Jennifer DiBrienza's four years on the school board have been marked by enormous turmoil: the departure of former Superintendent Max McGee and hiring of Don Austin, a report of campus sexual assault at Palo Alto High School that roiled the community in the wake of a yearslong federal Title IX investigation, and senior leadership's failure in 2017 to notify the unions that it planned to cancel a year of raises, costing taxpayers $6 million.
She believes she and her colleagues have gotten Palo Alto Unified to a better place, with a less-siloed district office and a culture of legal compliance and transparency. Before the coronavirus, she felt like the district was finally on the cusp of making real progress on closing the achievement gap, a top priority of hers. But the end of her first term will now largely be defined by the board's handling of a single, controversial issue: reopening schools.
DiBrienza voted to start reopening schools this month and said that her priority since schools closed "has been for us to get back in person when it was safe to do so," particularly for students without reliable internet or consistent support at home or for whom the school closures have created social isolation. She plans to send her own elementary-aged son to school in the hybrid model.
DiBrienza is troubled by the disconnect between teachers who don't feel safe going back to work in person and the district's work to provide the planning, personal protective equipment and assurances to get more teacher buy-in. She's now advocating for hiring a full-time communications officer to help district leadership improve communication with teachers as well as parents and the broader community.
DiBrienza believes she's uniquely qualified for the school board as a current member, district parent and former educator. She began her career as a kindergarten teacher in the New York City public school system and went on to teach early elementary grades before she became a staff developer for kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms.
In 2001, she moved to San Francisco with her now husband and began a doctorate program in education at Stanford University. Her adviser was Jo Boaler, a well-known math professor and researcher. DiBrienza worked as an elementary math specialist with Boaler's YouCubed at Stanford, which seeks to make research and resources on math instruction more widely available to teachers and parents. Since she completed her dissertation in 2008, DiBrienza has worked as an education consultant for public and private schools as well as education-technology companies.
Over the last four years, she's prioritized equity and mental health. She's championed a different approach to closing the achievement gap — one that puts the failure to do so squarely at the feet of the school district.
"If year after year your system gets the same outcome, it seems the system is set up to get that outcome," she told the Weekly. "We need to change the system and not focus on what do we have to do to change the kids. It's a failure of our district to do its fundamental job, which is to serve all children."
DiBrienza wants the district to bring in outside experts to complete an equity audit that she hopes, despite the district's years of surveys, analysis and investment in this area, would shine a new light on specific, structural deficiencies at all levels of the district, such as a middle school policy that students with outstanding library fines can't attend school dances or field trips.
"You can imagine who has those outstanding fines and who then gets further left out of feeling a part of the community. There are things like that all over the district that exist and that a district that is largely led by white administrators maybe don't see," she said.
Though overshadowed by the pandemic, the district is continuing work in this area, she said. She's pointed to the creation of an assistant superintendent for equity position, the investment in full-time elementary school reading specialists, anti-bias professional development that took place this summer and groups of teachers who are reading together the book "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism." She also pushed for the inclusion of a standing update on equity on every meeting agenda, which stopped during the school closures but which she recently asked to be restored.
DiBrienza served as board president in 2019, notably when the district grappled with the potential impact of Stanford University's ambitious expansion plan, the general use permit (GUP).
DiBrienza has three children: a Palo Alto High School sophomore, Ohlone Elementary School fourth-grader and an eighth-grader attending private school.
Before she was elected to the board, she served on Ohlone's PTA executive board for two years as vice president of parent education, as well as two years on the school's site council, including a year as chair. She is also a member of the district's LGBTQQ committee and sits on the math advisory board for Dreamcatchers, a tutoring nonprofit for underserved Palo Alto middle school students.
She's active politically, serving as an Assembly District 24 delegate to the California Democratic Party and a member of both the Woman's Club of Palo Alto and the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto.
• Age: 49
• Occupation: educator
• Education: B.A. in psychology, NYU; M.A. in education, NYU; PhD in education, Stanford University
• Family members: husband, Jesse; three children (15, 13 and 9 years old), two dogs and a cat
• I've lived in Palo Alto for: 11 years
• My favorite high school class: Sociology
• My favorite quote: "With great power comes great responsibility."
• My proudest moment: Rather than just a moment, I think my proudest accomplishment is modeling activism in various ways for my children. My girls saw me working hard to finish my dissertation when they were quite young and have seen me use that expertise to help many students and my family regularly talks about important issues and plans for advocacy and action to support our beliefs.
• Campaign website: jenniferdibrienza.org
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