District looks to build schools, shrink achievement gap | December 28, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 28, 2012

District looks to build schools, shrink achievement gap

Election year brings physical changes to campuses

by Chris Kenrick

Plans to open new schools in Palo Alto and to raise the bar on graduation requirements highlighted local education news in 2012, which was an election year.

Results of the competitive school board race in November suggested general satisfaction with Palo Alto's current education leadership. On the student level, surveys of Palo Alto youth reflected a measure of improvement in social-emotional health, possibly attributable to a range of student-wellness programs that have been launched since a devastating string of student deaths by suicide in 2009 and 2010.

Even so, a debate over guidance counseling — specifically the considerably different counseling models used at Palo Alto's two high schools — continued to simmer.

The counseling controversy, and a hotly contested change to Palo Alto's academic calendar this year, were among the most discussed issues in the school board election.

The sharpest critic among the candidates, Ken Dauber, argued that Gunn High School should immediately adopt what he considers the superior model used at Palo Alto High School, which enlists more than 40 "teacher-advisers" to augment a small counseling staff.

The other three candidates said they were willing to allow time for an internal Gunn committee to recommend reforms to the school's traditional counseling system — which does not use teacher-advisers — so long as students at both high schools get "comparable services."

Voters returned two incumbents — Melissa Baten Caswell and Camille Townsend — to office and also elected newcomer Heidi Emberling. Dauber, the sharpest critic of the district, trailed in the field.

The new year could bring a resolution to the counseling controversy. An advisory committee comprising Gunn parents, teachers, students, counselors and administrators, is due to report in February on its recommendations for counseling reforms at the school, to be implemented starting next fall.

The school district has also turned to a community advisory committee to help settle the calendar dispute. The committee of parents, students and school staff will convene early in 2013 to devise surveys and other means to gauge opinion on whether the new calendar should be retained beyond 2013-14.

The past year saw Palo Alto's biggest school-building boom since the 1950s, as projects financed under the $378 million "Strong Schools" bond — approved by voters in 2008 — became visible across town.

Six campuses — including both of the high schools, all three middle schools and Fairmeadow Elementary School — opened the academic year with hardhat zones. At Duveneck Elementary School, portable classrooms were moved to make way for groundbreaking on a new, two-story classroom building in early 2013. A new, two-story classroom building at Ohlone Elementary School opened last year.

About half of the "Strong Schools" bond money has been spent or committed to projects under construction. The rest is in reserve, currently allocated to Gunn and Palo Alto high schools as well as to the opening of a new elementary school.

Palo Alto's steady enrollment growth has prompted a decisive move toward opening a 13th elementary campus — projected by fall 2017 — and also possibly a fourth middle school.

An advisory committee will convene Jan. 14 to evaluate two potential elementary sites — Garland at 780 N. California Ave. and Greendell at 4120 Middlefield Road — based on selection criteria specified by the Board of Education. The committee is expected to make recommendations by late March.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he would present options early next year on either opening a fourth middle school or expanding capacity at the existing middle school campuses.

The old Cubberley High School campus on Middlefield Road may play a part in those solutions, though that is far from certain.

The school district has indicated its preference for renewing the City of Palo Alto's $7 million-a-year lease of Cubberley for use as a community center and placing the 13th elementary school and fourth middle school elsewhere.

The district and city are working together on a plan for Cubberley's future, with a Community Advisory Committee on Cubberley due to report its recommendations early in the new year. The current Cubberley lease agreement between the district and the city expires in 2014.

In September, Palo Alto reported some progress in its long struggle to narrow the achievement gap, while admitting there's still a long way to go.

An analysis of California Standards (STAR) Test scores between 2008 and 2012 showed African-American and Hispanic students made significant gains.

"When we look at closing the achievement gap between the highest-performing and the lowest-performing (elementary and middle-school) students in English language arts, the percentage difference between Asian and African-American students in 2008 was 50.8 percent and last year it was 33.9 percent between the same groups," said Diana Wilmot, statistician for the Palo Alto school district.

She reported significant gains in both math and English for black and Hispanic students.

Superintendent Skelly said at the time, "We've made progress, but the gaps are still way too big."

In fact, an outside group graded Palo Alto as a "D" in its service to low-income and minority students in a report issued in March.

The Oakland-based Education Trust West, backed by funders including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said Palo Alto compares poorly with other large school districts on metrics such as "size of achievement gap" between white students and black and Hispanic students.

"I think we're doing the right work (in addressing the achievement gap) — we just have to execute," Skelly said at the time.

A new strategy to raise the bar for underachieving students was approved by the school board this year, with support from minority student and parent groups: starting with the graduating class of 2016, high school graduation requirements will be stiffened to match entrance criteria for California's public, four-year universities.

Students not wishing to complete the college-prep curriculum may negotiate "alternative graduation requirements" with their school.

