In preparation for the Palo Alto Weekly's coverage of the campaigns for Palo Alto Unified Board of Education, we solicited questions from our readers that speak to their topmost concerns about the school district.
From their many excellent responses, we crafted a short questionnaire for the candidates to complete. In response, they discussed their primary concerns and experience in education. They also offer their opinions on student achievement, COVID-19 learning loss, diversity and inclusion, the superintendent and innovations.
The candidates' answers on all these topics will be published as separate articles, one per day, through Sept. 26. Here's what they had to say to the following question: How can the district support the diverse academic needs of all students, from those who are academically high achieving to those who are struggling in one or more areas?
There are seven areas the district should address to ensure it supports diverse academic needs (from the district's equity plan). While this is a very high-level summary, each of the items mentioned here is discussed in specific detail in the plan, which is accessible online:
Curriculum: Focus on standards-aligned curriculum, early literacy, and assessment for equity through, e.g. instructional strategies that take into account how students learn (universal design learning), phonics instruction, and standards-based grading.
Opportunity/Access: Increase diverse representation in materials, programs, and staffing; and increase accessibility by expanding adaptive tech for students with learning challenges and creating accessible learning environments.
Professional learning/Accountability: Implement workshops on culturally-responsive teaching, anti-racism, trauma-informed practices, co-teaching, and, as discussed above, UDL; and provide materials (literature, webinars, trainings) for staff to access.
Student-centered supports: Implement a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) that includes identification, referral, intervention, and progress monitoring for each student's learning needs; increase tutoring, credit recovery opportunities, increase access to learning resources (internet, childcare, supplies, transportation, meals), and increase family engagement.
Culture and Climate: Increase integration of social-emotional learning curriculum; create better systems for student/family feedback regarding climate; and expand social-emotional learning.
Family partnerships: Support parent education and access through expanded translation services at board meetings, parent workshops, and family engagement specialists.
District operations/Staffing: Improve communication with families through consistent, scheduled communications that consolidate messaging from multiple sources; broaden recruiting efforts beyond the region; ensure diverse interview panels; prioritize employee housing; and improve exit interviews to identify shortfalls.
Supporting the diverse academic needs of all students is, indeed, part of the PAUSD Promise: "Ensure that all education stakeholders are responsible for every learner having full access to quality education, challenging curriculum, full opportunity to learn, and appropriate, sufficient support for learning so they can achieve at excellent levels in academic and other student outcomes." Where candidates and current school board trustees differ is in how to achieve that promise.
Two of my top goals are equity and differentiated instruction. Educators know that these principles are intertwined; differentiated instruction helps close the achievement gap by engaging all students. Engaged students learn. Differentiated instruction means tailored instruction — including within a single classroom — to meet the diverse needs of students.
Promoting equity requires wisely applying resources toward closing the achievement gap, including for early intervention programs. It's critical to identify and assist struggling students early. It is the district's duty to ensure that all students are reading at or above grade level by the end of third grade.
I will prioritize providing evidence-based reading, writing and math support programs at every school and at every grade. I will ensure that early literacy is achieved for all students, including and especially struggling learners.
We must allocate our resources toward not only the selection of effective, research-based differentiated instruction and professional development but also to the appropriate personnel (e.g., paraeducators, subject matter specialists, and Teachers on Special Assignment) needed to facilitate implementation. We must provide teachers with time to collaborate on essential learning, grading standards, homework loads, assessments and curriculum pacing.
Free tutoring, peer based tutoring and teacher paid tutoring would all be a huge plus to help struggling students (and ultimately a parent's dream) achieve their academic needs. Academically advanced courses are also an important path for those academically advanced students to keep challenged; and those same students could earn community service credits toward tutoring their peers or lower grade students. Fostering a learning community within the school community would be extremely beneficial.
Multiple math class levels are also an answer to sorting between academically advanced students and those who are less academically advanced. As a district, we need to stay in line with teaching advanced courses to high achieving students and thus also encourage those who aren't as high achieving to reach to those stars! Providing students with challenges in their education will help them to reach and to achieve higher standards.
In order to support the diverse academic needs of all students, the district must provide teachers and staff with the resources, training and support that they need to be able to practice differentiated learning within the classroom. It is important for our high achieving students to feel challenged and for our struggling students to get the support they need to succeed. And although it is tempting to focus on these two groups of students, we must not forget our students that are performing at grade level — they need our support and attention, too.
For example, in our secondary schools, there are opportunities for students to push themselves in many of our AP and honors classes. But students have long requested an expansion of those classes in Humanities. We can and we should do this. At the same time, we should implement a program to encourage students who don't often take Honors or AP classes to give it a try, and the district must provide the necessary support system for these students to find success in those classes.