When Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin established the Office of Equity and Student Affairs in 2019, the district was grappling with a persistent issue: Minority and low-income students as a whole continued to lag behind in achievement.
Shortly after the formation of the department, the district found Latino and low-income students were testing below standard by eighth grade in the state's Smarter Balanced exam results, prompting Austin to order an evaluation of the district's middle schools.
"Our gap between advantaged and disadvantaged (students) is the largest and most pronounced I've seen anywhere," Austin said at the time. "Whether we're talking test scores or any other measurement, I've seen nothing like this anywhere."
Now, more than a year of distance learning due to a pandemic has further exposed and exacerbated learning gaps, digital divides and declining student mental health in school districts across the nation, especially amongst minority and low-income students. To overcome those losses, Palo Alto Unified is restructuring its equity and student affairs department in preparation for the 2021-22 school year to target what the district deemed five "key focus areas": mental health, attendance, equity, early literacy and, as the district agenda states, "service to others."
"We are looking forward to really putting some targeted focus on each of those key areas and bringing forward some initiatives, both through our (Expanded Learning Opportunities) planner, LCAP plan (Local Control and Accountability Plan) and our new Equity plan, that we think will really move the needle," said Lana Conaway, the assistant superintendent of equity and student affairs, who will lead the restructured department. "So I think this is a plus for our district."
During a brief discussion of the reorganization at the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, Conaway said the new structure helps focus and streamline academic and student support services by putting them within a single department and assigning roles that entail overseeing mental health services, language services and programs to improve attendance, to name a few areas of responsibility.
"That helps us at least avoid a little bit of some of the duplicative efforts around student support, and it also allows us to align our resources in a better way," she said, adding that it also allows the district to look at student services "through the lens of equity."
According to the organizational chart provided in the board meeting agenda, six district staff members, both new and existing, will help shape the department.
Guillermo Lopez, who was recently hired by the district initially to oversee the office of academic supports, will work under Conaway as director of student services and be responsible for overseeing the English Language Learner program, counseling and expulsions and be the decision maker for Title IX cases, among other roles.
Four other staff members who already have some experience in their new assignments through previous roles within the district were named: Ana Reyes, Genavae Dixon, Miguel Fittoria and Rosemarie Dowell.
Each person will lead a set of student services and programs aimed to address the five areas of concerns in the equity and student affairs department.
Reyes, for example, will act as coordinator of school climate, attendance and discipline. "School climate" includes improving attendance in part by working with homeless and foster youth who typically have attendance issues.
Fittoria will continue his role as coordinator of student and family engagement, managing the Student and Family Engagement Team, which directs families and students, particularly those who are low-income or underrepresented in the district, to proper community resources. He will also start overseeing the district's Advancement Via Individual Determination program, language services, Voluntary Transfer Program and community partnerships.
No action was required on Tuesday regarding the restructuring, but board members were in clear support of the new plan for the department. Board members Jesse Ladomirak and Jennifer DiBrienza agreed that it made "intuitive sense" to give the equity and student affairs department oversight of a broad range of student support services.
"If you think about it, health, wellness, school climate, attendance, discipline, family engagement — all of these contribute or detract from a student's ability to access their education," Ladomirak said at the meeting. "And we also know that they're often profoundly interrelated in kids' lives, which can make addressing them in isolation really difficult and too often ineffective."
With the new restructuring, Conaway will also be reporting directly to the superintendent. At the meeting, Austin said that the areas of concern that the department will address are not ranked by priority, but, if he were forced to rank them, mental health is "number one."
"In the future, you will be hearing lots about mental health, a lot about attendance," Conaway said. "And we've developed some staff responsibilities solely around some of those key areas."
In other business Tuesday, the board unanimously approved a settlement agreement of $172,250, regarding a claim on behalf of a special education student, whose name is being withheld due to standard confidentiality practices, as well as another settlement agreement of an undisclosed amount regarding an employee "discipline/dismissal/release" matter.
Both items were approved during a closed session.
The board also adopted the district's 2021-22 budget, which was first discussed in a meeting on June 8.
In it, the district projects a $277.6 million budget. Though local property taxes are robust, with a $4.6 million increase over the previous fiscal year, the new budget represents a decrease of $17 million due to many one-time payments that were made to the district during the pandemic.
When looking purely at the recurring revenue coming into Palo Alto Unified, board member Todd Collins said previously in an interview that the district remains in "very solid financial conditions."
Some board members on Tuesday, however, brought up concerns about what the financial implications might be if the neighboring Ravenswood City School District is designated as a basic aid school district, which means the district would be funded through local property taxes and receive only limited funding from the state. According to Chief Business Officer Carolyn Chow, "supplemental property taxes" is largely pushing the district into that category.
"There are some nuances to that," Chow said, explaining that Ravenswood might be a case where the district "flips" in and out of the basic aid category.
Austin said he was surprised by the new designation and that it creates a "serious issue to collectively solve." However, he and Chow later agreed they were "optimistic."
Chow said she and Austin had a meeting on Monday that included district leaders of San Mateo County, including Nancy McGee, county superintendent of schools, that led them to believe that the district will come to a resolution that will "alleviate some of the budget concerns for all of the districts involved."
Further details on that Monday meeting were not disclosed during Tuesday's board meeting.