On Tuesday, Nov. 10, early in a presentation of the Palo Alto school district's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) to the school board, a PowerPoint slide appeared with the colorful logo of the XQ Super School Project, a new, $50 million education initiative launched by Laurene Powell Jobs. The project's tagline: "Rethink high school."
The slide followed another that listed two preliminary recommendations of a subcommittee tasked with looking at enrollment at the middle and high school levels: The first was to open a new, innovative secondary school or schools at Cubberley Community Center and the second to "form small learning communities within our existing middle and high schools by extending the pathways that are nascent today and rolling out 'core teams' or 'house systems' systemically."
"Currently, there is a competition going to re-think high schools that's been staged by a nationally, internationally known, locally based large philanthropic organization promoting the use of student voice to innovate within high schools," said Mark Romer, a member of the EMAC secondary subcommittee and parent in the district, referring to the XQ Super School Project.
"This is just one of many examples of rethinking high school that's on the stage nationally," he continued, also pointing to a White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools that had been announced that very day. "We're seeing that this is where the energy in the community is. High school is where the national conversation is."
Absent from the rest of the presentation and subsequent board discussion on Nov. 10 was any mention of the fact that the EMAC secondary subcommittee's five members, plus Superintendent Max McGee, were part of a larger community group developing a detailed proposal for a Palo Alto Unified middle and high school to submit to the XQ competition. (Read: Who worked on the XQ application)
The chair of the secondary subcommittee, Joe Lee, later told the Weekly that this omission was not intentional, and Romer said that the group assumed McGee would inform the school board.
"We did not feel it was our role or responsibility to do so," Romer said.
However, the lack of public disclosure about the XQ application has created concern in the community over the past few weeks that there has been an inappropriate drive by a small cadre of community members toward opening a new school before the idea has even gone through the proper, democratic channels necessitated in a public school district. What's more, the involvement of the district superintendent in these efforts, and the lack of transparency over the exact nature of his actions, has raised questions as to whether he's been acting as a helpful facilitator to interested community members or an advocate for a radical new idea in a way that oversteps his role.
The XQ application, submitted on Nov. 14, only became public five days later when posted to a recently created Facebook page, "Palo Alto Supports a New 6-12 Public School." Screenshots of the application were posted in an album with the message, "We intend the new Palo Alto School to be part of the national movement to innovate secondary education."
"Our goal is to start a radically innovative school within a high-performing district and develop a blueprint for how we might bring innovation to Palo Alto Unified's more than 12,000 students and beyond," the "Wayfinder School" concept submission begins. "Our opportunity and challenge is to bring a purpose-based, personalized high school experience to a conventionally 'high achieving' district, and to do it as part of the district (not a charter) to benefit both marginalized students in the district as well as so called 'high achievers.'"
Later the application states, "With the unbelievable collection of resources in Palo Alto and Silicon Valley, we see founding this school as more than a 'the next cool thing' in Silicon Valley, but as a moral obligation."
How the XQ application came to be -- and whether it overlapped with the work of the district's enrollment committee -- has been at the center of speculation and debate.
After word of the XQ application began to spread in late November, some school board members expressed concern about the timing of the application -- before EMAC had presented its final recommendations to the board or gained board approval. Several board members said they heard about it first from community members, then in a Nov. 20 memo from McGee.
Trustee Terry Godfrey called the application "premature and a distraction."
"It's really outside our process," she told the Weekly. "We're discussing process of enrollment management, not the process of creating a whole different school. That might come out of enrollment management but that's a little bit of the cart before the horse."
To board President Melissa Baten Caswell, typical district processes went awry.
"If we had followed the process, I would have expected it to be handled differently," she said. "The board would have been aware of this. If they wanted to do this, we would have been able to give some guidance on whether it was appropriate or not appropriate."
The application's airing also fanned the flames of some internal conflict within the enrollment committee. Todd Collins, chair of the elementary subcommittee, who publicly challenged the secondary group's analysis and findings at a Nov. 10 board meeting, posted online this week an open letter to the board to express concern about the integrity of proposals from a group associated with the Wayfinder School concept and XQ application. Collins' letter is from about a dozen "community leaders, teachers, administrators, parents, and students coming together for a single purpose -- to urge the PAUSD Board to create an inclusive and impartial citizens advisory committee for improving our secondary schools." The group behind the letter is seeking signatures of support to be included in the board's packet for its Dec. 8 meeting.
"We are concerned about issues that have come to light about the EMAC's composition, analysis, and impartiality," the letter reads.
"With a majority of the secondary subcommittee identified as 'Team Members' promoting a specific new school proposal, it is impossible for the Board to rely on the group's objectivity and impartiality."
The idea for a new school has actually been gathering steam for most of this year -- with the full knowledge of McGee, who's lent his support to enthusiasts of the concept.
