Superintendent: School district to use data to solve ongoing issues | News | Palo Alto Online |


Superintendent: School district to use data to solve ongoing issues

On webcast, Austin also expresses continued faith in Stanford over its $140M agreement with district

Palo Alto schools have reopened their doors for the start of the 2019-2020 school year, and Superintendent Don Austin has launched an initiative called the PAUSD Promise, a 12-point document outlining goals for the district for this school year and beyond.

Austin, who was hired as superintendent in July 2018, has designated short-, mid- and long-term goals for each of the 12 points, which range from supporting minority and special education students, to promoting social-emotional learning and improving educational practices in Palo Alto schools. He delved into the details and logistics of the plan Friday on "Behind the Headlines," the Palo Alto Weekly webcast.

"Short and mid are things that we plan to touch this year and have outcomes that are hopefully impacted this year," Austin said. He has also implemented a schedule of deliverables to ensure that progress is being made.

As a newly hired superintendent, Austin read through past school-board initiatives and other documents. He said he found "areas where the plans were good, but they weren't implemented, or they were poorly implemented," adding that he saw opportunities to re-evaluate the district's execution of those efforts.

Going forward, he has scheduled time during board meetings to review the progress of those initiatives, including data that's being collected, which will allow schools to change tactics or shift their goals in a more timely manner.

"If our outcomes aren't positive or don't positively impact the things that we're trying to make a difference in, fine. We're going to report that and then we'll adjust and shift," Austin said. "We're not trying to prove success; we're trying to accurately report our progress and where we're not making progress."

School safety is among the issues that PAUSD Promise aims to tackle. The initiative includes plans to conduct a safety assessment at every school, create a School Safety Advisory Group made up of parents, students and staff, and improve procedures for emergency preparedness.

"We can be smarter about our preparation and some of our monitoring," Austin said. "When it comes to safety now, the best thing you can do is to get the most accurate, quick information and react to it as soon as possible. So, we really want to have a system that not only monitors and allows people to give us information on the front end, whether it's a tip line or knowing that they can go to a caring adult that will act with information, but also monitoring perimeter fencing with cameras and things so that we have an extended view of what's out there."

The district has also discussed hiring a full-time staff member to create new safety plans and drills for the schools.

Austin said he doesn't feel "comfortable" with the current state of safety in schools.

"I think a purely dedicated safety person right now makes sense for our school district," he said.

Also on the webcast, Austin discussed the district's efforts to revise the grading system to give students a more holistic evaluation than letter grades currently provide.

In the professional world, Austin said, "very rarely do you get an opportunity to do one thing once, have it evaluated and then labeled by it forever. ... And if the idea is that we want students to learn the material and to master it and to move forward with some proficiency, why would we say 'and by the way, you get one chance at it'?

"So, this whole idea of allowing students to receive feedback and to see it as more of a process than a judgment makes sense. I think it fits with the culture of Palo Alto," he said.

He also touched on Stanford University's application for a new general-use permit, which will govern development on the campus over the next two decades. An agreement between the district and university was announced in April addressing the potential impact on the schools of Stanford's expanding population. The deal included an estimated $140 million in benefits that Stanford would provide Palo Alto Unified.

The county of Santa Clara, however, is the agency responsible for reviewing the permit application and the conditions for approval.

"I feel great about where we're at right now," Austin said. Coming to an agreement has allowed the district to return to focusing on the students, he said, and "we've resolved it in a way that (has) received almost no criticism from the people that understand the process about the actual financial terms."

Watch the "Behind the Headlines" discussion, now available on YouTube or listen to the podcast version at


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Posted by Sheri
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2019 at 6:50 pm

Sheri is a registered user.

What a concept! Using data to solve (or at least inform) issues. Perhaps the City Council should consider this approach to the Business Registry, with goal of finally designing a Business License tax.

9 people like this
Posted by Restore Trust
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 17, 2019 at 9:09 am

I'm both encouraged by this - especially the statement about mastery-based education and not using grades as an indelible label but rather a way to help students -- but also discouraged.

