News

Jennifer DiBrienza: education consultant

Former teacher focuses on student well-being, equity, innovation

Jennifer DiBrienza was at a school board discussion this spring about merging two levels of a math course at Gunn High School. One board member lamented that they as a board lacked in-the-classroom experience, which would be helpful in making a fully informed decision. DiBrienza, a former teacher with 25 years of K-12 education experience, said the conversation prompted her run for a seat on the board this November.

DiBrienza began her career in the classroom -- as an elementary-school teacher and eventually administrator in the New York City public school system. After moving to the Bay Area with her husband in the early 2000s, she completed a doctoral degree in education at Stanford University. She then worked as a consultant to school districts across the country, helping them implement new curricula, for example, and evaluating and then implementing other areas of change. She has also consulted with education-technology companies on how best to align their content to the Common Core State Standards.

She also worked as an elementary math specialist with Stanford's YouCubed program, which seeks to make research and resources on math instruction more widely available to teachers and parents; taught math methods courses to students in the Stanford Teacher Education Program; and was a contributing author to a national math curriculum.

She touts her combination of classroom experience and higher-level consulting work as reasons why she is a prime candidate for the school board.

"I bring the lens of knowing how a school board policy will affect kids in classrooms in a way that maybe people who haven't been in the classroom don't really know," she said in her closing statement at the first debate of the election season on Sept. 20.

Perhaps even more significant in a district with a reputation for being slow to change, she said, is her consulting work, which she described as "looking at how systems change and how to effectively help systems change."

As such, she advocates for a more concerted effort around evaluating the district's programs, such as those focused on student mental health and wellness, and then replicating the ones that are effective and cutting those that aren't.

Unsurprisingly, DiBrienza takes a teacher-centric view to many issues facing the Palo Alto school district, which has long had a strong culture of teacher and site autonomy.

When teachers are resistant or unresponsive to a decision -- such as the new contractual requirement that secondary teachers post all course information and homework on online system Schoology -- it is imperative for the district to talk with teachers to find out why, rather than allow a policy to stagnate or be implemented unevenly, she said. It is the school board's role to facilitate better communication and build trust between parents and teachers, no matter the topic, she said in an interview.

DiBrienza doesn't support opening the district's contract negotiations with the teachers union to the public, nor holding public hearings throughout the process. Closed-door bargaining, she argued, can "increase the likelihood of honest, open, really trying to get at the meat of hashing things out without all of it being under public scrutiny."

She's also enthusiastic about multi-year teacher contracts, which she said free both sides up to negotiate important issues beyond compensation.

Yet in her eyes, the "single biggest game changer" for students in Palo Alto is finding ways to help less-effective teachers improve -- and if they don't, then making it easier to get rid of them.

Quality professional development is crucial, she said, and a top priority for her. While suggestions have been made to reallocate professional-development funds to help address the district's current budget deficit, "as an educator, that's one of the closest things to the classroom that you could possibly do," she said. "I think we have to be really careful in that."

DiBrienza views the district's multi-million-dollar budget deficit as structural and requiring a more "aggressive" approach than the board is currently taking.

She said she would not have supported the first round of budget measures approved by the board last week, which draw "too significantly from temporary buckets of money that will not sustain us going forward" rather than instituting immediate operational cuts. While she would prioritize cuts at the district office, she hesitates to eliminate the full-time communications coordinator position, given that the district is still struggling to communicate well internally and externally, she said.

After student well-being and equity, one of DiBrienza's top campaign priorities is "potential," referring to her belief that, while the district has managed to innovate in a piecemeal way, its potential is much greater.

And the current board, she believes, has in some ways "gotten in the way" of innovation. Last year she was involved with a group of Palo Alto parents in the community who advocated strongly for the district to support the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee's initial proposal to open a new, innovative secondary school, pointing to deficiencies in the current system and a desire for a completely different kind of educational experience. To the disappointment of many of these parents, the board ultimately decided against the enrollment committee's recommendation to create another committee that would investigate, among other initiatives, the opening of an alternative middle and high school.

