School board candidates call for improvements in diversity and special education in schools

Candidates discuss minority achievement gap; agree on the need for improvement in special education and more focus on socioeconomically disadvantaged students

The Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) school board candidate meeting held on Sept. 20 discussed the need for more efforts towards the improvement of programs and resources dedicated towards minorities and students in special education.

The debate was hosted by two Palo Alto parent groups that specifically represent the interests of special needs students and students of color.

All five school board candidates—Jay Cabrera, Ken Dauber, Gina Dalma, Catherine Foster and Terry Godfrey — agreed that there needs to be advancements made to address the achievement gap, to ensure that every student receives the same opportunities and to hire a more diverse staff.

Although as a whole, all PAUSD schools excel in test scores compared to other schools in the state and country, the district’s population of Hispanic and African-American students fall behind other minority students in California.

This is referred to as the achievement gap, which observes the imbalance of educational performance in groups of students, primarily defined by their socioeconomic status and race.

“What we have here with the achievement gap in our schools is, as I’ve often said, a shame on our district,” Foster said.

Dalma agrees with Foster that the district’s hesitance to evaluate this arena is due to PAUSD’s praise as a high-ranked district.

“We believe we’re the best performing school district and the biggest challenge of that is to see where we can learn and grow,” Dalma said.

To target the lack of diversity among teachers, Superintendent Max McGee has already made a commitment to recruit more teachers of color. McGee plans to take a stand to further integrate staff with hopes of improving all students’ academic performance.

“It’s good to have role models who are as diverse as the [Palo Alto High School] student population,” Rebitzer said.

Junior Catherine Davidson agrees that the school staff should better resemble the variety of students at Paly, but she is apprehensive as to whether this will create a substantial change in students’ performance.

“Teachers should be chosen based on their educating abilities, not their race. If a black person was chosen for the job over a white person just because of their ethnicity, then that is racism in and of itself,” Davidson said.

The idea of empowering the whole demographic of the Palo Alto community resonates with special needs support just as much as with race equity. Cabrera took a more personal twist to the debate when sharing his experiences with the flaws of the district’s special education system. Cabrera went through PAUSD himself and had trouble in school when he did not receive appropriate support or resources until he was diagnosed with dyslexia in college.

Following the numerous lawsuits against PAUSD by parents of special needs children during the 2013-2014 school year, it was unanimous among the candidates that policies and programs surrounding special education need revision.

“We need to set the tone that the district needs to link arms with every special education family,” Godfrey said.

All candidates also agree that the district should invest in professional training for teachers to better implement the inclusion programs.

“High-functioning schools and districts are those that provide the least restrictive environment for all students and are as inclusive as the needs of students allow,” Dalma said. “We know that full inclusion is a best practice, but it assumes that a certain support system is in place. The more I talk to parents and teachers, that’s exactly where our school district has not done the best job.”

The five candidates will speak further at upcoming events in an effort to differentiate themselves before the Nov. 4 election.

Despite the candidates’ criticisms of problematic leadership on the board, they are optimistic that with concrete data and direct feedback from students and parents, the district can improve dramatically.

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