School district sees overall improvement but also concerning performance by specific groups, state data show | News | Palo Alto Online |


School district sees overall improvement but also concerning performance by specific groups, state data show

Palo Alto Unified plans to give more attention to chronic absenteeism

The Palo Alto school board will review on Tuesday the district's performance on the California School Dashboard, a state data tool that the district has increasingly turned to as an accountability measure for its highest-level goals.

The district's 2019 results show both progress and areas of concern. The dashboard rates districts' performance in different categories using a color-coded system: blue, green, yellow, orange and red, with blue being the highest and red, the lowest. Performance is not a point-in-time snapshot but rather based on how the current year's data compares to the prior year's.

Overall, Palo Alto Unified's performance on all categories except one — chronic absenteeism — is in the blue category. The district saw improvement sufficient to move to a higher color in several areas, including graduation rates for English language learners and socioeconomically disadvantaged students and suspension rates for Hispanic students and students with disabilities.

A targeted focus on improving student performance over the last several years at Barron Park Elementary School has yielded results, with more students moving closer to meeting standards in English language arts and math. Hispanic students, for example, are still 11 points below state standards in English, but improved by 42 points. Socioeconomically disadvantaged students are still the farthest below standard in both English and math but saw improvements as well.

The district cites investments in specialists for academic intervention; interim tests to give teachers detailed feedback on student progress and prepare students for the state's standardized exam; and more intensive professional development as reasons for the progress, according to a district presentation.

"For us, as we sit back and look at it, it's really about collecting incremental changes but across a spectrum of practices and doing it over a couple of years," said Director of Research, Evaluation and Assessment Chris Kolar. "This is an example of how we have effectively responded to a challenging school site as a district. Part of this is bringing in that whole idea (that) everything is not going to be solved in a year. It's accumulated, incremental change."

In contrast, Escondido Elementary School, which didn't become a school that the district focused on until late 2019, saw modest growth and some decline on the dashboard, Kolar notes in a report. The district expects "improvements in target groups at Escondido over the next two years to match those experienced at Barron Park," he wrote.

The district's low performance (in the yellow or orange range) in several areas will require action, including suspension rates for homeless, socioeconomically disadvantaged and African American students. Kolar notes that suspension numbers could actually increase in the short term through as the district puts in place more accurate reporting procedures. Longer term, the district plans to use progressive discipline, restorative justice and alternatives to suspension to reduce discipline rates. The district is also proposing to track the removal of any student from a classroom due to behavioral issues.

Graduation rates and English and math achievement for students with disabilities are other areas of concern for the district. While the district's overall graduation rate is about 95%, students with disabilities graduated at 82% in the 2018-19 school year, down 5.4% from the previous year. (This is still higher than the state's average graduation rate for students with disabilities, 70.7%.) To remedy this, the district proposes that staff meet with students with disabilities "to develop and monitor plans to ensure students are 'on track' to graduate."

About 6% of kindergarten through eighth graders were defined on the dashboard as chronically absent, which means they missed 10% or more of the instructional days they were enrolled, according to the dashboard. (In a typical 180-day school year in Palo Alto Unified, a student with 18 absences would be considered chronically absent.) Absenteeism is higher among certain populations, including Pacific Islander, African American, Hispanic and homeless students.

"Student chronic absenteeism has not received enough district attention or effort to positively impact outcomes," Kolar wrote in his report. "Many factors impact chronic absenteeism, including a culture that family vacations during school days are valued by some at the expense of school attendance. Over the next two years, PAUSD should expect improvements in the area of chronic absenteeism that eliminates half or more of the current identified problem areas."

Chronic absenteeism improved at Barron Park Elementary, however, in part because Principal Eric Goddard has been "very proactive in terms of reaching out and visiting families and understanding that's a significant component of a student's academic progress," Kolar said.

Because the district's overarching three-year plan, the "PAUSD Promise," was developed throughout 2019, it had little to no impact on the district's most recent dashboard results, Kolar wrote. He expects the district to see more "meaningful" improvements over the next two years as it's rolled out.

The district's two high schools continue to struggle to meet California's 95% participation threshold on the state standardized exam, which could result in more serious penalties starting this year. Last year, Palo Alto High School's rate was about 50% in both English and math and Gunn High School's, 74% in English and 69% in math, according to the district. The district expects participation to go up this year by 10% at Paly and 5% at Gunn, according to the staff report.

In other business Tuesday night, the board will discuss mounting a new parcel tax to be placed on a special mail-in ballot in May. The proposed parcel tax would increase by $48 to $868 per year, per parcel, for six years, with senior exemptions and a 2% annual inflation adjustment.

The current parcel tax, which voters approved in 2015, generates over $15 million annually for the district — nearly 7% of Palo Alto Unified's overall budget. The funds support smaller class sizes, professional development, school libraries, updated instructional materials, high school electives and counseling services, among other programs.

The mail-in election would cost $740,000, according to the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters.

Tuesday's board meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the agenda here.


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8 people like this
Posted by local parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2020 at 2:14 pm

Indoor air quality is tightly correlated with illness (including infectious diseases) and absenteeism, and is probably the easiest of the many factors to address. The added benefit of doing so is higher student performance, and reduced STAFF absenteeism, too (look at Palo Alto teacher absenteeism by comparison with other wealthy districts with new facilities).

