Weighing in on topics ranging from the Palo Alto school board's recent decision to terminate its top lawyer to whether the district's homework policy should change, the four candidates for the Palo Alto Unified Board of Education shared their opinions at an at-times heated forum hosted by the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com on Tuesday, Sept. 20.
Ingrid Campos, Nichole Chiu-Wang, Shounak Dharap and Shana Segal are vying for two seats on the five-member school board this November. They answered questions posed by Palo Alto Weekly education reporter Zoe Morgan as well as local high school journalists Anna Feng, Chris Lee and Jerry Xia.
The forum's first questions focused on how the school district can support the academic needs of all students, as well as how to close gaps in achievement and opportunity that currently exist for students based on race, economic background and disability status.
Both Dharap and Chiu-Wang, both attorneys, spoke about the importance of evaluating and supporting students holistically, as well as about the progress that has been made through existing district programs.
Chiu-Wang said that it was important to assess the "entire student," rather than just measuring progress with standardized tests. She also spoke in favor of current district initiatives like the SWIFT Plan, which lays out a framework for addressing educational inequity, as well as the Every Student Reads Initiative, which sets goals for improving reading achievement in third grade, with a particular focus on Latino, Black and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students, as well as those who are low income, disabled or learning English.
As an incumbent — the only one in the race — Dharap spoke about his work on the board to create a plan to help all students achieve success regardless of their background, an apparent reference to the SWIFT Plan. Having early interventions to make sure students are getting the support that they need is important, Dharap said.
Segal, an educator and PAUSD parent, similarly supported early intervention systems but also stressed the importance of differentiated instruction, which refers to techniques that teachers can use to tailor instruction to the varying skill levels of students in the same class.
"If differentiated instruction is done well, we are able to meet the needs of all students," Segal said. "If we can support and challenge all students, then students feel a sense of belonging, a sense of engagement and love going to school."
Chiu-Wang and Campos, both parents with children in the district, also mentioned support for differentiated learning, though Campos said that, while she isn't certain, she thinks differentiated instruction is "going by the wayside" in the district. Campos supported having extra tutoring, including peer tutoring, on campuses. When it came to the achievement gap, Campos objected to the idea of considering race as a factor when offering aid, stating that she believes students' struggles are attributable to circumstances like a lack of help at home or language barriers and that struggling students should be treated as individuals.
That prompted a sharp rebuke from Chiu-Wang, who said that these types of arguments lead to bad outcomes that don't serve students.
"Her suggestion, basically saying we should be colorblind and not acknowledge systemic inequity and racism, is what leads to more systemic inequity and racism," Chiu-Wang said.
Chiu-Wang also pushed back later in the forum on Campos' suggestion that student discipline issues trace back in part to whether parents instill character through "traditional family values."
Curriculum and homework
When it came to curriculum, one area where the candidates diverged was on the issue of the California Math Framework proposal that the state is currently considering. The Math Framework has generated substantial controversy at the state level, including for its suggestion that districts postpone Algebra 1 until ninth grade.
Segal said that while well-intentioned, she believed that the Math Framework fails to meet the needs of PAUSD students and that she favors offering Algebra to eighth graders.
Campos stressed that districts are not required to follow the framework and that she supports offering advanced math classes, including Algebra, early in middle school.
In contrast, Dharap said that he starts with the presumption that when the state develops a framework, a large amount of expert study and work goes into it.
"As a board member with no individual expertise in the area, I'm loath to second guess that without having more information," Dharap said, adding that he would ask district staff to bring a recommendation to the board.
Chiu-Wang supported the district continuing to move forward with its current math program, which was developed in the 2019-2020 school year and is set up so that students typically take Algebra in eighth grade, and then reviewing the results.
Board candidates also weighed in on the district's homework policy, which includes a cap on nightly homework loads and a prohibition on graded assignments and tests on seven-period days. Some students and teachers have complained that the policy is confusing and has led to inconsistencies between teachers.
The candidates were broadly supportive of the intent behind the policies, even as some raised questions about its implementation.
A lot of work went into creating the homework policy, Dharap said, and it is grounded in addressing a culture of stress that affects students' mental health. He said he doesn't believe the policy itself needs changes but that the district can make sure its implementation and enforcement is consistent.
Segal said that she served on a committee tasked with creating homework guidelines when she was a teacher at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, where she worked for 10 years. If elected, Segal said she would seek input from teachers, parents and students about how the homework policy is working. But, she said, her goal would be keeping the guidelines in place to reduce student stress.
