Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 4, 2013

New school board president: Public education key to state's future

Dana Tom backs multi-pronged approach to addressing academic stress

by Chris Kenrick

Like many couples with young children, Dana Tom and Nancy Kawakita moved to Palo Alto mainly because of its reputation for good schools.

That was 15 years ago.

Before long Tom, a software engineer, threw himself into school volunteering and youth sports coaching.

Last month, he took the gavel to become president of the Palo Alto Board of Education for 2013.

"I can think of nothing more important we can do for our future," Tom said of investing time, effort and resources into public schools.

"The education I received as a child was the greatest gift as far as creating opportunities for me in my adult life."

Educated in San Francisco public schools, Tom earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford. He first ran and won a seat on the school board in 2005. He was unopposed for re-election to the board in 2010 and has served one earlier stint — in 2008 — as board president.

After a career creating business-applications software and later video games, Tom now works part-time as a trainer of video-game development teams.

The time commitment required for school-board work — as well as his additional involvement as a board member of the California School Boards Association — would make it difficult to hold a full-time job, he said. Tom also has served as president of the Asian/Pacific Islander School Board Members Association.

A staunch believer in public education, Tom nonetheless is rarely given to grand statements and takes an incremental approach to issues.

His statewide experience has taught him that "there are a lot of aspects to schools that are completely foreign to our region and our citizens. We cover the full spectrum of school districts — very rural, urban, pro-tax, anti-tax.

"It shows how hard it is to have one-size-fits-all regulations and practices."

In rare split votes on the consensus-oriented Palo Alto board, Tom generally has gone with the majority.

He supported reforms to the academic calendar being implemented this year, which moved the school start date to mid-August in order to squeeze in first semester before the December holidays. Reform advocates argued that a work-free December vacation could provide a healthy break from academic stress.

"I think this is the right move in the right direction for our students," Tom said at the time of the calendar debate, adding that it would not fully "solve" the problem of academic stress.

"Every time I meet somebody from a place that has finals before winter break, I ask about it, and it's just overwhelming the number of people who support it — parents, teachers, board members, even people who were initially skeptical."

In the bruising 2007 battle over creation of a Mandarin Immersion program, Tom initially voted with the majority who said the district couldn't afford to launch the program but switched after program advocates threatened to petition to open a Mandarin Immersion charter school in the district.

He also voted with the majority in a controversial 2009 adoption of the K-5 math textbook series Everyday Mathematics.

In the recent controversy over differing counseling programs at the high schools, Tom has resisted calls for Gunn High School to immediately adopt Palo Alto High School's teacher-advisory system, maintaining that Gunn should be given time to come up with its own reforms.

"There's no single solution or panacea for (academic stress)," he said.

Too often it's easy to latch onto a single action as the critical piece, but there isn't a single action.

"I believe we've made progress in taking into account the whole child, realizing that academic success is fostered by healthy social, emotional and physical health. Those are catalysts, and I believe our district, from teachers to administrators, takes that seriously.

"I've seen careful consideration, and multiple efforts at each site, to reach students, and that's what it takes."

Palo Alto students are luckier than many others in California. Tom knows firsthand from his participation in the statewide school-boards group.

Financially pressed districts elsewhere have resorted to shortened academic years, decimated programs and class sizes of 30 or higher.

"We're so fortunate that it's our responsibility to help stand up for districts across the state," he said.

"And even if we think about it only in terms of our self-interest, we're not served by having the disparities increase.

"California has to decide where we want to invest. Are we going to be better off investing in education — or in prisons to make up for the failure of our education system?"

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

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