She worries that a board "habit" of soliciting feedback from teachers and community members -- and then going in a different direction -- sometimes breeds frustration and discouragement in the community. This happened last month when the board broke with the recommendations from a large committee of teachers and parents, including DiBrienza, on what new curricula to pilot at the elementary schools this fall. After teachers spent months testing out various curricula in their classrooms and presented their top recommendations, a majority of board members said they were not comfortable implementing one particular curriculum without an independent evaluation. (This curriculum happens to be the one to which DiBrienza contributed many years ago, to a previous edition.)

"One of the values that the district has prioritized is getting community involvement and getting teacher involvement," DiBrienza said. "If you really want that, it doesn't mean a rubber stamp, but it means you take seriously the work that you've asked the community to do."

"We currently have the habit of soliciting opinions in a lot of venues and then, I would say, we have a habit of not listening. You can do either one, but I think you should ... either change your systems if you don't want to listen to those outside parties or temper expectations and say, 'Listen, there are 10 different things that are going to influence this decision, and one of them is what you have to say here.'"

The parent of three children in the district, DiBrienza has also volunteered in the schools in several capacities. She served on Ohlone's PTA executive board for two years as vice president of parent education, as well as two years on the school's site council, including a year as chair. A yearslong member of the district's LGBTQQ+ committee, she was involved in helping the district to draft and ultimately adopt a new gender-identity policy that protects the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming students. The policy, which affirms the rights of students to participate in school activities and access facilities based on their gender identity, sits at the intersection of DiBrienza's top campaign priorities of equity, student well-being and potential, she said.

"We know that students can't learn if they don't feel safe and supported. This policy sets a high standard for policy-making that expresses our values."

Jennifer DiBrienza: fast facts

• Age: 45

• Education: bachelor's in psychology from New York University; master's in education from New York University; doctorate in math education from Stanford Graduate School of Education

• Current occupation: education consultant

• Family members: Husband Jesse; daughters Katie (attends Girls' Middle School) and Briar (attends Ohlone Elementary School); and son Elias (attends Ohlone)

• Has lived in Palo Alto for eight years

• Favorite quote: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

• Favorite class in high school: sociology

• Proudest moment: Looking up at my cheering daughters, ages 3 and 2, in the stands at my Stanford graduation

• Best piece of advice you were ever given: "You will fail in life. Embrace it and learn from it. Carry on."

• Campaign website: jenniferdibrienza.org

In her own words: Where Jennifer DiBrienza stands

1. Do you support opening a new elementary, middle and/or high school?

Right now our priority must be a healthy budget. Enrollment trends indicate that we have enough room for our students now and in the near future; however, issues of equity, access and student health are related to school, campus and class size and warrant further discussion.

2. What changes do you propose for the district's approach to administrative compensation?

"Me too" raises must be a thing of the past. Raises should be based on a range of measurable outcomes as determined by the district. Attracting and retaining the best principals and psychologists is critical, and I believe this can be achieved through quality evaluation and performance-based compensation.

3. What is your vision for the future of Cubberley Community Center?

Cubberley is our last, large parcel of land and is a treasure to many in our community. The district and city must work together to revitalize this multi-generational community center, while still preserving the possibility of using it as a school district asset in the future, if needed.

4. Should public hearings be held on the terms of union contracts during the negotiation process?

No. The district and the union discuss and debate many issues during contract negotiations. In order to have open, candid conversations and brainstorm a wide-range of solutions, parties need to be able to have these discussions without scrutiny from outside parties as they are happening.

5. How can the district better monitor and ensure implementation of its homework policy?

The semester-end high school student surveys and Schoology are good sources of data to help us determine the range of homework given and where adjustments need to be made. Now that we have data with which to work, I look forward to further discussion around flexibility, compliance and accountability.

6. What is the best way to expand access and capacity of the district's choice programs?

If there is high demand for a particular program, access and safety can be improved by spreading the program model at existing school sites. Families stay closer to their neighborhood and more students can be served.

7. What are your top three ideas for improving the district's fiscal health?

1. Salary expenses are knowable, controllable and predictable and represent more than three quarters of the budget. Revenue is less predictable. Enhance predictive methods and lean conservative.

