Thoughts on my first month as a PAUSD board member

Thanks to Cathy Kirkman for creating this community resource, and for inviting me to contribute. We are all responsible for our schools, and the more parents, students and community members become actively involved in school policy, the more likely we will achieve the best outcomes for all of our students.

As a newly elected school board member, I see a key part of my role as keeping the community informed about important issues in the district, to encourage broad participation in the democratic governance of our schools. As part of that I’ve started a blog on my own site, and I will periodically repost items from that blog here on I hope that you will find it useful, and most importantly that you will share with me your feedback at

My first month in office has been marked by a resurgence of community concern about stress in our schools, a discussion of differences in bullying rates in our middle schools, the first meetings of the superintendent’s task force on minority achievement, and a board discussion I initiated about whether to continue spending time and money pursuing appeals in closed civil rights cases.

Social and Emotional Wellbeing: At my first board meeting, on Dec. 9, many community members spoke about their concerns about student social and emotional wellbeing, and unnecessary academic stress. Marc Vincenti and Martha Cabot, co-founders of Save the 2008, spoke about their proposals including more communication about homework, smaller class sizes, and phone-free classrooms. Other students, parents, and community members spoke, some in a similar vein and others with contrasting views. I have long advocated measures to address unnecessary stress and improve social and emotional health, based on the “Supportive School Environment” (P-8) part of our Project Safety Net Plan. I hope community members, particularly students, will continue to come to board meetings to share their experiences and ideas.

My Next Steps:

  • I suggested at the last board meeting that we regularly schedule board-level discussions of aspects of social and emotional wellbeing. I have also suggested that we schedule a board study session to assess the range of our efforts districtwide, held at a time when students and parents can attend. I will follow up both of those suggestions, as I think they provide a very useful way to maintain board focus on this critical area.
  • I will work for immediate action to implement our district’s homework policy andadministrative regulations, including gathering information about how much homework our students are actually doing.
  • I will propose readministering the guidance counseling survey given to our high school students in 2012, to determine whether there still exists a gap in the effectiveness of services between Paly and Gunn as measured against that baseline.

Civil Rights: Also at the December 9 meeting, Superintendent McGee reported that the district had expended legal fees to answer inquiries from the Office for Civil Rights about the district’s appeals of denials of Freedom of Information Act requests. These requests concern closed cases — the original Terman case resulting in a finding of civil rights violations, and a complaint at Jordan that was decided in the district’s favor. I suggested that we withdraw those requests, as I see no benefit to students from continuing to expend money and staff time on these closed cases. Other board members said that they wanted to pursue the appeals and to post OCR’s case file in the Terman case and other documents on the Web if and when they are ultimately provided (for more detail, see the Weekly’s coverage). While I appreciate this commitment to transparency, I continue to believe that it is unlikely that we will learn anything beyond what we already know from the district’s own records in these cases — much of which was never fully discussed in public.

My Next Steps: I will continue this discussion at the board level.

Bullying: District staff presented data (also at that busy December 9 meeting) from the Palo Alto Reality Check and California Healthy Kids surveys on a wide variety of issues, with a major focus on bullying in our middle schools. The good news is that we have seen a steady decline in bullying reports in the surveys. I pointed out that the rate of decline at Terman and JLS has been sharper than at Jordan, and the absolute rates of bullying are lower. Our three middle schools use three different anti-bullying approaches, and I asked whether these observed differences in bullying are related to these approaches. On its face, and following on Dr. McGee’s renewed emphasis on consistency, there does not seem a compelling reason for this lack of consistency. As my fellow board member Heidi Emberling has repeatedly pointed out, the district would almost certainly be better off with a focused, evidence-based anti-bullying program that was shared across our schools.

My Next Steps: I will continue to work for clarity and consistency on responses to bullying in our middle schools, beginning by working with the Superintendent to get more information about the sources of the differences we are seeing.

Thank you for entrusting me with this responsibility. Please reach out to me with your feedback, ideas, or concerns, and look for future blog posts on the important issues in our district.

New homework survey

Community member Chris Zaharias has created a high school homework survey for Paly and Gunn students, which asks our high school students about how much time they spend on homework and the like. Thank you Chris!

