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.