The stiffer requirements will not affect the more than 80 percent of Palo Alto students who already meet them but are meant to raise expectations for students — disproportionately Hispanic and black — who currently graduate without the four-year college-prep coursework.

A host of efforts to boost student social-emotional health continued in 2012, some of them school-based and others through community nonprofit or religious organizations.

Some programs, such as Gunn's ROCK (Reach Out, Care and Know), which began as crisis responses to the suicides three years ago, have settled into more general wellness and peer-support activities.

Current Gunn senior Chandler Gardner joined ROCK in her freshman year and continues as a peer counselor.

ROCK, she said, "changed to fit the needs of Gunn as the years have passed, and happily we've had no more suicides.

"Now we're more of a community-building club and do what we can to support our community as a whole.

"High school can be a really tough place, and teens especially may not always want to talk to an adult. ROCK creates peers we can talk to. They're in high school too, and they know the test, the teachers and everything we're going through," Gardner said.

Student survey results showed that social-emotional indicators among Palo Alto students as a whole are improving. The information came through the California Healthy Kids Survey as well as the Palo Alto Reality Check Survey.

"Some of the measures that we as a community have been most focused on, like suicide ideation and student depression, are heading in the right direction," Skelly said Thursday, Dec. 20.

However, "the data also support the need for continued, concerted efforts across the (school district) community to address student health and wellness needs."

Toward the end of 2012, an improved financial outlook allowed school leaders for the first time to consider long-deferred investments.

Better-than-expected projections on property-tax revenue growth, as well as passage of California Proposition 30 in November, meant that as of Dec. 18, the school district's budgeted 2012-13 income, at $169.4 million, was $4.1 million above anticipated expenditures.

Earlier in the year, school board members had agreed on a priority list for any additional revenue that might become available. It reads: "eliminate structural deficit; address program needs; employee compensation; professional development and caution in making ongoing commitments."

In their last meeting before the holidays, all five school board members signaled their intent to vote in January in favor of a one-time bonus for teacher and staff equivalent to 1 percent of 2011-12 salary. The district remains in negotiations with employee unions concerning contract terms for 2012-13.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.


Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 28, 2012 at 10:46 am

> The Oakland-based Education Trust West, backed by funders including
> the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates
> Foundation, said Palo Alto compares poorly with other large school
> districts on metrics such as "size of achievement gap" between
> white students and black and Hispanic students.

The problem with any not-for-profit Education booster, like Ed Trust, is that they are free to push any agenda that they would like, and have no obligation to provide the truth to the taxpaying public.

Parents are a huge part of the education delivery model—yet it’s hard to find any evidence of that fact in the agenda pushed by the Ed Trust West (for instance), which seems to want government schools to be the sole source of “education”, and the “well being of children”. The role of parents seems to have been virtually erased from this point-of-view.

Life-long learning/education is not something that 180-day a year/6-hour a day schools can instill in a nation’s children like their parents can. From the day of a child’s birth, his mother, and father, are far more committed to his success than the employees of a government school system.

The following is another look at the API scores of several school districts in the neighborhood of the PAUSD:

Another Look At PAUSD Student Performance Data:
Web Link

> She reported significant gains in both math and
> English for black and Hispanic students.

The API data obtained from the State Department of Education presents a somewhat different view of student performance of African/American students in the PAUSD (see link above) than that described in the Weekly article. Nationally, both African/American and Hispanic students have been showing steady, but slow, growth in their standardized test scores over the years. The same seems true in the PAUSD. However, the growth rates for each group is not something to “crow” about. The data shows that it will take up to sixteen years for the African/American test results to reach API=800 (Proficient), and forty-three years to reach 900 (Advanced). Hispanic achievement is more hopeful, with the statewide target score of API=800 being attainable within a couple of years.

Students without fully committed parents very frequently demonstrate lower academic achievement than those with fully committed parents. The schools need to create an education delivery model that acknowledges this fact, and seeks to support those parents without the same academic preparation as those who did manage 4-8 years of higher education. This additional support can be provided via distance learning, which should be delivered statewide, via the State Department of Education. Local education agencies should be able to augment these basic skills/training programs, as they see fit. With the advent of $100/device tablet/PCs that have audio/video capability, there is no reason that every conceivable sort of “education” should not be available to every grade level—including parents. Additionally, video conferencing should now make it easy for teaching staff to actually talk/visit with parents that might not be able to easily make a trip to the school site for needed conferences.

The number of students currently in the so-called “achievement gap” is not very large, in number. No reason the PAUSD could not experiment with these new, inexpensive, technologies to see if the students who have historically been seen as “underachieving” might not benefit from having access to on-line education.

Like this comment
Posted by Anono
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 28, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Is "fully committed parent" determined by the "4-8 years of higher education" or is it supposed to be determined by the color of my skin or where my parents came from?

This attitude really feels like I am back on the plantation.

