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October 05, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Palo Alto school board race: Books, budgets and ballots Palo Alto school board race: Books, budgets and ballots (October 05, 2005)

Four school board candidates discuss future of education in Palo Alto

by Alexandria Rocha

Two years ago, candidates vying for spots on Palo Alto's school board faced a district in financial straits.

The district's main source of revenue -- local property taxes -- had plummeted, and its staff had not seen a raise in two years.

"There was an adversarial mood. There was tension in the system," said board member Camille Townsend, who was elected in 2003 to her first term. "Since then I think we've done pretty well. We've responded to the financial issues, and I think how we did it has actually improved our organization. The tenor really has changed for the better."

The district has since restored some of the recent cuts with funds from a parcel tax passed in June. Local property taxes are increasing and district staff received a raise. It has created an election climate drastically different from that of two years ago. Instead of paring down, the theme this time is growth.

While the four candidates -- Claude Ezran, Barbara Mitchell, Steve Mullen and Dana Tom, all district parents -- remain equally conservative in their financial outlook, they are interested in exploring and discussing new programs as the district's budget stabilizes.

"We need to take into account that the economy in Santa Clara County and the Bay Area is fairly uncertain," said Ezran, a high-tech executive with three daughters in district schools. "We build the caution first and then if there is good news, we could restore additional programs."

From establishing a Chinese immersion program to longer school days to hiring additional high school guidance counselors, the candidates -- who are competing for seats vacated by John Barton and Cathy Kroymann -- have a wide array of ideas for district enrichment.

Although they differ on the means to accomplish their goals, three candidates -- Ezran, Mitchell and Mullen -- are particularly interested in adding programs to help students who are falling behind.

While about 75 percent of the district's students scored proficient or advanced on last year's standardized tests, there are still some students who need additional help -- a fact school board candidates have noticed.

Ezran said other Bay Area schools have tackled this issue by implementing longer school days for struggling students. He said some of the children slipping through the cracks in Palo Alto are likely recipients of the district's Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP), a court-ordered initiative that allows students from East Palo Alto to attend Palo Alto schools.

He said the district should consider altering those students' bus schedules so they can take advantage of after-school programs or a longer school day.

"The VTP buses leave when schools are finished. That doesn't help because these students are typically coming from low-income families and they need to get help that they won't get at home," Ezran said. "It would be an after-school tutorial program where you would go over subject matter."

Instead of a longer school day, Mullen -- a Certified Public Accountant with one daughter at Palo Alto High School and one who just graduated -- is interested in furthering a program piloted by Escondido Elementary School last year that helped students who struggled in math. In March, about 20 Escondido students who scored below grade level in math on a standardized test took part in an outside tutorial program. After two months, about half the students increased their skill level and test scores in that subject.

"It's been a below-the-radar program, but I believe this type of program could be brought to even the middle school level to help close the achievement gap," Mullen said. "... This could be offered during the class day, as an elective perhaps, as an after-school program. It's a unique program that needs to be explored."

Mitchell, a former business executive who has two current students and two graduates, has proposed expanding the study skills support students receive in middle school. She said Gunn High School offers a class called Focus on Success that could serve as a model.

It's "for students who still need to learn how to organize, study for tests and take notes," said Mitchell, who ran for school board as a write-in candidate in 2001. She added those skills are critical in seventh grade.

Another major issue surfacing among Ezran and Tom has a broader scope -- figuring out how to prepare the district's students for a global world, in which they will compete for jobs with students from other countries.

Tom's answer is to look into expanding high school programs and classes that require students with different skills to work together on a large project. The Gunn and Paly robotics teams, for example, create the environment and teach students the skills they will encounter and need after high school.

"We can find ways to make that experience available to more students," said Tom, an engineer and corporate trainer with two children in local schools. "The workplace our children will enter will require collaboration with experts of different domains."

Along the same line, Ezran is encouraging the district to start teaching foreign languages in sixth grade rather than seventh.

"The sooner you start, the better. When you look at the global economy, it's going to be more and more important," he said. "My point is not just about which languages to teach, it's about making sure the end result is effective."

This school year, the district is planning to review its language offerings. Ezran said if there is a request among parents at that time for Chinese language courses, the board should begin discussing a Chinese immersion program. He added the current Spanish immersion program housed at Escondido and Jordan Middle schools could be a model.

Mullen also supports this discussion.

Beyond their own ideas, the candidates are prepared to field program and staff requests from each school's officials if the district's budget continues to climb.

"I do expect to hear principals and teachers calling for the restoration of teachers, reading and math specialists, increases in guidance staff, teacher mentors and teacher training, as well as technology support," Mitchell said.

And even if the budget doesn't stabilize, Townsend said any time is a good time to look at new programs.

"I think education requires always looking around. Someone says, 'Oh don't get too excited, we don't have the money.' That may be true, but I think we always have to look at new programs because the world keeps changing," she said.

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