A 2015 graduate of Palo Alto High School focused on special education and mental health reform is running for a seat on the Board of Education in November.
Alex Scharf, currently a part-time Foothill College student, submitted the necessary paperwork to begin his campaign on Tuesday.
Scharf attended the Palo Alto school district from elementary through high school. Personal experience with the district's special-education and mental health services, which he said are lacking, drove him to launch a campaign for the school board.
"What I'm trying to bring is a perspective of someone who went through the school system and knows how the school system actually works as opposed to how it's supposed to work from the school board and how the rules are set," Scharf said in an interview Thursday.
Scharf attended Juana Briones and Ohlone elementary schools; the now-renamed Frank Greene and Ellen Fletcher middle schools; and Paly. He left the district feeling unsatisfied with how special-education students are treated, particularly by a lack of accountability when it comes to adhering to students' individualized education plans, or IEPs. He said he often did not receive the accommodations spelled out in his plans and wants there to be more accountability for the teachers and administrators responsible for implementing them.
He also criticized the district's case manager structure, which he said isn't conducive to students developing relationships and advocates. When he was in middle school, case managers were assigned by grade, and in high school, he had four different case managers due to high turnover.
"I never really got time to know them and have them advocate for me properly," he said.
Scharf's mother, Cindy Goral, served as the special-education representative for Paly's Parent Teacher Student Association from 2011 to 2015, according to her LinkedIn. In that role, she helped other parents of students with special needs navigate the school system.
Scharf's other main campaign priority is student mental health. He's concerned that seeking help is still stigmatized and that the district should be doing more to support struggling students. Particularly in middle school, he said he "didn't want to get seen going to the counselor.
"That's very disruptive to people who need help and don't look for it because of the stigma," he said.
Scharf suggested that the district should provide scholarships or some form of financial compensation for students who are seeing therapists outside of school to increase accessibility.
In 2015, Scharf helped plan a youth forum on mental health called "In This Together: A Place to Share, A Place to Support, A Place to Heal." The goal was to raise awareness about mental health among both youth and adults, with discussion circles and workshops.
Acknowledging that he is an unusual candidate given his age, Scharf said he doesn't "necessarily need to bring a lot of life experience" to a board already full of it.
Scharf joins four other candidates running for two open seats: incumbent Ken Dauber, parent Kathy Jordan, lawyer Shounak Dharap and special-education advocate Stacey Ashlund. Board member Terry Godfrey, whose term expires in November along with Dauber's, is not running for re-election.