Here's an older review article, but there's plenty from the CDPH and EPA:
Web Link
"For instance, indoor pollutants might exacerbate diseases such as asthma or allergy that produce symptoms or absenteeism that in turn impair learning, or lead to use of medications that impair performance. Asthma is a principal cause of school absences from chronic illness, responsible for 20% of absences in elementary and high schools (Richards 1986)."

Traditionally underrepresented minorities and lower SES students tend to be more impacted by the above.

Our district has been weirdly resistant to taking even the most evidence-based, supported steps to improve air quality, that are even promised in prior facilities bonds and don't have to cost much. From what I've observed, they've not only been resistant, they've done a LOT that has been downright wrong and made things worse.

If the district is serious about absenteeism, it should get serious about improving indoor air quality. (Starting with shedding the WILLFUL IGNORANCE about environmental health and schools.)

4 people like this
Posted by Crime & Punishment
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 14, 2020 at 3:32 pm

Air conditioning will not curtail absenteeism as it is often the unninoculated children from other countries who are bringing in various communicable diseases that Americans once considered extinct.

Central air systems in hospitals actually create more airborne illnesses among patients & staff because the 'bugs' are already there having been brought in by outsiders.

6 people like this
Posted by local parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 15, 2020 at 2:02 am

@Crime ,

What are you even talking about? Are you commenting on my post? Because your post was so grossly uninformed it's hard to know how to even respond.

The subject of indoor air quality in schools and how that affects health, performance, and absenteeism, is very heavily researched, and there is consensus among environmental health researchers because of research about various steps and practices that schools can employ to improve indoor air quality and directly reduce absenteeism (of students and staff) and improve student performance. Our district proactively rejects those measures and remains steadfast in their ignorance.

Here's a primer from the EPA:
Web Link

"Promote a healthy learning environment at your school to reduce absenteeism, improve test scores and enhance student and staff productivity."

One significant way you can get air quality problems is from moisture. People often talk about mold, but really the problem is dampness. Dampness, condensation or local high humidity from temperature gradients (such as carpeting on old uninsulated concrete slab foundations), badly designed irrigation, kids tracking water into classrooms. For example, JLS had annual flooding so severe for decades, the kids would often wade to class and track mud and water in all winter. They had roof leaks. They had ground water problems in the new construction.

The CDPH's statement summarizing the consensus of research is that if you even smell mold, you have a mold problem (and that research finds that mildew smells are a better indicator than testing that you have a risk to occupants, and testing is still not very helpful for reasons the statement explains). And, that "Known health risks include: the development of asthma; the triggering of asthma attacks; and increased respiratory infections, allergic rhinitis, wheeze, cough, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms."
Web Link

That's increased respiratory illness risks in everyone, not just those with asthma, as in the serious pneumonia and respiratory illness mini-epidemic among students AND teachers that JLS had a few years ago. Or the "flu" epidemic there at the very first day or two of school around then with tonnes of kids going home sick (never confirmed as anything infectious) before there was any possibility of an incubation period (Panther camp gets kids running all over campus and stirring up whatever crap settled in the closed up rooms just before). No one at Fletcher or Greene should feel complacent, Greene is probably the worst of the three, and Fletcher not only has a history of water problems, too, a student did a science project a few years ago that showed air quality problems.

As for HVAC systems, "Even when California schools install new heating and ventilation systems, the contractors aren’t properly adjusting or programming the units to provide enough ventilation to protect the health and welfare of students or their teachers, according to a study released this week by researchers at the University of California, Davis."
Web Link"
“Even in ... classrooms with new HVAC equipment, 85 percent of them were under-ventilated."

"[Lawrence Berkeley} Lab released a study in 2013 showing that California elementary schools with poor ventilation rates reported an increased number of absences related to illnesses."

The article also points out that the reason such an easy shooting-fish-in-a-barrle problem goes unaddressed in such an overwhelmingly high percentage of schools is lack of awareness (in the case of our district, deliberate lack of awareness).

You want to improve absenteeism, this is the first and easiest place to start. If it's not addressed, no other measures will ever get the results we would otherwise have.

5 people like this
Posted by @local parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 15, 2020 at 8:31 am

@local parent

Where can we find stats on teacher absenteeism? Might be interesting to look at.

4 people like this
Posted by local parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 15, 2020 at 9:53 am

@ @local parent,
Do US Department of Education keeps those statistics. I think the last year for which you can get them is 2014.

This is another area in which we can improve student absenteeism, because teacher absenteeism is correlated with student absenteeism as well. There was a time when I read a lot about this issue, because I was concerned about the health of teachers in our district, and wondering if they were being impacted by the same problems. Students are more susceptible, but for example it was hard not to notice how much pneumonia there was among staff, serious respiratory illness, etc., when water problems were at the worst at JLS.

I remember finding that there isn’t a difference between teacher absentee rates among districts with more poverty and less. And that PAUSD seemed to have a higher than average absenteeism rate compared to the average.

That was a few years ago. But I’m sure you could find the data, look up terms like chronic absence teachers California or chronic absenteeism. But you’ll have to sort a lot because search tends to still bring up student absenteeism instead of teacher absenteeism. And there is a serious problem in California of teachers having to pay for substitutes when they’re sick for extended periods of time, so those links will come up first.

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