School board positive on graduation criteria | May 11, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 11, 2012

School board positive on graduation criteria

Vote to be held May 22 on plan to stiffen requirements while offering alternate path

by Chris Kenrick

With high hopes of making inroads against the "achievement gap," Palo Alto school board members Tuesday, May 8, declared their support for boosting high school graduation requirements to align with entrance criteria for California's public, four-year universities.

The proposal — which will add requirements in foreign language, math and lab science beginning with the Class of 2016, today's eighth-graders — will not affect the vast majority of Palo Alto students, who already meet or surpass the new guidelines.

It is aimed at boosting expectations and support for the 20 percent of students who graduate without the four-year college-prep curriculum under their belts.

The new rules also offer customized "alternative graduation requirements" for students who cannot or prefer not to pursue the standard route. The alternate path would be designed by the student and parents in consultation with school officials and would have to meet California graduation standards.

The plan is set for a final school board vote May 22, but all five members Tuesday indicated their support, praising Superintendent Kevin Skelly for his multi-year work on the topic.

In presenting his case for beefing up the requirements, Skelly's voice cracked as he read a letter from a long-ago Palo Alto High School graduate who said he'd always regretted "taking the easy way out" when at Paly.

"I did not choose wisely as my parents were not involved back then," the letter stated. "If I had been forced to fulfill the language requirements back then it would have helped me in college and in life."

Skelly said whether students pursue the college-prep curriculum or negotiate alternative requirements, the new system will force them to have a conversation with school officials and parents about productive use of their high school years — something that's currently not the case.

The school board chamber was packed with school principals from every level, as well as high school students and parents who voiced support for the measure.

Twin Paly seniors Al and Lucas Brooks told the board they are often the only African-Americans in their advanced classes, their other black friends having been "laned down" years ago.

"When I look for my black friends, they're in other classes," Lucas Brooks said.

"The only difference between myself and my friends is that I had two Ph.D. parents and all their resources ... and they didn't have that and were laned down to the bare minimum requirements for graduation."

Paly senior Tremaine Kirkman, a founder of the Student Equity Action Network, said the graduation proposal "is the right and practical thing to do to help students maximize their futures."

Gunn parent Linda Lingg, who last year expressed skepticism about the proposal's impact on special-education students, said her concerns have been met with the latest proposal on alternative requirements.

"Thank you for submitting a proposal confirming that our community values individuals who are pursuing an alternate path," Lingg told the board.

"I recommend adopting this inclusive plan."

While indicating their own support, board members asked Skelly to outline prior to the May 22 vote how he plans to monitor and assess the impacts of the new graduation policy.

Also Tuesday, the board approved a list of principles to guide its upcoming discussion with the City Council on the future of Cubberley Community Center, as well as the membership of a 25-member Community Advisory Committee.

Committee members are Tom Vician, Tom Crystal, Lanie Wheeler, Michael Bein, Jean Wilcox, Sheri Furman, Ken Allen, Damian Cono, Claire Kirner, John Markevitch, Tracy Stevens, Susan Bailey, Rachel Samoff, Lessa Bouchard, Jerry August, Jim Schmidt, Susie Thom, Greg Tanaka, Diane Reklis, Mandy Lowell, Brian Carilli, Michael Closson, William Robinson, Penny Ellson and Mike Cobb.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 9, 2012 at 8:52 am

There is a certain irony that there is a proposal to make foreign language even more important for graduation requirements but no mention of starting foreign language teaching in elementary school.

The time to start learning a language is as early as possible which is how the rest of the world does it. Making it harder in high school without introducing it earlier is just crazy.

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Posted by Bring-Latin-Back-To-Public-Schools
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 9, 2012 at 10:05 am

> The time to start learning a language is as early as possible

There is no reason that parents who believe this should not pay to send their children to one of the many language schools in/around Palo Alto/Mountain View/Menlo Park.

The value of a foreign language is very questionable. Sure, for people who end up working in a bi-lingual occupation, being familiar with one/more languages pays off. But for most of us .. not so much.

Latin, on the other hand, would be a very useful choice for people heading off to college, and who will be speaking English as their primary (perhaps only) language.

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Posted by E Pluribus
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 9, 2012 at 10:46 am

The non-English speaking world is keen on foreign language learning - and their top choice is English. Sure if you speak French or Dutch or Swedish - you'd better get another language. But the value to English speakers is quite a bit lower. After all, English is the primary language of business, entertainment, and the internet.