Campos supported the current policy and said that from observing her children and their peers, the impact of the guidelines appears to be positive. According to Campos, kids in other districts seem to face more stress than her children do at Gunn High School.
Chiu-Wang, on the other hand, said that while the intent behind the policy was good, she's heard some concerns about its implementation and believes the board should review its impact.
Board oversight and district functioning
On the issue of how the board should monitor the district's operations, as well as the superintendent's performance, candidates diverged in their assessments of how well the district is communicating its stakeholders.
Segal said that she believes there has been a lack of clear communication and support from the district office, leading to low teacher and parent morale. Building back community collaboration would be a priority, Segal said, noting that it had been fractured by the pandemic.
Dharap stressed that he believes day-to-day operations are generally outside of the board's purview, which should focus on updates necessary for oversight and information about the district's work to achieve priority goals. The board should assess the superintendent's success in executing on the board's priorities, Dharap said, adding that current Superintendent Don Austin has succeeded in areas like safely reopening schools as early as possible.
Chiu-Wang similarly said that the board members aren't education experts but instead should focus on governing the district, including overseeing finances, hiring and managing the superintendent, and setting a vision for the district. Current concerns, Chiu-Wang said, are less about the operations of the district and more about the environment in the school community.
Campos voiced strong support for the superintendent, saying that she believes Austin has been successful in implementing various programs and has been responsive when she's contacted him in the past.
"Dr. Austin has done a wonderful job in communicating. He's very accessible; he's very open and available for everybody, Campos said.
But Campos said she believes the board is not listening to parents and teachers, which she said is a gap that she wants to bridge.
Candidates were also asked to weigh in specifically on the board's recent decision to terminate the district's general counsel and subsequent refusal to publicly discuss its reasoning.
Campos was the sole candidate who said she believes the public has a right to know what happened and that she wasn't in agreement with the way the board handled things.
Dharap and Chiu-Wang both cited reasons they said board members can't discuss these types of employment issues. Chiu-Wang said that transparency has to be weighed against the privacy interests of those involved. Dharap said that board members can be held individually liable for divulging confidential information discussed in closed session, which was the final step in the termination process.
Segal said that she understands why the board can't discuss the reasoning behind terminating the general counsel but that she believes board members should have explained their inability to comment to the public.
Student support and inclusion
All four candidates agreed that mental health and student stress are concerning, although they differed somewhat on how the board ought to address the issue. Starting this school year, the district is moving towards hiring its own therapists rather than relying largely on contracts with outside agencies.
Segal said that this move could be great but that she wants to wait and see the data on the process and outcomes. In particular Segal wanted to know whether the resources will be equitably distributed and whether students trust the therapists.
Campos expressed skepticism about students' trust in campus therapists and questioned what might be causing the mental health issues, suggesting it could be related to whether parents are imparting family values to their children.
Dharap responded that the cause appears clear: The pandemic created a stressful environment for students, in which they were isolated and stuck in front of screens. He pointed to hiring in-house therapists as part of an effort to address staffing shortages that have plagued the contracted agencies and said that the district plans to continue expanding its own supports.
Chiu-Wang said that although the district has worked to address mental health, there still isn't enough support, noting that she has heard of times when students weren't able to receive same-day services. She also advocated for addressing issues of school culture rather than blaming it on parents or students' home lives.
Candidates were also asked to address how they would work to better support students with disabilities.
Chiu-Wang said that she wants the district to continue to expand its programs, with the aim of being able to serve more students within Palo Alto Unified who are currently referred to services outside the school district.
In contrast, Dharap said that while four years ago he supported trying to bring all special education students in-house, he now believes that there are times when the district can't offer the individualized education a student needs and that a non-public alternative may be better. When this is deemed necessary, school districts typically pay or reimburse parents for the cost of the program that their children attend.
Segal said that there are problems with the district's current processes for identifying the services that special education students require. Parents and students have told her that getting an Individualized Education Plan — the document that lays out the services a special education student is entitled to — is difficult and that the plans aren't sufficiently tailored to each child.
Campos focused her answer on resource allocation, saying that she wonders whether some of the money currently going to mental health might be able to be reallocated for special education.
Watch the video of the full forum to find out what the candidates had to say about a range of other issues including teacher housing, the Tinsley program, student discipline and declining enrollment.