Rolling out new curriculum, pursuing innovation, closing the achievement gap, reforming special education and supporting wellness are among the school district's potential goals for the 2017-18 school year, which the Board of Education discussed Tuesday night.
The 18 proposed goals are supposed to guide the entire district, from the superintendent to teachers in the classroom, toward priorities for the coming year and hold district leadership accountable for progress. The goals fall under three overarching categories — high-quality teaching and learning; equity and access; and wellness and safety — and are all linked to specific short- and long-term outcomes.
The school board was largely supportive of the goals, five of which are new and the others which were carried over from last year.
High-quality teaching and learning
Board members lauded staff work on a longtime goal of the district's under this category: to create more consistency among teachers on their homework and assessment practices. By the next school year, the district aims to have course guides with a common format and elements, including consistent grading practices, homework practices and grading scales. By 2019, similar classes should have "identical" learning targets and practices for grading, homework and tests.
Several board members were also glad to see a high-level goal devoted to a new High School Learning Design Team, which made a preliminary proposal at the end of the last school year for a school-within-a-school pilot program at Palo Alto High School. The trustees asked for more definition around the group's work, however, including potential costs of the proposals and a "ramp-up" plan for the number of students the pilot would serve, board member Melissa Baten Caswell said.
President Terry Godfrey questioned whether a goal to implement full-day kindergarten, which the district did last fall, needs to remain on the high-level list. She proposed adding the roll-out of a new elementary mathematics curriculum this fall instead, since it's a "large-scale change" that affects thousands of students.
Several board members pressed staff to address the district's failure to take systemic steps to improve special education at Palo Alto Unified. They urged staff to come up with a new plan for special education and not rely on a widely criticized review conducted by a Harvard University researcher last year. (The goal as it currently reads is to "develop a systems-based work plan to address recommendations" in this report.)
"It sounds like the the goal is to get a plan, which probably is a realistic goal, but I just want to point out that it's a disappointing goal ... in that that was probably the goal the year before and maybe the year before that," board member Todd Collins said.
Godfrey said that the wording for the goal should "acknowledge that we don't have a plan and we need to figure out the plan, and then go execute on the plan."
Kimberly Eng Lee, chair of special-needs advocacy group Community Advisory Committee, asked the board for a "transparent plan, even a work in progress, from this administration that includes the full spectrum of students."
Equity and access
Proposed goals under this category, which aims to "ensure that every student has access to multiple programs, services, activities and enrichment experiences that support student learning," focus on improving academic outcomes for minority and low-income students. Board members and a special-needs parent suggested Tuesday that it should also include special-education students. Superintendent Max McGee agreed and said the next version of the goals will do so.
Vice President Ken Dauber also suggested that fewer people be assigned responsibility for progress in this area — instead of four different district administrators, perhaps only the chief academic officers for elementary and secondary education, he said.
"I think part of the difficulty that we've had in the past with the area of equity and closing the achievement gap is treating it as an ancillary responsibility, not as something that's part of the core responsibility of educational leaders," he said.
The board has yet to adopt a draft districtwide equity plan that staff worked on throughout the last school year, and staff suggested on Tuesday that it still might need further revision before doing so. The district has hired a new equity and secondary-school supports coordinator to oversee this work.
Wellness and safety
The district is continuing its work to support student and staff well-being through four goals in this category, including piloting a new social-emotional learning program this fall; creating a system to track homework loads and managing test and project stacking; implementing recommendations from a staff wellness survey last year; and ensuring compliance related to federal civil-rights law Title IX.
Dauber urged staff to push forward on the goal of managing homework and test-stacking schedules so students aren't overly burdened, which has been a priority for the district for several years. Dauber said it is still "impossible" for the district to assess how well teachers are complying with a districtwide homework policy. Other board members suggested that adjustments to the policy might also be needed to make it easier for them to implement.
He also said it's "critically important" that the district continue to support the creation of a teacher-advisory program for guiding students at Gunn High School and call that out in its annual goals.
Baten-Caswell noted that this goal category should address results in the district's most recent Strategic Plan survey that indicate low satisfaction among both students and parents for college counseling and mental health support at the high schools.
The only new goal in this category is the district's required compliance with a federal resolution agreement, the result of a yearslong Office for Civil Rights investigation into Title IX violations in cases of sexual violence and harassment at the district's two high schools. Collins urged staff to go further than what's required in this goal and to commit to a "compliance audit" that could help uncover other areas in the district that are in need of reform. McGee agreed to add this item.
Collins also proposed a revamp of the district's approach to setting goals. Instead of the three umbrella categories — which Collins said are akin to "having a goal at a company of 'Make money (and) stay out of jail'" — he suggested the district use "S.M.A.R.T." goals, which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.
He also suggested the district replace its current structure with a new California Department of Education online dashboard created to track districts' progress on their Local Control Accountability Plans, which outline funding for particular groups of students such as low-income youth and English-language learners. The dashboard includes data on test scores, graduation rates, suspension rates and other measures of student success. The district could add its own local goals and metrics, Collins said.
McGee said he plans to return with a revised list of goals by the board's first meeting in September.