Best teachers, better counseling top school-survey goals | April 11, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 11, 2008

Best teachers, better counseling top school-survey goals

Input on Strategic Plan shows low support for foreign languages in elementary schools

by Arden Pennell

Better counseling and attracting the best teachers are top priorities students, teachers and parents want to see in the new Strategic Plan for Palo Alto schools, Superintendent Kevin Skelly told the school board Tuesday.

Skelly presented results of a wide-ranging survey on what "stakeholders" really want for the schools.

The results contained bitter pills for some, including a suggestion that some parents drive teachers to quit their jobs and a strong sentiment that introducing foreign-language classes to elementary schools is a bad idea.

In a 90-minute presentation, Skelly presented data from nearly two months of surveys and interviews with district stakeholders from principals to freshman to parents.

He hashed out in more concrete detail a document that until now has been only murkily described — the district's upcoming Strategic Plan revision.

Often called a road map of priorities for the district, a well-crafted Strategic Plan would help avoid disagreements such as the divisive Mandarin-immersion debate of the previous year and earlier, Skelly and school board members have said.

The plan, currently being written, would guide the district for 12 years, until 2020, with revisions every four years.

On Tuesday, Skelly presented major survey findings and outlined four areas of focus for the plan based on interviews with administrators: academic excellence, staff recruitment and development, fiscal management and governance.

The presentation was a discussion requiring no vote. The board will discuss the plan again April 22.

The survey had a heavy response, Skelly reported: 3,173 parents, 526 students, 400 teachers, 40 administrators and 130 other school staff participated.

While the vast majority of respondents, 92 percent, said schools prepare students well for college, only 57 percent felt career counseling was sufficient, Skelly reported.

Students in particular listed improving college and career counseling as a goal.

Such concerns have been present in every district in which he's taught, yet they merit further attention and improvement effort, Skelly said.

A point of major agreement among students, teachers and parents was attracting and retaining the best teachers.

Teachers themselves asked for more training and development programs.

Teachers also cited parents as the biggest reason why some leave the district, followed by salary and location.

Yet teachers who left the district weren't asked to comment — only those currently employed, so the answers were speculative rather than personal, board member Camille Townsend pointed out.

Active parents are an asset, she said. The district's mission statement should acknowledge their role and the plan should be flexible enough to allow parent groups to spontaneously bring new ideas before the board, she said.

Parents play an enormously important role, Skelly agreed, and their approval of the plan is also necessary for its upcoming success.

Yet the survey wasn't cut-and-dried.

Board members, including student board member Andrew Tesler, criticized its results as unclear because parent groups were not broken down by elementary, middle and high school. Different parents have very different concerns, Townsend said.

After outlining the survey results, Skelly reviewed priorities under the four main focus areas of academics, teaching, budget concerns and governance.

Possible initiatives included making sure all students are prepared for college, improving teacher recruitment and creating "norms of engagement" for parents and district staff. A full list is available on the school district's Web site.

Goals are important, but pegging them to a measurement is crucial, board member Melissa Baten Caswell said.

Throughout the meeting, she repeatedly called on Skelly and representatives from McKinsey & Company — the consulting firm working pro bono with the district — to write goals based on desired results, rather than as wishful generalizations.

More specific timeline, cost and related information will be ready for the April 22 meeting, Skelly vowed.

He also said that although parents pushed for foreign languages in elementary schools, district principals did not.

In one meeting, he asked principals to place a green dot next to productive ideas and a red dot next to distracting ideas. Not a single principal placed a green dot next to foreign languages, but there were 26 red dots next to the program, which parents pushed for in the wake of last year's board decision to start a Mandarin-immersion program.

A study group of parents, teachers and administrators reported in fall that introducing foreign languages would mean lengthening the school day, rescheduling certain classes and spending at least $1 million annually.

While the decision ultimately lies with the board, Skelly and the principals think the attempt to introduce such a program would be a hindrance to more important goals, he said.

The district will present a nearly completed Strategic Plan May 9, he said.

In other business, the board:

Heard an announcement that Mary Pat O'Connell will replace Barbara Welch as principal of Nixon Elementary School next year.

O'Connell has been principal of Highlands Elementary School in San Mateo since 2001 and said she has lived in Palo Alto for 20 years.

Heard a presentation about new courses for Palo Alto High School, which board members will consider at their April 22 meeting. A more basic "Integrated Science" course is proposed to better introduce students to higher-level science courses. Other proposals include four years of Mandarin courses and an advanced placement course in Macroeconomics.

Staff Writer Arden Pennell can be e-mailed at


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a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 13, 2008 at 12:14 pm

Wait a second, let me get this straight. First, parents are asked to choose between foreign language instruction at elementary schools and other all-encompassing no-brainer priorities such as “hiring good teachers”. Second, parents of middle and high school kids are asked to think of how important elementary school foreign language instruction is for THEIR child. Finally, to further minimize the risk that foreign language instruction will be chosen as a priority, if parents have children in elementary schools and in middle or high school, they are asked to pretend that their youngest child does not exist for purpose of filling out the survey. Then, amazingly, and in spite of all this, 46%!!! of parents chose foreign language elementary school education as a priority for their child, and that is a BITTER PILL for those supporting foreign language education? Get real!

True, between 1. oxygen and 2. preventing the release of predatory animals on school grounds, and 3. foreign language education, foreign language education is only a third priority, but there is a clear groundswell of parent opinion in favor of foreign language education as a key curriculum priority for elementary school. The PAUSD has the world’s most amazing and committed teachers---let’s not allow administrators to stop us from bringing the curriculum into the 21st century! What’s shocking is not only that the PAUSD administration is so oblivious to parents’ stated priorities, but also that they are apparently not capable of finding a less obvious way of manipulating the survey results.

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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Meadow Park
on Apr 13, 2008 at 1:16 pm

Seems like the district is doing a decent job of controlling the process and driving to a result they want. That's a far cry better than the process that gave us MI and the former Super's melt-down.

FLES is way expensive (see TF report); way disruptive (according to the principals); and way less important than doing a good job delivering the fundamentals for a good price. Parents who think it is a top priority for them can easily sign-up for after-school/weekend programs or private schools.

To let it become a cause celebre ("MI got theirs; we want ours") would just create another sideshow on a second tier isse. So good for Skelly et al for keeping the process under control.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 13, 2008 at 5:47 pm

From my recollection, we were asked to choose 5 priorities and put them in order. The fact that someone may have put languages 3rd, 4th or 5th does not mean that they are low priorities. The low priorities are the ones that have not been picked at all. It is very hard to choose the order of top five, in my opinion choosing five means that they are all important, not just the top 1.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2008 at 10:59 am

The fact that there were no other priority subjects to choose from, besides foreign language tells me that the priority ranking from this survey is garbage. The survey is certainly not giving us implied hidden messages that foreign language in the elementary schools is a high priority, any more than its giving us an implied message that English Language educations is a low priority. We know very little abuot the priorities of the district with this survey. How do you know that if English, Math, Science, Technology, and PE were listed as options in the survey that language would have even made the top 5?

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