2. Teachers, their leaders and supports are our most valuable resource. Manage every non-teaching expense carefully.

3. Non-teaching spending must be prioritized to reflect our strategic goals.

8. What should the district do to identify and deal with (including firing, if necessary) under-performing teachers?

Teacher evaluations must include many aspects of the important work of teaching -- academic outcomes, communication, expectations, providing timely and specific feedback on assignments. It is vital that high-quality professional development is provided for teachers so all continue to improve. Teacher contracts must include clear, specific expectations and evaluation standards resulting in clearer processes for developing and dismissing.

9. If a member of the public emails a board member about a district matter, should it be made public (as long as it doesn't violate student privacy)? And if it is sent to a board member's private email account?

This issue of competing interests is being clarified by the California Supreme Court. The Public Records Act requires transparency. We must hold ourselves to this, with board and private email. Additionally, we must maintain a policy that encourages communication so the board has an accurate sense of community concerns. Court guidance is needed.

10. Should the district rename Terman and Jordan middle schools?

Yes. We work hard in public schools to demonstrate that ALL children can learn and that no one group is graced with superiority. To maintain that expectation, in a building that has been named for someone who believed very differently, sends an unacceptable message to our students and our community.

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Comments

15 people like this
Posted by Sarit Schube
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 7, 2016 at 4:17 pm

I have known Jennifer for many years and strongly endorse her for the Palo Alto School Board. She is an amazing educator, great listener, progressive thinker, exceptional mother, and highly qualified for the position. Palo Alto is lucky to have her in our community.


15 people like this
Posted by Elizabeth May
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 7, 2016 at 4:33 pm

Jennifer's deep understanding of education issues, challenges and best practices will make her a tremendous asset to the PAUSD School Board. I look forward to having her expertise and practical thinking as part of our Board decision making. As a parent with children in the schools, she is terrific asset to guide our schools for the future.


13 people like this
Posted by Tricia Herrick
a resident of Southgate
on Oct 7, 2016 at 5:34 pm

I am thrilled that Jennifer is stepping up and offering her talents to us through the School Board. She is a passionate advocate for every child's potential with the educational and professional experience to truly guide our District to that end. In my experience she is also an eager listener willing to incorporate ideas wherever possible. I have no doubt that PAUSD will be better off with her on the Board.


5 people like this
Posted by Norma
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 7, 2016 at 5:37 pm

I do not know Ms. DiBrienza and my children did not go to her school/class, but I listened to her interview and am concerned with what seems like a clear conflict of interests - we have the teacher union to advocate for teachers, the school board should represent the children. In many of her answers, she seemed to think these interest are the same. Also, she seemed uncomfortable with transparency (that was evident from answers to more than one question) and seemed to be in favour of costly, experimental adventures. She offered no insight into solving the financial crisis.


16 people like this
Posted by Nana Chancellor
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 7, 2016 at 7:49 pm

Jennifer has my enthusiastic support & endorsement!

- I love that she has a PhD in math education, is aware of cutting edge research about most effective ways of teaching and learning, and knows how to use and interpret data effectively.
- I love that she knows first hand how decisions at the board level affects the teacher, classroom community, and individual students.
- I love that she has extensive experience consulting with school districts in how to work together effectively to implement needed changes.
- I love her attention to equity and access & am confident that she can help this district actually achieve what it has been attempting to achieve for several years without success.
- I love that she currently has children in our schools and is personally invested in improving our district.
- I love that she is thoughtful, caring, a great listener & collaborator, and a creative and innovative thinker.
- I love that she helped manage the Spin Doctors in the 90s! :-)

I am incredibly thankful that Jennifer is running for our school board; how lucky we would be to have her serve our district and children.



6 people like this
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 7, 2016 at 8:18 pm

I don't love that she is not interested in controlling excessive compensation and seems way too cozy with the teachers union. We need a school board that will look out for students and taxpayers not just employees.


14 people like this
Posted by Sue K
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 7, 2016 at 8:33 pm

I strongly support Jennifer's candidacy. Jennifer has said our district can be a “lighthouse” and I believe her expertise and values will help get us there. She's worked to support kids and reframe policies that will improve equity & student well-being. She understands teachers and union issues while not pandering to them. She has years of experience working within school systems to get things done, incorporating divergent views and leveraging data to guide decisions.

