The Palo Alto school district's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) started out as a good, even necessary, idea: With a new superintendent in place, take a fresh look at enrollment trends, facilities and staffing, from kindergarten to high school, and assess whether the district has what it needs to educate current and anticipated students.
Some good work has been done. Reams of analyses on school size and enrollment trends were compiled. But a good idea has run aground of a flawed process, over-expanded scope and compromised credibility, making the EMAC's recommendation for a new, innovative third high school difficult to rely on.
At this point, the Board's path forward is clear: thank the EMAC for its work, conclude its efforts and establish a new task force -- one that includes teachers, principals, students and a representative group of parents and other stakeholders -- to consider all the options for investing in innovation and improvement in our secondary schools.
The EMAC's problems started with its composition -- no teachers, principals, or other educators were included, except for Dr. McGee. Yet we were encouraged to look not just at capacity but also at potential innovative programs. A small group of parents (myself included) might be fine to count up kids and classrooms and review enrollment forecasts, but we are not well-equipped to judge how best to improve academic results or school connectedness, at least not without significant support from the experts: our teachers, principals and educational staff.
By contrast, the 2007 Attendance Area Advisory Group (AAAG), a predecessor to the EMAC, had over 40 members, including seven principals, staff or parents from every school (two from many), senior district administrators, and stakeholder representatives from the employee associations, the CAC, and PTAC. The AAAG maybe have been over-large and unwieldy, but broad involvement is necessary if we want to get analysis and recommendations that will earn support across the District.
With such a small group, it is not surprising that the EMAC report has significant shortcomings. Some are simple, though at times quite substantial, errors that could be corrected; but others are troubling misstatements and omissions that may reflect a less diverse set of views and a desire to persuade the community of a particular conclusion. It is noteworthy that the EMAC contains no parents of under-represented minority or low-income students.
For example, the report holds out Hillsdale High School in San Mateo as a model for PAUSD: With smaller enrollment and a high-profile "house" system, Hillsdale had attained "99th percentile" school connectedness scores on the statewide California Healthy Kids Survey, a benchmark of school environments, the committee reported. But on review, the actual results are quite different -- Hillsdale's connectedness scores are actually below those of both Paly and Gunn. It turns out that committee members hadn't actually seen the Hillsdale results and relied on an (incorrect) anecdotal report that fit their chosen narrative.
Many shortcomings are laid out in a review of the EMAC report that I delivered to the Board last week. The surprise should not be that the report falls short; it is more surprising that we would send a small group of community volunteers to analyze such a complex and important topic without professional support and a wider set of reviewers.
Finally, the superintendent and a large subset of EMAC secondary subcommittee members have associated themselves with an application for funding for the "Wayfinder School," a project to create a new innovative school in Palo Alto started by a small group of local parents and wealthy funders. This could create a serious concern if the Wayfinder application later morphs into a charter school proposal (the application contains praise for charter schools and some strong criticism of PAUSD).
But even more troubling is that no one -- not the board, the public or even the other EMAC members -- was informed that this group was working to develop and promote the Wayfinder proposal in early November when the board heard the subcommittee's report for the second time. It is hard to accept the EMAC's report as objective and impartial when a majority of the group is actually listed as "team members" promoting a specific proposed new school. (Read: Undisclosed new-school proposal sparks dissent)
So how do we move forward? First, the board should recognize that continuing the EMAC process is unlikely to yield additional value. It is hard to see how additional data, analysis or discussion will remedy the underlying issues with the committee's composition and potential conflicts.
Second, the board should establish a new task force on improving the secondary school experience. This group can both draw on a more complete set of stakeholders -- especially teachers, principals, students, and a wider range of community members -- and take on a fuller set of options. Of particular interest are proposals to increase staffing, reduce class size and foster innovative programs at our existing schools -- options not considered by the EMAC.
Finally, the board needs to be diligent in setting expectations and Dr. McGee in communicating new initiatives. Dr. McGee has shown he wants to think big in bringing the new school concept to the EMAC and connecting with Project Wayfinder. But it appears that he did so without keeping the board and the community up to speed. Big change and innovation in Palo Alto requires a high degree of community and board involvement. It is the only way to earn the level of support needed to make it happen.
Todd Collins chairs the PAUSD Elementary Subcommittee of the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee and formerly chaired the Bond Citizens Oversight Committee, but the views expressed here are entirely his own. He is a resident of Barron Park and has two children who went through Palo Alto schools.
For the counterpoint opinion, read Guest Opinion: Task force needed to analyze school ideas