Like many parents this spring, Karna Nisewaner felt lost, watching her second-grade son slip back in reading and writing and feeling unsatisfied with how the school district was communicating with families during the school closures.
"I just felt like this is not good enough for me," she told the Weekly. "I also felt like I can't just say, 'I don't like this' or 'This isn't good enough.' I needed to do something more."
So she decided to run for a seat on the school board, driven primarily by concerns about the state of the school district during the pandemic.
Nisewaner believes her personal and professional experiences make her a needed voice on the board during this time. Nisewaner's two children attend Addison Elementary School, where she serves on the site council. A lawyer by profession, she currently works as vice president and deputy general counsel at Cadence Design Systems, an electronic design company in San Jose, where she leads a team focused on intellectual property, litigation, employment and transactions. She also manages a budget larger than the school district's and oversees investigations into workplace complaints, such as sexual harassment and bullying.
Nisewaner started paying closer attention to school issues several years ago when she joined the board of directors of Palo Alto Community Child Care (PACCC), which provides after-school care at Palo Alto Unified elementary schools. She was the chair for a term and led the board through the nonprofit's initial COVID-19 response.
When Nisewaner compares how both her employer and Palo Alto Community Child Care responded to the pandemic against the school district, she thinks Palo Alto Unified comes up short. Her company created a COVID-19 task force in March, put in place processes to be able to eventually reopen offices around the world and clearly communicated those plans. Palo Alto Community Child Care, she said, came up with plans for several different reopening scenarios to be best prepared for what was ahead and was able to reopen summer camps in June.
As a parent, Nisewaner felt that the school district's communication has been inconsistent and that plans have been developed — or at least shared with families — later than she would have expected, which created a feeling among parents of "you just have to accept what we're saying," she said.
"That's where I see the gap. That's where I see the lack of transparency that I think is leading to a real lack of trust in the school district and in the school district decision making," she said in an interview with the Weekly.
She suggested the school district overhaul a weekly message that comes out from the superintendent's office on Fridays, an often lengthy email with many paragraphs of updates from different departments that's hard to parse through, she said. There should be a summary at the top that links out to different sections to prevent parents from missing information they need, Nisewaner said. She also thinks it's time for principals to be allowed to communicate more freely and directly with their families about reopening specifics, rather than have everything come top-down from the district office.
"They have really focused on, 'We need to control; we need to organize,' and to a certain extent in the beginning of a pandemic they needed to do that," Nisewaner said. "But then after a certain amount of time they needed to receive more feedback. There needed to be an iterative loop of, 'This is what's happening; what do you think?'"
She doesn't support, however, hiring a district communications officer but instead proposed creating a board committee to evaluate and recommend changes to district communications.
Nisewaner supports the district's phased plan to resume in-person instruction and plans to send her own children back to school. She said her son, who has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for reading and has struggled with distance learning, "has been asking to be in a classroom with a teacher since the first week" of school. Her fifth-grade daughter has told her that she would be more productive learning at home but "so much more unhappy."
The district can learn from other successful examples of reopening, including Palo Alto Community Child Care, where some staff, like teachers in Palo Alto, were reluctant to return to work in person, Nisewaner said. The week before the nonprofit reopened, staff set up the classrooms and went through the safety protocols together.
"If we put in place proper safety protocols like they've done at the child care facilities ... we can create a structure that is safe. You can point to examples that have worked, where there is no community spread even if there has been exposure because of the use of masks, because of the use of PPE, because of the use of spacing," she said. "Somehow the dialogue between the school district administration and the teachers union just seems so antagonistic. Nobody is listening to one another."
She said trust and engagement were declining in the district before the coronavirus pandemic, particularly among certain groups of parents and students who "feel like their beliefs or their values are being undermined."
"I think a small level of bullying that takes place throughout this school district definitely has a racial tinge to it," she said, noting that the ethnic demographics of Palo Alto have dramatically shifted in the last 40 years. "There are other cultures and other ways of seeing things within our school district and we should embrace that. Don't tell people they're wrong for believing something different; understand why they're saying that."
On reducing the achievement gap, Nisewaner favors supporting all students at the levels they're at.
"If we say, 'We're just going to try to address this one group,' we're not looking at the big picture that we should be bringing everyone higher or everyone to their fullest potential," she said.
She opposes delaning of courses, which she said high school students have told her can lead to more advanced students feeling bored and underperforming teens feeling self-conscious.
If elected, she said she would look to teachers for their expertise on supporting struggling students. As an example, before the pandemic, Addison kindergarten teachers planned to use the first six weeks of school, before the start of the full kindergarten day, to give some students targeted help with numbers and letters after other children went home for the day.
"I think we need to think with our teachers — what they feel will be effective in getting kids to that next level so that they are aligned with the rest of the kids," Nisewaner said.
Nisewaner grew up in Millbrae and has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. As a teenager, she worked as a special education instructional aide and also taught computer programming in Singapore after college. She started her legal career at the Palo Alto branch of intellectual property law firm Finnegan in 2001 and went on to work in legal roles at Intuit and IBM before her current job.
• Age: 46
• Occupation: Attorney - vice president and deputy general counsel at Cadence Design Systems
• Education: BSE, Princeton University; J.D., UCLA School of Law
• Family members: Husband Arne Stokstad; daughter Elsa (fifth grade at Addison); son Liam (second grade at Addison)
• I've lived in Palo Alto for: 13 years
• My favorite high school class: A two-period class called Humanities, which was a combination of English and history that offered a survey of Western civilization from the Bible to modern times.
• My favorite quote: "The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go." — Dr. Seuss
• My proudest moment: When my daughter was born.
• Campaign website: karnanisewaner.com
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