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To better catch struggling students, district reorganizes equity and student affairs department

Department would focus on mental health, attendance and 'service to others'

Teacher Victoria Chavez speaks to her first grade students as they line up after recess at Herbert Hoover Elementary School in Palo Alto on Oct. 12, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

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."

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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.

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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.

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To better catch struggling students, district reorganizes equity and student affairs department

Department would focus on mental health, attendance and 'service to others'

by Lloyd Lee / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Jun 23, 2021, 9:15 am

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.

Comments

Rebecca Eisenberg
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 23, 2021 at 1:06 pm
Rebecca Eisenberg, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2021 at 1:06 pm

Lana Conaway is an exceptional leader, and a truly high-integrity and courageous advocate for equity, inclusion, and common sense. Installing Dr. Conaway as the head of this expanded department was the smartest thing that the PAUSD School Board has done in years, and I applaud this decision wholeheartedly!


What Will They Do Next
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 23, 2021 at 7:45 pm
What Will They Do Next, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2021 at 7:45 pm

How about "equality" instead. "Equity" in education is progressive speak for making exceptions for those who don't perform well and then taking action to "level" the playing field by dumbing down testing, college admission requirements and numerous other markers that indicate academic achievement and eventually leads these same students to believe they aren't capable of succeeding without special consideration, resulting in a "victimhood" mentality that carries on into adulthood. We see more and more evidence of this in society every day. Equity and diversity training have become new industries unto themselves over the last ten years or more and parents with children in public schools across the country are beginning to confront their local school boards and demand these policies be removed.

Let's do our best to help all who are struggling and create opportunities for them to succeed, but let's not take away from those who work hard to achieve academic success and already are. And that includes the many minority and low-income students who are doing so. That means equal treatment for all.

And let's not attribute the lack of academic success of minorities and low-income students to the false notion that "white privilege," the term invented by wealthy, guilt ridden progressives is responsible for their lagging behind in achievement.


S. Underwood
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jun 23, 2021 at 8:13 pm
S. Underwood, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2021 at 8:13 pm

Make no mistake, the focus on "mental health" means in this context the crazy and cancerous notion that academic excellence is harmful to everyone, not only those who are encouraged to study hard (stress stress stress from those "certain" types of families!) but also bizarrely that it harms other students who now might now feel bad because someone else worked hard to be good at something. Can't have that! I think Don Austin just needs a football analogy before he can realize that they have gutted what was (once) among the nations best public school systems in the interest of ideology. No grades, no levels, no homework, no feedback, no stress. Great results, cause everyone is doing stuff outside, so they'll count it as a win all around.

It used to be that privates were for Menlo Park and Atherton, because their publics weren't as stellar. Now the private trend has hit Palo Alto as much as anywhere. The charters will follow, just give it 4-8 years. Sad.


ProfvilleResident
Registered user
Professorville
on Jul 19, 2021 at 9:59 pm
ProfvilleResident, Professorville
Registered user
on Jul 19, 2021 at 9:59 pm

Too bad the Board's contract extension for Dr. Austin -- and subsequent installation of his buddy as his deputy -- sacrificed transparency. And that Board members escaped accountability entirely. Dr. Conaway should be supe.


Howmanybikesdoesittake?
Registered user
Palo Alto High School
on Aug 17, 2021 at 1:37 am
Howmanybikesdoesittake?, Palo Alto High School
Registered user
on Aug 17, 2021 at 1:37 am

A joke and more smoke and mirrors. Just a shell game, all talk no value - that's why the gap is so extreme, the kids are actually permanently damaged by how they are treated. my kids been traumatized by multiple personnel who ignore their diagnosised needs even in a crisis. They would absentmindly redirecit my child to somebody else, even though my child was in crisis, which they refused to acknowledge and insisted on my child doing something he's marginally capable of on his best days. Both Collins and Austin have received the inside info and instead of help, have shamelessly supported grandiose and unbelievable dishonesty to CYA with no concern for how they contributed to making the campus toxic by supporting administrators that lie to cover-up their actions against special needs children. The experience is like forcing a child to return to the place where he's been abused, ridiculed, refused to help him get his lunch, day in and day out because that is exactly what has happened. There has been no support stopping the verbal and physical bullying or overtly condescending low expectations.
The summer school teacher sent me email that my son was failing. I thought, another teacher avoiding responsibility & accountability. I came in braced to hold my ground and not let another teacher "explain" to me my child is not capable of more and I should get a tutor. She was helpful & I apologized for anticipating the worst. She said I was right about my perception of hostility and disinterest in doing enough to help kids succeed and deal with hur parents. She said she foud the culture toxic and had already quit because she couldn't work in such an empathy lacking school climate that uses marketing pitches and gaslighting instead of actual teaching strategies that work. She said she saw really harmful outcomes all the time for the avidly talked up equity programs, but instead of seeking solutions they hide it, they know they can get away with it and they don't value them


eileen
Registered user
College Terrace
on Aug 17, 2021 at 10:32 am
eileen , College Terrace
Registered user
on Aug 17, 2021 at 10:32 am

I agree with: "Howmanybikesdoesittake?"

My son lost interest in school when he started to go to Jordon Middle School, now Green.

Those years were very difficult because the public school system has no understanding of how kids learn. There is a one-size-fits-all mentality which is very destructive for kids that don't fit the mold. That was my son. He was beyond gifted but didn't perform well so was thrown into special Ed! He took the high school equivalency test at 16 and left. Went to Foothill at 17 and then UC Santa Cruz where he got straight A's. From there he went on to Vietnam to teach English, do Photojournalism, and became the director of a media arts collective in Nepal. My son took the GRE and scored 340 in English and very high in math. He was excepted to the Harvard Ph.D. program in Cultural Anthropology with a full scholarship! Paly was a complete disaster for him but he found a way on his own.


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