Who worked on the XQ application? | News | Palo Alto Online |


Who worked on the XQ application?

New school 'concept' proposal a collaboration of district parents, Stanford faculty, superintendent

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.

Related content:

Undisclosed new-school proposal sparks dissent

Guest Opinion: Task force needed to analyze school ideas

Guest Opinion: Hitting 're-set' with school enrollment committee

Editorial: It's the secrecy, stupid

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27 people like this
Posted by Barron Park parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 4, 2015 at 8:02 am

The full response here from the EMAC is here Web Link

It says that the deadline was November 15 for the qualifying round, and that there wasn't much time to pull something together between the time Jo Boaler reached out to the Superintendent in late October and the submission due date.

So why does the Weekly say that real deadline is something in Feb or March?

But bigger picture: isn't it a good thing to stand in line for free money even if the District later decides not to start up a new secondary school?

Sounds like a lot of upside and absolutely zero downside, especially if these parents and community members spent only their own time working this, separate and apart from whatever the Board and the District is doing.

PS - I read the XQ and it doesn't say at all that the money is to be used for a charter school. Man, people are desperate to read things that are not in evidence.

32 people like this
Posted by Woops
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Dec 4, 2015 at 9:10 am

Did we make a mistake in hiring McGee? This is certainly a breech of trust! I really wanted to to like this guy, but apparently he thought it best to keep things secret, because SOMETHING wasn't quite legit.

As users of the PAUSD, we have a right to know what is going on here and who is working on it and contributing money.

What we don't necessarily need to know is the exact amount each party contributed.

But shrouding something in secrecy only makes it look as if devious forces are at work.

52 people like this
Posted by Supportive
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 4, 2015 at 11:12 am

Before all the conspiracy theorists and armchair school board members try running Mr. McGee out of town, can we collectively take a breath and embrace that these forward-thinking people are volunteering their time and talents in an attempt to move our children and PAUSD into the 21st century?

Many "top" private schools are doing away with AP tracks and doubling-down on progressive, inquiry-based education. We are at the center of innovation - why not try to inject more of it into our schools? I much prefer to let this play out than to continue being a part of a school district where a ridiculously high percentage of students need tutors to reach their short term academic goals.

18 people like this
Posted by Focusing on What Matters
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 4, 2015 at 2:31 pm

I concur with "Supportive" above. Thank you to the people listed here who helped with the XQ submission. Undoubtedly this was completed in your “spare” time with little to no incentive other than wanting to help Palo Alto children have an amazing educational experience. I am not sure what the PA Weekly intended by publishing specific people’s names, but if it is to thank and acknowledge them for their service to our community, then thank them I do!

In terms of Dr. McGee's role and what the board should have known and when, our school board members have a great understanding of their obligations regarding oversight than most of us in general public do. I am hopeful that our elected officials will give the situation the due that's needed and no more or less.

That said, it sounds like there is much work to be done and that a broader cross-section of our community - teachers, parents, students, and the city - will need to come together to forge a future for our children's education that better reflects current wisdom on school size and potentially other factors. Moving forward, the conversation needs to include more voices and perspectives in a focused and productive manner. I look forward to hearing the board put forth its best thinking on how to do so.

33 people like this
Posted by A Lums
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2015 at 9:43 am

I am a little confused about this controversy - isn't the XQ Prize about designing a completely new high school concept for the next century? It's not a grant for designing a local school necessarily, is it? I have my issues with our school district but am dumbfounded that people would pick on this. It seems completely appropriate for McGee to be a resource for this given his position and background.

On the other hand, it makes me feel pretty shafted when we asked for innovation we could do now - allowing kids who needed more individualization of their programs to use independent study, since there are so many more resources today than ever. Their answer was to ignore our requests for information about past independent study allowed in the district, deny our child's request for just one independent study class (for math, which isn't even a new thing to do), essentially pat us on the head and ignore our requests for some kind of hybrid for high school for a kid who desperately needed it, take independent study entirely out of the Gunn catalog for this year, and tell us if they let us do it then everyone would want to. Reading about this makes me feel that Have and Have Not situation everyone keeps talking about - I guess we're from the wrong side of the tracks. Innovation doesn't have to start with an expensive new school, it can start tomorrow if the district simply allowed more freedom to those willing to accept the possible downsides (from district standpoint) of the independence.

Our kid had a pretty disastrous experience with math in our district. Since leaving this year, doing independent study math allowed completely self paced working through a standard math curriculum of two semesters of geometry by the end of November, with an A and none of the drama and punitive unnecessary busy work he'd had in school, i.e., starting to like math again.

