Melissa Baten Caswell | October 5, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - October 5, 2012

Melissa Baten Caswell

Former business manager, lice checker, promotes learning through service

by Chris Kenrick

Seeking re-election for a second term on the school board, Melissa Baten Caswell cites her business background and "deep volunteer experience."

In her first term, she persuaded the management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company to produce, at no cost, a strategic plan for the Palo Alto school district. Four years later, that plan continues to guide board decision-making.

Caswell also has spent much of her personal time promoting the Developmental Assets, a youth-wellness framework adopted by the school district and other local groups following a string of student deaths by suicide in 2009 and 2010.

She sees the "asset-building" program as useful not just for teen mental health but also for pushing students toward genuine learning.

"Our district is really good at putting out students with high test scores. We're really good at sending our kids to excellent post-high-school options. But our goal needs to be a little different than that," she said.

"We need to create leaders for the next generation — they need to be learning because they're curious, because they're challenging themselves to learn more, not just for the A grade."

Caswell said the asset-building aligns with her role as a board member of the nonprofit Youth Community Service, which works in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto to foster youth leadership through service.

"If our kids aren't going to be the leaders for the next generation I don't know whose are," she said.

"I think it's important for us to invest in that kind of (community service) learning."

In her first board term, Caswell parted company with the majority in two controversial votes: a 3-2 decision in 2009 to adopt the K-5 mathematics textbook "Everyday Mathematics," and the 3-2 vote in May 2011 to revamp the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic calendars to begin the school year in mid-August so as to end the first semester before the December holidays.

She served as president of the board from 2010 to 2011.

On the current debate over high school guidance counseling, she backs the process now in place and says "it would be a huge shame" to undermine the district's culture of site-based decision-making by having the board specify to Gunn how to organize its program.

"There's value for some things to be managed from the top — managed, not mandated," she said.

"But we have a culture here that we've hired professionals and told them they can do their best work, and we'll give them goals and hold them accountable.

"If we mandate things from the top and it feels like people are being micromanaged I worry that some of our best people will leave."

As a former manager in technology companies, she said she found "if you told people how to do the details of their jobs they stopped making decisions themselves and started becoming passive-aggressive."

But Caswell admits that the board "could do a better job at clarifying and communicating goals (to school staff) and how we're going to hold people accountable."

Caswell earned an MBA and spent 14 years in the business world, first on Wall Street and later in Silicon Valley, before devoting herself to volunteer work.

She was president of the Palo Alto PTA Council, a Girl Scouts leader, and sits on the board of the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation in addition to Youth Community Service.

Among a long list of community activities she lists on her resume, she includes that of "lice checker" at Duveneck Elementary School.

Caswell says the remarkable level of diversity in Palo Alto schools is not always well recognized.

"We have kids whose parents never went to high school and who come home and have no books in their home. We have kids who have every opportunity but are not engaged. We have kids with every opportunity and are engaged. We have kids with special needs, and we have kids from every country in the world.

"There are so many different variables that reaching every kid where they are is a big challenge, but that is really our responsibility," she said.


Posted by Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 6, 2012 at 8:08 am

Thank you Melissa for being will to run again.

To me this is an easy one. Melissa has done well on her first term and I like what she has been doing.

She is the one name that is not being mentioned very much when I talk to others or when I read comments. I think we must not forget about her, or assume that she is a done deal for reelection. I think she is making a great deal of sense with her board participation and she brings the common sense approach that I like. She asks the questions I want to know the answers to and even though she sometimes states the obvious, it is the obvious that needs to be stated or is otherwise forgotten about.

Posted by PTA Parent, a resident of Duveneck School
on Oct 6, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Knowing Melissa from elementary school days, I know she seeks to make PAUSD public schools equivalent to private schools. She wants to raise high school graduation requirements to force students to work harder. Since she is an Ivy League graduate, she expects all students to aspire to the Ivy Leagues. PAUSD is a public school and should not have the standards of private, college prep schools that parents willingly pay for their children to attend. All students in PAUSD should not be expected to attend top tier schools.

Melissa's daughter attended Castilleja, proving she doesn't believe in the public school system.

Our children are stressed-out and suffering. They don't need more rigor; they already don't have much free time between tutoring and working on extracurriculars for college applications.

Voting for Melissa is a vote for more rigor. Our students should have the option to take rigorous courseloads if they chose, not have it forced upon them.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 6, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Melissa is a great choice for our School Board, contrary to what PTA parents says, she does not expect all our students to attend Ivy League schools. To quote her from he interview "We're really good at sending our kids to excellent post-high-school options. But our goal needs to be a little different than that," she said.

