After "botched attempts" to meaningfully address the school district's persistent achievement gap, new leadership is taking yet another swing at developing a strategic plan for reversing the trends that have long left minority and low-income students and those with disabilities behind their peers in Palo Alto.
An updated equity plan, which the school board will discuss on Tuesday night, reflects "the most salient conditions in PAUSD that require immediate attention, support and strategic resource allocation," Equity Coordinator Keith Wheeler wrote in a report.
Data about particular student groups' low achievement and overrepresentation in special education — data that is alarming but not new, Wheeler notes — is driving a targeted focus on African-American and Hispanic students in the new plan.
"Knowing this harsh reality for quite some time, we can now declaratively portend that our system is reaching the point of causing harm for specific groups, for our inability to reverse this growing gap," he wrote.
Wheeler, who was hired this summer to replace the district's first-ever equity coordinator, Martha Castellon, is proposing three objectives for the first two years of the plan: to promote a balanced and welcoming culture for both students and staff; to provide personalized learning plans that are grounded in research and best practices for students; and to recruit and retain a more diverse workforce.
There are about 2,000 African-American and Hispanic students in the district, about 16 percent of Palo Alto Unified's population. There are far fewer African-American students — 211 this year compared to 1,574 Hispanic students.
Results from this year's Smarter Balanced standardized test indicate that the achievement gap is widening for African-American and low-income students in Palo Alto Unified, with the percentage of African-American and low-income students meeting or exceeding standards on the dropping to just below or near to the Santa Clara County average in both English language arts and mathematics.
Both groups are overrepresented in special education, according to Wheeler's report. While African-American students make up 2 percent of the overall district population, 25 percent of them have individualized education plans (IEPs) for students with special needs. Similarly, 13 percent of the district's students are Hispanic/Latino and 19 percent of them have IEPs. Male students are also overrepresented in special education, according to the district: about 70 percent of the plans are for male students.
Income also appears to play a role: 32 percent of the district's individualized education plans are for socio-economically disadvantaged students.
The detailed plan proposes six high-level "district actions" to address these issues, paired with specific outcomes, data, evaluation and the staff members responsible for progress.
Among the actions are tracking all district discrimination complaints so Wheeler can assess "where the district is falling short in terms of (sic) fair, inclusive environment;" developing a recruitment plan for hiring more diverse staff; and working with secondary-school leadership to identify a target group at each campus and align district services with interventions and community programs.
Wheeler is also proposing staff increases at the schools to support equity work, including more counselors, reading and math specialists and behaviorists.
Wheeler, a former teacher and administrator who most recently worked in the Inglewood Unified School District in southern California, is taking over work that has progressed in fits and starts in the district for years. Many in the community felt former Superintendent Max McGee brought a new focus to these issues during his tenure with the creation of the Minority Achievement Talent Development (MATD) task force, whose recommendations included the writing of a comprehensive equity plan and the hiring of a district-level coordinator to make sure this work didn't fall by the wayside.
The district has implemented many but not all of the minority-achievement group's recommendations and some are still in progress, according to an update from Wheeler.
The board last discussed the equity plan in January, when members urged Castellon to create a more refined document driven by data and strategic goals.
The board will hear his report at its Tuesday meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. Read the full agenda here.