School board votes to report weighted GPAs, with one exception

To alleviate stress, freshmen grades will not be weighted

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.


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13 people like this
Posted by Grateful
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 10, 2017 at 10:58 am

It was fantastic to see the elementary math proposal go so smoothly. What a great example of how to do things thoughtfully and well! Congratulations to everyone who worked on it.

It was dispiriting to see the GPA discussion eventually end up where it should have begun, which is giving Paly students the same process that Gunn has used and making it formalized on the transcript. While I appreciate that the superintendent eventually got close to the right answer (I don't agree with refusing weight to freshman honors courses), it's unfortunate that it took so long to do so and cost so much time on everyone's part. I'm grateful that the board listened to the whole community throughout this process.

36 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on May 10, 2017 at 11:44 am

I would like the Board to take up the issue of "grading on a curve". i believe this adds to academic stress in our high schools, and perhaps even earlier.

In a district like ours where there are a lot of strong kids (academically), the notion that only a certain percentage of a given classroom should get an "A" is ridiculous.

I hear 2 things: "our teachers don't do that so this is nothing to worry about", but I also hear "our teachers always grade on a curve, and besides our teacher union demand that teachers be given leeway to grade as they like".

So I say, let's have the Board look into this and develop a formal policy.

7 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 10, 2017 at 2:41 pm

To this former English teacher at Gunn, it's thrilling to hear that:

1) Board member Todd Collins stressed that there's a "complex equation" behind student stress;

2) A Palo Alto parent encouraged "the board to turn its attention to several well-known sources of stress: homework, test and project stacking, grading practices, overloaded schedules."

3) Trustee Ken Dauber expressed urgency on these matters and even asked parents "to hold our feet to the fire."

For two and a half years, as other issues have absorbed school officials' time, a Palo Alto community coalition--now consisting of 560 parents, PAMF doctors, engineers, faith leaders, CEOs, teachers, students, Stanford professors and more--has appeared before the board and superintendent and has published and sent them multiple Open Letters, appealing for simple changes in the way our high-schools are run, so as to reduce student stress, worry, and discouragement.

This community alliance, Save the 2,008--named at its founding for the number of students and teachers at our hardest hit school--isn't a wrecking ball to our beloved high schools but a simple toolkit of six proposed adjustments to: our routinely overcrowded classes (often more than 30 teenagers per room); school-home communication around overloaded schedules and homework loads; unnerving, demoralizing academic fraud; relentless grade-reporting; and teenagers' all-day dependence on social-media, even during class time, to find the emotional support just to survive the daily grind.

For, it isn't any one "tiny" thing, as Mr. Collins notes, that increases our kids' stress, it's the complex equation of this steamrolling daily grind that--week after week, semester after semester, for four long years--wears at our students' resilience, rattles their nerves, depresses them, and even puts the most brittle of our young people at deadly risk.

Parents, let's rise to Mr. Dauber's challenge and ask the board for what we want. Let's stop trying to fix our kids, and instead fix our schools. Let's act. To fight for a saner high-school life for our young people, please join Save the 2,008 with just the keystrokes of your name, at:

Warm wishes,
Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Chairman, Save the 2,008 -- creating hope for Palo Alto's high-schoolers

3 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 10, 2017 at 9:32 pm

So what about the kids graduating in 2018 (or 2019 or 2020) with regard to weighted grades on transcript?

10 people like this
Posted by Ze'ev Wurman
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 11, 2017 at 11:50 am

Board member Tom Collins put it powerfully and correctly:

"The idea that too many students will take an honors course -- it seems wrong as a school board member to even utter the words."

Yet three members of the board, Ken Dauber, Jennifer DiBrienza, and Terry Godfrey chose to do exactly that and voted to send the message that we do have "too many" students taking honors and AP courses. So they chose to actively discourage HS freshmen to take such courses.

And then Mr. Dauber has the gall to argue that he "really encourage[s] parents to come and hold our feet to the fire on that as you have to this topic."

Really "encourages"? Like having hundreds of people overwhelming supporting treating freshmen fairly like students in any other grade, yet him and his two colleagues simply ignoring their expressed wishes? Why should parents waste their time when he clearly shows them he thinks he knows better what is good for their children than they themselves do?

7 people like this
Posted by Gloria Symon
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 11, 2017 at 12:37 pm

I, for one, appreciate and agree with Ken Dauber's encouragement to" hold the board's feet to the fire". It appears he was responding to the parent petition presented at Tuesday's board meeting, calling on the board to pay attention to the many sources of school related stress our students face every day.

For more than two years Save the 2,008 ( has been urging the superintendent and the school board to recognize the pressing need to take action to relieve the everyday stress in our schools.

Pay attention, people. The need is urgent.

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

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