District highlights equity in new three-year plan

Ryan Wisowaty, Editor-in-Chief

The Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education reacted Thursday to a draft plan presented by Supt. Don Austin outlining the district’s goals. The plan focuses on improving education, ensuring wellness and safety, and closing the achievement gap. “For low-income Hispanics, we’re 83rd,” board member Todd Collins said, referring to PAUSD’s claim as the No.1 school district in California. Photo: Ryan Wisowaty

Change may be on the horizon for the Palo Alto Unified School District after Supt. Don Austin presented his draft report outlining his administration’s future goals at a special board meeting on Thursday.

The plan — dubbed “PAUSD Promise” —  focuses on the district’s strategic goals for the next three years, subdivided into five main focus areas. According to Austin, “PAUSD Promise” has a focus on improving equity in the district throughout these focus areas. While previous district documents restricted equality to just one section, the new plan emphasizes equity throughout the entire report, Austin said.

“Reaching grade level or above should not be predetermined by economic level or zip code,” Austin said during the meeting.

Within the report, Austin’s administration outlined its plans to expand its transitional kindergarten program to three geographic regions within the district. Transitional kindergarten is a program that focuses on preparing younger children, who are not yet old enough, to attend kindergarten. Currently, the only transitional kindergarten program in the district is held at Greendell School.

“It [transitional kindergarten] allows us to provide early childhood experience to someone who might not be able to afford private,” Anne Brown, the district’s chief academic officer, said during the Thursday meeting.

Austin also presented his plan to advance equality by increasing parent engagement with district administration, especially among low-income families who may feel excluded from the district. In part, the district aims to provide timely and appropriate follow-up with complaints and regular parent forums.

Some school board members dissented over how the district should prioritize programs for closing the achievement gap.

“I think we’ve missed our mark on this [culture of equity] section,” school board member Todd Collins said during the Thursday meeting.

Collins stressed that while he supported the ideas, he would like to see the district more focused on combating the achievement gap directly, rather than relying on parent outreach.

“We can’t be a great school district if we don’t get great results for our least resourced and most challenged students,” Collins said.

For others, reaching out to parents is the first step toward seeing a more inclusive and equal district.

“The problem is our system,” school board member Jennifer DiBrienza said. “We have many families who feel like this isn’t their district.”

The plan also outlined ideas for expanding safety at PAUSD schools through assessing the district’s current strengths and weaknesses and devoting more staff to ensuring emergency preparedness. “PAUSD Promise” also highlighted improving the district’s special education programs and streamlining district management. Among key strategies, the plan confirmed its support for ensuring employee housing options.

The school board will discuss the updated “PAUSD Promise” at its next regular 6:30 p.m. Tuesday board meeting at the district office.