The Palo Alto school district is planning a "complete reboot" of its middle schools after years of failed efforts to systematically improve academic and social experiences for minority and low-income students, who continue to perform at much lower rates than their peers.
Frustrated school board members and top district leadership had harsh words for the state of the district, which reputationally is one of the best in the country but for disadvantaged students, continues to flounder.
They said they were "dismayed" by "sobering" and "horrid" standardized test results that show Latino and socioeconomically disadvantaged students (which includes low-income, foster and homeless youth and those whose parents who didn't graduate from high school) dropping below state academic standards, particularly in mathematics.
"Our gap between advantaged and disadvantaged (students) is the largest and most pronounced I've seen anywhere," said Superintendent Don Austin. "Whether we're talking test scores or any other measurement, I've seen nothing like this anywhere."
Austin, about a year into his job in Palo Alto, has directed district administrators and the three middle school principals to start a comprehensive evaluation of their schools and bring a plan back to the board by December. He's asked them to examine math placements, acceleration opportunities for students, the naming of math courses (lower-level classes, marked by a lower number, can be stigmatized, he said) and homework practices, among other areas.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said she hasn't seen meaningful progress on this issue in her 12 years on the board, despite years of conversations, investments and effort. In Palo Alto Unified, high-achieving, well-resourced students continue to perform at higher rates while less-advantaged students decline academically.
"The achievement gap is a national issue. But we're not mirroring the gap across the country. We have created some other thing," she said. "That's not OK. That's embarrassing with the resources we have and the smarts we have within this community."
Baten Caswell implored Austin and his staff to reach out to other school districts that support minority and low-income students well and to replicate their efforts.
"I think we need to tear this apart and come back fresh. But we don't have to invent it ourselves," she said.
Parent Michelle Higgins also urged the district to identify teachers who have had success with academically at-risk students and place those students in those classrooms.
"Student placement has a huge impact on student success," she said. "For students who don't have the resources to ameliorate, it is critical."
She and Kimberly Eng Lee, co-chair of special-education advocacy group Community Advisory Committee (CAC), also criticized the district for not including in the presentation other groups of students who fall into the achievement gap, including African American, Pacific Islander and students with disabilities.
Vice President Todd Collins said Latino and socioeconomically disadvantaged students are the "center of the bull's-eye" in his mind as the district's largest student subgroup, as it is for many districts across the state, which will make it easier to compare data. He noted that the gaps for these students start much earlier than middle school. At Escondido Elementary School, while student performance on the state's Smarter Balanced test has improved, 83% of socioeconomically disadvantaged third graders are still below grade level in English language arts, and 71% are in math.
There's "a constant pattern of low performance in third grade," he said. "I think this really bears looking into."
Board President Jennifer DiBrienza urged a shift in mindset, from trying to fix struggling students to the root cause: A school district with a "completely inequitable" structure.
"Our school system is designed to get these results," she said. "I strongly agree with us looking at how we are designed, how we are built ... the curricular structures, those day-to-day experiences that kids get that are baked into this system that get us these outcomes."
Lana Conaway, assistant superintendent of equity and student affairs, concurred: "Until we start having tough conversations about how race plays into this and how differences in class play into this we're never going to get to the root of the problem."