If you are at Paly or Gunn, please take the survey to add to the data set.  It is very short.  You can access the homework survey here.

Here are the homework survey results based on 50 respondents, 80% from Paly, 20% from Gunn, 50% seniors, the rest underclassmen. 74% average more than 10 hours of homework per week; 48% average 15 hours or more per week. 20% average 17-20+ hours per week.

76% of respondents say their teachers don’t ask how long homework takes, 24% say sometimes, 0% say often.

78% say their teachers don’t work together to manage the homework load; only 4% say yes to this; the rest don’t know.

Here is a link to BP 6154, the district’s homework policy, as well as AR 6154, the administrative regulation implementing it.

It’s time to rethink our high schools

Cathy Kirkman, a 1980 graduate of Paly, has written a guest opinion, “It’s time to rethink our high schools” for the Palo Alto Weekly, posted on PaloAltoOnline.  It proposes rethinking our schools to make them more humane learning environments, as well as deconstructing and analyzing what we mean by “rigor” in our system. It closes with a call to action to parents to step up and take ownership of the problems and solutions, and references the initiative at Gunn as well as this initiative here at

Michelle Obama’s Reaching Higher

Today Michelle Obama announced her new Reaching Higher Initiative, as part of the College Opportunity Day of Action. We had feet on the ground in D.C. today for this event:

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“The Reach Higher initiative will help make sure all students understand what they need to complete their education, including:

  • Exposing students to college and career opportunities
  • Understanding financial aid eligibility that can make college affordability a reality
  • Encouraging academic planning and summer learning opportunities
  • Supporting high school counselors who can help more kids get into college

“The Reach Higher initiative is the First Lady’s effort to inspire every student in America to take charge of their future by completing their education past high school, whether at a professional training program, a community college, or a four-year college or university.


“In today’s economy, a high school diploma just isn’t enough. Students have to reach higher, which is why the First Lady is working to rally the country around the President’s “North Star” goal — that by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

You go Michelle!  Folks: if you haven’t visited the Tap Room at the Nassau Inn in Princeton, New Jersey, home of her alma mater, it’s lovely to see her picture up there along with all the famous white guys and one other woman, Brooke Shields.


Kudos to “Save the 2008”

Students at Gunn have launched a new initiative called Save the 2008.  It’s “a grassroots campaign on behalf of Gunn’s students and teachers – all 2,008 of them – to create a healthier life at Gunn High School.” It was announced by student Martha Cabot and former teacher Marc Vincenti at a recent school board meeting, per coverage in the Palo Alto Weekly.  Cabot made a YouTube video about student stress at Gunn that went viral, and Vicenti wrote a guest opinion in the Weekly about student challenges in our rigorous environment. The initiative identifies “Six Simple Steps to Sanity at School.”

1)  Downsize classes.

2)  Rightsize homework.

3)  Rightsize course loads.

4)  Turn off, tune in.

5)  De-grade grading.

6)  Rightsize academic fraud.

Welcome to

Welcome to, a grass-roots site whose mission is to provide an unofficial guide to our district.  Our goals are (i) to help families better navigate the schools, the curriculum, and the many options available to them, and (ii) to deconstruct the attendant policies and practices so we can understand them better, discuss them, and drive change where needed.

Like the Harvard Q Guide, we intend to explore the various course offerings at our schools, so our students can have a better understanding of their choices, and so we as a community can critique the educational experience our kids are having.  Our aim is to change from a culture of anecdotal information, which benefits insiders and requires each of us to go it alone, to a culture of perfect information, which benefits everyone and enables social optimization and collective action.

What we need are volunteers to help with this from all stakeholder groups,  including without limitation students, alums, experienced parents, staff, administrators, retirees, new parents, scholars, experts, college students, mental health professionals, non-profit stakeholders, people from neighboring communities, or anyone else who wants to get involved.  We hope to have subject matter editors for different aspects of the schools and curriculum, and drive this process by crowd sourcing the content.  To ensure the quality of our work product and to avoid anonymous agendas, contributors will post either under their own name or else as a editor, with their identity validated by our editorial board.

Interested?  Get involved, email us at

Need help on something? Write to and we’ll get right back to you!

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