It says something about our university system that they still require years of foreign language study. There was a time when speaking French or German was necessary to be a proper academic or world citizen - those days are long past now.

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Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on May 9, 2012 at 6:14 pm

English is indeed the current lingua franca. But the US is 4 1/2 % of the world's population, around an impressive 20% of the world's GDP, and over half the current world military expenses. Obviously these last two numbers are suspect. Even if the absolute numbers stayed about the same, those percentages will decline, especially the last. Hubris gets you just so far.

The US is also vulnerable because of its Pay-To-Play political system. Corporations are global and are buying their global interests in Washington - we need to ask more often just whose Congress we have. Corporations see their future scale and profit growth in China, say, and that's what they buy in Washington. China's effective immunity to WTO rules means that the corporations have to report to the government of China first.

One reason most people's income has dropped in real dollars was because it was artificially increased by leverage for consumption, not investment. 2001-2009 was the worst as the unsustainable US trade deficit was over $6 trillion and much of that was borrowed back for consumption and redistribution upwards as well as wars.

Putting these ideas together means that we need to be more cosmopolitan and as quickly as possible. Anyone who has been in negotiations in China knows that finding good basically agenda-free translation is essential and difficult. Actually, Americans who are fluent and literate in Mandarin are quite in demand there for local as well as US companies - not just at CES in Las Vegas.

There may well be people, especially with specialized talents, that accommodation needs to be made for. Destroying the chances of a math prodigy in life because he or she isn't successful at Mandarin should be off the table. Assuming that, say, a math prodigy will be prodigal at everything is not so yet they may do wonderful things. There should be generations of studies from Europe on multiligual learning and its effects. Most of the people who laid the foundations of our culture and world were probably multilingual.

Some languages like Mandarin should really be started in grade school. It's widely known that the ability to soak up accent free languages like a sponge disappears for most people in childhood. One thing I don't see mentioned is that many kids show up at school with a command of domestic Mandarin, Hindi, and so on. It would be advantageous to them to get additional study for adult level fluency though some will react against that.

In ancient times before the last Ice Age, my high school in Pennsylvania had these requirements to graduate in the Academic program. So it's not new and it's all doable.

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Posted by mattie
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 9, 2012 at 7:03 pm

The California Master Plan for Higher Education outlines that UCs and CSUs should be for approx the top third of students. Hell, let's just have a little PAUSD coup and declare it's for everybody. We'll all feel better about ourselves. I mean, what kind of loser goes to Community College, right?

Truth is, one can't improve student performance by simply decreeing students meet higher standards. No Child Left Behind much? I thought this community was smarter than that. Either you'll have kids failing to meet heightened grad reqs, administrators making ad hoc exceptions through the nose, or watered-down "college prep courses" unbecoming of a quality leader.

Final note. Imho, race is a complete non sequitur in this discussion. Racism is real in America, but does anyone who has been in THESE school believe a teacher or counselor is "laning down" kids based on ethnicity? The stats offered to the "We Can Do Better Folks" are well-known are accurate of course. But to try to corral that gap by meddling with Gunn and Paly is to completely misunderstand the nature and origin of the problem.

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Posted by Marie
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 9, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Say good bye to any non-white or poor white faces at graduation. A-G is a ticking time bomb. Without proper support, many students of color will fall between the cracks. If white teachers are not sensitized to the needs and potential of ALL students, non-white kids and lower class whites are doomed. The covert racism of these educators will negatively impact kids of color and their lower middle class pale friends. They will do what they always have done, pass the unprepared kids of color onto the next grade. They will not challenge them. They will treat them as "pets." They will see their "missionary" attitude as a way to tame the savage outsiders. I have faith is this proposal in the hands of the unenlightened, the folks who are ignorant of their own racism.

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Posted by Bob
a resident of Community Center
on May 9, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Doesn't the State of California set the minimum graduation requirements for a high school
GRADUATION diploma? How can Palo Alto set its own rules - will they be different from Sequoia Union HS, or Sunnyvale,Mt. View, Los Altos,Cupertino, or Los Angeles, etc. requirements. I'm talking about a high school; diploma certifying graduation from a STATE of California certified high school. Would somebody clue me in on this?

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Posted by former parent
a resident of Barron Park
on May 9, 2012 at 11:29 pm

From the CA Dept of Ed website:

The governing boards of local education agencies (LEAs) have the authority to supplement the state minimum requirements at the local level.

