Check out Palo Alto Online's Board of Education Voter Guide for comparisons of all four candidates' views on mental health, communication, academic access and diversity.
In seeking a second term on the Palo Alto school board, Shounak Dharap hopes to follow through with many of the initiatives that he supported when running four years ago but which were waylaid by the pandemic.
When it comes to the areas of both equity and mental health, Dharap has said that the board set up a good path during his first term but that implementation was difficult during school closures.
"COVID really threw a wrench in it, in terms of progress," Dharap said. "We slowed on a lot of different fronts, where I would have expected to see more progress."
An attorney and graduate of Gunn High School, Dharap was first elected to the board in 2018. He works as a plaintiffs' class action attorney and serves as a mediator. He has a 2-year-old daughter, with a second child on the way.
During his first campaign for the school board, a focus for Dharap was on mental health and providing support for students who may be struggling. He wants to help oversee the implementation of the changes that the board has set in motion.
Last school year, the board approved a plan to shift to an in-house mental health model, in which the district directly hires therapists and other wellness staff. Historically, the district has relied largely on contracts with outside agencies, but these groups struggled with staffing shortages when schools reopened after pandemic-induced closures.
In order to have more control over staffing levels, as well as to try and create a more cohesive system, the district is now hiring more of its own staff. This fall, 10 therapists were hired to work at the elementary school level and another three to serve middle school students.
The changes are estimated to cost about $1.4 million, on top of the roughly $15 million that the district was already spending on mental health annually.
In an endorsement interview with the Palo Alto Weekly, Dharap said that he is pleased the district allocated this money but that seeing the results come to fruition will take time.
Another priority is in the area of equity. Dharap chaired the board's Equity Oversight Committee, which developed a framework, known as the SWIFT plan, for addressing educational inequity. The document looks at various areas, including curriculum and instruction, culture and climate, and district operations and staffing.
"The key is that it approaches the whole child; it approaches through a lens of supports, through a lens of systemic change," Dharap said at a candidate forum hosted by the Palo Alto Weekly. "It is a very comprehensive plan, the likes of which we have never had in the district before."
In a candidate questionnaire, Dharap said that he also favors emphasizing diversity in hiring, as well as in the instructional materials that are used. He wants outreach to increase to historically underrepresented students through the district's family engagement specialists.
When it comes to student achievement, Dharap has stressed that, as a public school district, it is important to build a floor so that no students are falling through the cracks.
"It's not mutually exclusive with raising the ceiling for success," Dharap said at the forum.
He is supportive of the district's current homework policy, which sets nightly limits for the amount of work that students should be assigned, though he believes that work can be done to ensure consistent implementation and enforcement.
In terms of the debate over the draft California Math Framework, which suggests delaying Algebra I until high school, Dharap said that he generally has a presumption that when the state has developed a framework, a large amount of study and expert work has gone into it. As a board member without individual experience in math curriculum, Dharap said, he would ask district staff to come to the board with a recommendation on how to move forward.
On the topic of "de-laning" more broadly, Dharap said in his endorsement interview that he wants the topic to come before the board. De-laning refers to the idea of combining students at different academic levels in the same class so that they can learn together. When the district developed a new middle school math program in the 2019-2020 school year, one of the goals was to move towards de-laning.
"It's sort of a perennial topic, but it's one that I think deserves to have a community conversation," Dharap said.
More broadly, he supported the idea of moving towards "meatier" board agendas, where more issues are reviewed.
Board oversight and transparency
In his reelection campaign, Dharap has focused on his advocacy for what he calls "good governance." This spring, Dharap successfully pushed for the board to retain the option for the public to participate in meetings via Zoom.
During the pandemic, board meetings moved online and both board discussion, as well as comments from members of the public, took place on Zoom. When board members returned in person, public comment was at first taken in a hybrid mode, in which people could speak both face-to-face and virtually.
This spring, the board removed that option and public commenters were required to show up in the district's board room. Dharap opposed that change and ultimately succeeded in getting the board to reinstate remote commenting going forward.
One area where the board has received pushback is its decision in August to terminate the district's general counsel during a four-minute closed session and subsequently refused to explain its reasoning.
Dharap has defended that decision, saying that while he values transparency, board members can be held individually liable for divulging confidential information that is discussed in closed session.
Dharap has generally spoken positively about Superintendent Don Austin's performance, particularly his ability to implement the board's priorities. In a candidate questionnaire, Dharap pointed to Austin's work to reopen schools during the pandemic and the fact that Palo Alto Unified was one of the first districts to reopen.
"I'm confident that without him we would not have been able to open as early as we did; nor would we have been able to do so without any COVID outbreaks on campuses," Dharap said.
He also noted that Austin has worked on initiatives to close the achievement gap, including the Every Student Reads Initiative. The board recently reviewed a report showing that reading scores have increased for the groups that the plan targets.
When asked about how he would respond to parents who feel that the district, and particularly the superintendent, have been dismissive of their concerns, Dharap acknowledged that it was an issue and supported the district's decision to hire a public information officer.
"We have a communication issue and we as a district and a board need to do a better job of connecting with our families, from the highest levels," Dharap said.