Romer said he first heard mention of this potential school from the superintendent in late April following a screening of the documentary "Most Likely to Succeed" at Gunn High School. (The film focuses on High Tech High, a public charter high school in San Diego.)
This film showing had been organized by members of a PAUSD parent-education committee, also with the help of Kevin Efrusy, a Palo Alto resident and partner at Accel, and his wife, Molly Efrusy, president and co-founder of the Efrusy Family Foundation. Molly is also a national advisory board member for the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University.
An overflow audience polled afterwards indicated overwhelming support for opening a new school in Palo Alto. Eighty-three percent of respondents said they would "probably or definitely" attend (either as a teacher, student or a parent sending their child) a new school in the district modeled after High Tech High.
McGee took notice. The next night, he sent an email to several people who organized the screening (including Romer and his wife as well as the Efrusys) and others who participated in a panel afterwards stating that he wanted to show the film to his Minority Achievement Talent Development committee, members of his leadership team and "all members of my Enrollment Management Advisory Committee, who I hope will be recommending opening of a new school."
The EMAC's first meeting, in fact, was only the week prior, on April 20. It had begun with the charge "to prepare multiple, strategic, evidence-based, actionable recommendations that will enable the district to design, develop, and implement short- and long-term plans for accommodating projected PAUSD enrollment consistent with PAUSD educational standards."
In late May and early June, Romer said he participated in brainstorming sessions at the Stanford University d.school to create a set of cards promoting the Wayfinder School concept. (One of the cards reads: "What if ... Palo Alto harnessed the creative horsepower of our community and crafted a radically new school that became an innovation hub for public education?")
Romer said McGee was aware of these sessions, but did not attend any that Romer did. Romer said he and the Efrusys eventually showed McGee the cards on June 11.
McGee told the Weekly he "thought they were terrific." He then shared copies of the cards with the school board at a June 17 retreat, briefly mentioning the Wayfinder concept and a desire to take advantage of Cubberley as part of a discussion of board goals for the 2015-16 year. He also shared the cards with the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, administrators and others throughout the summer, he said.
That June, McGee also asked Romer and the Efrusys to present the Wayfinder concept to the entire enrollment management committee, along with district leadership. Several secondary-school principals attended. The goal, the presenters said, was to open a 6-12 school at Cubberley by the fall of 2017, according to district minutes from the June 15 meeting.
Romer, who was not initially a member of the EMAC, attended the group's next meeting on June 29 to talk further about the Wayfinder concept -- at McGee's request, he said. McGee opened the meeting by explaining the "confluence of events" that had led to the creation of EMAC in April: rising enrollment, particularly at the middle schools; a "renewed emphasis" on student mental health and wellness; the groundswell of support for a progressive school indicated at the "Most Likely to Succeed" screening; "competition from other innovative programs" and an "appetite for innovative schools."
"All these events kind of came together and intrigued me enough to meet with Mark, some folks from the d.school, Carol Dweck at Stanford, some potential funders ... to think of a big vision for what a new school would look like," McGee said. He and Romer both said the d.school would provide a fellow to work with the district to design a new school.
The enthusiasm for an innovative new school was not universally embraced, however. At that June 29 meeting, other EMAC members questioned whether this was the charge of their group of 11 parent volunteers. They also cautioned against opening a new, small school that would benefit only a few families in the district and leave the majority of students in schools still too large.
EMAC member Todd Collins suggested that the topic of a new, innovative school is "in some ways too important for this committee" and would require an entirely separate committee's attention.
"It would be presumptive in some ways to say, 'Let's create a new school and the new school should look like this,'" Collins said.
Diane Reklis, EMAC co-chair and former school board member, said, "It's important to discuss if we're the right committee to do this work."
But, she added later, whatever they recommend, "It has to be big. ... We're tired of Band-Aids. We aren't a great district when we just have Band-Aids that are obscuring the light of the lighthouse. We've been doing Band-Aids since I can remember."
Others agreed. Wendy Ho told the group: "One of the reasons I applied to the committee was because I thought we'd be doing something different, big, creative."
The idea that the EMAC might explore the possibility of a new school didn't sit well with at least one school board member. On June 30, Caswell, in response to an email from McGee recapping the June 29 meeting, expressed disagreement with looking at what she called a long-term solution instead of focusing on problem identification and more immediate solutions.
"I have heard concerns from the community about the role of this committee," she wrote. "There are basic problems in the short to medium term that we need solved quickly around basic capacity issues, availability of classrooms/buildings, how to deal with the new kids coming in from Stanford new construction, what to do about our large and growing middle school population, the large waiting lists for some of our choice programs and how much annual operating budget we feasibly have to solve these issues. Do you feel the committee has a clear enough charter and capacity to make recommendations on this?"
