School board hopes calmer year will aid progress

District, superintendent to focus on achievement gap, Stanford growth

When asked about the most significant issues the Palo Alto Unified School District will face in 2019, the Board of Education trustees and Superintendent Don Austin this week pointed to similar concerns, including the longstanding priorities of closing the achievement gap and improving special-education services, as well as the looming proposal by Stanford University to expand.

They all also focused on making progress with the district's bread-and-butter operations, from smarter budgeting to more focused goal setting.

All expressed a hope that the school district will continue to stabilize this year, uninterrupted by the "drama" of high turnover and public controversy that shaped the last few years in Palo Alto Unified.

"It's like hygiene and safety," Vice President Todd Collins said. "If you don't have that, you're not even in a position to work on the other things. We disciplined ourselves to focus on a smaller set of top priorities as opposed to spreading ourselves thin. We're in the position to make slow and steady progress. That wasn't the case before."

Stanford's proposed general-use permit, which the district expects will generate enough new students to have a significant financial impact on the district, was at the top of the list for several board members. In November, the board unanimously approved a resolution asking the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to require Stanford to give the district both land and money to offset the impact of additional students generated by the expansion, which proposes building more than 2 million square feet of academic space by 2035. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors is trying to negotiate a potential development agreement with Stanford by this spring.

The resolution asks that Stanford be contractually required to pay annual payments to the district, with the payment based on the number of students attending the district who live in tax-exempt eligible housing owned by Stanford; to set aside land for a new elementary school; and to make a direct contribution beyond mandated developer fees to mitigate the cost of building a new school.

"We are not yet at a place where I think we can be comfortable that the outcome is going to be positive for students and the district," board member Ken Dauber said. "I would like to see Stanford and the county having some clear and public discussion that gets us to the point where we know that if and when more students are generated at Stanford without property-tax revenue associated with them that there's going to be dollars to support the education of those students and that we're going to be able to provide those students with a neighborhood school that is situated in a way that it's accessible for those students."

Also on the horizon this year is a proposed master plan for a reimagined Cubberley Community Center, the 35-acre Middlefield Road campus of which the school district owns 27 acres and the city of Palo Alto 8 acres. The district is currently engaged in a joint planning process with the city.

This plan will be a "big moment for the district and the community," newly elected board member Shounak Dharap said, "because it's going to lay the path forward for what we want that space to be" as both an educational and community resource.

Melissa Baten Caswell said that whatever is built at Cubberley, some part of it will need to be flexible enough to become a school (and potentially, a home for the district office) if needed down the line.

All of the board members expressed a commitment to focusing on improving outcomes for low-income, minority and special-needs students this year, all areas that have been longstanding priorities but have resisted consistent progress. The district also suddenly lost its equity coordinator at the end of 2018, and a debate over whether a single district-level employee should and can be in charge of this work will ensue this year.

Austin is planning to hold targeted focus groups in early 2019 on equity and also intends to break out special education as its own district priority goal, rather than have it embedded within another goal.

President Jennifer DiBrienza has publicly voiced a commitment to having equity on the board's agenda in some form at every meeting, from big-picture goals to smaller efforts that are having an impact at schools. She plans to push for a shift in focus from the underperforming students themselves to the systems that are contributing to their lack of success.

"The results we're getting, our system is causing. You either fundamentally think that low-income students of color are not as bright or we are doing something that affects the outcome.

"I don't believe the first one, so it's got to be the second one," she said. "It doesn't mean the people in the system are biased, but the system is set up to get the outcome you're getting."

More cautious budgeting is likely ahead this year, DiBrienza and others said. The district has a new chief business official who is bringing fresh eyes to budget practices that largely haven't changed for decades. Baten Caswell said she hopes 2019 will bring more proactive rather than reactive budgeting; she and the other board members want to better prepare the district for a likely economic downturn and to get rising pension costs under control.

DiBrienza and Dharap also said they want to revive a focus on innovation this year by finding ways to systematically support teachers who want to try new or alternative ways of teaching. DiBrienza said Austin's recently implemented strategy of "agile teams" — collaborative groups that form to tackle a problem or question in a short period of time — could serve well as a structure to let teachers test out ideas in a low-stakes way.

Later this month, the board will meet to hear Austin's proposed three-year plan for the district, developed over the course of his first six months in the district. The plan will focus on operations, planning for staff succession, school safety, equity and special education, he said.

The current board will evaluate his plan with the aim of strategically focusing on a few long-term goals — a preference often expressed by the board — rather ambitiously attempting to "swallow the ocean."

Collins sees 2019 as a year of unflashy "ditch-digging work" for the district. He cited a saying in the venture capital world: "Overnight success is years in the making."

