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Board candidates debate district calendar, technology

Candidates are focusing on the effectiveness of the district calendar and new technology as the Board of Education race continues in Palo Alto.

In a public forum on Oct. 10 in the Palo Alto High School English Resource Center, candidates voiced their views on these topics.

New District Calendar

Last year, because of the continuing failure to enforce the no-homework-over-winter-break policy, the Board decided to implement a new calendar that scheduled finals before winter break and and moved up the start of the school year to mid-August.

Incumbent candidate Melissa Baten-Caswell voted against the new calendar, opposing the 3-2 majority.

“We talked about what a shortened first semester might do for the teachers,” Caswell said. “There were some issues that came up about putting stress on seniors and stress on families with regards to the childcare issues by having student starting earlier and having vacation go into January. I believe that we weren’t ready to make a decision on this calendar until we were able to fix the problems.”

Heidi Emberling, first-time School Board candidate, concurred that though she at first supported the calendar, the outrage expressed by the parent community caused her to reconsider.

“The Board discussion did not address several key concerns, including whether we’re now stacking finals, athletic events, performances and college admission applications,” Emberling said. “It may have just moved the stress around the calendar. I will not vote to continue the calendar without evidence that this benefits students, teachers and families in our district.”

Ken Dauber, another first-time candidate and member of the Homework Committee, supported the calendar, highlighting the need for a work-free break to reduce student stress.

“I can remember that stress myself with my high school students where they had to make a choice whether between working during the break, in which case it really isn’t a break, or putting their work off until after the break, in which case they would have to make that up,” Dauber said. “Looking forward, I think the right thing to do is to find how we can get the benefits of a work-free break for students at lower cost.”

Incumbent Camille Townsend, who had cast the second vote against the calendar last year, countered that her children did not work during the break like Dauber’s children have, highlighting that people have different experiences that the Board needs to take into account.

“I think there have been three or four calendars since I’ve been on the School Board and each one has been controversial,” Townsend said. “We’re always attempting to do something with the new calendar.”

Townsend believed that although the calendar has short-comings, she will not reverse the decision to increase predictability for students, teacher and parents.

Changes in Technology

From InClass to Infinite Campus to Schoology, the Palo Alto Unified School District’s technological repertoire has changed immensely over the past few years. A student asked the candidates, is technology really being used effectively?

“Technology is a tool,” Emberling said. “We still need good teaching and learning. We need to provide ongoing professional development to get the maximum benefit to all students.”

Dauber stated that Schoology is an example of the “opportunities and pitfalls of technology.”

“Schoology has built school-home communication, but it was imperfectly rolled out,” Dauber said, citing the incomplete usage of the program at Jordan, Terman and Gunn. “It was a program worth purchasing, but we need to use it. That requires work, intention and planning.”

Unlike Dauber, Townsend had “no problem with rolling it out slowly.”

“I believe in the pilot program,” Townsend said. “Last year, the system crashed with people’s grades in it. [To prevent that from happening,] I’d like to have it tested before rolling it out.”

Caswell emphasized that technology use should be intentional and used to support teaching.

“[At Duveneck Elementary School], we had parents that believed that first graders and second graders should learn how to do a Powerpoint,” Caswell said. “Powerpoint is fine, but it doesn’t help you learn how to write. We need to be careful that we’re using technology as a support system, and not just because we’re thrilled with it.”

Where has the district fallen short?

Townsend stated that the district has fallen short in creating a new calendar, calling for clearer standards.

“You do not make a public policy decision that creates as many so-called ‘losers’ as ‘winners,'” Townsend said. “In revisiting the calendar, we need to set our standards and know that every decision we make, something this big, impacts every student.”

Dauber focused on the inability to close the achievement gap as the district’s biggest failure.

“The fundamental principle and purpose of a public education is to meet every child where they are and enable them to meet their full potential,” Dauber said. “The achievement gap clearly indicates that we’re not getting there.”

Daunber commended Kevin Skelly, Superintendent of PAUSD, for committing to this issue.

Emberling said that the adoption of Everyday Mathematics, a controversial elementary textbook, is something the district could have done better.

“Everyday Math focuses on the conceptual math learning,” Emberling said. “All the special needs parents are coming out to say that this is very text-heavy, it’s not working for our children.”

Emberling also noted that the implementation of the textbook was flawed, making the curriculum inconsistent among teachers.

Caswell believed that the district, while strong in academics, does not do as good of a job empowering students to go beyond academics and make a change in the world.

“You are the kids that are going to change the world,” Caswell said. “And we need to give you real opportunities…so that you feel like you can make a difference in our community. And then you’ll go out and make the changes that will solve the wars in Middle East, that will make a cure for cancer, that will figure out what to do about global warming. I don’t know what you’re going to do, but it’s our responsibility to make you feel like you can make those changes.”

In this forum, candidates also debated about the achievement gap.

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