While I applaud the steps being taken regarding safety, where health and safety are concerned, the students (and staff) are at far more immediate risk from longstanding environmental factors in most of the schools that increase asthma, other illnesses (like colds and flus) not just in those who have asthma, and even risk of cancer and depression. They are all the more at risk from the attitudes of employees who have doggedly pushed their right, for political CYA reasons, to ignore evidence-based measures to improve the environmental health of our schools and keep things healthier.

If the idea is to use data here, maybe Superintendent Austin will restore and improve some of the data collection (i.e., make it sincere and good quality in addition to restoring it), such as collecting and reporting asthma rates for the California Healthy Kids survey, that were overtly stopped by CYA employees in the last administrations to avoid anyone using data to quantify the problems and fix them. Yes, the last administrations put aggressive efforts into ensuring that they had a right to avoid evidence-based environmental health practices in our schools. It's the best-kept shame on those adults (even leaders in the PTA), , whose motto seems to be "ignorance is bliss (consequences not our fault)"

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 17, 2019 at 2:20 pm

The other important segment of the interview with Austin dealt with the Cubberley Plan. He made it clear that the district is on a very different timeline than the city for redeveloping the site. The district is facing a decade or two of projected declines in secondary students. This means that the district has no basis to move forward with a new tax to fund rebuilding Cubberley and they don’t have a way to even know what needs the will have to serve in the future. Since they own over three fourths of the site, the desire of some city council members to move forward aggressively on a joint plan doesn’t seem to have a partner. Austin made it clear that the district understands the city’s desires, but they just aren’t well aligned with the district’s at this time.
He was also quizzed about the city recently telling the district that they don’t plan to renew the least beyond this December for all of the community service providers and others who currently lease Cubberley. This is big news and not something that the city council has had any public input or discussion about. Austin indicated that the council has met in closed session on this. How can a policy decision with such big implications be made without any public input or transparency? And what happens come the first of the year if the city holds its ground?
Apparently there was discussion about this at the recent city/school liaison meeting at on Friday at the school board policy meeting. Can anyone shed more light on this?

1 person likes this
Posted by Stu
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 21, 2019 at 2:23 pm

Austin got rolled by Stanford in the negotiations over the GUP. Austin agreed that Stanford would only have to pay $5,800 per student per year, when the actual cost of educating that student is $19,200. Who makes up the difference? Austin isn’t ready for the big leagues.

6 people like this
Posted by Historian
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 22, 2019 at 1:31 am

At least Austin is being productive. I’m impressed so far, although the bar is really low. The last two superintendents were merely figureheads collecting the six-figure salary while denying there were any issues to justify their complacency.

Stu is misinformed, the GUP isn’t a done deal yet and we’re public schools so they needn’t pay us anything. Iu

3 people like this
Posted by Stu
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 22, 2019 at 2:57 pm

Let’s hope “Historian” isn’t really a historian because he gets his facts wrong.

I never said the PAUSD with Stanford had been approved. Actually, the school board rejected it after a public uproar.

Simitian said that Austin misled him about whether the school deal would be contingent on Stanford getting a development agreement. Austin told Simitian it wouldn’t be, and then the final proposal showed it was.

I don’t think Simitian lied about his conversation with Austin. I think Austin didn’t understand the agreement Stanford was pushing on him. Austin is in way over his head when it comes to negotiating with Stanford.

Historian also doesn’t understand why it’s important that Stanford pay full price for the kids they put into PAUSD. Most of Stanford’s housing is exempt from property taxes. The school board wanted Stanford to make up for that loss, and the deal Austin brought to them covers about 30% of the cost. Who pays the rest of the bill? Us property taxpayers.

Stanford is trying to externalize its costs onto the community. Austin should realize this and push for a harder bargain. But I don’t think he gets it, and he’s too arrogant to ask for help.

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 22, 2019 at 4:23 pm

Stu, how is the district supposed to leverage the correct and well known fact that $6k is less than $19k and get Stanford to pay more? The schools have no leverage, nor does the county. Stanford need do nothing for schools, beyond a small development fee; they agreed to what they did to prevent the county from going crazy on other things, which they did anyway. So how exactly does this "harder bargain" get done?

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