UPDATE: The school board decided to postpone its vote on the weighted GPA proposals to May rather than on April 18 because of a " more pressing priority," the 2017-18 budget, Superintendent Max McGee wrote in a March 31 memo.
School board members were generally supportive Tuesday night of a proposal to report both unweighted and weighted grade point averages on high school transcripts, but with some outstanding questions about the mechanics of the change, including whether freshmen grades should be weighted and how the district should designate honors courses.
Trustees gave Superintendent Max McGee feedback on nine recommendations he issued on the topic last week. All urged him to carefully consider and bring back a plan for how any eventual change in reporting grades would affect current students. Neither high school currently reports weighted averages on official transcripts, though counselors at Gunn High School write it into a section of the Common Application.
Not all trustees — nor parents who spoke at the meeting — were comfortable with McGee's recommendation against weighting honors courses for freshmen, expressing concern about issues of fairness for students who chose to challenge themselves, even in their first year of high school. (A freshman who takes an honors-level course might, for example, be in a class with sophomores or juniors and under McGee's proposal, would get a different grade point average than the upperclassmen.)
McGee argued that as a transition year, ninth grade is a critical time for students' academic and mental wellbeing.
"Filling a freshman's schedule with honors classes in an attempt to maximize weighted GPA is potentially counterproductive to students wellbeing and frankly, to their long-term success," he said.
School board member Todd Collins questioned whether weighting, which should be used to "transparently" report students' academic performance and not drive their course choices, is the right lever to pull to decrease student stress.
"If we want to manage stress, we should manage stress," he said, noting he wasn't against the proposal, but urging McGee to monitor its impact if put into place and reassess if necessary. (McGee has recommended convening a team to evaluate the effect of reporting weighted grades, if adopted, by June 2019.)
The superintendent's freshmen-weighting recommendation was driven by high school teachers and counselors who were "adamantly opposed" to weighting grades for ninth graders, worrying about its detrimental impact on their mental health, McGee said.
Acknowledging that there is not a clear, research-based correlation between weighted grades and stress, some board members argued, however, that student mental health must be a consideration. Trustee Jennifer DiBrienza pointed to recent California Healthy Kids Survey data that found 23 percent of Palo Alto Unified ninth graders had in the last year thought about taking their own life, 10 percent had made an actual plan and 17 percent said they were getting fewer than six hours of sleep per night.
"Does that have anything to do with weighted GPA? Maybe not," she said. But "the evidence is clear we have more work to do in at least ninth grade … in trying to create more balance and trying to create healthier lives."
Vice President Ken Dauber said he wanted to rely on the advice of teachers and administrators who work with students on a daily basis.
"What our teachers and administrators are doing is designing an educational environment that works best for our students taken as a whole," he said. "If we have a narrow analysis about who wins and who loses in terms of their GPA, I think we're driven inexorably towards not paying attention to the overall educational environment that our professionals are trying to design."
DiBrienza and Dauber also urged the community to give the same weight of their attention to critical issues that the district knows impact student mental health, such as making sure the district's homework policy is more fully implemented.
Parents and students who spoke at the meeting were overwhelmingly in support of weighted grades, including for ninth graders. Laila Smith, a Gunn sophomore, said she felt more "secure" taking geometry honors her freshman year knowing it was weighted. Students and parents described the weight as a safety net that decreased rather than increased stress and rewarded students for taking more challenging coursework.
Only one speaker out of more than 30 spoke against weighted grades, urging the board to be leaders against a "fixation on a numbers-driven world."
"Board policies are very clear: the board acts in the best interest of all students — the students who excel … and students who struggle, like I did in high school and college," said Shounak Dharap, who graduated from Gunn in 2008. "Those are the students who will feel pressured to take more AP and honors classes than they can handle… (and) the same students who will feel ashamed or inferior or embarrassed when they can't handle that load."
He urged the board to "look at the spirit" rather than the letter of McGee's recommendations, which the superintendent said he made with personal reservations about exacerbating unhealthy pressure, competition and stress.
Parents also voiced opposition to McGee's recommendation that the district defer to the University of California (UC) system for which classes are designated as honors (and thus, weighted). This would mean several honors classes at both high schools, including geometry, chemistry and others, would lose their weighting. McGee argued that the UC has a "credible" third-party system and would bring uniformity to the two high schools, which currently have different practices for honors classification and for calculating weighted grades.
Parents worried this could disadvantage Palo Alto students competing against other high schoolers with more access to honors courses in the college admissions process. They questioned what would happen if the UC decided to change its system in some way — which it has done before, but infrequently, said Paly Assistant Principal Kathleen Laurence. Parents also urged the district to seek UC approval for courses that are eligible for its honors designation but don't currently have it.
Collins and DiBrienza said they support using the UC's designation, while President Terry Godfrey and board member Melissa Baten Caswell said they would be fine with another independent, credible method. All agreed that there should be more clarity in the process for students and parents, particularly to avoid confusion if and when the district's weighting practices change.
"It would be my hope that in the future, when students and their parents are selecting which courses to take, they don't have to look at the course catalog and conduct some kind of research. They should be able to tell by a quick glance, right away: Is this weighted?" echoed David Tayeri, Paly's student board representative.
McGee will return with more information about a "transition plan" for how a change in reporting weighted grades would impact current students, his freshmen recommendation and honors designations in the district.
The trustees will vote on his recommendations in May.
Other action: school calendar, OCR investigator approved
In other business Tuesday, the school board unanimously approved a revised school calendar for the next two years, pending ratification from the teachers union. Under the new calendar, students and staff will have a full week off for Thanksgiving and start winter break on Friday, Dec. 22, among other changes. The district plans to survey students, parents and staff over the next two years before deciding on a final calendar.
The board also took a next step on its compliance with a recently approved resolution agreement with the federal Office for Civil Rights: directing the superintendent to seek approval from the agency for an independent law firm that will conduct proper Title IX investigations into past allegations of sexual harassment, misconduct and violence at the district's two high schools.
The board unanimously supported a new recommendation McGee made Tuesday night to hire a firm nationally renowned for its work investigating Title IX violations. Attorney Gina Maisto Smith of Philadelphia-based firm Cozen O'Connor was behind several high-profile sexual-misconduct investigations at colleges and universities in recent years, including at Baylor University, the University of Virginia, Amherst College and Occidental College. Smith also served on the training subcommittee of the U.S. Department of Education's Negotiated Rulemaking Committee for the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and has been designated as an approved equity consultant by the Office for Civil Rights.
McGee shifted his recommendation to support Cozen O'Connor over a local law firm that has conducted three investigations for the district, including into the arrest of Paly teacher Ronnie Farrell for inappropriately touching a student on campus last summer.
Given Cozen O'Connor's "gold standard," McGee suggested hiring the firm for the first phase of the investigatory work and then decide whether to continue, particularly given it is the most expensive firm on the table. The board supported this proposal, with the caveat that it must be approved by the Office for Civil Rights.
Cozen O'Connor has offered the district a discounted rate for their services and estimated the first phase of work would cost between $50,000 and $75,000, McGee said.
Board members said they look forward to a firm with experience in not only conducting Title IX investigations, but analyzing institutional responses to violations.
"I think it could be a great benefit for us to have someone with this level of expertise that can look systemically at our district and maybe help us identify why we keep getting in trouble," DiBrienza said.