Palo Alto schools have reopened their doors for the start of the 2019-2020 school year, and Superintendent Don Austin has launched an initiative called the PAUSD Promise, a 12-point document outlining goals for the district for this school year and beyond.
Austin, who was hired as superintendent in July 2018, has designated short-, mid- and long-term goals for each of the 12 points, which range from supporting minority and special education students, to promoting social-emotional learning and improving educational practices in Palo Alto schools. He delved into the details and logistics of the plan Friday on "Behind the Headlines," the Palo Alto Weekly webcast.
"Short and mid are things that we plan to touch this year and have outcomes that are hopefully impacted this year," Austin said. He has also implemented a schedule of deliverables to ensure that progress is being made.
As a newly hired superintendent, Austin read through past school-board initiatives and other documents. He said he found "areas where the plans were good, but they weren't implemented, or they were poorly implemented," adding that he saw opportunities to re-evaluate the district's execution of those efforts.
Going forward, he has scheduled time during board meetings to review the progress of those initiatives, including data that's being collected, which will allow schools to change tactics or shift their goals in a more timely manner.
"If our outcomes aren't positive or don't positively impact the things that we're trying to make a difference in, fine. We're going to report that and then we'll adjust and shift," Austin said. "We're not trying to prove success; we're trying to accurately report our progress and where we're not making progress."
School safety is among the issues that PAUSD Promise aims to tackle. The initiative includes plans to conduct a safety assessment at every school, create a School Safety Advisory Group made up of parents, students and staff, and improve procedures for emergency preparedness.
"We can be smarter about our preparation and some of our monitoring," Austin said. "When it comes to safety now, the best thing you can do is to get the most accurate, quick information and react to it as soon as possible. So, we really want to have a system that not only monitors and allows people to give us information on the front end, whether it's a tip line or knowing that they can go to a caring adult that will act with information, but also monitoring perimeter fencing with cameras and things so that we have an extended view of what's out there."
The district has also discussed hiring a full-time staff member to create new safety plans and drills for the schools.
Austin said he doesn't feel "comfortable" with the current state of safety in schools.
"I think a purely dedicated safety person right now makes sense for our school district," he said.
Also on the webcast, Austin discussed the district's efforts to revise the grading system to give students a more holistic evaluation than letter grades currently provide.
In the professional world, Austin said, "very rarely do you get an opportunity to do one thing once, have it evaluated and then labeled by it forever. ... And if the idea is that we want students to learn the material and to master it and to move forward with some proficiency, why would we say 'and by the way, you get one chance at it'?
"So, this whole idea of allowing students to receive feedback and to see it as more of a process than a judgment makes sense. I think it fits with the culture of Palo Alto," he said.
He also touched on Stanford University's application for a new general-use permit, which will govern development on the campus over the next two decades. An agreement between the district and university was announced in April addressing the potential impact on the schools of Stanford's expanding population. The deal included an estimated $140 million in benefits that Stanford would provide Palo Alto Unified.
The county of Santa Clara, however, is the agency responsible for reviewing the permit application and the conditions for approval.
"I feel great about where we're at right now," Austin said. Coming to an agreement has allowed the district to return to focusing on the students, he said, and "we've resolved it in a way that (has) received almost no criticism from the people that understand the process about the actual financial terms."