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Palo Alto school board to discuss Strategic Plan survey

Annual survey probes student, parent satisfaction

The school district's 2015 Strategic Plan survey results, which the school board will discuss Tuesday night, offers insight into students' and parents' perceptions of many of the top issues the district hopes to tackle this year, from academic consistency and classroom innovations to social-emotional well-being and communication.

The results of the survey, which is administered annually to parents and students, align closely with the six goals the school board approved in September for the year. The goals seek to address personalized learning; consistency in instruction, curriculum, assessments and homework; better use of data; support for historically underrepresented students; enrollment; and both student and staff social-emotional health.

A higher rate of parents responded this year than last, but student response rates were significantly lower this year. Only 715 students – approximately evenly split between Gunn and Palo Alto high schools – participated in the survey, which was voluntary.

A staff report on the results cites survey fatigue as the likely culprit. Students (and parents) were asked to participate in several large surveys during the last academic year, including two Hanover Research Group studies on alignment and world languages, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) surveys for the high schools' accreditation and a Challenge Success survey at Gunn, soon to be administered at Paly.

While the majority of students (70 percent) indicated they are either satisfied or strongly satisfied with the social and emotional experience they have had in the school district, their level of satisfaction for the 2014-15 academic year, which was marked by several student deaths by suicide, was far lower (46 percent).

There were also relatively low rates of student satisfaction with the non-academic counseling services at both high schools this past year. Only 39 percent of students were satisfied or strongly satisfied, compared to 15 percent who were mildly dissatisfied and 17 percent who were either dissatisfied or strongly dissatisfied. Two students recounted in an open-ended response section their frustration at not being able to get in to see their counselors because they were overwhelmed with student demand.

Yet students reported high levels of satisfaction with both their teachers and school counselors during the 2014-15 school year. And the majority of students said there is a caring adult at their school who they go to with a problem.

Students were less satisfied, however, with how the district, school board and their school administration communicates with them – likely a remnant of last spring's divisive zero-period decision and other discussions around decisions related to student health and well-being, which left many students feeling like they weren't being heard by the adults in power in the district.

Only 31 percent of students said they were satisfied or strongly satisfied with the district's and board's communication with students while 28 percent of students reported high rates of dissatisfaction.

"When making fundamental changes to student life, please consider student opinion," one student wrote in the open-ended response section. "I'm disappointed in the school board's capabilities, and I hope to see more interaction between the students and adults in the future." (The school board and superintendent have several times this year discussed how to accomplish this, including scheduling regular meetings with student government leaders and other groups.)

Close to 40 percent of students said they were either dissatisfied or strongly dissatisfied with how well their school administrators communicate with them.

The district's No. 2 goal this year is to "foster conditions that provide a coherent district approach for aligning course curriculum frameworks, grading practices, homework expectations, project and testing schedules, and summative assessments instruments."

Hanover Research's alignment study already yielded more in-depth data about these topics, but students reported in the Strategic Plan survey that curriculum, instruction and grading practices are not as consistent as they could be.

Forty percent of students said they agreed or strongly agreed that curriculum and instruction is consistent across their teachers and classes. Forty-one percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that teacher quality and difficulty is consistent cross schools and courses. Close to half of students reported grading is fair.

"One's success should not depend on one's teacher," one student wrote in the open-ended response section.

About half of students agreed their homework assignments are "useful and appropriate" and that the amount of homework they receive is reasonable.

About half of parents agreed or strongly agreed that grading is fair across their child's teachers and classes and that the amount of homework assigned that year was reasonable. (Parents with multiple children were asked to answer questions with only their oldest child in mind.)

More parents than students thought curriculum and instruction were consistent across their children's teachers and courses. Only 30 percent of parents, however, agreed or strongly agreed that teacher quality and difficulty is consistent across schools and courses.

Levels of satisfaction were lower with individualized teaching and consistency and teacher difficulty and quality than with any other questions related to teaching and learning, according to an analysis of the results conducted by Hanover Research.