Here's the link to the state minimums. It's not unusual for different school districts to have one or two additional requirements above the state minimums. So yes they may be different from neighboring districts. For example, PAUSD currently requires 4 years of social studies, and it's been a requirement for years. Other districts have the additional requirement of 4 years of English.

Web Link

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Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on May 10, 2012 at 1:17 am

"...currently requires 4 years of social studies, and it's been a requirement for years."

What actually are "social studies"?

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Posted by C
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 10, 2012 at 7:20 am

maguro_01, the Social Studies are basically history classes. World History freshman year (year course), Contemporary World and US Government sophomore year (two semester courses) [AP]US History (year), and senior year, economics (semester; AP semester also) and an elective.

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Posted by Maya
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 10, 2012 at 4:04 pm

One size, A-G does not fit all. What a ridiculous way to close the achievement gap. Talk about missing the point. Skelly and the Board folks need to set foot back in to the real world, the classroom. Those who want it can get it. Those who don't, won't. A mandate seems stupid and like it will set some students up for failure. Furthermore it will do nothing to address the achievement gap and blatantly disregards people's right to choose their paths. Give our students a little credit please.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 10, 2012 at 4:25 pm

The one big benefit of making the A-G requirements (stupid name, BTW) grad requirements is that teachers are MUCH more accountable for classes students must pass to graduate. It could help reduce the elitist attitude of the Paly math department for example, if they are required to actually teach well enough for the "slackers" to pass Algebra 2 (the Department Head's word).

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Posted by mattie
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 10, 2012 at 6:10 pm

I think Maya's got it right.

@palo alto mom -- I do agree with you that characterizing kids not on the a-g path as "slackers" is wrong and inappropriate. But not all kids belong on that track.

We SHOULD be "more accountable" for ensuring kids graduate than for ensuring they're a-g eligible. It's a lower bar. [Also, it's consistent with prevailing standards, state and local, for what a public high school should be for its community.] Do you want to hold schools and teachers accountable for ensuring that everyone takes APs classes next? We'll end up like those paper-mill charters with rigor in the basement and a lowest common denominator.

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Posted by PAUSD Parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 10, 2012 at 6:52 pm

This change was demanded by a vocal (but small) group of parents who wanted to pass the responsibility of supervising their kids' education on to the school district. There is nothing else to it.

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Posted by C
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 10, 2012 at 9:49 pm

I'd appreciate it very much if everyone would stop whining about the Paly math department letter. I've read it multiple times, and knowing the math department, don't find it so flagrantly offensive as many of you seem to. I'm tired of hearing all about the department's "Elitist Attitude" and hatred towards "slackers." Unless I've missed it (please let me know) I don't think Toma even said "slackers." He said, and I quote, he was concerned those who could not pass Algebra two because of [a] "poor math background, lack of support at home, low retention rate, lack of maturity, etc." I think all of those are fair reasons to describe why students are having issues.
And if you discuss anti-poor (if you're going to go there)? Be realistic; both that and parent education level have been statistically proven to have indications of a students future. I have no problem discussing them.
Marie, I find your post particularly offensive. Quite a few of our minority students are graduating A-G aligned and attending UC's and CSU's. They're not going to disappear. Additionally, teachers DO cater to the needs of all students. They are available after school, before school, during their preps, during Tutorial, and any other time of day you might wish to email them. It's whether and how you choose to utilize this that determines whether you will be successful or not (and no, I'm not claiming that minorities don't utilize it. I'm just saying, well, the support is there).
And I also think that your view that teachers pass "unprepared" minority students is insulting to the teachers in P.A. They will hold back students if necessary. I know of a few kids who, here in PA, have been held back a grade (and they're not all minorities). Given that, I think that it's easy to say teachers pass students who meet the basics. And the basics ARE quite basic (obviously) so it's not too shocking that
"I have faith is this proposal in the hands of the unenlightened, the folks who are ignorant of their own racism." You know this proposal was backed by the united student coalition (or something of the sort) and a group representing, and made of, minorities, right? True, the Daubers seem to be the empowering force, but it's backed by the minorities.

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Posted by Perspective
a resident of Greater Miranda
on May 11, 2012 at 5:13 am

C: Well said. Thanks. Having an "opt out" with automatic placement into A-G is a good thing, AS LONG AS THOSE WHO WANT TO CHOOSE ANOTHER PATH CAN DO SO, which seems to be part of the plan. Prevents kids from graduating, then accidentally finding out they can't even apply to a UC, allows kids with no desire at all to go to a UC to opt out as an active choice.

