Homework, Schoology, and Mental Health Funding

Homework policy and Schoology

schoology.jpgSurveys by Challenge Success show that at both Paly and Gunn, many students are spending more time on homework than the 10-15 hours per week set by the district homework policy. On average, students at both schools spend around 3 hours per day on homework, on both weekdays and weekends. Juniors spend more time, with Paly juniors spending an average of nearly 4 hours a day on weekends. Around 60% of students report that homework “often or always” prevents them from getting enough sleep (and students report an average of only 7 hours of sleep per night, compared to the recommended 9 hours 15 minutes).

And since these numbers are means for all students, many students are doing even more homework, and getting even less sleep, than these averages suggest. In addition to the quantity of homework, a quarter of high school students feel that many or all of their classes assign unnecessary busywork. Clearly, we need a way to more closely track homework time and inform teachers about how much time their assignments are taking, and how well homework is helping students to learn.

At a special board meeting to review high school plans for the next year, I asked the Gunn and Paly principals to report on progress in complying with the district homework policy and the requirement that all teachers use Schoology, the district’s web-based tool for communicating assignments and test and project dates. There is still substantial room for improvement in both areas. This is my top priority for the remainder of this school year.

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Next Steps on New School Proposals

cubberley.jpgPAUSD is at a critical moment in deciding whether to open new elementary, middle, and high schools. The Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) delivered its final report to the school board at the January 12 school board meeting, and Superintendent McGee provided his own recommendations to the board. The most important of his recommendations is that the board authorize a task force to design a PreK-12 complex of choice schools (with a neighborhood preference) at Cubberley.

I appreciate the hard work of the EMAC members and the Superintendent. I agree that the district needs at least one new elementary school, and perhaps a new middle school as well. However, I doubt the wisdom of moving directly to planning for a new high school -- an expensive and time consuming endeavor. Instead, I believe we should invest in improving teaching and learning in our current high schools, for all of our high school students.

High School Size

District demographic projections show that Paly and Gunn will need to accommodate about 2300 students each by 2020, when enrollment will peak and then decline again. Accordingly, the district is currently in the process of completing a $200 million building campaign intended to expand the capacity of the high schools to meet those projections. The EMAC report casts doubt on whether the high schools will be able to meet the peak demand, but I feel confident based on the planning process and staff analyses that the schools will be able to manage that number of students. In any case, it’s not possible to build and open a new high school in time for the 2020 enrollment peak.

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Weighing the Need for New Schools

As you may know, the district is currently considering opening new schools to relieve overcrowding -- a 13th elementary school, a fourth middle, and even a new small third high school. I am writing to share my thoughts with you on this subject and to invite you to write me or visit my office hours to share your views with me.

What is EMAC? The Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) was appointed in the spring and is charged with investigating whether the district needs more schools  -- and if so, where those schools should be located. The elementary and secondary subcommittees presented preliminary recommendations at two special school board meetings in October and November, and the board had an opportunity to ask more detailed questions and make comments last week, at a regular meeting on November 10.

In responding to these recommendations, I have three main goals. First, to ensure that we have the right schools in the right places to provide the best possible education to the students in our district, given our resources. Second, to use our district resources in a way that provides the broadest possible benefits to students across the district and in all of our schools. Those goals mean to me that the district should expand capacity in elementary and middle school. Finally, it is critical that we have an open, transparent process in which the public has all the information and everyone has an equal ability to participate.

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Safer Schools, Smaller Schools and Smarter Budgeting

unity_day.jpgUnity Day is Wednesday, October 21. Remember to wear orange in honor of this celebration of unity and inclusion in our schools!

The next month on the school board includes several discussions with long-term implications for students in PAUSD. These include planning for potential new elementary, middle, and high schools; ensuring that our students are protected against sex and gender-based discrimination, including the "grooming" issue raised by the Kevin Sharp matter; and a discussion of how to improve budgeting in the context of an estimated $6 million estimated surplus of property tax revenues this year.

Next Office Hours are November 2

I won't be holding my regular Monday office hours on October 19 and October 26 (the date of a special board meeting on secondary school enrollment) but will resume on November 2. You can always see my schedule of upcoming events at Where's Ken?

Preventing Sex Discrimination in our Schools

The Weekly's coverage of allegations involving the "grooming" of a high school student by a teacher at Paly, Kevin Sharp, raised issues about the district's response to allegations of Title IX violations involving students. First, I would like to extend my sincere apologies to the student who was the focus of the grooming allegation and to her family. This was clearly a situation that no family should have to experience. Second, I commend the actions of the former student who came forward repeatedly to alert the district to Sharp’s alleged wrongdoing. He did an important community service. Finally, I could not be more impressed with the conduct of Paly Principal Kim Diorio, who was a model of moral clarity and professionalism in a difficult situation.