A "sizeable portion" of respondents also disagreed that the school district follows fair and transparent decision-making practices, Hanover noted. While most agreed that this is the case (67 percent), a third of overall respondents disagreed (33 percent). (Hanover's analysis collapses "strongly agree, agree and mildly agree" into "agree" and "strongly disagree, disagree and mildly disagree" into "disagree.")

"The current feeling is that decisions are made behind closed doors and that lack transparency," one parent wrote in the open-ended response section. "This may or may not be true, but in times of transition, more communication is better."

The school board will also discuss Tuesday night a new gender-identity policy that supports transgender and gender non-conforming students; the reporting structure for a new general counsel position; procedures for the board's policy review committee; and the next phase for a major renovation of the Paly library.

The Oct. 13 meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the board room at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. Read the full agenda here.

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16 people like this
Posted by Fairness and Honesty
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 12, 2015 at 2:21 pm

From the article:
"A "sizeable portion" of respondents also disagreed that the school district follows fair and transparent decision-making practices,"

"The current feeling is that decisions are made behind closed doors and that lack transparency,"

Since this was also our experience, and is one reason we are no longer with the district, I would add that attempts to make decisions more inclusive were the source of pushback and painful retaliation. This is not something that is just happening, but something that is part of the administrative culture. You can't even get administrators to give you policy if they think it contradicts anything they want on an ad hoc basis. It's very clear that some framilies are more equal than others, too.

7 people like this
Posted by Fairness and Honesty
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 13, 2015 at 9:51 am

"About half of students agreed their homework assignments are "useful and appropriate" and that the amount of homework they receive is reasonable."

This means about half did not. I have to say that in the past when I have watched the district report this kind of survey data, the interpretations have been pretty self serving, and I hope that will not be the case tonight. We're used to thinking that if a large percentage agree, then there must be no cause for concern. What if 90% of the kids report they think homework is fine? It's easy to claim all is well. But what if the 10% is mostly kids with learning disabilities, emotional problems, physical illnesses, or trouble concentrating in school because of unaddressed environmental problems in the facilities? What if it was only 5%? The district is supposed to serve all students, and the law requires identifying barriers to education and providing accommodating as well as reasonably possible. Knowing statistically how many students agree that homework assignments are reasonable is not nearly as useful as knowing who is having problems and why, and figuring out what helps.

The statistics and many of these questions just came across in the last survey as a way for the district to feel comfortable in avoiding addressing the toughest problems, which rarely affect everyone or even the majority at any given point in time.

That said, half the students feeling their homework is not reasonable is egregious, especially given the events of recent years and all the resources we've spent. If this were a company, the board would have replaced the entire management team. Imagine what would happen if families could grade the staff, and one misstep tanked the employees' entire year's performance and future, similar to what happens with our kids' grades?

1 person likes this
Posted by outsider
a resident of another community
on Oct 13, 2015 at 12:08 pm

outsider is a registered user.

Now that Lydian academy has wasc approved courseware that is mastery based and includes lab scienced, the parents who can afford $75 and hour for about 70 sessions are guaranteed and A on a Palo Alto high school transcript. Palo Alto is also accepting summer classes and that give kids extra preps so they can do well on their other classes without the pressure of having to take a full load. Also, AJ tutoring is getting some great results. If you have money and it looks like your teacher is out of bounds then the problem is fixable. There is no option for mid income families to replace grades with a guaranteed A with uncredentialed tutors. These are just college kids tutoring and a few teachers who are advising. . Low income kids are just put into the low classes.

5 people like this
Posted by Fairness and Honesty
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 13, 2015 at 1:41 pm

Outsider - can you please provide more detail? We asked and were denied any ability to combine outside coursework with PAUSD. But then I'm sure it's different if they like someone, and there's no way to wrench disclosure about policies out of them to enforce fairness. Please provide details. Is this done through independent study or transfer of credits?

3 people like this
Posted by Name
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 13, 2015 at 1:49 pm

Web Link

"Palo Alto district Superintendent Kevin Skelly said programs such as Lydian fill a need for some students. The district's stated policy is to honor up to 40 units of coursework from accredited, off-campus institutions such as Lydian."

2 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of another community
on Oct 13, 2015 at 2:16 pm

outsider is a registered user.

