In the spring, when candidates for local offices usually make their intentions known and begin building support and collecting endorsements, Dharap was the only candidate talking publicly about running, leaving the possibility that a surprise candidate might file as the August deadline neared. Concerned about this and, we believe, with good intentions, some district insiders, including Dharap and trustee Jennifer DiBrienza, went looking for a good potential candidate who might be persuaded to run for the other seat.
They found a good prospect in Nicole Chiu-Wang, a high-tech product and business strategy manager at Google who had just moved from San Francisco to Palo Alto in April after what she described as a nationwide search for a good school district for her two preschool-aged kids. Chiu-Wang has had no direct experience in education or familiarity with Palo Alto. She received undergraduate degrees in women's studies and Asian American studies from UC Irvine and went on to become an attorney, an entrepreneur in the field of fashion technology and now a manager at Google. She sees her lack of involvement in educational matters as a benefit, allowing her to bring new ways of thinking and an outsider's perspective.
Chiu-Wang's interest in educational equity and desire to see the school board better reflect the diversity of the community resonated with Dharap, DiBrienza and trustee Jesse Ladomirak, elected two years ago. Their endorsements helped her obtain the support of many current and past school leaders and others in the community. Thus, she was viewed as the chosen candidate of the majority of the board, immediately raising the question of whether she would follow their lead if elected.
But apparently unbeknownst to Chiu-Wang and her trustee supporters, another well-qualified candidate and her Palo Verde neighbor, Shana Segal, was already planning on running but had not yet declared her candidacy. A Palo Alto native who attended Gunn High, Segal has a master's in Education and Educational Leadership. She went on to become an English teacher (and later department chair) of the English Language Development department for 10 years at Lynbrook High School in San Jose. She became a substitute teacher in PAUSD elementary and middle schools during the pandemic while running a school consulting business through which she helped parents evaluate their school options. Segal currently has two children attending Palo Verde Elementary School, which is now temporarily operating at Cubberley while renovations are done.
She shares the frustrations many in the school community have with the district's poor communication with parents, the board's passive oversight of Superintendent Don Austin and its acquiescence, if not endorsement, of Austin's desire to keep controversial issues off the board agenda and instead rely on private communication with individual board members to test their support of his position.
She is especially critical of Austin's and the board's adoption of a new Language Arts curriculum that teachers opposed, and Austin's derogatory comments about Palo Alto Community Child Care, caught on video and posted on the YouTube channel of Right at School, a for-profit, venture capital funded national child care startup that Austin abruptly brought into the district last spring, causing an uproar in the community.
Critics of Austin and the board gravitated toward Segal, while supporters of the current board were drawn to Chiu-Wang. We can find no evidence that either of the candidates planned for or orchestrated this divide.
Meanwhile, the race was further roiled by the candidacy of Ingrid Campos, the mother of two current Gunn students who aligns herself with national conservative movements espousing "traditional family values" and a belief that children are learning the wrong lessons in school. She believes that being LBGTQ is a "deviant" lifestyle, that Critical Race Theory is being taught in our schools and that Scholastic books, a mainstay in education, should be banned from our district.
In spite of the emotions that have unexpectedly and disappointedly encircled this campaign, we find it easy to recommend Shounak Dharap and Shana Segal. Dharap, an attorney who has a 2 year old with another child on the way, had the unfortunate timing of having half of his first term dominated by the pandemic, when the district struggled mightily to balance the conflicting views of parents and teachers over how and when to safely reopen the schools. As board president in 2021, he presided over the board's and Austin's management of the constantly changing health orders and the eventual reopening last fall.
Prior, during and after the COVID-19 crisis, he has been a strong advocate for improvements to the student mental health program and greater support of students struggling academically and he chaired the committee that developed an ambitious framework, known as the SWIFT plan, for achieving educational equity. He successfully pushed for reinstatement of remote Zoom participation by the public at board meetings, making it much easier for busy parents to express their views than having to attend board meetings in person.
Segal brings all the experience and enthusiasm one could hope for in a school board candidate. In addition to bringing her perspective as an English teacher and a commitment to improve the district's English language curriculum so it serves all learners, she is a strong advocate for greater transparency and better communication with parents before decisions are made.
She shares our concerns over Superintendent Austin's communication shortcomings, which she described as too often dismissive and lacking in respect for parents. She supports differentiated instruction with more support for teachers in teaching students that are at different levels in the same classroom.
She will need to learn the role of policymaker and the importance of not functioning as a teacher advocate on the board, while bringing her valuable learning and perspectives as a teacher to board deliberations and policy-setting.
Given that the student enrollment in the district is currently about 37% of Asian descent, it is long overdue for a Chinese American to serve on the board of education. Chiu-Wang may be that person in two years when Todd Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza will be termed out, but she doesn't currently measure up to Segal in her readiness to represent the diverse and demanding constituencies in the district.
We recommend Shounak Dharap and Shana Segal for the PAUSD Board of Education.
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