Thoughts on one month in office

I plan to use this blog as one way to communicate with the community about important issues in PAUSD. I hope that you will find it useful, and most importantly that you will share with me your feedback at [email protected]. I will do a better job the more I hear from you about your experiences, concerns, and insights. Help me to reach our collective goal of putting students first in all of our work.

My first month in office has been marked by a resurgence of community concern about stress in our schools, a discussion of differences in bullying rates in our middle schools, the first meetings of the superintendent's task force on minority achievement, and a board discussion I initiated about whether to continue spending time and money pursuing appeals in closed civil rights cases.

Social and Emotional Wellbeing: At my first board meeting, on Dec. 9, many community members spoke about their concerns about student social and emotional wellbeing, and unnecessary academic stress. Marc Vincenti and Martha Cabot, co-founders of Save the 2008, spoke about their proposals including more communication about homework, smaller class sizes, and phone-free classrooms. Other students, parents, and community members spoke, some in a similar vein and others with contrasting views. I have long advocated measures to address unnecessary stress and improve social and emotional health, based on the "Supportive School Environment" (P-8) part of our Project Safety Net Plan. I hope community members, particularly students, will continue to come to board meetings to share their experiences and ideas.

My Next Steps:

  • I suggested at the last board meeting that we regularly schedule board-level discussions of aspects of social and emotional wellbeing. I have also suggested that we schedule a board study session to assess the range of our efforts districtwide, held at a time when students and parents can attend. I will follow up both of those suggestions, as I think they provide a very useful way to maintain board focus on this critical area.
  • I will work for immediate action to implement our district's homework policy and administrative regulations, including gathering information about how much homework our students are actually doing.
  • I will propose readministering the guidance counseling survey given to our high school students in 2012, to determine whether there still exists a gap in the effectiveness of services between Paly and Gunn as measured against that baseline.

Civil Rights: Also at the December 9 meeting, Superintendent McGee reported that the district had expended legal fees to answer inquiries from the Office for Civil Rights about the district's appeals of denials of Freedom of Information Act requests. These requests concern closed cases -- the original Terman case resulting in a finding of civil rights violations, and a complaint at Jordan that was decided in the district's favor. I suggested that we withdraw those requests, as I see no benefit to students from continuing to expend money and staff time on these closed cases. Other board members said that they wanted to pursue the appeals and to post OCR's case file in the Terman case and other documents on the Web if and when they are ultimately provided (for more detail, see the Weekly's coverage). While I appreciate this commitment to transparency, I continue to believe that it is unlikely that we will learn anything beyond what we already know from the district's own records in these cases -- much of which was never fully discussed in public.

My Next Steps: I will continue this discussion at the board level.

Bullying: District staff presented data (also at that busy December 9 meeting) from the Palo Alto Reality Check and California Healthy Kids surveys on a wide variety of issues, with a major focus on bullying in our middle schools. The good news is that we have seen a steady decline in bullying reports in the surveys. I pointed out that the rate of decline at Terman and JLS has been sharper than at Jordan, and the absolute rates of bullying are lower. Our three middle schools use three different anti-bullying approaches, and I asked whether these observed differences in bullying are related to these approaches. On its face, and following on Dr. McGee's renewed emphasis on consistency, there does not seem a compelling reason for this lack of consistency. As my fellow board member Heidi Emberling has repeatedly pointed out, the district would almost certainly be better off with a focused, evidence-based anti-bullying program that was shared across our schools.

My Next Steps: I will continue to work for clarity and consistency on responses to bullying in our middle schools, beginning by working with the Superintendent to get more information about the sources of the differences we are seeing.

Thank you for entrusting me with this responsibility. Please reach out to me with your feedback, ideas, or concerns, and look for future blog posts on the important issues in our district.

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Contact: [email protected] or 650-906-4340

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