Menlo Park City Council members, residents and community organizers attended a Menlo Park City School District study session about student equity on June 12 to let school board members know that they believe the district should take a closer look at the subject.
The meeting came on the heels of the school board's approval earlier this year of a teacher compensation philosophy, which was created out of an interest in hiring and retaining the "most qualified and exceptional teachers and staff" given the area's high cost of living, according to a fall 2018 district statement. The philosophy, which will guide the district in future salary negotiations, states that the district wants to consider compensation increases higher than what neighboring districts are offering. The district also wants to expand its data beyond compensation to include how it compares to other districts with regard to achievement gains, programs and staffing ratios.
The school board has been meeting with the district's teachers union, the Menlo Park Education Association, on salary negotiations and these discussions will continue into the fall, district public information officer Parke Treadway said in an email.
The policy made some board members ponder how districts with the highest pay attract the best teachers, potentially negatively impacting nearby districts that can't afford to pay their teachers as much. Students in other districts can suffer if the best teachers at their schools are pulled into the Menlo Park school district, board Vice President Caroline Lucas said at a previous meeting. This compelled Superintendent Erik Burmeister to host the June 12 meeting to discuss equity in the district.
Much of the public comment and board conversation focused on how to better foster a sense of community for students entering Menlo-Atherton High School who come from three public school districts -- Menlo Park, Las Lomitas and Ravenswood.
Menlo Park Mayor Pro Tem Cecilia Taylor said during the public comment section of the meeting that she was grateful the district is discussing equity and that she sees it as a practice, "not just a word in a sentence." Taylor said she'd also like to see the word "diversity" more often in local bodies' guiding principles.
Parents spoke and wrote to the board about the divides they see between students from the more socio-economically disadvantaged Ravenswood School District and students from the Las Lomitas and Menlo Park school districts once they attend M-A together.
"We seem to expect our students to create a beautiful melting pot as they enter M-A High School, without having equipped them to do so," Oak Knoll School parent Kristin Hansen wrote in a June 12 letter to the board. "However, not only are students highly academically tracked into different classrooms as they enter M-A High School, but they also enter with little or no basis for social interaction outside the classroom. In so many ways, we are setting up our children to see academic and social segregation along socioeconomic dividing lines as 'normal.'"
Menlo Park Councilwoman Betsy Nash said it's important the district include equity as one of its core values. The district's definition of community should include all of Menlo Park, said.
"Families and kids are coming together at M-A, and equity and inclusion benefits every student and every family," she said.
The board is also considering tweaking the district's mission and guiding principles to include the word "equity" with regard to decisions the district makes. Lucas said having this word in its guiding principles would have been helpful to the district when it decided to close its schools in the fall, when smoke from the Camp Fire affected Peninsula air quality.
"We closed school because it felt like the right thing to do, but it didn't feel equitable," she said. Lucas noted that there were many district families who didn't have child care during the school day, which posed safety and health problems since some children were left without adult supervision.
"This is an example where if we don't add the word 'equitable,' we will say, 'We think this is right,' but it might not be equitable," she said.
In a June 14 email, Lucas said, "I think that the broad turn out of parents, community members, elected officials, teachers, local small business owners, and nonprofit founders, indicates that the topic of equity is important. I heard constituents call on us to define equity and community. Because the term equity means different things to different people, I believe our first step is to clearly define equity, what it is and what it isn't. We need to define the word community so that when we discuss issues of equity, we know to what group they apply."
It's important to go beyond conversations and set clear actions the board can take to better support equity, trustee Sherwin Chen said.
"I don't want to throw words with 'equity' into these documents and then go back to business as usual," he said.
Trustee Scott Seywell suggested the district seek advice from Stanford University researchers on addressing equity.
School board President David Ackerman said school curriculum needs to include more mention of unconscious biases.
One community member suggested the district open school libraries during the summer to increase literacy. Not all students have public library cards and fall behind during the summer when they're not reading regularly, she said.
Las Lomitas School District parent Heather Hopkins said access to early education programs can minimize equity problems later in a child's life. Seywell noted that the district recently opened its Early Learning Center (ELC), but it doesn't have the funding to offer spots to all eligible children. The ELC enrolls children just under 3 years old to 5 years old and is expanding to about 88 students this fall. To support the school's mission of serving a socio-economically diverse group of students, the ELC subsidizes tuition for 25% of the preschoolers on a sliding scale based on family income.
The school district goes "above and beyond" to ensure students can participate in activities regardless of ability to pay, Burmeister said. For example, the district provides 400 free passes to students who can't afford to go to summer camps on district campuses and for children of some staff members.
One community member said the board should consider what relatively inexpensive means it can take to "move the needle" on student equity.
Lucas hopes the district will support the establishment of an equity committee, build in recurring board equity conversations and set an equity goal for the superintendent.
The board will consider changes in language to the district's guiding documents, Treadway said in an email. It will also consider establishing a team to further the discussion on equity and potentially hosting more study sessions during the 2019-20 school year.
View a video of the meeting here.