"People are very impressed by the result at the end, but the process along the way is distinctly unspectacular. They put one foot in front of the other over and over and over again, and it becomes a habit and a culture. That's the habit and culture we're trying to create in PAUSD," he said.


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29 people like this
Posted by The Public Interest
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 4, 2019 at 11:39 am

Perhaps if PAUSD followed the law it wouldn't have so much drama.

30 people like this
Posted by Making course corrections instead of expecting no icebergs
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 4, 2019 at 12:15 pm

I sometimes wonder if our school district understands the principle of leading by example.

It is neither reasonable nor desirable to treat life (in a public school system) as if having a smooth road with no bumps, no challenges, and no problems to solve is desirable or the only condition of productivity. It’s a destructive message to give our kids. Life is what happens while we’re making other plans.

The turnover was in large part the result of this attitude. When faced with employees that lied or did unlawful things, there was no culture of improvement or correction. There was no culture to try to get to truth and come to terms with those things, the strong inclination was (and seems, still is) to sweep, sweep, sweep under the rug, because we must appear to be perfect with no problems to solve for some idiotic reason. And thus, employees who lie and retaliate do damage unchecked, get to inflict themselves on families and teachers, and then move on to higher paying jobs after getting a nicely padded resume or advanced degrees paid for by the district. The district has Stanford duck syndrome, yet decries it in its students. Kim Diorio learned the hard way from just believing what she was told from above, that she should over and over again just ignore her better judgment about investigating and resolving a problem brought to her by a family. Teachers should instead be empowered to be upstanders in the course of life, rather than just being told to tell their students to.

Our district still utterly lacks any resources or ethos allowing someone else with a similarly difficult experience or problem as that student (whether related to Title IX or not) to get the help they need, in a timely and human way, whatever it takes. It lacks the culture to make small course corrections that help it stay on course and is setting us up for the next “ICEBERG DEAD AHEAD!” moment. We have been through this before McGee, the idea that it’s possible to “start fresh”, if this leader or that leader just leaves and we bring in someone new, and now we can finally do our jobs.

The fact is, a school district is a public service organization charged with dealing with the public, meaning, complexity and solving problems will be the norm and should be welcomed as a part of the job, because welcoming those challenges helps us to get good at dealing with them. Dealing with complexity and challenges should not treated like they're a crisis, it only engenders expensive CYA every time something comes up or a complaint is received (and thus the s%^&t piles up again waiting for the the next fan).

Author Anne Lamott tells a story in her book Bird by Bird, about how she’ll run into former students, sometimes years and years later, and ask how their book is going, and they’ll often tell her about how they just need to get the kid out of middle school, or deal with some crisis and work, and THEN they’ll be able to clear their schedule and work on it. Lamott’s lesson is that these “crises" are part of life, and tries to teach how to accept that and make progress (in that case, toward the writing goal) a part of life, regardless.

Our district really suffers from this attitude. There is an enormous distrust, even a rejection of, holistic solutions. If an answer could be a win-win, or a good compromise, or cut across many areas, or come from working with families trying to solve problems over time, somehow it must be rejected (I think the legal “help" the district go had a big hand in that).

For example, it was absolutely taboo to bring up the achievement gap in the context of whether the district should spend a lot of money on the more-expensive-per-square-foot expansion of two high schools rather than spending the same money on improving the three as smaller schools. Somehow, looking at the issue in all of its complexity, at all the factors, was dismissed as unwarranted opportunism rather than sound problem solving. Thus, every time an opportunity to improve the achievement gap as a part of life, in the classroom, in special ed interactions, in solving problems in a way that attempted to get to truth and reconciliation and respected rather than attempted to crush families with problems — every time such an opportunity was part of some other whole (as is usually the case in life), our district’s tendency is to distrust and reject the added benefit that doing one thing would have to others, including the achievement gap. It’s like the heart patient thinking daily lifestyle changes that head off diabetes couldn’t possibly have anything to do with preventing a massive stroke or heart attack. And thus the heart patient is stuck in hospital crises rather than preventing major problems in many ways in daily life. This story about the district makes it look to me like the hospital patient has just recovered from the latest predictable quadruple bypass and thinks NOW he can take better care of his health by finally focusing on finding a better bypass team or better drugs, while failing to change his attitude or daily habits, and thus is headed for the hospital crisis yet again.

Special ed hasn’t been a problem because we have failed to have a special ed department, or failed to “break [it] out as its own priority goal,” it’s been a problem because parents and children with the complex array of problems that come up in the life of school and don’t fit the mold, they don’t have a place to go to get help solving those problems constructively, including that they don’t have leverage to make the right things happen if the district is flawed or misbehaving unless they have the money to hire lawyers or private advocates. It’s been a problem because the institution has failed to develop a culture of doing what it takes, of improving its culture AS A RESULT OF solving problems (as opposed creating another focus group when everything falls apart). Our district has a culture that you solve problems by making people go away, especially families whose children have those problems. Families with problems are on the receiving end of isolation, disconnection, even gaslighting, gossip, and retaliation. I cannot see that this has changed. And it can’t change as long as the district believes the only way it can do its work is in the best weather on a smooth path.