This school could be a great thing for our district, but so could any proposal that gets funded from XQ - the goal of the competition is not to build a few schools but to create something better that could work everywhere. As for innovating in our district, I wish people would put their energy into what could be done NOW, without lots if money, new buildings, or anything else.

As for all the righteous indignation, we have a lot of problems in the district in great need of it, but this is not one of them.

14 people like this
Posted by Katniss
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 5, 2015 at 10:27 am


I think you are not understanding the school board's concern, which is the same as yours. Apart from the governance failure and backroom deals between McGee and billionaires that this revealed, as to substance the board is concerned with exactly what you are concerned with. The board does not want to build a 100M innovation showpiece, it wants to make our secondary schools better for the students who are in them now. You say: "I wish people would put their energy into what could be done NOW, without lots if money, new buildings, or anything else."

Well, yes. That is exactly what Caswell and Dauber said at the board meeting. There is an opportunity cost here to deciding to do this thing -- what about the 3500 students who won't get in? Should we just wad them all up into a ball and throw them in the trash? You missed the lifeboat so you can go down with the ship? You didn't get the Golden Ticket, no innovation for you? Too bad the odds were not ever in your favor, you're going to the Homework Games?

If we spend, conservatively, $100M plus more time and attention on this, what will become of Gunn and Paly and the middle schools we already have. Anyone can innovate where they are, and as Dauber said, that's actually the more important question -- how to do that -- since the vast majority of our students won't go to this fancy showpiece school. As Caswell said, this is not a district that has historically been good at deploying innovation beyond a particular site and if that doesn't change we will just be building Ohlone High School -- long the dream of Ohlone parents but doesn't do anything for anyone else.

Your agreement on these points should put you in opposition to this proposal which is basically a proposal to build a school for a few entitled very wealthy parents so that Max can give a Ted Talk about it and be on the XQ reality TV show and preen more than he already does (which will be a big accomplishment). This is a proposal to siphon money time and talent away from the schools we currently have.

If the dschool wants to help PAUSD redesign its current schools (and if they are actually qualified to do that which I question) then great. Yay. But if they want only to build rich VCs a fancy school for their own kids, and to bring private money into our public schools for their own purposes, then it's a trap. It's not democratic and it won't help your kid or anyone elses, save a chosen few.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

9 people like this
Posted by Facts, not claims
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 5, 2015 at 11:09 am

The new secondary school should follow Board policies of exact same dollars spent per capita as any other secondary school in the District. In fact, I believe that is what the EMAC recommendations say upfront here: Web Link

So let's not get ourselves get sideways or upside down thinking this new school is only for rich or otherwise privileged kids. These are conclusions not in evidence anywhere.

I recall in the November 10 Board session the EMAC said Cubberley could either be a smaller school OR a bigger school, depending on parent appetite. See pages 25-27 here: Web Link

So let's allow the proposed Task Force do their investigation before we prematurely close the doors on some really interesting ideas that have been surfaced by the EMAC team.

24 people like this
Posted by A Lums
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2015 at 9:44 am

Your post did not answer my questions. Isn't XQ about designing a new high school concept that would help all nationally? The purpose of the contest is not funding one-of schools, even demo schools, in such atypical, rich districts. If you read the XQ contest background, they're tired of seeing one-of cool idea schools that never scale and are searching for the next high school concept that could change school nationally. This is just a big tempest in a tea pot.

"Anyone can innovate where they are, and as Dauber said, that's actually the more important question -- how to do that -- since the vast majority of our students won't go to this fancy showpiece school." That's not really true in PAUSD, that anyone can innovate. Research shows more and more that innovation is a user-centric phenomenon (internet search on that sentence, happy reading). Not just any users, either, but users with "lead user" characteristics. People expecting to benefit from the innovation themselves to solve a problem directly affecting them, and wiling to take the risks of going it alone/first. You can't have innovation in a place where people with such characteristics are likely to be aggressively silenced or hounded til they leave, or aggressively retaliated against for even perceived personal reasons. Even the rich people being maligned in posts over this issue may or may not make good lead users since they can always go private and don't need to innovate the way someone who has no choice would. If our district office didn't have such great mechanisms for squelching people with lead user characteristics, this district that has so many families willing to work to make things better would see a huge change overnight. There would have to be some mechanisms created for internal checks and balances.