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It's On Us

Coffee with Ken: Announcing My Weekly Office Hours

Beginning this Monday, September 28 I will be holding weekly “office hours” most Mondays from 6pm to 7pm at Palo Alto Cafe, 2675 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Come join me for a cup of coffee and conversation about whatever is on your mind about our schools! If you want to make sure that I will be there, send me an email at [email protected] or [email protected]. Or you can check the Where’s Ken page for updates 

A New Policy for LGBTQQ Students

This coming Monday, September 28, the Board Policy Review Committee (BPRC), on which I sit, will consider a proposed policy to protect and support LGBTQQ students in PAUSD. The meeting starts at 8:30am at the district headquarters at 25 Churchill Street. A committee of parents, teachers, and staff members has worked hard to produce a policy that will give all our students with safe and welcoming school environment regardless of gender identity, as required by law. In addition to moving the policy forward (the next step after committee approval will be the full school board), I am committed to providing for full implementation of the policy including education for students, training for staff, and ensuring that appropriate physical renovations are made. These include, for example, gender-neutral restrooms, showers, and locker rooms.

It's On Us

A year ago, the White House launched the “It’s On Us” campaign, which “recognizes that the solution to sexual assault begins with all of us. It seeks to reframe the conversation surrounding sexual assault in a way that inspires everyone to see it as his or her responsibility to do something, big or small, to prevent it.”  The President has made the elimination of sexual harassment in our nation’s schools and colleges one of his highest priorities.

With this in mind, we can turn our attention to the situation here in PAUSD, where both of our high schools -- along with 40 other school districts and 124 colleges  -- are currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for possible violations of Title IX, a federal law that protects students against sexual harassment, including sexual assault and dating violence. 

The Paly Campanile published an editorial last Friday criticizing my request in May 2013 that OCR consider offering advice (called "technical assistance") to PAUSD on Title IX compliance. My request was prompted by serious allegations involving sexual assault and harassment at Paly. The allegations were first reported in a story in the Verde, a student magazine, in April 2013. The Campanile editorial was reprinted in the Daily Post on Monday.

The student editors particularly criticize the fact that I reached out to OCR for technical assistance rather than limiting my inquiries about the matter to PAUSD officials. They write:

“If a parent catches his or her child performing illicit acts, the typical reaction would never be to dial 911. Instead, the issue would be resolved within the family. The same can be said for concerns expressed by those affiliated with Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) regarding PAUSD’s improper handling of Title IX . . . The Campanile believes that Dauber acted inappropriately by contacting a federal office rather than pushing to first resolve the conflict within the district.”

This argument is troubling because it is inconsistent with the ethos of “It’s On Us.” It is also factually inaccurate. I discuss these issues below.

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FPPC Finds No Conflict of Interest with OCR

fppc_letter.jpgI’m happy to share that the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has determined that I have no conflict of interest under the Political Reform Act with respect to matters concerning the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR). This means that I may deliberate and vote on matters involving OCR that come before the school board. I expect that the board will soon discuss the two outstanding PAUSD cases: the OCR-initiated compliance review of handling of sexual harassment at Paly, and the complaint of stalking and dating violence at Gunn. I will continue to press for working with OCR to ensure that our students receive an education free of discrimination.

The FPPC regulates a range of issues related to elections and governing in California, from campaign finance to lobbyists to economic conflicts of interest. It is the governmental agency with authority to determine whether a local elected official has a prohibited conflict of interest. In August I asked the FPPC to review whether I have a conflict with OCR, after this issue had been repeatedly raised by other members of the board. I informed the FPPC about my previous consulting with OCR on educational data, and my advocacy in the community and on the school board for cooperating with OCR to protect the civil rights of our students. I released my letter to the FPPC and all of my correspondence with OCR staff on any matters involving Palo Alto on my website and provided them to the press.  

Correcting the Daily Post

Over the last several days the Daily Post has devoted several articles and an editorial to arguing that I am responsible for the OCR complaints and investigations in Palo Alto over the past few years. The Post focuses on an email that I sent on May 29, 2013, to OCR asking that the agency consider offering PAUSD advice (called "technical assistance") about Title IX. I was concerned that the district did not understand its obligations under Title IX to investigate and respond to sexual assault and harassment at Paly, following the publication of the “rape culture” stories in the Paly Verde student magazine.  

The Post Says: The Post says that I asked OCR to open an investigation into sexual harassment at Paly. The Post's headline reads "Dauber's email suggesting the Paly probe." The Post editorial cites my statement that "I think these facts should have triggered a Title IX investigation," and concludes "that statement doesn't line up with Dauber's claim that he wasn't behind these investigations."

The Truth: I did not ask OCR to open an investigation at Paly.

