The Palo Alto school board will review on Tuesday the district's performance on the California School Dashboard, a state data tool that the district has increasingly turned to as an accountability measure for its highest-level goals.
The district's 2019 results show both progress and areas of concern. The dashboard rates districts' performance in different categories using a color-coded system: blue, green, yellow, orange and red, with blue being the highest and red, the lowest. Performance is not a point-in-time snapshot but rather based on how the current year's data compares to the prior year's.
Overall, Palo Alto Unified's performance on all categories except one — chronic absenteeism — is in the blue category. The district saw improvement sufficient to move to a higher color in several areas, including graduation rates for English language learners and socioeconomically disadvantaged students and suspension rates for Hispanic students and students with disabilities.
A targeted focus on improving student performance over the last several years at Barron Park Elementary School has yielded results, with more students moving closer to meeting standards in English language arts and math. Hispanic students, for example, are still 11 points below state standards in English, but improved by 42 points. Socioeconomically disadvantaged students are still the farthest below standard in both English and math but saw improvements as well.
The district cites investments in specialists for academic intervention; interim tests to give teachers detailed feedback on student progress and prepare students for the state's standardized exam; and more intensive professional development as reasons for the progress, according to a district presentation.
"For us, as we sit back and look at it, it's really about collecting incremental changes but across a spectrum of practices and doing it over a couple of years," said Director of Research, Evaluation and Assessment Chris Kolar. "This is an example of how we have effectively responded to a challenging school site as a district. Part of this is bringing in that whole idea (that) everything is not going to be solved in a year. It's accumulated, incremental change."
In contrast, Escondido Elementary School, which didn't become a school that the district focused on until late 2019, saw modest growth and some decline on the dashboard, Kolar notes in a report. The district expects "improvements in target groups at Escondido over the next two years to match those experienced at Barron Park," he wrote.
The district's low performance (in the yellow or orange range) in several areas will require action, including suspension rates for homeless, socioeconomically disadvantaged and African American students. Kolar notes that suspension numbers could actually increase in the short term through as the district puts in place more accurate reporting procedures. Longer term, the district plans to use progressive discipline, restorative justice and alternatives to suspension to reduce discipline rates. The district is also proposing to track the removal of any student from a classroom due to behavioral issues.
Graduation rates and English and math achievement for students with disabilities are other areas of concern for the district. While the district's overall graduation rate is about 95%, students with disabilities graduated at 82% in the 2018-19 school year, down 5.4% from the previous year. (This is still higher than the state's average graduation rate for students with disabilities, 70.7%.) To remedy this, the district proposes that staff meet with students with disabilities "to develop and monitor plans to ensure students are 'on track' to graduate."
About 6% of kindergarten through eighth graders were defined on the dashboard as chronically absent, which means they missed 10% or more of the instructional days they were enrolled, according to the dashboard. (In a typical 180-day school year in Palo Alto Unified, a student with 18 absences would be considered chronically absent.) Absenteeism is higher among certain populations, including Pacific Islander, African American, Hispanic and homeless students.
"Student chronic absenteeism has not received enough district attention or effort to positively impact outcomes," Kolar wrote in his report. "Many factors impact chronic absenteeism, including a culture that family vacations during school days are valued by some at the expense of school attendance. Over the next two years, PAUSD should expect improvements in the area of chronic absenteeism that eliminates half or more of the current identified problem areas."
Chronic absenteeism improved at Barron Park Elementary, however, in part because Principal Eric Goddard has been "very proactive in terms of reaching out and visiting families and understanding that's a significant component of a student's academic progress," Kolar said.
Because the district's overarching three-year plan, the "PAUSD Promise," was developed throughout 2019, it had little to no impact on the district's most recent dashboard results, Kolar wrote. He expects the district to see more "meaningful" improvements over the next two years as it's rolled out.
The district's two high schools continue to struggle to meet California's 95% participation threshold on the state standardized exam, which could result in more serious penalties starting this year. Last year, Palo Alto High School's rate was about 50% in both English and math and Gunn High School's, 74% in English and 69% in math, according to the district. The district expects participation to go up this year by 10% at Paly and 5% at Gunn, according to the staff report.
In other business Tuesday night, the board will discuss mounting a new parcel tax to be placed on a special mail-in ballot in May. The proposed parcel tax would increase by $48 to $868 per year, per parcel, for six years, with senior exemptions and a 2% annual inflation adjustment.
The current parcel tax, which voters approved in 2015, generates over $15 million annually for the district — nearly 7% of Palo Alto Unified's overall budget. The funds support smaller class sizes, professional development, school libraries, updated instructional materials, high school electives and counseling services, among other programs.
The mail-in election would cost $740,000, according to the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters.
Tuesday's board meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the agenda here.