It's far far more possible to innovate outside and from outside. (Our schools may be growing but growth fell quite below projections at the high school level.) A charter is really the best chance of reforming PAUSD but only if they keep their distance from 25 Churchill. The charter doesn't need to change the whole district, since what we have is working well and fine for some people. PAUSD would quickly find innovation happening within the administrative structure if they finally dealt with the CYA culture (and people causing it from within) and learned to work with families to truly solve problems. not cover them up, not make people realize they shouldn't even bother speaking up unless it's through an official complaint they can't ignore. There isn't some magical reason our district can't innovate; McGee has the power to fix the forces squelching innovation from within but isn't (yet). He seems to understand that barring that, change can only happen from without. My concern is whether the proponents of any bold new initiative here will have the spine to see it through.

School districts exist for local control. If some families want to bring a project-based high school, the mechanisms to do so exist because it can be good for districts to be forced to change. (Absolute power corrupts absolutely.) I may not benefit from it, but I support those trying.

Be that as it may, an XQ application is not a charter application for PAUSD. This whole conflict is misplaced energy.

7 people like this
Posted by Skelly McGee
a resident of Juana Briones School
on Dec 6, 2015 at 2:15 pm

Have we checked to make sure that this new school will have lower mold counts? From what I've read, mold matters.

37 people like this
Posted by A Lums
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2015 at 4:19 pm

@Skelly McGee,
You do indeed sound like administrators, who have been impervious to best evidence and best practices, since the district has on many occasions in the last several years been given the current consensus on environmental health and mold among environmental health scientists, which is that they recommend AGAINST taking "mold counts" as a means of assessing even an URGENT need to remediate. See the attached two-page release providing a summary if consensus by the California Department of Public Health.
Web Link

So what does the district do when notified of a problem? You guessed it, spend significant money doing exactly what the EPA and CDPH overtly recommend against doing. They also failed to implement best practices when their own expert told them to do so in 2009.

But that lack of being informed coupled with the dismissive attitude is sadly all too familiar. Given what is at stake and how clear it is to address it, the stubborn insistence in the district on remaining ill-informed and avoiding best practices is disturbing.

I will express the same concern I did to administrators before the first AND second clusters. There is ample evidence that the physical environment can play a role, in sleep, mental health, development of other illnesses that can affect student physical and mental health and performance, etc. It is one factor that can contribute along with other factors. If the factor is playing a major role, we could go to great lengths with all the other efforts yet still fail to solve the problem, as happened. I may be wrong about it, but then again, I seem to have been the only one concerned about a second cluster with a logical and preventable basis for it before it happened. I don't think it was worth risking a second cluster since prevention entails just following best practices anyway, and I certainly don't think it's worth risking a third in a few years.

Given what I have seen in our district, we could not only improve things - fewer kids getting sick for all reasons, less absenteeism, better student performance across the board, less depression - we could take data that would tell us how much of the mental heath crisis is due to those factors. The EPA is right now sponsoring more relevant research with schools that we could have enrolled in but district administrators ignored.

Following best practices can be preventive but our district continues to overtly avoid following best practices despite our bond promising improvements in the specs. I hope the charter people will pay attention to the issue since Cubberley is problematic, too.

3 people like this
Posted by Let All Schools Be XQ Schools
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 7, 2015 at 2:24 pm

1. Declare all Palo Alto schools as "choice" schools with a 100% neighborhood preference. This means, your first choice is where you live. Your second choice is the best fit school for each child.
2. Give each school some "XQ" funding to try what they think is best. Private donors can "pitch in" to add to the "XQ" funding pool. Each school can sign-up for dschool retool sessions. Teachers need to be paid for this planning work too. Host staff conferences and practice sharing sites so teachers can use more of what works. Provide for automation to use across the district - start with math.
3. Per pupil funding should be the same for all schools with adjustments allowed by LCFF & LCAP, plus a bump for the "extra tax revenues in the district" as well as PIE & PTSA donations.
4. Break-up the two really big high schools into smaller schools within a school. Two, three, or four schools share the same facility at both the Gunn & Paly sites. Each school program has their own Principal. One central staff to work on site facilities and scheduling. But, don't be so inflexible, like a college campus, allow those "outside the school" but on the same site to take classes if there is excess capacity.
5. Capacity needs indicate a new 6-8 school is needed. Add a site for 6-8. If Palo Alto needs a third high school site due to capacity needs, then use Cubberley "as is" with some portables. Then, take it to the voters for a bond issue to rebuild it.
6. Let families vote with their feet. And, do more of what works and less of what does not.

1 person likes this
Posted by Agreeable
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Dec 7, 2015 at 7:43 pm

Well said!^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

2 people like this
Posted by Katniss
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 7, 2015 at 9:46 pm

because traffic is no issue in Palo Alto so let all the families vote with their feet, er, cars.

What could go wrong.

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