Part of the trouble here is our district leadership’s ever push for a hierarchical organization in a place in which collaboration is increasingly expected (and expected to be taught). Innovation, in this case meaning doing new things to solve old problems, comes NOT from the top, but from the people who are experiencing the problems, have an incentive to solve them, and are willing to be the first. (Necessity is the mother of invention.). Our district leadership not only does not trust anyone in the kind of circumstance that leads to innovation, they have a culture of actively undermining them and pushing them out. There is a strong culture that the district must come to solutions apart from those, especially parents and students, most motivated to solve them (again, “win-win’s” are not to be trusted). And thus, problems build up, the district ends up in crisis, mostly people go away after being hurt and very few get their problems addressed (in a very narrow way), much less become a part of improving things. Every administrator should be required to read this Web Link
An MIT professor who has studied the conditions that lead to innovation that solves old problems; understanding how our district actively thwarts that could be very helpful to changing, including solving the achievement gap, special ed problems, etc. Seeing the way to improve things as not the result of yet another focus group but rather through the acceptance and empowerment of those who most need to solve those problems. What I see here is just more of what got us into all the “drama” of the past decade and then some.

Our district should learn from the past to create an attitude, an ethos, that we do whatever it takes. Work less, learn more, as they say in the Finish school system. Then maybe we can see our school district as always making progress and always doing its best, for families and staff and the community, in rain or shine, regardless of whether the road ahead can ever have every bump and rock removed.

16 people like this
Posted by Don't do anything extra
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 4, 2019 at 1:14 pm

The problem is the teacher's union --- absolutely resisting any accountability for its members, and thus no impetus to do the right thing. Fyi - there were two students, two separate sexual assault incidents that came out in the media in which the District and school (including McGee, Wade, Diorio, V. Kim and Laurence, and yes, Paulson) didn't do the right thing (two Cozen reports). The school board? Captive to the teacher's union - who helped get them in office.

9 people like this
Posted by Truth Triumphs
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 4, 2019 at 5:12 pm

@Making coarse corrections... Good ideas. I know that the truth is glaringly obvious to those who've been paying attention to the issues. But I have a feeling that some of your information will be redacted (thanks to censorship).

Let's not be discouraged by the decisions previous administrators have made. With 2019, I have good faith in what our Palo Alto community can do -- as long as we remain vocal, press for solutions, our voices will be heard.

23 people like this
Posted by Making course corrections instead of expecting no icebergs
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 4, 2019 at 10:42 pm

@Truth Triumphs,
Unfortunately, I don't think the district has created a safe space for people to even speak up. I think everything, including this article, points to a hope, yet again, that turnover is the same as creating a positive culture in which the behavior of those who left would not again occur. You know the old definition of insanity (doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different outcome).

This feels like deja vu all over again, like when the last three Superintendents left, or the infamous assistant superintendent left, or...

Some of the people who "left" are just in nearby districts a stone's throw (or a malicious phone call) away. Given what a lot of people went through, the turnover is in and of itself not enough to make people feel safe if they feel unsafe because of being retaliated against.

I think this was said when McGee came in: if you get a car from the mob, and you don't clean things up and bring in sunlight and air, anything you find in the trunk later will come back to haunt YOU. Truth and reconciliation would not only be very good for the people who suffered/suffer, it will help the new super avoid this fate of his predecessors, and arm them with the knowledge of how to actually keep things working on the up and up. Unfortunately, the inclination to avoid responsibility or truth seems to be a disease here.

16 people like this
Posted by Making course corrections instead of expecting no icebergs
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 6, 2019 at 10:30 am

"The current board will evaluate his plan with the aim of strategically focusing on a few long-term goals — a preference often expressed by the board — rather ambitiously attempting to "swallow the ocean." "

The invoking of the ocean gets used to avoid dealing with hard problems around here, unfortunately. (That "ocean" is not saltwater, and it hasn't been here since time immemorial -- and it stinks more the longer it is allowed to pile up.)

A more productive approach is that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first steps.

I hope our new Superintendent does not fall for the idea that felled his predecessors, believing that he could somehow keep the, um, "ocean" under the rug and away from the fan. It has never worked.

Open the trunk of this mob car yourself and face what is in there with compassion and a sense of service, be willing to actively seek a trustworthy culture that solves problems in all the little ways, and doesn't sweep anything under the rug (or hide it the trunk). If you do it soon, everyone will know the mess in there was not yours.

The trouble is that the district seems to think that things are now clean and they are starting from a clean slate, as if that's even desirable or possible in a public service organization like a school district, which is what sunk McGee.

