Palo Alto Unified school board members narrowly voted Tuesday night against asking staff to report back to the board on the results of a pilot combined algebra course at Gunn High School that has shown mixed results.
Board members Todd Collins, Ken Dauber and Shounak Dharap supported a motion from Dauber to direct staff that they have "no obligation" to return to the board with a report on the course, while President Jennifer DiBrienza and board member Melissa Baten Caswell opposed it.
The Algebra 1A class was piloted three years ago with the goal of giving low-income, minority and special-education students access to a more rigorous math course that, the district hoped, would boost their academic performance and change their mathematics pathways through high school. A district report on the course's impact — which was compiled nearly a year ago but presented to the board this week — indicates it has not yet achieved its intended goal, with those groups of students still receiving lower grades in algebra than their peers. There are currently 133 students enrolled in the course, according to the district.
Dauber said Tuesday night that continued evaluation of the class should be staff work and that to expect a future report at the board level would be to continue "down an unproductive road." Board involvement at the individual course level, he argued, could discourage teachers from innovating in their classrooms.
Baten Caswell strongly disagreed. The board's 2016 approval of the pilot promised periodic evaluations that did not occur. To not continue those would be a "disservice" to the public, particularly parents of children currently in the Algebra 1A class who have written to her and other board members with concerns, she said.
"It looks like a dismal failure but I don't know that that's in fact true. This is what the community thinks now, that this was a failure," Baten Caswell said.
Kimberly Eng Lee, a Gunn parent and chair of special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee, questioned why the district is in the third year of a two-year pilot "with no clear evidence of its impact or efficacy.
"I am puzzled," she said three separate times during her three-minute public comment to the board. "We have no actionable information and we're releasing Gunn's 2019-20 course catalog next month."
Superintendent Don Austin said that more review of the class is merited and that the district should determine whether it's "the right path" forward after this school year ends.
Baten Caswell warned that the board's vote Tuesday night could have implications beyond just this course.
"I think we just made a decision that will potentially have ramifications on everything the board decides," she said.
In other business Tuesday, the board unanimously voted to express interest in a Santa Clara County-led proposal to build affordable housing in Palo Alto for local teachers and school staff. The board also directed staff to bring back an analysis of housing options and how this particular project would fit into the overall compensation package provided to teachers and staff, information board members said they want to have before making a firm financial commitment to the project, which is being spearheaded by county Supervisor Joe Simitian.