The Weekly asked each Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education member to reflect back on 2017 by answering two questions. Their responses are below and have been edited for length.
What one issue do you feel the district made significant progress on this year and why?
What one issue are you disappointed that more progress wasn't made on and why?
Melissa Baten Caswell
Our district has made significant progress on new curricular programs and a districtwide recognition about the importance of educational equity and achievement supports for our underserved populations. This year saw the first smooth elementary math adoption in more than 15 years, with enthusiastic reviews from teachers, students and parents; our elementary implementation of the Columbia University Teacher's College writing curriculum has been very thorough; and the expansion of the Advanced Authentic Research Program for our high school students has presented a wonderful opportunity for 10th-12th graders to delve into a full year of study based on interest, relevance and passion.
I would like to see PAUSD make more progress on the support and achievement of our underserved populations and our attention to detail in our operational implementations, particularly in the area of supports for student safety and welfare. We need to strengthen our implementation and hold ourselves accountable to metrics and regulations so we can tell if programs and investments are working. Our overall academic metrics look good, but they mask areas where we need to improve. The new California Dashboard illustrates improvements that need to be made -- particularly for our low income, special education and students of color -- as does our agreement with the (U.S. Department of Education) Office of Civil Rights around student safety.
Focus on sexual assault -- It took years of conflict and finally a scandal, but this year we made real progress on changing our culture and practices on dealing with sexual harassment and assault. We aren't done yet, but the issue has the focus of the board, staff, and community, and we are moving in the right direction.
Becoming better managers -- If we don't measure our goals and manage our initiatives based on data, it almost doesn't matter what they are; we won't get results. We have lots of resources and good intentions, but weak management processes. Our leadership team, including the board, needs to improve; 2018 will be an important test.
The past year the board has made progress in transparency and accountability. A good example is the public investigation and discussion of sexual harassment investigations, along with agreeing with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to resolve outstanding complaints and repealing the prior board's criticism of OCR. That contributed to significant staff accountability, which is appropriate, and supports a culture of compliance that ensures the right of all students to a learning environment free of discrimination.
I'm disappointed that the district hasn't made more progress on reducing excessive homework loads and aligning test and project schedules to avoid work pileups for our secondary students. Both of these are significant sources of student stress and anxiety and negatively impact student sleep. These are particular burdens for families who struggle to pay for tutoring and other costs, but all of our students and families will benefit from progress. My top priority this year is to ensure that the district actually makes strides in this area.
We have improved compliance with state and federal law, including Uniform Complaint Procedures, special-education obligations and requirements relating to minutes and public records requests. Through a series of actions -- additions to district leadership, the use of heavyweight legal counsel and persistent and unanimous attention from the board -- we are addressing current compliance issues and laying the groundwork for effective and lasting management for the future.
I continue to want more for our district in the pursuit of educative excellence -- not the hamster-wheel grind toward achieving high scores and packed resumes but the substantial and much needed investment in broader student health and success. In the next year, we must focus our support on the pursuit of pedagogical excellence while building safeguards against the mindless march toward "doing school." This will include course alignment, homework policy and empowering our skilled teachers to build modern, outstanding teaching environments.
At the district level, in my mind, 2017 was the year we confronted our shortcomings in responding to sexual misconduct and resolved to change our culture and practices. I believe the focus and resources including training, new staff, our partnership with the OCR, and the RISE (Responsive Inclusive Safe Environment) superintendent’s task force will move us towards the caring community we want for our students.
I continue to worry that we’ve not made enough progress for our students who receive special education services. We must identify students who need services before they fail, guard against over-identifying historically underrepresented students and partner with families to carefully and consistently serve students.