30 people like this
Posted by Meanwhile
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 7, 2019 at 7:16 am

@don't: Respectfully requested: It's unclear to which incidents you're referring when you accuse PAEA of helping cover up? Can you be specific? Also, which board members do you think are in PAEA's pocket? They typically only endorse one/two?

My 2 cents:
1. District is so disorganized, they don't know what's happening across the hall, let alone across the city.
2. District is too busy trying to avoid conflict/scandal that it goes into "hush-mode" for the wrong things--caving on the things it should fight and pushing against the things it should fix. I'm looking forward to seeing if the compliance-focus Shanouk mentioned has a positive impact on this situation. Follow Ed Code.

I agree that it's politics, I just don't think it's PAEA that drives it.

2 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 7, 2019 at 8:14 am

re PAEA - the only current trustee endorsed by PAEA is Dharap. They contributed ~$1K to his campaign. None of the others were endorsed by PAEA - Dauber, the incumbent, was pointedly *not* endorsed. They endorsed no one in 2016. PAEA endorsement has about as much influence on the school board race as mine.

@meanwhile, it's "Shounak" (rhymes with "sonic") not "Shanouk" - if you're on a first name basis, at least get the name right. Would love to hear about those "hush mode" issues that you know all about. You are such an insider!

25 people like this
Posted by Meanwhile
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 7, 2019 at 10:28 am

@Parent: Consider me educated on the spelling of the name, thanks.

Regarding the "hush mode"--no insider cache claimed or needed. Just the public reports regarding the high profile handling of the infamous Title Nine case and direct orders to Paly site admin. Vicki Kim to not offer the UCP option after she asked 3 or 4 times if it was prudent to do so. Hope that clarifies as to both my meaning and my tone.

21 people like this
Posted by Making course corrections instead of expecting no icebergs
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 7, 2019 at 11:22 am

" District is too busy trying to avoid conflict/scandal that it goes into "hush-mode" for the wrong things--caving on the things it should fight and pushing against the things it should fix."

You hit the nail on the head. (I don't think PAEA is the problem, either.)

9 people like this
Posted by PAEA could push
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 7, 2019 at 11:41 am

PAEA could push is a registered user.

PAEA might not be "hiding anything" but they definitely could be a force for.change instead.of.staying silent on matters that affect students. Many teachers spoke in favor of Diorio and the administration during the sexual assault atrocity even though she was more concerned about her own reputation than student safety. Teachers were aware of the Out 2016 boy's actions and reputation yet did not push for any action. PAEA too often comes off as only being concerned about salaries and their own workload.
I'm sure many teachers truly care about students, but too often they do not come forward to affect the changes that are needed.

1 person likes this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 7, 2019 at 11:49 am

@meanwhile - if I can provide any other spelling tips, please just ask.

Not offering UCP to the complainant was not a "hush mode" issue. Doing a UCP / Title IX complaint and investigation wouldn't have made any difference on the public profile of the case - the UCP log wasn't even being published then. They didn't know how to properly handle sexual assault and harassment issues, and didn't see the value in figuring out and following the law. In that particular case, they seem not to have believed the complainant - a lousy excuse. But don't confuse flat out incompetence and lack of effort with some nefarious intent - it was much more the former than the latter.

24 people like this
Posted by You don't believe that, do you?
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 7, 2019 at 1:06 pm

You don't believe that, do you? is a registered user.

You don't really believe that the school administrators and the district didn't know what they were supposed to do when someone comes to them with a sexual assault complaint? Give me a break. That's what they want you to believe. They tried to claim they weren't trained and the process is SOOOOOOO confusing. All bunch of crap. They all went through training. Paly staff/admin could easily have made the UCP offer on their own when the district told them it wasn't necessary. Kathy Laurence could have actually punished the students that were bullying the girl instead of giving them a lecture. She also could have informed the other staff of the bullying. She did not. For everything that she failed to do, she was promoted. Adam Paulson was well aware of what needed to be done with the Nov 2015 sexual assault case. He did not offer a UCP. For everything he failed to do, he was also promoted.

Diorio, Wade and McGee were all allowed to resign instead of being fired. Wade is now in a different school district, McGee is helping districts find superintendents and Diorio is riding on Esther Wojcicki's coattails and working for her. No wonder The Campanile continued to protect Diorio.

It's incompetence, lack of effort and nefarious intent.

And, given what's been going on at Paly this school year, not much has changed. Look at the handling of the vaping and fire alarms (blaming students for pulling the alarms instead of telling the truth that most were due to kids vaping) and also the handling of the abusive robotics coach by trying to silence the students until they filed their own UCP and went to the board to air their complaints in public. Only then did anything happen.

As an aside, your spelling advice comes off as smug and arrogant.

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

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