The Palo Alto school board and community members urged district staff on Tuesday to move a draft plan to reduce the Palo Alto school district's achievement gap away from a "checklist of actions to be taken" to a more refined, data-driven document that keeps high level goals in mind.
The draft "equity plan," which new Equity Coordinator Martha Castellon presented at a special study session Tuesday morning, picks up where the district's Minority Achievement Talent Development (MATD) committee left off when it made a set of recommendations for how the district can better support its minority and low-income students and families. That group envisioned the plan as a formal document that "articulates the district's vision for equity and inclusion, with accountability measures."
The draft equity plan, while a step in the right direction, is not yet the strategic roadmap that many hope will guide the school district through its commitment to reverse longstanding trends that leave many minority and low-income students behind in Palo Alto, trustees and community members said Tuesday.
"The Plan, as it now stands, is primarily a series of inputs," said Barbara Klausner, a former school-board trustee, one of the original members of the minority-achievement committee and the current executive director of after-school tutoring nonprofit DreamCatchers. "A checklist of actions to be taken. People will be hired. Meetings will be held. Processes will be established. When the action is undertaken, completion is noted and the item is checked off.
"But a list of inputs should be anchored to specific outcomes," she added. "Those outcomes should be anchored in the results that we want to see: Success for our historically underrepresented students, a closing of the achievement gap and equitable access to the fruits of PAUSD."
Several parents (most original members of the minority-achievement committee) and trustees urged Castellon to consider what problem the district is trying to solve — which, she said, is closing the achievement gap — and then to trace backwards from that, identifying a few focused goals to measure progress along the way.
"I really urge you to define the problem you're trying to solve, figure out how we're going to measure it and then revisit the activities and say, 'which of these are most vital .. and which are nice to have?'" trustee Todd Collins said.
Castellon "wholeheartedly" agreed, stressing that the plan in its current state is just the start to a process that will, among other elements, seek to incorporate strong feedback from the parents and students who will be impacted by the district's efforts in this area. (The district hosted one public meeting to present the plan in East Palo Alto in December and plans to hold two more community meetings this month, as well as solicit feedback online, via writing and in person.)
"Much of what you've said is music to my ears because it calls for getting rid of some of the noise that's in the document," Castellon said. "It's well-meaning noise, ... (but) there's only so much we can do and we have to be principled about how we prioritize the work and how we measure the effectiveness of the work going forward."
Many said the equity plan should be more data-driven, with goals tied to specific statistics, such as test scores, parent survey results or graduation rates. Noting concerns about "silos" in the district, Melissa Baten Caswell said the district's equity efforts should be clearly aligned with the district's high-level Strategic Plan goals and connected to to the people and departments working to execute them.
Parent-advocates urged an even more granular approach that takes into account the nature of specific populations within the school district. Sara Woodham, co-chair of parent-advocacy group Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS), noted that her African-American children are included in statistics about black students in the school district, but aren't among those who need targeted support.
"Whenever I look at the underachievement of black families in the district, there are not that many of us. If I peel out my kids ... and other kids that I know who are doing fine because their parents are well-educated and can do oversight, that statistic is actually a whole lot worse for another set of kids," she said. "The problem is actually, in a sense, worse than what we think it is."
Communication also arose as a theme — with parents of minority and low-income students as well as with the many people who serve their children, from teachers and administrators to after-school tutors. The district has made efforts to improve communication, including by providing more regular Spanish and Mandarin translation at public meetings and of information the district disseminates.
A new program recommended by the Minority Achievement Talent Development committee that has brought parent liaisons to each school site is supposed to improve communication and better support parents who might feel disconnected from their children's schools. Parents said Tuesday that the liaisons have been partially effective, but even their existence has not been well-communicated to all families.
Some "parents are not aware of what the responsibilities sand obligations of these different people here to help us are," said Palo Alto parent Alma Mendoza, speaking in Spanish through a translator.
"Many parents like me stay quiet and we don't know what is going on in our children's lives and our children also stay quiet in their educational environment," she added.
Communication and information are the "two biggest pitfalls" for the mostly low-income, Latino students and families served by DreamCatchers, Miguel Fittoria, the nonprofit's program director, told the board. He said DreamCatchers is eager to partner with the district to share what it has learned about improving communication with families — primarily by becoming a connecting point for the key people involved in individual students' educational lives. Trustee Jennifer DiBrienza called DreamCatchers a "model of some progress" that the district could learn from.
Vice President Ken Dauber also called for more "visible" collaboration with Stanford University researchers and other local experts who are dedicated to studying achievement-gap issues.
Despite any criticisms, parents expressed a sense of optimism about the direction the district is headed in to address the achievement gap.
Kim Bomar, the other PASS co-chair, said she has "never been more optimistic for the school district and for underrepresented minorities as I am now."
"It's not easy to change a culture. It's not going to happen overnight ... but I think we've got the right leadership and the right approach," she said.
The district will seek further community input on the draft equity plan at a meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 18, from 6-7:30 p.m. in the Palo Alto High School Library Learning Resource Center. Spanish interpretation, food and child care will be provided.
Another meeting, specifically for African American families, will be held on Friday, Jan. 27, 6-7:30 p.m. in the Jordan Middle School library. Food and child care will also be provided.
People can also provide feedback online, in writing, or in person through Friday, Feb. 3. The district will review the feedback and incorporate it into a final version of the equity plan, to be submitted to the board this spring.
The Minority Achievement Talent Development committee also continues to meet this year; view the group's schedule here.