"It is really important that we solve the short term looming problems," she wrote, "before we move those problem-solving resources to long-term visionary planning."
The EMAC's secondary subcommittee members today worry that the subtlety and evolution of their recommendations have been lost in the brouhaha over the potential of a new school in Palo Alto and McGee's role.
Subcommittee chair Lee wrote in an email to the Weekly that his team saw -- and still sees -- the XQ application as "a completely separate and orthogonal process to the mainline EMAC workstream -- that is, a quick submission due by Nov. 15 to preserve our option value for non-taxpayer money if the Board chose to go down that road."
Committee members have repeatedly emphasized that they are not asking the board to approve the opening of a new school, but instead the creation of a design task force. This group, made up of a more diverse set of stakeholders (including students and educators) than the 11 parents on the current enrollment committee, would be better suited to the task of delving deeper into the details, such as curriculum and pedagogy, of a potential new secondary school, they said.
They are also recommending what they repeatedly describe as a "both, and" approach so as to not leave the current secondary schools behind. If approved, the design task force would also be tasked with investigating and recommending what reforms are most needed at the district's existing middle and high schools.
Yet community members, and even a fellow EMAC member, have questioned the efficacy of the secondary subcommittee's "both, and" approach. If the process to open an exciting -- and costly -- new school is approved, will the existing schools really get the attention they deserve?
Collins spoke during open forum at the Nov. 10 board meeting to challenge the secondary group's data analysis -- particularly that the district's secondary schools are too large -- and recommendations.
"But so what, right? There's a school of thought that even if their recommendation is completely wrong, what's the worst thing that can happen?" Collins said. "We build a new school. Capital costs are viewed by many people as practically free. We're told that there are donors waiting in the wings to fund part or all of a new school. So why would anybody be against building a new, innovative school?
"I actually think a lot is at stake," he continued. "We are not a district that's light on its feet. We spent three years debating the school calendar. The decision to open a new secondary school, the bond to fund it, the design of the building, choice versus neighborhood enrollment, the impact of traffic -- not to mention, that's even before you get to the new educational program that would be there. This program would consume our complete attention for the entire next five to seven years, plus in turn, our entire current budget surplus for every year thereafter."
Collins later sent the board a 16-page report detailing his critiques of the secondary group's analysis and findings. He followed that with the open letter to the school board -- for which Collins is currently collecting signatures -- in which he writes that the secondary group's involvement in the XQ proposal makes it "impossible for the Board to rely on the group's objectivity and impartiality."
Lee rebuffs assumptions that his subcommittee had "some pre-ordained nefarious motive" in submitting the XQ application as "absurd and simply is not true," he said.
"It seems that some folks are so keen to derail even the POSSIBILITY of investing in new PAUSD secondary schools that they are claiming to see shadows where there are exactly none," Lee wrote in an email. "I see a lot of rushing to judgment and prematurely girding for battle when the only 'ask' from the EMAC secondary team is for the board to kick off a design task force, who should be commissioned to continue the work EMAC-SSS (secondary schools subcommittee) has started on the 'why' by investigating the 'what' and the 'how' ... so that the Board can be ready to make a set of go/no-go decisions by summer 2016."
Last week, McGee decided to cancel a town hall meeting on the entire enrollment committee's recommendations scheduled for Nov. 30, citing new survey data that needed to be analyzed. He also postponed the delivery of the EMAC's final report to the board, originally scheduled for Dec. 8, to Jan. 12.
He wrote in a Nov. 23 message to the board that "EMAC still has much work to do prior to issuing their final report, and they have not yet finalized either the scenarios or recommendations in this report." The committee will meet twice before making these final recommendations, on Monday, Dec. 14, and Monday, Jan. 4, at the district office.
"Please note," McGee continued, "that I have not finalized my recommendations and will not do so until I have had the opportunity to evaluate pros and cons, fully understand costs and benefits, listen to community members, and ultimately recommend what I believe will be in the best short and long term interest of our current and future students, families, faculty and staff, and taxpayers."
McGee said he was "without a doubt" an objective, neutral participant in the EMAC process.
Romer -- whose involvement in the schools had previously been minimal beyond his own children -- told the Weekly said McGee's willingness to connect outside efforts with district processes is something to be lauded, not questioned.
"The overriding theme that connects Wayfinder, EMAC and XQ is that Max wanted to have the debate inside the proper channels of the district, rather than outside the process. Personally, I view that as a very positive sign of Max's leadership," he said. "He has at every turn welcomed outside ideas and connected them with in-district processes and people. My sense is that he has always been neutral on the outcome, not championing the idea of a new school, but he has been inclusive in the process and guided the conversation within the district's processes."