School Board Profile: Karna Nisewaner

Tara Kapoor, Senior Staff Writer

Attorney and district parent Karna Nisewaner is running for the Palo Alto Board of Education in this fall’s election cycle. She highlights district transparency, clear and flexible plans, and encouraging academic support as a few of her main campaign issues. With decades of experience balancing the needs of different agencies, personal connection to school policies’ effects on her children and a position as a Palo Alto Community Child Care board member, Nisewaner is looking to bring the community together. “I think I can be an effective voice for many people who do not currently feel heard,” Nisewaner said. Photo: Karna Nisewaner campaign for Board of Education.

As the mother of a second grader who struggles with reading, Palo Alto Board of Education candidate Karna Nisewaner recognizes the power of personalized education.

Her son, she told The Paly Voice during an interview late last month, has an Individualized Education Plan for his literary difficulties. Math, on the other hand, is his forte — Nisewaner said her son’s teachers uplift his confidence by encouraging his affinity for numbers.

“What his second grade teacher is doing is having him be a math helper, so he can feel really good about the place where he is strong,” Nisewaner said. “And then we can really work with him on the place where he isn’t strong.”

Every child has a unique strength that must be accentuated, she said, and a one-size-fits-all approach will not effectively address the needs of every student. A seat on the school board would allow Nisewaner to focus on education quality for students beneath the standard achievement curve, she said — be it with after-school tutoring or other individual educational assistance.

“We need every single student to reach their full potential,” Nisewaner said. “That means individualizing to focus on, ‘Hey, why aren’t you making your full potential? Is it something to do with class? Is it something to do with the needing extra?’ Whatever that is, we need to figure that out.”

Applying this notion to each and every student can be the key to self-confidence and progress in diminishing the all-too-evident dilemma posed by the opportunity gap, according to Nisewaner.

“We need to make sure that [individually crafting education to students] is happening at all [grade] levels,” Nisewaner said. “Confidence and feeling good about yourself will help with the whole process of building them [students] up to be more successful.”

“I don’t think we need to fix the [opportunity] gap … by bringing the top down,” Nisewaner said. “We fix the gap by raising everybody.”

Nisewaner said her attachment to the schools as a current parent provides her direct context into impacts of board decisions and policies on her children’s education — context that she believes is valuable. 

“You have skin in the game,” Nisewaner said. “It’s a different perspective.”

As a mother of two Addison Elementary School students herself, Nisewaner emphasized the long-term view that PAUSD parents possess, having a further personal incentive to focus on the improvement of PAUSD schools: their own children’s education.

“I want the schools to be really good because my kids are in it for another 10 years,” Nisewaner said. That personal benefit tossed in is, she noted, “a reason to really work for it.”

With over two decades of experience as an attorney and a title as vice president and deputy general counsel at Cadence Design Systems, Nisewaner said she has “insight into having to work with a variety of different stakeholders,” and the ability to instate plans of action that are concrete yet flexible. Adaptability is key, she said, especially in unpredictable situations like the current.

“I know that the worst thing you can do is nothing, to say nothing and have things stagnate,” Nisewaner said. “You have a plan, you move forward, but then if it doesn’t work, you have to be flexible enough to try something new. And to keep trying until you get to the right place.”

Serving on the board of Palo Alto Community Child Care, Nisewaner worked through the pandemic to ensure low-income and working families continue to receive childcare support through the organization.

“I applied what I learned from my work [as an attorney] in that scenario,” Nisewaner said. “The school board is a bigger budget. It’s a bigger structure. But some of the same principles apply.”

Transparency between the board and the community is another priority for Nisewaner. Although the district hosts public board meetings each week to discuss policies and have community members come forth with opinions, Nisewaner feels it is vital for the reasoning behind board decisions to be broadcasted openly.

“I think people are really starved for understanding why [board decisions are made],” Nisewaner said. “There’s no trust, there’s no belief that people will do things.”

“The school district with the board’s support needs to rebuild that trust. And one of the best ways to do that is to over-communicate for a while, show people what’s going on.”

Nisewaner is one of six candidates currently in the running for the PAUSD Board of Education, including Jesse Ladomirak, Katie Causey, Matt Nagle, and incumbents Todd Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza. There are three available seats.