The school board took a series of consequential actions on Tuesday night with impact throughout the district, including approving a new mathematics curriculum for the elementary schools; giving staff the green light to enter into a voluntary resolution agreement on a federal civil-rights complaint; and backing a new, long-term practice for reporting high schoolers' weighted grade point averages (GPA).
Their eventual vote on 10 recommendations from Superintendent Max McGee on weighted grades was unanimous, but not without some disagreement over the specifics. The board voted 5-0 to report both unweighted and weighted cumulative GPAs for all sophomores, juniors and seniors who earn a C or better in honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses, starting with the class of 2021. Graduating students in the classes of 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 will also receive an extra point for all APs and classes designated as honors in the schools' current course catalogs.
A sticking point among board and community members is that freshmen are not included in this recommendation.
Board President Terry Godfrey, Vice President Ken Dauber and board member Jennifer DiBrienza agreed with McGee's rationale, which was driven by Paly and Gunn counselors, teachers and administrators who believe that freshman year is a delicate time of transition, and to start giving ninth graders weight for advanced courses could increase stress and breed academic competition.
"For me, the question is: Are we solely a college prep district or are we a district that has other priorities as well?" DiBrienza asked. "There are lots of different things to do and things to focus on at different times in your school trajectory, and our professionals feel very strongly that freshman year is a time to focus on other stuff."
Board members Melissa Baten Caswell and Todd Collins disagreed, however. The concern that weighting grades for freshmen will create an unhealthy rush toward advanced courses, Collins argued, is at odds with the district's mission.
"The idea that too many students will take an honors course -- it seems wrong as a school board member to even utter the words," he said.
GPA reporting is a "tiny" part of the complex equation of why students and parents seek out particular classes and what causes student stress, he added. "It's like we're looking through the wrong end of the telescope … when there's a whole range of reasons that drive students and parents to certain courses and what creates stress about them."
Baten Caswell agreed, arguing the debate over weighted grades has "made taking risks punitive."
Several parents echoed this sentiment Tuesday, urging the board to be fair and reward all students for taking on academic challenges, with the added safety net of an extra point for weighted grades. They argued there is no evidence that indicates a connection between weighted grades and academic stress.
Other parents and students, however, said they support a freshman year without the added pressure of weighted grades.
Collins eventually made a failed motion, supported only by Baten Caswell, to strike the freshman-year recommendation.
All board members agreed, however, that after nine months of heated debate, multiple meetings and hundreds of emails on the weighted GPA topic, they are ready to move on to other pressing issues in the district. A parent delivered a petition on Tuesday night that urges the board to turn its attention to several well-known sources of stress: homework, test and project stacking, grading practices, overloaded schedules.
"We should get onto those things," Dauber said. "I really encourage parents to come and hold our feet to the fire on that as you have to this topic."
Collins countered that action and said accountability falls squarely on the board's shoulders.
"While I would encourage parents to come hold feet to the fire, we have no one to blame but ourselves," he said. "The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves."
Other related recommendations the board approved include creating a team (including teachers, students and parents) to evaluate the impact of reporting weighted grades over the next several years, standardizing the process by which courses receive honors designation and identifying ways to help more low-income and minority students enroll and succeed in AP and honors classes. (Read McGee's full recommendations here, with some minor amendments approved by the board.)
In other business Tuesday, the board unanimously agreed on the resolution agreement as the next step in addressing a complaint filed in January by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, alleging parts of the district's website are inaccessible to people with disabilities. The resolution agreement commits the district to a series of correctional steps to bring the website into compliance, including auditing its website, making any necessary improvements and continued reporting back to the Office for Civil Rights.
Hailing the elementary math adoption process as transparent and thorough, trustees also voted 5-0 to roll out Bridges in Mathematics as the core math textbook at the elementary schools this fall, with Eureka/Engage New York as a supplementary material.
The board also unanimously approved the hiring of a new assistant superintendent for human resources to replace Scott Bowers, who is retiring at the end of the school year. Karen Hendricks, who is currently serving as interim superintendent in the Carmel Unified School District, will start in Palo Alto Unified on July 1. Prior to her interim role, she was Carmel Unified's chief human resources officer for two years, according to her LinkedIn page, and worked as assistant superintendent for four years in Santa Cruz City Schools.
Hendrick's base salary will be $205,988, plus an additional "career increment" of about $3,200, according to the district.
The board also unanimously approved the elimination of several classified positions as part of ongoing budget cuts, but decided to wait to take action on an outreach specialist position at Jordan Middle School. Several parents and students spoke during the open forum section of the meeting about the crucial role that person has filled in supporting students of color at Jordan and serving as a much-needed bridge between the school and East Palo Alto families. The board asked staff to come back with more information about how that role, if cut, could be otherwise filled at the schools.