I also strongly support her desire to help guide PAUSD to embrace 21st century educational best-practices, which she knows well. This is the kind of thinking we need on the board - specific, data-driven, and action-oriented, with kids' needs front and center.


16 people like this
Posted by Sara Armstrong
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2016 at 9:00 pm

I am also in enthusiastic support of Jennifer, for all the reasons @Nana cited and more.

@Norma - I don't see a conflict between someone who has dedicated their career to educating children and serving on the school board. I've known Jennifer for years, served with her in parent leadership and on a district committee, and without fail she *always* comes from a place of advocating for KIDS: what keeps them safe, what enhances their well being, what best practices can inspire and enrich their learning.

@Taxpayer - Jennifer *is* committed to fiscal responsibility and in having our budget reflect our priorities as a district. I think there is a difference between an approach to salary negotiations and characterizing someone as not being in favor of "controlling excessive compensation".


18 people like this
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 8, 2016 at 6:20 am

Sara, I don't understand what you said. If she isn't willing to say no to excessive raises for teachers, there will be higher class sizes for example. She sounds like more of the same that got us into this mess.


22 people like this
Posted by Long Time Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 8, 2016 at 7:19 am

I attended Dibrienza's kickoff event about a month ago, since it was near where we live and I was curious. In her speech she made a comment about the budget that was so shocking that I wrote it down (on my phone). She said, "Some people say we have serious budget problem; others aren't so sure. But either way, they are going to do what they are going to do and it is going to be fine."

In my mind, this disqualified her as a candidate. The district clearly has a serious budget problem, and she didn't seem to realize she was running for the job of understanding and fixing it. When you are a teacher, the budget is something somebody else takes care of. When you are a board member, you are that somebody else. There's no point of talking about a "lighthouse district" if we can't pay the light bill.


12 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 8, 2016 at 8:25 am

In my opinion, being able to produce a balanced budget without financial tricks is a basic prerequisite for a Board member. DiBrienza has not articulated a position where she details how she would deal with the deficit that the current Board has put the district in. She could be like Board Member Melissa, willing to use financial tricks to defer the hard decisions (like dipping into the reserves, or using 30 year old bond money for operational costs to buy computers which are obsolete in 5 years), or like Board Member Heidi, who doesn't have a clue about the budget, and will go along with whatever the Superintendent & senior administrators recommend.

DiBrienza could still earn my vote if she is willing to articulate a detailed position on priorities and where she would vote for cuts in the budget that shows she has the skills to budget. But time is running out, because I expect my ballot to arrive in the next week or so.

The "me-too" raises for the senior administrators was very unethicial, especially when some of those administrators are nearing retirement age; essentially they were negotiating their own retirement pay. They realize they will be collecting more in pensions, when the retire in 5-8 years, and the district will either need to raise taxes once the financial tricks are all used up, or increase class sizes by reducing teaching staff.


15 people like this
Posted by Megan Swezey Fogarty
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 8, 2016 at 10:31 am

So impressed with Jennifer. She understands the complexities of California public school financing and the role of the Board of Education. She has been in the trenches with schools and districts. She will be a solid and thoughtful member of the Board of Education who positively serves the people of Palo Alto.


17 people like this
Posted by George Jaquette
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 8, 2016 at 10:39 am

Jennifer's experience as an educator would add valuable perspective to the board's discussions and decisions on what really matters -- the education our kids receive in this school district.

Jennifer's experience as a parent with students in schools today would add valuable *current* perspective to the challenges the district faces, with forces pushing for new campuses and innovative approaches at existing campuses.

Palo Alto Unified School District faces budget challenges this year, which the school administration is addressing. The district will continue to face pressure to manage expenses, but the budget is not the only responsibility that the board has. With a couple of board members and candidates running solely on their financial management skills, I would love to elect board members with experience as teachers and educators. Too many nuanced conversations, including the current debate about class sizes and laning for certain subjects, deserve more thoughtful research and discussion at the board level.

