The Palo Alto school board unanimously approved funding on Tuesday night for new positions in two high-priority areas: school safety and support for struggling minority and low-income students.
Board members enthusiastically backed two district-level positions to oversee and implement security and emergency preparedness plans at all schools as part of a new effort this year to improve safety in the event of an active shooter or natural disaster.
"With the disappointing pace of gun reform in our country it's really important to take positive steps," board member Shounak Dharap said. "I like this as a step in the general plan of increasing safety and being more proactive to keep our students safe."
The district will now hire a safety, security and disaster preparedness manager and a risk management and safety technician. The manager will oversee all of the district's security efforts, including evaluating and updating procedures at campuses and be the point of contact with law enforcement, fire department and other public safety agencies in the case of emergencies. The technician's responsibilities include working with insurance brokers for workers' compensation, processing injury reports, obtaining documentation for claims and managing training for employees. The two positions will add an estimated ongoing $200,000 to the district budget.
The district also intends to convene a school safety advisory group and is developing plans for needed improvements at every school, such as adding cameras.
Board President Jennifer DiBrienza lauded staff's work to put more protections in place for students and staff without compromising the open-campus culture of Palo Alto Unified schools.
"There are schools all over this country that are turning themselves into prisons. It doesn't make it a very conducive learning environment and I think the research shows it doesn't actually make them much safer," she said.
An insurance firm hired to assess safety at all schools last year has produced a report on its work, a summary of which will be presented at the board's Oct. 22 meeting.
The board also voted 5-0 to invest in a new approach to prevent students of color from falling through the cracks in the district. They approved funding for new student and family engagement specialists, or case managers who will work with struggling students one on one in a highly targeted way.
The full-time specialist position has a salary range of about $107,400 to about $126,800 and the part-time position, about $31,200 to $36,000. There will now be five full-time and three part-time specialists, with the full-time ones supporting the middle and high schools.
This new role is the latest evolution of Palo Alto Unified's family engagement program, which was created initially to have liaisons between the district and families of minority or low-income students, particularly ones who live in East Palo Alto who tend to feel disconnected from or are unsure how to navigate school. While the specialists will still support families, they will also provide hyperfocused coaching to students who are at risk of failing or have been identified by their schools as needing support. They will help students set goals, advocate on their behalf, monitor their progress and check in frequently, staff said Tuesday.
"We're not waiting for someone to come say, 'this child may have a problem,'" said Lana Conaway, assistant superintendent of equity and student affairs. "We are actively looking and seeking to identify which students may need our support so we can intervene before they get to a point of failure."
The district has been reviewing data, including grades, attendance, standardized test scores and discipline rates, to identify potential students for the program. Conaway said she anticipates each specialist working with 30 to 35 students.
Board members supported the new direction but several asked that staff commit to a data-driven approach, report back to the board on their progress and be willing to change the program if necessary based on results.
Board member Ken Dauber said that while individualized coaching won't address the systemic issues that prevent students of color from achieving at the same levels as their peers in Palo Alto, the district should enable the specialists to share their on-the-ground view of what these issues are and how to address them.
"When there are systemically disadvantaged students and families, we're patching the floor until we can fix it," Dharap echoed. "In the interim, I think this is fantastic."