Feedback on a plan for closing the achievement gap in Palo Alto Unified was clear on Tuesday night: Parents are desperate for action and the Board of Education wants specific goals that will hold the district's feet to the fire on a complex issue that has resisted change for years.
The school board and community members were largely supportive of the new two-year plan, which was presented by new Equity Coordinator Keith Wheeler at the school board meeting.
Wheeler has proposed the district explicitly focus on how its approximately 2,000 African-American and Hispanic students, some of whom are low-income or have disabilities, are under-achieving academically and address structures at schools that contribute to the lower performance. He developed the plan with feedback from teachers, staff, students and parents, including in-home visits to many families.
The plan has three main focuses: improving school climate and culture for these students; providing personalized learning plans to improve academic outcomes; and hiring and retaining a more diverse workforce.
Board members urged Wheeler to add specific, clear goals to hold both staff and the board accountable for progress. Trustee Todd Collins suggested they be "S.M.A.R.T." goals, a common acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
Collins also suggested that the district be clear that the superintendent and principals are primarily responsible for progress at the schools and that the district's resources — both money and time -- be carefully focused.
"We are a district with a short span of attention. When we try to do (more than) a couple things at once we usually fail at all of them," he said, urging Wheeler to prioritize an achievable number of goals.
Several board members also expressed an interest in using the California Department of Education's new accountability website -- which provides data on districts' performance in areas such as academics, graduation rates, English language learner progress and student safety -- to set goals in the equity plan.
Board member Terry Godfrey said the plan should also be driven by other data on the performance of minority and low-income students, such as California's standardized Smarter Balanced test and the rates at which students complete requirements to enter the state college system, known as "A-G." She also suggested scrutinizing data in the earlier grades to identify "leading indicators" for students who might be struggling.
She also asked Wheeler to return with cost estimates for the recommendations.
Several board members agreed, at Collins' suggestion, to make equity a standing, monthly agenda item at board meetings so they can more closely monitor progress.
For parents, teachers and community members who have been working to move the needle on this issue for years — some even a decade — Tuesday night was déjà vu.
"I have no more patience to see the same movie playing over and over again for these kids," said parent Carmen Muñoz, who served on the district's Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee. The group penned a set of recommendations in 2015 that laid the foundation for this next phase of work.
Muñoz and other parents urged the board to support Wheeler, whom many described as energizing and ready to tackle this work.
Palo Alto High School special-education teacher Laura Bricca said the plan is "long overdue."
"I stand here today both hopeful because I'm inspired by the people who are currently in this district trying to attack this problem and I'm inspired by our students," she said. "I'm also fearful because I feel that this district has paid a lot of lip service to this issue for a long time.
"I think we're really good at talking about equity and access and we have not done a good job at implementing what's required to address it," she said.
Among the plan's specific recommendations is to expand DreamCatchers, a nonprofit that provides after-school tutoring to minority and low-income middle school students, to the ninth grade. The district is also in talks with the nonprofit to add a summer program for fourth- and fifth-graders.
While several parents, many speaking through a Spanish translator, spoke to the importance of DreamCatchers for their children, one questioned why families are so dependent on an outside organization for educational support.
"The degree of need for DreamCatchers is also a reflection of the deficiencies we have in our own district," said parent Sara Woodham, who serves on the nonprofit's board of directors. "Frankly, DreamCatchers is really filling a void, and folks are desperate when we have to basically outsource what we should probably be doing a much better job at."
Board Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza later commented that despite the need for clear goals and accountability, the district faces a much larger problem: Its very educational environment has been built to serve a particular population, continually leaving minority and low-income students behind.
"If we keep things as they are and just try to put in a new program here and put in a new program there, this structure is still in place that's making it happen," she said.
The board is set to vote on the equity plan at its Jan. 30 meeting.