Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 31, 2014

Teachers propose new classes for Palo Alto schools

Board of Education members cool to idea of dismantling 'laning' of freshman English

by Chris Kenrick

Teachers — some dressed in football jerseys — thronged a Palo Alto Board of Education meeting Tuesday to present their ideas for new or reformed class offerings for next year.

Board members were cool to a Palo Alto High English Department proposal that would dismantle the current two-lane structure in freshman English to offer an accelerated class to all ninth graders.

But they embraced, with some reservations, other Paly proposals that would try to capture students' passion for sports and social justice by creating new three-year academic "pathways" through the school — one focused on sports careers and the other on social justice and community service.

Paly English teachers said they had been working for 18 months on a proposal to de-lane freshman English, which they believe would boost graduation rates.

Currently, many students whose standardized test scores qualify them for accelerated English nonetheless opt for the regular lane, the teachers said.

"I've had conversations with freshman students who self-identify as being in the dummy class — they see themselves right off the bat as not being as smart as their peers," Paly Principal Kim Diorio said. "I think that sets them up in that mindset that they're in a fixed place in our school, and that's really troubling.

"In our school we talk about equity and structural inequalities that exist in our system and how we can raise achievement for all students."

Diorio and the teachers said they believe their proposed change would also be easier for teachers because special-education students would be dispersed among more than 20 freshman English classes rather than concentrated in a few low-lane sections.

Parents Sara Woodham and Ken Dauber backed the English teachers' proposal at the meeting but parents Louise Valente, Lauren Janov and Jonathan Foster questioned it.

Board members said they've been flooded with emails from parents about the proposed change, however, and all but member Heidi Emberling indicated they were not prepared to support it.

They questioned whether the teachers' plan offered enough "specific scaffolding" and intensive extra help for regular-lane students to make them "feel successful" in an advanced class.

"If we're going to ask our struggling kids, who are already struggling, to go up to 9A (accelerated English) that does have a faster curriculum with more vocabulary and more time on task, then we've got to provide something different," Vice President Melissa Baten Caswell said.

Board member Dana Tom said his "fundamental discomfort (with the proposed change) is trying to understand how you can effectively challenge and support the students in the class when you have a larger range than what you have today."

Board President Barb Mitchell worried that the proposal is "catching parents and students by surprise," with ninth-grade signups due next week.

"What I've learned about our community is that parents and students love choices, and the difficulties about this discussion is it's perceived as a subtraction as opposed to more choices," Mitchell said, suggesting that parents be given more time to digest the proposal.

Board member Camille Townsend said the many lane choices offered to students has been cited as a strength of the Palo Alto school district, adding she has heard from many parents concerned about the proposal.

Only Emberling supported the English proposal as presented.

"I think it's nice to start with a level playing field and differentiating within the classroom," she said.

"We trust the professionals in our district, and this is a pilot program."

The board, however, expressed enthusiasm for the two "pathway" ideas.

The Social Justice Pathway would be designed as a school-within-a school for about 60 students in grades 10 through 12, similar to Paly's existing TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More) program for freshmen. Students would move together through English, history and — for most of them — Spanish classes, with an emphasis on project-based learning and primary documents.

The Sports Career Pathway would not be a school-within-a-school but would offer sports-themed classes such as kinesiology, sports literature and photojournalism — classes that already exist at Paly — and include internships and a new introductory class called "Getting Into the Game."

Teachers said they came up with the proposals after being asked two years ago to brainstorm for "out- of-the-box ideas" that would ignite students' passions.

"At the heart of this is recognizing a true interest base among our students," English teacher Lucy Filppu said, stressing that the Sports Career Pathway is not meant particularly for athletes but to capitalize on many students' natural interest in sports.

Board members objected to an element in the sports pathway creating an optional "strand" for students not wishing to complete a four-year-college-prep curriculum.

The objections echoed similar concerns expressed by parents Woodham and Dauber.

"The premise of this pathway is flexible, whereas we want our kids to be college-ready," Woodham said.

Beginning with the graduating class of 2016, the four-year-college-prep curriculum will become a condition of high school graduation unless a student and his or her family specifically have negotiated with the district for "alternative graduation requirements."

Teachers said they'd be willing to withdraw the non-college-track strand and offer the sports pathway as a college-track-only option.

In addition to the pathways proposals, board members were particularly enthusiastic about a proposed new Paly class in Early Childhood Development, a new nanotechnology class that will be offered in cooperation with Foothill College to both Paly and Gunn students, and a new marine biology class at Gunn.

They also embraced JLS Middle School proposals for classes in "Money Matters" and a project-oriented class focusing on environmental issues.

Before a final vote on the new classes likely for Feb. 11, board members asked for tweaks in a JLS Middle School proposal for a new Exploratory Language class aimed at building readiness in middle school students to pursue a foreign language in high school.

The class, said JLS French teacher Jacqueline Kandell, would "get them used to sounds and pronunciations through a fun way of learning that focuses on the culture, arts, crafts and geography. It would allow them to get comfortable and build readiness to learn a language."

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

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