"We need to create leaders for the next generation — they need to be learning because they're curious, because they're challenging themselves to learn more, not just for the A grade."

Sending her child to Castilleja does not mean she doesn't believe in public schools, her son attends PAUSD. There is not an all-girls option in PAUSD. A surprising number of VERY active PTA and PiE volunteers have kids at Castilleja.

Posted by Too cool for you, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 6, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Casti is a fine school, I would never vote for a board candidate who refused (too upwardly mobile, maybe?) to send his/her kids to public school. Kind of like "mom's running the show, but looks as though I'm not doing a very good job."

By the way, if that quote is accurate, her grammar isn't so hot either.

Posted by Gunn booster, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 6, 2012 at 2:19 pm

I was unhappy about Melissa until I saw her Weekly video interview, where she says that she supports one unified counseling system at our two high schools but that she doesn't think she has the votes on the School Board (Web Link, at about 19 minutes in but watch the whole video, Melissa makes a lot of sense even if she does seem scared of teachers sometimes). I didn't know that's what she thinks. I already know that Ken supports equal services for Gunn students (probably because his kids went to Gunn) but I was really surprised to watch Heidi's interview and see that she not only doesn't support a teacher advisory system for Gunn, she thinks that both schools are basically equal already (Web Link)! I don't know what she's thinking (again, probably because she's never had high school students in the District, so maybe that would change in a few years).

I was going to vote for both Ken and Heidi because I think that south PA parents heading for Gunn need a voice on the board, but now I'm rethinking Heidi. I think that Melissa and Ken will make a great team on the board and we may actually get some things done. I'm OK with Camille coming back for another term -- I like that she praises TA even though she's kind of tepid about actually voting for it. I haven't watched her interview or Ken's though.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 6, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Too cool for you - I believe that Melissa's daughter was already at Casti when she ran for school board the first time - should she have pulled her out when she won?

BTW - I believe Ken also has a child not in PAUSD.

Posted by Learn their values, a resident of Walter Hays School
on Oct 6, 2012 at 8:15 pm

I hope this community does not vote blindly based upon candidate's college degrees. I voted based upon Ivy League graduates and regret it. An Ivy League degree does not guarantee a person has common sense or can make good decisions. Our Superintendent, Kevin Skelly, is a Harvard graduate and is a cardboard stand-up. Phil Winston, Paly's principal, is a state school graduate but is a fantastic administrator who has improved Paly and has superior communication skills to Skelly.

Posted by Hmm, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 6, 2012 at 10:42 pm

Hmm, but of course Skelly picked Winston for the Paly job ;-)

Posted by Learn their values, a resident of Walter Hays School
on Oct 7, 2012 at 12:22 am

@Hmm: Yes, it's always better to hang around with those you can learn from ;)

Posted by Sam, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm

I have known and worked with Melissa for years. I have seen her devotion to our students and schools take many varied forms from lice checker to art instructor to Biz World instructor and beyond. I served on the district PTA while she was PAUSD District Chair and was impressed by her dedication and careful consideration of the issues.
I was glad that she decided to run for School Board because I was certain that she would bring her amazing energy and skills to the job.
I know that during her first term on the School Board she really did listen to community input. I have heard her thoughtfully weigh conflicting views on important issues. She has always expressed care and consideration for all students.
Her tireless dedication to the PAUSD is to be commended. I believe we are lucky to have such a person serving us and I am glad that she has chosen to run again.

Posted by District Mom, a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 8, 2012 at 10:54 pm

@Sam I agree with you that Melissa is worthy of re-election. I saw her listen carefully and analyze all of the data that came her way at board meetings. I was impressed with all of the data that Ken Dauber brought to many board meetings I attended and noticed that Melissa was appreciative of his efforts to bring to the board differing or new views about survey data. He certainly seems to have his ducks in a row and knows what he is talking about! I have been a little disappointed with Heidi's inability to answer questions at forums so I am really wondering if I should vote for her or Camille. On the other hand, I think Camille has been on the board too long and it is time to get some new blood in there. I have seen Heidi at board meeting but don't recall hearing her say anything. So, I am looking forward to hearing her articulate more at the upcoming forums. I am very keen to hear of her Project Safety Net role as she did not define that in any of her written material or in the interview with the Weekly. So all this being said, I feel that Ken and Melissa will get my vote but Heidi will have to give me more info before I can vote for her. She seems like a very kind lady and is dedicated to kids though.

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