The comments about conflict of interest ring hollow, as do any association with the teachers union here. Much of Jennifer's experience is with school districts other than PAUSD, and she could bring fresh insights to Palo Alto.

I believe Jennifer would bring a fresh and relevant perspective to the board, and I am happy to vote for her.

George Jaquette
with kids at Palo Verde and JLS


19 people like this
Posted by resident and parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 8, 2016 at 2:00 pm

Jennifer has been specific about rejecting "me-too" automatic raises for non-teaching staff, something that the current board accepted as part of the last budget and contributes to the current shortfall.

Jennifer has been specific about fixing the budget structurally vs. drawing from reserves - again, something the current board has not done.

Jennifer has been specific about cutting from non-teaching administration, something the superintendent should have been asked to do, rather than the half-step the current board approved.

Accusations of "cozying" should be reserved for those who agreed to the current contracts, something only incumbents have done.

Jennifer's campaign has consistently been about students, student well-being, quality teaching, and innovation. The budget issue can and will be fixed. But if this community wants to discuss *only* a balanced budget, then we will never achieve Jennifer's vision for a lighthouse district, one that sets the highest bar for innovation for students *and* precise budgetary execution.

She can do both.


11 people like this
Posted by Linda Henigin
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 8, 2016 at 9:58 pm

Jennifer would be such an asset to the board. She has the relevant educational knowledge to help the board make better decisions about laning and de-laning, new courses, and the myriad of educational issues that come before the board. She is also actually good at building coalitions and helping people within organizations make necessary changes. She gets out there in the community and actually listens to people, even ones with views that differ from hers. She will work well with others who have more specific financial experience. We need her on the board.


8 people like this
Posted by Longtime Paly parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 9, 2016 at 5:37 am

School board members who think that their role is to make educational decisions are almost always ineffective. See Barbara Klausner for example. That's what all those hundreds of credentialed teachers and principals are for. The board has to be focused on management, budget and accountability. Jennifer sounds like she would be a great teacher trainer. Not so much as a board member.


12 people like this
Posted by Decisions
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 9, 2016 at 6:50 am

Some recent decisions the board has made -
To move Gunn to a block schedule
Which elementary and middle School math curricula to adopt
To move to all day kindergarten
How many teachers we should hire (i.e - class size)

The narrative that the school board doesn't make decisions that impact kids in classrooms is a false one.

I, for one, believe each of these decisions should include the expertise of someone who knows the research and who has actually taught.


3 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 9, 2016 at 7:25 am

@Decisions - of course the board makes decisions that impact students. The question is whether their votes need to rely on their *personal* expertise. Of course not.

As the above poster pointed out, Ms. Klausner, incredibly smart and well-educated, was basically a frustrated teacher on the board, and was ineffective. Ms. Emberling, a career educator as she reminds people, is arguably the least effective board member in recent memory (and supports Ms. Dibrienza I am told).

The Board has lots of dedicated, career educators to advise them - starting with Dr. McGee, the two chief academic officers, and about 1000 other certificated staff members. The Board's job is not to supply ideas and expertise - it is to sift the arguments and priorities and decide.

We have a "teacher in chief" - that's Dr. McGee's job. We need board members to do the governance role, which is done poorly today - oversight, prioritize, budget, accountability.


9 people like this
Posted by Stephanie Martinson
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 9, 2016 at 7:36 am

I heard Jennifer speak at a coffee recently and her extensive understanding of how school systems work and change made me think she is the best person for the job. She has her PhD and talked a lot about using research and data to make the best decisions for our kids. We are not known for always doing that in our district. (see some of the examples @decisions mentions above). I'd love a researcher on the board.


2 people like this
Posted by Up Early
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 9, 2016 at 7:52 am

Stephanie - we have a PhD on the Board already right - Dauber? He seems pretty concerned and effective with data and analysis. Did he endorse Dibrienza?


9 people like this
Posted by M.W.
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 9, 2016 at 11:53 am

I feel fortunate to live in a community in which we have such well-credentialed and dedicated candidates. Thank you for stepping up, Jennifer DiBrienza!


2 people like this
Posted by 852
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2016 at 3:06 pm

[Post removed.]


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

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