

Teenagers' needs are not all that different from adults, and what adults seek in a workplace. Students want more flexibility on how they work.

1) Getting rid of zero is right direction, but 1st period 8:15/8:25 isn't all that better in practice. They should have also considered moving back the instructional time up to 3pm (as is traditional in many schools), rather than ending around 2:30pm the way it does now. Doing that allows for some days to start nearer to 9am.

Classes end before 3pm on some days right now because of staff PD. Regular staff PD is critical, but that can start after 3pm.

2) It was a good move to align graduation requirements with UC/CSU requirements, but why are the total number of required graduation credits still so much higher than the college requirements? Compared to European high schools, we still have our kids racing through too many things at once. Reduce the requirements so kids have more free time. That's free time to pursue real world interest like work/internships or personal non-school learning, or just to relax. Related, more can be done to train teachers on useful/not useful homework.

3) Resist the "arms race" to add APs. A high schooler should never be taking a "college load" larger than most college students take at one time! PAUSD has talented teachers, offer more in-house design courses that can both be both creative and still UC approved.. Local private schools have been making the move away from APs towards teacher offered unique courses for sometime now.

3 people like this
Posted by Former Student
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 9, 2016 at 8:28 pm

A strict numerical limitation on AP classes (say 2/year or 3/year) is not a particularly productive proposal; many course sequences naturally culminate in AP courses by senior year--a student in the standard math lane (geometry --> algebra 2 --> pre calculus/intro to calculus --> AP Calculus AB), the advanced English sequence (advanced english 9, 10, honors 11, AP Literature), and a normal language sequence (Level 1, 2, 3, AP) will take at minimum 3 APs by senior year simply by continuing their progressions. Many students will be out of non-AP science courses by this point in time, so that's another AP course, etc.

The designation of "AP" also does not inherently make one class more difficult than another. Through my time at Gunn, several of my most difficult and work-intensive courses were non-AP.

Zero period is a dead issue at this point. Plenty of studies point to earlier start times having a negative impact on the majority of kids. What students (and plenty of parents) took issue with the lack of transparency behind the decision, the inability of board members and McGee to adequately provide an answer as to why zero period PE was still in place, and various uninformed statements regarding school policies made by school board members when holding open forums at Gunn.

5 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 10, 2016 at 12:48 pm

a high school teacher.

Replace the life skills requirement at least and put a few great speakers in flex or count their new program for freshman wellness as life skills to cover exposure to topics needed. The class prevents so many from taking electives they love for 4 full years like choir, art, computers etc. Always a shame to see a choir kid have to sit and listen to a speaker tell him how to relax when he should get to be in choir his senior year.

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

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