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Save the 2,008 at the School Board

Save the 2,008, a campaign to improve the lives of Palo Alto high school students led by former Gunn teacher Marc Vincenti, is on the school board agenda for our upcoming meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 8. Also on the agenda are the district's annual goals and an interim report on the budget that shows a sharp increase in anticipated property tax revenue for the district.

I'm also very happy that the Board adopted at our last meeting a change to the district homework policy that limits total homework for high school students to 15 hours per week, including advanced, AP, and honors classes. That gives teachers, students, and parents a clear expectation and sets a sensible balance. One of my top priorities will be ensuring that our homework policy is implemented with fidelity.

Save the 2,008

Save the 2,008 consists of a 6-point plan for changes in school practices around homework, communication about grades, class size, cell phone use, AP classes, and academic honesty. One of its virtues, from my perspective, is its focus on changes calculated make a meaningful positive difference in the experience of students in school. I have long been a strong supporter of looking for ways -- such as setting reasonable time guidelines for homework -- to reduce student stress and promote stronger learning and engagement in our high schools. I see "Save the 2,008" in that light, along with other plans, like the "Supportive School Environments" component of the original Project Safety Net Plan, that also stress concrete changes to improve the everyday lives of our students. I'm looking forward to a robust discussion at the board meeting, and I appreciate the commitment, sense of urgency, and civic engagement that Mr. Vincenti and hundreds of Palo Alto community members are bringing to this issue. I hope you will be there.

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Homework Policy and Annual Goals on the School Board Agenda

I hope you had a great summer break. With the first week of school behind us, the school board's first regular meeting of the year is Tuesday, August 25. This post highlights some of the key issues for that meeting, and looks forward to the 2015-16 annual goals.

Homework Policy

This Tuesday's school board meeting includes several pieces of good news about the district's homework policy. The policy, adopted in 2012, sets time guidelines and standards for homework purpose and content. (I sat on the district committee that drafted the policy). The time guideline is roughly 10 minutes per grade per night: for example, homework for 8th graders should not exceed 80 minutes per night.

Unfortunately the policy languished after adoption, as district staff didn't follow up with implementation, and the school board didn't ensure that it was actually being put into place with appropriate supports and feedback. That began to change during the last school year. I pledged during the school board campaign to make implementing the policy a priority. Superintendent McGee wrote a memo to teachers communicating that the policy would finally be implemented. The district also contracted with Hanover Research to evaluate consistency across courses and schools, a charge that included looking at homework practice. That report will be presented at Tuesday's board meeting. It includes a wealth of data about homework, including teacher expectations of homework load by subject in the high schools (I'll focus on this Hanover data in a subsequent blog post).

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Why I Am Asking the FPPC for Advice About OCR

I recently wrote to the California Fair Political Practices Committee (FPPC) for formal written advice on whether my past work and advocacy in relation to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) prevents me from voting on matters involving OCR as a member of the PAUSD school board. The PAUSD conflict of interest code and the Political Reform Act provide that a conflict arises when an elected official has a personal financial interest in a decision. I don’t believe I have a conflict of interest, as neither I nor anyone in my family has any financial interest in any matters involving OCR.

However, this question has been raised repeatedly, and I expect it may be raised again as issues involving OCR come before the board in the coming year. That is why I am asking the FPPC for advice in order to definitively resolve this issue. I included in my letter to the FPPC a full description of my prior consulting relationship with OCR, my advocacy in the community around related issues, and all correspondence I have had with anyone at OCR on any issues relating to Palo Alto. My letter and all attachments are available for downloading from Google Drive.

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Legal Fees and Budget on the School Board Agenda

At the next school board meeting on Tuesday, June 9, the board will consider two important items: the 2015-16 budget, and evaluation of the district's law firms (the Weekly has an article on the law firm review, with background information and some comments from me). As I pointed out in my last post, one firm, Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost (FFF), has seen a very substantial increase in fees. FFF handles special education and Office for Civil Rights (OCR) related issues for the district. In 2009, FFF billed the district just under $30,000. Since 2012, PAUSD has paid FFF over $900,000, and the estimate for next year is $250,000. During the election I promised to look into these expenditures and work to reduce them.

magnifying.jpgConsistent with this pledge and to prepare for the board review, in late March I requested the last two years of FFF's correspondence with the district. I ultimately received access to those materials a few weeks ago. Based on my review of that information, as well as what is publicly known, I believe that we should look for alternatives to FFF that will more effectively:

  • control legal costs
  • provide effective advice that is focused on achieving concrete results for the district
  • meet the needs of special education students without unnecessary conflict,
  • help to promote transparency in policy formation and compliance with the Brown Act and the Public Records Act
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Contact: [email protected] or 650-906-4340

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