It was Shounak Dharap's concern about the potential downsides of reporting weighted grade point averages on students' transcripts that drew him to 25 Churchill Ave. to speak at a school board meeting last March.
The board was in the midst of a heated community debate on the policy, with one side in favor of reporting, calling for fairness in the college admissions process, and the other warning of the negative consequences for students' mental health.
"The board acts in the best interest of all students — the students who excel because they have the engagement and the drive and the passion for learning and students who struggle, like I did in high school and college, because they just haven't found those yet," Dharap, who graduated from Gunn High School in 2008, told the board. "Those are the students who will feel pressured to take more AP and honors classes than they can handle because their friends are doing it, because their parents want them to do it, because it's the very culture of the school."
As a concerned community member then and a school board candidate now, Dharap has called on the district to not report weighted grades and more broadly — through policy, practice and action — to fulfill its mission of serving all students and stakeholders, not just the majority who make their voices heard the loudest. He's the only candidate who has taken a position against reporting weighted grades.
"We can't on one hand say we want healthy, happy, stress-free kids in our district while on the other hand supporting policies full bore like weighted GPA that mental health professionals have said have the opposite effect," Dharap said at the Weekly's Sept. 20 school-board debate. "When we have these conversations, we can't just talk about mental health in a vacuum. We have to really look at the policies we're putting into place that are leading to this kind of culture."
Dharap, now an attorney, was part of a group of current and former Gunn students who started an informal support network on Facebook to reach out to their peers following the suicides of two Gunn students the year after he graduated. Called "Talk," the group posted phone numbers of current and former students, including Dharap, who were willing to lend an ear to anyone wanting to talk. Dharap remembers that students did call to talk with him at the time.
He has emphasized his own circuitous path after high school — struggling at Santa Barbara City College and then University of California, Santa Cruz before finding his passion later, in law school — as an example of the need to promote alternate paths to success in Palo Alto.
At the University of San Francisco School of Law, he lead mental health and substance abuse initiatives as student body president.
Dharap currently works at The Arns Law Firm in San Francisco, representing injured workers and families in class-action lawsuits. Previously, he worked for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, where he assisted in felony prosecutions and helped to assemble a statewide task force to combat human trafficking; as a law clerk at the United States Attorney's Office, where he worked on narcotics prosecutions; and as a judicial extern for the state's 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
Dharap believes his experience as an attorney will uniquely aid the district as it takes steps to transition into a new era of oversight after years of missteps related to compliance with federal civil-rights law Title IX, special education and fiscal management. He has consistently supported the hiring of a general counsel and proposed, in tandem with that, that the district create an office of the ombuds to help rebuild trust with community members who have felt "at odds" with the district in recent years. (Deputy Superintendent Karen Hendricks has recently taken on a role "equivalent" to an ombudsperson, Superintendent Don Austin said at last week's board meeting.)
"The way to rebuild that trust is to have an ombudsman whose job is to liaise with the community, to be somebody who community members can go to with their issues ... and then being able to engage in independent investigations or inquiries," Dharap said. "It's a wholly independent position accountable to the board and, by extension, to the community."
He believes the district is on a better path to Title IX compliance but still needs to address the thornier issues of education and culture among students and parents. He's supportive of the district's controversial sex-education curriculum, which includes lessons on consent and has, he says, shown promise in increasing students' willingness to report misconduct, including sexual harassment and bullying .
"You can't really be a Title IX champion without really championing comprehensive sex ed," Dharap said at the Weekly's school-board debate.
In a 2017 guest opinion piece in the Palo Alto Weekly, Dharap urged the board to seek perspectives beyond those typically expressed at board meetings. He also submitted a proposal to the district to create an alumni advisory committee and has sought to run a community-minded, accessible campaign, holding open office hours at Happy Donuts and Pizza My Heart. He plans to continue this approach if elected, he said.
Another one of Dharap's campaign priorities is innovation. He has proposed creating a district "incubator" — a standing committee that would hear and vet teachers' ideas for new programs and initiatives. He points to examples such as Palo Alto High School's Social Justice Pathway and Gunn's Business, Entrepreneurship, and Math (BEAM) program as evidence of the results of teacher-led innovation.
"As a district we can do a better job of supporting our teachers to foster and expand these programs districtwide," he said in a campaign video.
Dharap, who has been endorsed by the teachers' union, has suggested that the district needs a system to allow teachers to provide more "swift or actionable feedback" to the district administration and school board.
"In the same way other parents and non-parents are able to give their opinions to the board, the board should be able to listen to those opinions of teachers and weigh them just as heavily, if not more when it comes to certain things where teachers' expertise are relevant," he said.
When it comes to making union negotiations more transparent, his view has evolved during the campaign. In an endorsement interview with the Weekly, he asserted that "to put every proposal and counter-proposal to public comment would be counter-productive to having efficient negotiations."
However, in an email after the interview, he said he would favor a change akin to what the city of Palo Alto is discussing: to sunshine every offer and counteroffer made in negotiations with labor unions.
On the district's high rate of staff turnover in recent years, Dharap said good management, which he now believes is in place, paired with "a viable chain of trust" are key to creating a work environment with less turnover.
Though Dharap has said his legal experience differentiates him from the other candidates, he is "not running to be the district's lawyer."
"I'm running as a community member, a concerned citizen. The professional experience I have," he said, "informs the way I look at new material (and) the way I approach issues."
About Shounak Dharap
• Age: 28
• Occupation: Attorney
• Education: Gunn High School; Santa Barbara City College; bachelor's in English literature from University of California, Santa Cruz; juris doctor from University of San Francisco School of Law
• Family members: Wife Laura Jefferson, dog Odo
• I've lived in Palo Alto for: 8.5 years (non-consecutive)
• My favorite high school class: AP psychology
• My favorite quote: "It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life." — Jean-Luc Picard
• My proudest moment: Taking the oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California when I was sworn in as an attorney.
• Campaign website: votedharap.com
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