Perhaps the focus should be on the actual value of my children's teachers. What can they do in terms of while they have my kids at school? What happens when they teach it and my kids don't get it. Will I need to go to a parenting class because my parents didn't send me off to 4 years of undergraduate partying followed by a few years of make-up or grad school? How do we measure the effectiveness of the teacher and then compensate him or her fairly?

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Asian immigrants do fine in American schools so do many Black immigrants from Jamaica.

They make their kids fluent in English and they follow the teachers advice.

They support nuclear families and American mainstream values.

If the parents are not aligned with American values and/or the parents are not fluent and literate in English then there is little or nothing " remedial" schools can do.

Trade schools are a much better solution

Like this comment
Posted by Your fellow expert
a resident of Barron Park School
on Dec 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Sharon, your words remind me of the great Reggie White back in the 1990s. His words, like yours and Wayne's, remind us that just because many of us are successful in one narrow field doesn't mean that we are qualified to preach in other fields.

"If you go to a black church, you see people jumping up and down because they really get into it," he said.

Whites are good at organization, White said.

"You guys do a good job of building businesses and things of that nature, and you know how to tap into money," he said.

"Hispanics were gifted in family structure, and you can see a Hispanic person, and they can put 20, 30 people in one home."

THE JAPANESE AND other Asians are inventive, and "can turn a television into a watch," White said. Indians are gifted in spirituality, he said.

"When you put all of that together, guess what it makes: It forms a complete image of God," White said.

Like this comment
Posted by many questions
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 28, 2012 at 5:31 pm

How often the student moves must be a factor - how transitory are some of PAUSD's students?
There certainly are a multitude of factors.
Please avoid ridiculous steretotypes, even kiss-a__ ones: "Asian immigrants do fine in American schools.." per Sharon -- how about the fact that the type of Asian immigrant who has moved here to Silicon Valley within the past 35 years has usually been a very upscale, educated type? - hardly representative of the entire country of China or etc.
EVERY country/ethnic group has merit - don't be so self-centered and assured you know everything about everybody/every corner of this country, much less the world.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 28, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Some of the responsibility falls on the students. For the most part, we have great teachers that are more than willing to support students. BUT students need to take education seriously, do the work, and ask for help when needed. At least at Paly, if you need help and ask for it, there are free tutors, teachers and parents willing to help, etc.

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Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 28, 2012 at 6:35 pm

However if we had an influx of North Korean immigrants they would fail in ours schools because they are brain damaged and stunted by pre natal and post natal malnutrition

-the average North Korean is 7+ inches shorter than the average South Korean.

Presumably this would correct after a generation of healthy pre and post natal nutrition.

IQ is a matter of genetics and pre/post natal nutrition.

Motivation to learn is a matter of family values and genetics.

Schools have a minor impact in the face of family values and genetics-we should still try

-and vocational/trade schools are a good step in the right direction.

Like this comment
Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 28, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Our school board and superintendent make Congress look good.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 28, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Where is the "achievement gap" defined? I really wish we could talk about achievement relative to potential, rather than achievement relative to some absolute standard. I do not believe that everyone has equal academic potential, just as I don't believe everyone has equal athletic potential. There are differences in biology, culture, family education/values, and more. Do our schools have to try to correct for all that? Is that an effective use of our resources? Or should we instead be working to ensure that all kids are challenged and learning?

I am concerned that this focus on bringing up under-performing kids to some absolute higher standard will effectively take resources away from the more academically inclined (for whatever reason) kids. Why should they not be challenged, encouraged, stretched to their potential? In the academic environment, of all things, where their abilities should be recognized and encouraged. Is it really good policy to work as hard as we can to achieve a higher minimum bar for everyone, than to work as hard as we can to help every kid achieve their potential?

I don't know where to draw the line. This same argument could be used to stop spending such a huge fraction of our academic resources on the tiny fraction of special-needs kids. That seems morally wrong. But it also seems wrong to me that we spend the vast majority of our money and special training on the under-performers, and effectively ignore the kids who are effortlessly succeeding. That is a clear failure of our schools. No one should be effortlessly succeeding. Everyone should be challenged in class and stretched to their potential. But that is not the case in our schools. Our funding choices ignore a large and important segment of our kids.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 30, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Parent, Downtown North - I don't know any student in high school who are academically inclined and not challenged. We have enough variety in our classes that students can choose challenging courses. Again, I feel that some of the responsibility for the achievement gaps falls on students who CHOOSE not to do the work, cooperate in class, etc.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 31, 2012 at 5:43 pm

It may well be that high schools are doing a good job of challenging everyone. But I would estimate that at least 10% of the kids in elementary school are not even close to adequately challenged. And elementary school is six long years. That is certainly helping to close the gap between students (is that the "achievement gap"?), but probably not in the way we'd like.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Nixon School

on Jun 5, 2017 at 6:58 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

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