The "Wayfinder School" concept submission to the XQ Super School Project was completed on Nov. 14, weeks before the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) was set to make its final recommendations to the school board, but after the group's secondary subcommittee first publicly presented its preliminary proposal that the district open a progressive 6-12 school at Cubberley Community Center.
That proposal, made to the school board on Oct. 26, caught the attention of Palo Alto resident and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, EMAC members and Superintendent Max McGee said. McGee said that Powell Jobs contacted Jo Boaler, a Stanford Graduate School of Education professor and math-education expert, the next day to express her interest in having a group submit an application to the XQ Super School Project, a national competition to design and build innovative public high schools. Run through Powell Jobs' Oakland-based nonprofit, the Emerson Collective, the XQ project will award $10 million to five or more winning applicants in August 2016.
Boaler passed the message along to McGee, who connected Boaler with the EMAC secondary subcommittee members via email. McGee "urged" the subcommittee to work on an application with Boaler, along with education experts from the Stanford University Institute of Design, or d.school, and several other Palo Alto parents, said Mark Romer, an EMAC secondary subcommittee member who helped to write and submit the XQ application.
McGee wrote in an email to the Weekly that he told Boaler, "I thought it was a good idea if they wanted to pursue it because IF something were to transpire at Cubberley perhaps we could be eligible for an award."
The XQ application indicates there are 16 "current team" members, with photos of several of them appearing, including of McGee, Romer and the following:
- Diane Reklis, EMAC co-chair and secondary subcommittee member; former PAUSD board member
- Joe Lee, EMAC secondary subcommittee chair and Palo Alto parent
- Sara Woodham, Palo Alto parent and co-chair of Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS)
- Patrick Cook-Deegan, lecturer and education innovation fellow the Stanford d.school
- Kevin Efrusy, a Palo Alto resident and partner at Accel
- Molly Efrusy, wife of Kevin, president and co-founder of the Efrusy Family Foundation, also a national advisory board member for the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University
- Kelly Schmutte, experiment designer at the Stanford d.school and lecturer in the mechanical-engineering design department
- Susie Wise, Stanford d.school K-12 Lab director and co-founder of the Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland
Romer said that he was aware of the XQ competition -- it was announced in early September, five months into the EMAC's work -- but that "there was no plan to complete the XQ submission until Superintendent McGee reached out on the 27th (of October)." McGee said he also became aware of the competition at the end of September "from some parents who thought it might be worth pursuing, but (I) did not encourage or discourage them."
Members of the EMAC secondary subcommittee told the Weekly they saw the XQ initiative as a million-dollar opportunity with no strings attached -- at this early stage of the competition, it did not bind the district to anything, they said. They said they were also operating under the impression that an initial concept submission was due by Nov. 15, though the official application deadline is Feb. 1, 2016. (The Nov. 15 deadline was an "opportunity to receive feedback," the XQ website states, and submitting an application after that date would not have disqualified it in any way.)
"The XQ application is a placeholder concept submission and does not commit the district to build a school, or place any other obligations on the district," Romer told the Weekly. "There is no downside -- and potentially a lot of upside -- in the event that the school board approves a design task force. So I applaud the initiative of the more than 15 members of our community who -- with the blessing of Dr. McGee -- were willing to volunteer their time to submit the concept and generate this option value in the form of non-taxpayer dollars for our community."
Lee said the potential funding seemed like a "pot of gold," and just one of many private funding sources the district should consider for a potential new school.
In a Nov. 20 memo, McGee disclosed the XQ application to the school board for the first time (though several board members said they heard about it first from community members), describing it as a "placeholder for potential funding for a new school project." He wrote that a "local team was assembled with PAUSD parents, Stanford faculty, and d.school representatives to submit a concept plan that was due by November 15. A d.school fellow wrote the proposal in conjunction with the committee, and asked me to comment on the first draft, which I did.
"Clearly, if the Board were to approve a Design Task Force (DTF) as the draft recommendations of the Secondary Subcommittee of EMAC shared last week, the DTF could drawn upon this preliminary work of this committee ...or not," McGee wrote.
McGee said in an interview with the Weekly that his involvement in the writing of the application was minimal. He called into what other EMAC members said was a "kickoff" meeting on Nov. 4 -- organized by Romer and held at the d.school to plan the writing of the XQ application -- from the East Coast for about five minutes to talk about "preparing students for careers that don't exist, the importance of 'purpose, meaning, and joy' in student learning ... and the preliminary success of AAR (Advanced Authentic Research project) as an indicator of student interest in project-based learning."
He said he wasn't sure who was on the phone or in the room besides "some folks from the d.school involved and others from Stanford and some interested parents," though Romer said that before the meeting, McGee suggested he contact several parents who he thought would be important to include in the conversation. At least one of those parents, Sara Woodham, participated in the application process.
Others present on Nov. 4 said that McGee kicked off the meeting over the phone, setting the objective and context for the group.
Over the summer, McGee said he had worked with Kevin Efrusy and others to write a four-page description of what a new school might look like. Participants at the Nov. 4 meeting said that they agreed, with McGee, that that document would serve as the starting point for the XQ application. McGee told the Weekly he "didn't know how Kevin (Efrusy) used it (the four-page document)" and that "if they used it, it wasn't at my direction."
Several days after the Nov. 4 meeting, McGee said Romer asked him to review a first draft of the concept submission. He "read it in fits and starts during a busy day" on Nov. 12 and then gave further feedback over the phone during intermission at a high school play that evening, he said.
"I just gave him a few big picture ideas because it was not my application and was not my role to wordsmith what this independent group wrote," McGee said.
The next day, he summarized these ideas in a one-page note, added two pages of "important literature" and data he thought the group should include in the application. He said he told Romer he did not need to see the final submission because "it was their work, not mine, but given that the concept proposal was for a public school and NOT a charter school or private school, I thought it was important to have some knowledge of what they were doing and provide some big ideas that they might consider."
"Again, I played a minor part," McGee said in a previous interview. "I thought I would contribute a couple thoughts, which is what I did. I'm sorry if it looks bad to folks in the community, if they think I was involved in authoring (it) ... I can see both sides of this. Some people say, 'That's your job as a superintendent, to support grants,' and others say, 'You shouldn't get too far out in front of this.'
"I think it's best to stay above the fray and be neutral and objective," he said.
McGee has since asked that his name be removed from the XQ application, he told the Weekly.