African-American and Hispanic students enroll in fewer high-level classes and perform significantly worse than their Caucasian and Asian peers on standardized tests, according to a report this week from district staff.
Those minority groups also have higher rates of school suspension and other discipline issues.
This week, the Board of Education grappled with the dismal statistics and a plan to improve their performance.
Palo Alto has been tagged by both federal and state officials for having a "disproportionate" number of African-American and Hispanic children in special education, prompting investigations and reports about how to remedy the problem.
"It's a lemon for the federal government to have identified us (as "disproportionate"), but it's lemonade because it gives us a way to map out what we want to do, pull together groups working on this and make a cohesive plan," Assistant Superintendent Virginia Davis told the board.
Director of Student Services Carol Zepecki, who is retiring after 12 years of heading Palo Alto's special education programs, said officials have been keenly aware of the issue for years.
"Five years ago we had a study by the (federal) Office of Civil Rights," Zepecki said in a recent interview.
"They looked at our disproportionality and found that if we didn't support some of the students we would be discriminatory in the other direction.
"We were following all the rules and we need to support the kids. It's a very difficult balance. We're aware of it, and keep working on it."
Zepecki worked closely with Palo Alto's Parent Network for Students of Color and was given a farewell send-off by that organization last month that included testimonials from grateful parents.
Other Palo Alto groups have been formed specifically to address the achievement-gap issue, including IAASC (Increasing the Academic Achievement of Students of Color) and TACKLE (Taking a Closer Kid Look Early).
Of the district's 1,190 special-education students in 2007-08, 133 were African-American and 216 were Hispanic.
African-American students represented 3 percent of the total population of the district that year but comprised 11 percent of the special-education population.
Hispanic students represented 8.9 percent of the total population of students in the district, but 18 percent of the students in special education.
Of the 74 African-American students identified that year with a "specific learning disability" (roughly defined as a wide gap between IQ and actual performance), 55 of them were Palo Alto residents and 19 were East Palo Alto students enrolled in Palo Alto under Tinsley.
Of the 130 Hispanic students identified with a "specific learning disability" that year, 82 were Palo Alto residents. Forty-six of the 130 were categorized as "English Language Learners," and 48 of them were enrolled in Palo Alto under the Tinsley program.
Officials said they are focusing on mainstream classrooms, not special education, as the key to solving the achievement gap.
"We do find that our students who are in special education are very deserving of those services, yet we want to do more to help students prior to any designation or assessment," Davis said.
The district already has a wide range of special programs to address achievement gaps in the regular classroom, including the newly launched Springboard to Kindergarten, Barron Park School's College Bound program and others.
School board members thanked Davis for presenting the achievement-gap data and possible solutions in comprehensive form.
"This is one of the first times I've read something that puts it all together with a sense of commitment and candor, and I think that's really helpful," board President Barbara Klausner said.
"The issues raised in the plan really are about every aspect of our academic excellence goals in the strategic plan, and also very important in terms of the social and emotional health of our students.
"If we do a good job here, we're going to address a lot of the needs we're talking about in our strategic plan."
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell asked whether there is sufficient monitoring of the effectiveness of existing programs intended to address the achievement gap.
"We need to look at this from 25,000 feet up and be able to tell where investments are really helping, and where we've tried and tried and done good work but it's not the right program," Baten Caswell said.
Board member Camille Townsend wondered whether Palo Alto could borrow effective approaches from other school districts.
"We go to conventions and hear about other districts that do much better with disadvantaged students. To what degree are we searching for those programs?" Townsend asked.
"I'm wondering if maybe there's something out there, even real basic programs with no bells and whistles, but that work.
"There's a sense of urgency here, and we've got to try something different."
In a statement read by a friend, Duveneck parent Sara Woodham, whose children are not in special education, asked the board to "appreciate the real frustration of parents behind the statistics."
Though many programs "seem reasonable on paper," Woodham asked board members to focus on where such programs "break with reality" and to "understand why seemingly good programs fail to match expectations, leaving underperforming children in their wake. ...
"Please use parents' insights in these break points, and as critical partners," Woodham said, adding that special-education parents sometimes speak limited English.
"These are the parents who rely on the district the most, and often are the least able to articulate breaks when they occur," she said.
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