Just go ahead and call Lydian. They will tell you that most of their business comes from Palo Alto for concurrent enrollment. I asked a counselor and she said it just had to be pre approved and many are doing this. I understood that concurrent enrollment is only allowed if a class is not offered. I think the classes at Lydian are offered at both schools and all the classes are "mastery" learning and guarantee an A with one on one tutoring. Tell me what kid would not benefit from this. Only the rich kids can do this and they are. Cooncurrent enrollement usually used to be for classes not offered or for highly gifted kids who had passed out of all HS classes- or for exotic languages not offered.

Also, foothill college is giving credits for orchestra and orchestra is offered at both schools. The families that can afford the tuition at California youth symphony which can add up to 2-7 thousand depending on the tour price, also get a 5 credit A from foothil every semester they are in the private youth orchestras. This really helps their overall average. What about the talented kid without a sponsor, or a smart kid with a bad teacher whose parents have to leave him in a class that is not at all mastery based. I am so sorry I did not know about this sooner or would have taken the 40 units at a jr. college and given my kid some preps and possible transfer credits. I should have been researching this sooner. I would not send a kid to Lydian as they are not credentialed. I do not know how they managed to be wasc accredited in lab sciences when the teachers are not credentialed and how on earth this in any way is equal to surviving a lab class at paly with actual exams, homework and deadlines. What a great break for the rich and how ridiculous that this study is missing this point.

2 people like this
Posted by Data Sort
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 13, 2015 at 2:20 pm

From the survey slides in the District agenda packet, it looks like there is lower satisfaction about struggling students and Special Education. Can the District show responses sorted students and families in these programs? It is a cheaper way to start an evaluation than hiring a consultant, especially if the data already exists in the Hanover survey.

5 people like this
Posted by Fairness and Honesty
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 13, 2015 at 5:34 pm


Don't beat yourself up. We ASKED for something like this, and the district said no, and not only that, played dumb about this. I had no idea. Not that it matters. The same antagonism from administrators would have meant the experience would have been just as fraught as all-school classes. The only way to move on to something positive was to leave. (sped family) Or maybe change our name to Jobs or Zuckerberg.

4 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of another community
on Oct 13, 2015 at 8:41 pm

outsider is a registered user.

Free advice- follow state standards. Be nicer to parents and students. stop spending money on "experts" and trust yourselves.

Like this comment
Posted by learning
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 14, 2015 at 8:22 am

Fairness and Honesty,

Paly's Student Handbook mentions taking classes off campus and getting PAUSD credit for it. The counseling office adds that this does not apply to graduation requirements (so is for electives only), where a student takes a class is noted on his transcript, and many colleges presume that the student took the class elsewhere because it was easier.

As I understand, mastery based learning at Lydian may not be easier in what the student needs to learn but it is "easier" since a student there can take as much time as he wants to master the material and can re-take tests - once, twice, three times - for a better grade.

Mastery based learning is not likely to be embraced at Paly without hiring more English teachers and giving teachers one or two more prep periods each day. Now, not all Paly English teachers review student drafts and some take months to grade papers.

Like this comment
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 14, 2015 at 10:17 am

I am pretty sure they do just list the class from Paly. I know of quite a few who took physics and have it on transcripts. They are allowing sci . lab classes for credit from Lydian if the parents can afford this. This a-g credit on a lab class without a credentialed teacher is rare for a reason but this is being accepted by admin. I think community college credits are fine because they have credentialed teachers and real labs and are available for all the kids. Actually, it is pretty telling that an entire, very successful business was built on replacing science classes at Paly. Same for AJ tutoring. I would love to see a study involving the amount of money parents shell our per year for outside instruction to fill in gaps.

2 people like this
Posted by Fairness and Honesty
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 14, 2015 at 2:54 pm

But under what structure are we talking here? Is it a special exception for Lydian, did the district separately decide they would take just Lydian classes? I think it's policy to take community college classes. But private school classes -- that would technically allow families who homeschool to spend part of the day at home and part at school. I'm pretty sure our controlling district would never allow this, or if they did, they would only allow it for those they considered more equal than others.

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