Story by Dave Boyce and photos by Michelle Le
Several interlocking and complex issues confront the winners in the three-candidate race for two seats on the Sequoia district's five-member governing board in the November election.
About 8,300 students now attend the district's four comprehensive high schools (including Menlo-Atherton and Woodside), and this number is expected to grow to more than 10,000 by 2020. To accommodate these students, facilities will have to expand. With a new comprehensive school not feasible, officials have talked about opening one or two 400-student magnet schools. To do all this, the district will need funds and is likely to go to voters with a bond proposal, perhaps in mid-2014.
But to propose a ballot measure, Sequoia officials will first need a plan to expand campuses that are all but built out. And because the enrollment surge will not be evenly distributed, a new district map may be necessary to reassign neighborhoods to schools. That prospect has elicited strong emotional responses from households expecting to attend a specific school, M-A in particular.
M-A is the closest comprehensive public high school to East Palo Alto, but for 30 years East Palo Alto kids have been bused to Woodside and Carlmont high schools, a policy that started with a 1980s judicial desegregation order. Now the board is close to agreeing to put East Palo Alto students near the head of the line for M-A -- on a space-available basis.
At the same time, students from the Las Lomitas Elementary School District, which is physically closer to Woodside High, have long had a guarantee to attend M-A. The board's deliberations over East Palo Alto elicited vocal and visceral concern from Las Lomitas parents that 1) the change might affect the "unique ecosystem" of academic excellence that has evolved at M-A, and 2) that some Las Lomitas students might have to attend Woodside, a lesser school in parents' estimation (but not in the estimation of Sequoia board members or district staff).
Menlo Park is an area where the coming enrollment surge is concentrated, putting further pressure on M-A's capacity, Sequoia Superintendent Jim Lianides told parents in April. One answer, suggested by at least one official, may be to locate a new magnet school near M-A.
The 2013-14 school year is also the Sequoia district's debut of the daunting set of academic standards known as Common Core. For teachers, this means leaving behind the "sage on the stage" lecture, as M-A Principal Matthew Zito put it. In its place: person-to-person interaction with students. For students, this will mean learning subject-matter principles and solving test problems by applying those principles rather than by memorizing sample problems.
To further complicate things, the Sequoia district has little control over the academic and technological readiness of its ninth-graders. The transition to high school can be seamless for Atherton and Menlo Park families with high incomes, advanced education and digital sophistication, and traumatic and disruptive for families in East Palo Alto and Redwood City, many of whom are at the other end of the spectrum.
The Sequoia district's mission is to educate all students and close the achievement gap. Without a unified K-12 school district and facing new and much higher standards, collaboration with feeder districts, particularly those whose students will be significantly challenged, has become a necessity, officials say.
The candidates for the Sequoia board are challenger Georgia Jack, a Redwood City resident and manager in Stanford University's office of development; one-term incumbent Alan Sarver, a retired software manager and resident of Belmont; and one-term incumbent Chris Thomsen, a Menlo Park resident and executive director of the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences at Stanford.
The Almanac sat down with them in one-on-one interviews recently. This story is based upon those interviews.
A focus on M-A
The board is likely to enact its M-A preference policy for East Palo Alto students in October. It will mean adding about 70 students to an enrollment of around 2,000.
The Ravenswood City Elementary School District, said Mr. Sarver, lacks a community high school and wants M-A for that role.
The transition away from Woodside and Carlmont must be informed by community input and done without bias, but space at M-A is an issue, he said. "Are we raising a crushing expectation?" he asked. "We need to manage the size so that the school is ahead of the curve," and small magnet schools will be critical, Mr. Sarver said.
The busing of East Palo Alto students, Ms. Jack said, is inequitable and a longstanding problem, but the board should have done more community outreach -- a telephone survey, door-to-door visits, visits to schools -- before settling on a policy change. "I think everybody has a valid perspective and I think we need to hear their views," she said.
Acknowledging the difficulty in reaching Ravenswood households, the Sequoia district is sending out pre-printed forms meant to make choosing a school much easier. "My guess," Ms. Jack said, "is that (the results) are going to be surprising."
There was a "very strong consensus" for ending the busing, Mr. Thomsen said, adding that research discourages distributing students "scattershot" throughout a district. Incoming freshmen need a familiar cohort to get comfortable in their new world, he said.
Over-crowding at M-A is a concern, Mr. Thomsen said, but concern that should not be limited to the effect of 70 East Palo Alto students in view of the size of the enrollment surge expected from the Las Lomitas district.
Learning a principle and then tackling a problem using that principle; the name Common Core hardly captures the drama and significance of instituting that educational system to replace memorizing solutions to sample problems.
"I don't think anybody has any idea of what the results are going to be," Ms. Jack said. Among her concerns: students whose first language is not English, students unfamiliar with academic language, and students on the wrong side of the digital divide. "Over time, we are all hopeful that those problems will be resolved," she said. "It's a very large investment on behalf of the public in changing the way students learn."
Common Core will evaluate analytical skills and test scores may dip, Mr. Thomsen said. "I don't think we should be too focused on that." Maybe the state should suspend standardized tests during the transition, he said.
The Sequoia district has increased professional development activities for teachers, Mr. Thomsen said, adding that he did not object fundamentally to teaching to a Common Core test, "if it's a good test."
Mr. Sarver outlined the problem: getting the right technology into classrooms, getting it to work reliably, getting e-books into the hands of students prepared to use them, and getting online testing right.
The Sequoia district is home to students with every advantage and students with almost none, as well as those in between. Common Core "should not add another layer of disenfranchisement," Mr. Sarver said. "We can't allow (a digitally disadvantaged) starting point to be deterministic for our kids."
Gloria Hernandez, the new superintendent of the Ravenswood district, attended both September board meetings of the Sequoia district. Relationships with the Ravenswood district are "really important to us," Mr. Thomsen said. The Sequoia district has long had problems aligning its curriculum with those in the Ravenswood and Redwood City districts, he said, particularly with respect to algebra.
But now Ravenswood and Sequoia district teachers are team-teaching math in summer school. The Ravenswood district is providing data on student testing, a new development. Collaboration is being planned between superintendents and between board members, and it is collaboration among these officials that is most effective, Mr. Thomsen said.
Common Core is "really strengthening the working relationship across the board," Mr. Sarver said. Teachers are collaborating by discipline, across schools, across the district and between districts, yielding "a greater K-12 consistency and flow from end to end."
Partnership "is going to move us to the next level," said Ms. Jack, who has focused on the achievement gap while in a leadership position at a Redwood City school foundation. "We're not closing the achievement gap, we're just moving it," she said.
Challenger Georgia Jack, 49 and a Redwood City resident, is a manager in the office of development at Stanford University and the mother of a Woodside High graduate and a current sophomore. She is an active volunteer in Redwood City, including two years as president of the education foundation and two years chairing a music education foundation.
Incumbent Alan Sarver, 60, is a retired software manager, former K-6 teacher, a Belmont resident and father of Carlmont High School graduates. He volunteers in music education in Belmont and Redwood Shores, and was a board member of the Carlmont education foundation for eight years.
Incumbent Chris Thomsen, 58, is a Menlo Park resident, a former biotech entrepreneur, executive director of a social sciences institute at Stanford University, and father of an M-A and a Summit Prep graduate. His career includes significant experience in institutional planning and pedagogical innovation.