Board candidate Dharap emphasizes success beyond academics

Sophia Yang and Anna Feng

The report cards came back with Cs and Ds.

Not exactly conforming to the mold of Palo Alto perfection.

“I had a very circuitous path to success,” said Palo Alto Board of Education candidate Shounak Dharap, recounting his report cards as a Palo Alto High School student. “I got bad grades in high school and college.”

Dharap, a current school board member and attorney, is running for re-election to the school board with a focus on mental health and equity.

“I realized it’s really important to provide opportunities for all students to find their passion and find the spark that drives them,” Dharap told The Paly Voice during a recent interview. “It wasn’t really until law school when I found myself really motivated and passionate about the work I was doing.”

Board member Shounak Dharap discusses ongoing matters regarding PAUSD during the Tuesday board meeting. Dharap, an attorney and PAUSD alumnus, is running for his second term on the school board. According to Dharap, ensuring that all students have equal opportunities and the necessary tools to succeed is key. “Supporting student achievement regardless of students’ demographics, zip code, family life, first language, and other extraneous things should not affect a student’s ability to achieve,” Dharap said. “When I say achieve, I don’t just mean getting good grades, but also being able to learn in an environment that fosters that spark of learning.” (Photo: Daniel Garepis-Holland)

According to Dharap, “the culture of stress” in Palo Alto has presented an urgent need to address the issue of a lack of mental health support.

“No matter how many wellness centers and wellness coordinators we have, if we don’t have therapists on site, then that is a key element that we’re missing to support our students,” Dharap said. 

According to Dharap, his previous vote to help fund the installation of an in-district mental health program was essential to the issue of mental health. 

“In June, I voted with the board to allocate a little over $16 million to mental health [services] for the purpose of building a comprehensive school-based mental health model,” Dharap said. 

One of Dharap’s ongoing goals is implementing the System-Wide Integrated Framework for Transformation. The SWIFT plan is a project that looks to ensure each student, no matter what their race, ethnicity, disability, or socioeconomic status, will receive what they need to succeed in school, according to Dharap. The plan has not yet been put into action.

“It [SWIFT] addresses everything, not just scores, it addresses culture, climate, and the things that are important for students to feel supported, including implicit bias training and anti-racism, which are the things that create an environment in which students can actually thrive,” Dharap said. 

Dharap hopes to further the completion of his original goals – the main ones being greater mental health support and equity – with another term. 

“We had a two-year slowdown where we were really focused on things pertaining to shutdowns and student support directly related to Covid, and the progress that we made [addressing the pandemic] was great and in the right direction,” Dharap said. “But, I think there’s more to do in order to be where I really foresaw us being when I ran four years ago.”

Dharap also attributes his enactment of Zoom accessibility for board meetings as a stepping stone for transparency and community engagement.

“I brought a motion to the board, put the gears in motion, we voted on it, and then we codified Zoom participation as a board action as a board policy,” Dharap said. “It means we have lowered the barrier to access for participation in the way the district has run.

According to Dharap, improved communication is a crucial component for the effectiveness of the district, starting with the implementation of a communication role. 

“I do think that having a public information officer is a key role,” Dharap said. “Because right now, all of that communication falls on the superintendent but his job is really about managing the district.”

Dharap said that his experience as a student in the district was greatly beneficial towards his understanding of the prevalent issues faced by students. 

“It [Dharap’s alumni experience] gives me a lot of context for the way that decisions will impact students, not just tomorrow, but 15 years from graduation, because I’ve lived that life,” Dharap said. “I know how I’ve been affected, what things were great, and what things could have been better.”

By continuing his role on the board, Dharap hopes to keep representing all members of the community. 

“When we’re talking about compliance, that’s all framed in the context of not just protecting the district, but protecting the rights of our stakeholders, protecting the rights of students or employees or teachers and staff, our families, because that’s the perspective I come from,” Dharap said. 

Dharap is one of four candidates running for two open seats on the school board. The other candidates are newcomers Nicole Chiu-Wang, Shana Segal and Ingrid Campos.