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Posted by C
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 11, 2012 at 7:39 am

Another thing to note is I do NOT think that you should need parental consent to choose whether you are going to go A-G or not. What if a student's decision to go to art school isn't supported?
Well, it might bring up a problem with minor and emancipation law, but still.... just saying

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 11, 2012 at 8:24 am

Some people are math/science orientated and others are more language arts/social studies orientated. Treating graduation requirements as one size fits all is completely wrong in my opinion. Just because someone may have trouble with math doesn't mean that they have to go down the vocational path and not head to college. There are other ways to educate everyone to their full potential without expecting higher lane math skills.

I wonder how many political analysts, history professors, language translaters, newspaper editors, lawyers, etc. were able to sail through their math classes at school? It seems to me that we must realize that the emphasis on education covers other subjects and not just push the math path continually higher and higher.

From a practical point, all of the above need to know how to write good English and perhaps some emphasis on good writing in proper English using grammar and punctuation correctly would be just as useful to most students - whether they were good at math/science or not.

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Posted by Do your homework C
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 11, 2012 at 9:57 am

Hello C,

Toma's letter clearly says "slackers". Find it here in the next-to-the-last paragraph.

Web Link

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Posted by PAUSD Parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 11, 2012 at 10:13 am

Yes the letter uses the word "slacker", once, and what is wrong with it? There are slackers in Palo Alto schools as there are slackers everywhere! Mr, Toma never said that all students who fail are slackers. His letter IS very reasonable.

The thing is that the parents of slackers have abdicated their parental role of disciplining their children. Instead, they have demanded that the schools take over this parental role by toughening graduation requirements. On the other hand, this same small group of parents also demands that the stress level be lowered...

Go figure !!

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Posted by C
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm

"Do your homework C," you are quite correct. Mr. Toma uses the word slacker once. I apologize for overlooking it, although I still think it's a surprising amount of outrage over one word. If he'd put "goof-off" or "procrastinator" or "truant" there wouldn't be this much outrage. I think this is the case of Palo Alto parents taking a stance against slackers everywhere because no, of course there could never be any slackers in Palo Alto (and if there are, let's either deny their existence or try to destroy their slacking habits). There ARE students in lower lanes who ARE slackers. Or at least I'd classify them that way. And guess what? There are "slackers" in the higher lanes too (those who never do HW yet pass tests -- actually, a sibling of mine was one). True, in those lanes there are also the "serious, committed" students he mentions. In no way does Mr. Toma classify every lower-lane student as a slacker, only some. I think that's fair. To me, it's pretty clear everyone is overreacting.
So thank you, PAUSD Parent, for taking the same stance as me: It's a fair letter.
Also to note: Of the 5 listed lanes, ALL of them complete Algebra 2 by Senior year. Four do it by Junior year; 2 do it by sophomore year. If you're in the lowest lane and don't take Algebra 2, this is because you made the choice to not take the math class while knowing that failing to take the class will make you UC-ineligible (trust me, they stress this point. And it's online everywhere). Could I call a student who chooses not to take a severely recommended and almost standard class -- and is not part of Special Ed -- a slacker? Or would it be better to call them 'mathematically challenged,' or something of the sort? Slacker = (Merriam Webster) : a person who shirks work or obligation; especially : one who evades military service in time of war 2: a person and especially a young person who is perceived to be disaffected, apathetic, cynical, or lacking ambition.
Perhaps avoiding taking a math class is shirking work or shows lacking ambition (possibly to get to a UC, otherwise they'd take the class). True, every student is an individual and maybe they couldn't take it because their schedule was full, they are Special Ed, etc., but isn't it likely that there is ONE person -- at least -- who didn't want to take the class because of work? Out of 2000, I think there's almost certainly one. Almost definitely two. And there's who the slacker refers to.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 14, 2012 at 11:57 am

Those of you complaining about the upgrade to A-G as "one size fits all"...and the current requirements are what then? It is still one size fits all with just only a very few of differences.

Further, PAUSD is actually going to set up a path for students to develop a tailor-made graduation program if requested --- how is that on size fits all.

It seems too many people stop reading and/or comprehending the effort once they read "A-G". Please --- just read the entire article and quotes before thinking the worst case scenario.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.