The board first met on Sept. 20 to receive a district report regarding removing honors classes in the ninth grade and merging students into a class that would foster diverse learning and enhance college readiness among all students, but after an emotional seven-hour long meeting, the Zoom broadcast shut off abruptly, and the trustees were not able to weigh in.
District Superintendent Crystal Leach said during the Oct. 11 board meeting she didn't get to share the next steps for the program due to the abrupt ending in September.
"Absent of any board direction, I am working with staff and teachers on calibration of our current ninth-grade offerings," she said.
Staff will hold meetings with its feeder districts to better refine curricula in the seventh and eighth grades since she has heard that ninth grade classes repeat some of the same lessons.
"I am also working with principals on the overall ninth-grade experience. What do we want that to look like, both inside and outside of the classroom? We currently have in the works a ninth-grade short survey. ... It's going to ninth graders; it's very simple questions to gauge what their ninth-grade experiences are like so that we can adjust accordingly to make sure that we are creating the best and welcoming environment both socially and academically for our ninth graders," she said.
Board President Richard Ginn, who has voiced concerns about the district losing families seeking more course choices, suggested offering a school with maximized choices and proposed adding the topic to the Oct. 25 agenda. He noted that the course catalogs for the coming year will likely be finalized sometime in December.
The September study session reviewed the district's 121-page report, "Streamlining Course Offerings and Creating More Diverse Learning Environments to Increase Student Access and Success." The report analyzed an existing program merging ninth-grade students eligible for honors classes and students who were not in college-eligible classes. The merged or "heterogeneous" classrooms were more targeted to individual student-level needs while theoretically uplifting all students who would also benefit from working together.
The district wants to increase the number of students who pass classes needed for college acceptance, which is part of its effort to provide more equitable outcomes. But some parents and students have claimed the study is flawed. Removing the honors classes robs them of equitable educational opportunity by holding them back, they said at the Sept. 20 meeting. The report and many teachers disputed those claims, saying that more students passed the college-required classes.
During the Oct. 11 board meeting, when Ginn first proposed continuing the September study session, trustees Carrie Du Bois, Amy Koo and Shawneece Stevenson wanted to wait until Leach returned with the reports of the staff findings, which Leach said wouldn't be ready by the Oct. 25 meeting. Trustee Sathvik Nori was absent.
Ginn wasn't satisfied with tabling the discussion, however.
At the Oct. 25 board meeting, he again proposed that the study session continuation be added to the Nov. 15 meeting — the only meeting the trustees are scheduled to have during that month. Ultimately, Koo and Nori supported him after a long debate. Stevenson and Du Bois were strongly opposed.
"We've given no guidance on this," Ginn said. "In my opinion, the board has not given any guidance. And I don't feel like it's right for us to, as the governing board, to not say anything on the topic until after the deadline to make any decision. If the decision is to do nothing, I feel like the board should say that the board's decision is to do nothing.
"I don't feel like it's right. In my opinion, for us to just stay silent and then say, 'Oh, sorry, the deadline passed,' that's not proper leadership and governance," he added.
He also criticized the lack of clear guidance provided to the superintendent, "which is where I believe we're at right now; that there's been a big discussion, and then the meeting ended," he said. When merged-class changes arose two years ago, the board didn't offer any thoughts at that time, he noted.
Ginn also read a lengthy statement earlier in the meeting regarding his views on the reduction in class choices.
In the statement, he said he'd spoken to families whose parents or older children had attended Sequoia district schools and had decided to send younger children to private schools, due to recent years' reduction in course options. "These families were supporters of our schools and now we have lost their support," he said.
"If our district does not offer more course choices, then families wanting more course choices will seek alternatives. This debate/discussion hinges on how, and how much, each of us believes that our course offerings impact public perception of our schools and how much each of us believes that the public's perception of our schools, in the medium to long term, has an impact on our schools. I believe that our course offerings do impact the public's perception of our schools; and I believe that if the public's perception of our schools is not strong, that perception will have a negative impact on our schools as families seek alternatives," Ginn said.
The trustees might consider having one of the schools maximize choice while the other schools continue with their current offerings, he suggested. Incoming families could decide whether their children will attend the "choice school" and transfer to that school or transfer away from that school if they prefer fewer choices.
The board could also consider looking for district graduation requirements that exceed state requirements. If the district could reduce them, it would create room in a student's schedule for more choice, he said.
But frustration boiled over for one Menlo-Atherton High School English teacher, Abbie Korman, who was the lone public speaker.
"I'm alarmed to hear this conversation, trying to agendize a vote, essentially pushing to reverse the decades-long work this district has been doing that was not only supported through our in-house, 121 pages of research about our students ... but ... is supported by almost all administrators and staff who have degrees upon degrees in education, as well as the majority of the community," she said.
Opponents of the merged classes are in the minority, perhaps 10% of parents, she said.
"We've spent quite a long time, almost a year so far, hearing from this small group of well-resourced parents, and I hope the rest of the board uses their vote to make sure we're prioritizing all of our parents and all of our students and trust those with degrees in education," she said.
Du Bois said she was opposed to moving the discussion forward without the final staff report answering a number of questions.
"I think it really hurts what we're trying to do and building trust. I would not do it. We've got staff that has worked really hard. And we have a capable superintendent. And there is distrust in the comments we got tonight. There has been distrust in other topics that we've had. And this board needs to build trust. Or we will accomplish nothing," she said.
Stevenson was concerned that the tenor of Ginn's comments would end up leaving more disadvantaged students behind.
"What I'm really struggling with right now is different ways that we're talking about choices but not talking about it in the context of our community, in the sense of the 8,000 kids that we have and the vast diversity that we have," she said. "I'm getting really triggered on a couple of different things that I'm really struggling with, and it may be a separate discussion, but really around race and equity and status, socio-economic status," she said.
Stevenson said those issues need to be part of the curriculum discussion.
"We're going to have a discussion around heterogeneous classes again, and I am really struggling because the silent message that I'm getting, whether it's intentional or unintentional, is whether or not kids — certain kids — belong in our district and whether or not we're going to serve them," she said.