Cover Story - October 12, 2011

Voter Guide: High school district: 'Achievement gap' issue in schools race

• Five candidates compete for three seats in Sequoia Union High School District.

by Dave Boyce

This fall is decision time for voters, with three seats open on the five-member board governing the Sequoia Union High School District. The district is home to Woodside, Menlo-Atherton, Summit Prep and Everest high schools among others. Five candidates are running in the Nov. 8 election, including two incumbents first elected in 1999.

Since two other board members (whose terms expire in 2013) came to the board in 2009, the election will mean at least three and possibly four or five new or relatively new board members could be overseeing a district of some 8,200 students and with an annual budget of $100 million.

The candidates, in alphabetical order, are:

• Carrie Du Bois, a member of the San Carlos School District board and a San Carlos resident.

• Olivia Martinez, an incumbent running for her fourth term on the Sequoia district board and a Menlo Park resident.

• Larry James Moody, a nonprofit director and former school board member in, and current resident of, East Palo Alto.

• Lorraine Rumley, an incumbent running for her fourth term on the Sequoia district board and a resident of Redwood City.

• Allen S. Weiner, a law school lecturer at Stanford University and a resident of Menlo Park.

The Almanac interviewed them all on several Sequoia district matters, including finances, career technical education, and the contributions of charter schools. The principal focus in this story is perhaps the most intractable problem: the academic achievement gap.

Achievement for all?

High on the list of district concerns is the persistent achievement gap, typically referred to as the difference in standardized test scores, on a state-defined scale of 1,000 points, between two groups of students: Caucasian (or white) and Hispanic (or Latino).

The state's Academic Performance Index (API) numbers from the last five years show an average gap of 285 points at M-A, 152 at Woodside and 147 at Summit Prep. (The gap at Everest is 132 for 2010-11, the only year available.) What should be done about the gap? What can be done?

The Sequoia district has had a gap since at least 1967, Ms. Martinez told the Almanac. In 1999, California introduced the API, which ranks schools using an algorithm of test scores accompanied by analysis. It's a useful perspective on a difficult and complex topic, Ms. Martinez said.

As is the district's own analysis, she added. Looking at data from specific local elementary schools, M-A and Woodside high schools now prepare for students who have significant academic deficits, including teacher-to-teacher contacts and teacher exchanges with K-8 districts, Ms. Martinez said.

It might help, she said, if the K-8 Ravenswood City School District, which serves East Palo Alto and Belle Haven, had middle schools where math, science and English teachers tend to have majored in their fields. Middle-school curriculums tend to be stronger, their school-wide projects more feasible, and their classes more in-depth, she said.

"This is in no way a disparagement of K-8 education," she added. "But in Ravenswood, where so many struggle with math and science, it would seem prudent to me to offer a middle-school program."

"It's our marketplace," Mr. Moody, the East Palo Alto resident, said when asked about the achievement gap. "What is it going to take on the policy end to turn those results around? We feel it's time to have a (Ravenswood) representative on the board, to be a part of the conversation, to make sure that all kids are graduating."

Among his proposals: televised board meetings that start at maybe 7:30 p.m. rather than 5:30 so parents can get home, have dinner and get involved. "I think it will be very impactful for all the (K-8) districts," Mr. Moody said. "It's an issue. Our community is not connected with these trustees."

Mr. Moody would also avoid separating eighth-graders from their friends as they move on to high school, and he would have them assigned to high schools early so that current and future teachers can contact each other.

"Students can (then) enter these campuses with a lot of comfort with one another, with a lot of comfort knowing which school they're going to," he explained.

Ms. Du Bois made similar points. Ravenswood students should feel like the high school is their community when they get there, she said. In her effort to help that along, she said she asked Sequoia Superintendent James Lianides for a bus to transport Sequoia district parents to a community-building dinner with Ravenswood district parents.

The Sequoia parents almost all said, "There is a problem. I want to do more," Ms. Du Bois said. What is needed, she added, are courageous conversations that identify what is working and what is not.

Many Ravenswood students catch a 6:30 a.m. bus every day to attend Carlmont High School in Belmont. Ms. Du Bois said she asked Carlmont parents if their PTA conversations ever got around to kids who go to school hungry. They did not, Ms. Du Bois said she was told.

"This is what's missing," she told the Almanac. "You have to be honest about the problem. ... I want to solve the problems that have not been solved," she said. Involved adults who know each other and focus on students will have a shared vision, she said.

Mr. Weiner called the achievement gap a "tremendous problem" and said he's attended about a half-dozen Sequoia board meetings. "It's not clear to me that our board is doing as much as it could," he said.

"I think a lot of people are putting in a lot of time, to be sure," he said. "A lot of times, the comments are 'You're doing a great job. Attaboy.' That's important because you want your people to be motivated (but) how does this track with the policy goals we've established?"

Sequoia board discussions are too ad hoc and need to be more focused on strategies, he said. "There was just no kind of collective deliberation. ... The board is getting its information from this very wooden and formal discussion."

A focus for Mr. Weiner, were he to be elected: working intently on making the district bureaucracy more effective.

Veterans on the board are important, Ms. Rumley told the Almanac. Mr. Lianides is in his second year as superintendent and two board members were new in 2009. Experience and leadership are needed "to run our board meetings in a very calm and responsive manner to our constituents," she said.

As for the achievement gap: "It's taken a long time to turn that ship around. A lot of hard work raising that achievement level," Ms. Rumley said. "There's a lot of work (yet) to do."

The Sequoia district relies on performance data, Ms. Rumley added, and is becoming "more and more skilled" at analyzing it.

All district students should have to talk with a counselor about what is necessary to meet University of California requirements for graduation, Ms. Rumley said. Students who don't show promise could opt out but their parents should have to sign a waiver, she said.

Other matters

Every candidate spoke warmly of having Summit Prep and Everest charter high schools in the district.

"Our relationship has changed dramatically with them," Ms. Rumley said. "I think we can all learn from each other."

A board majority, including Ms. Rumley but not Ms. Martinez, was unrelenting in a year-long effort to prevent Everest from getting a charter, which it eventually did from the state Board of Education. Why the change in attitude? "Our realization that they were going to reach out to all of our communities," Ms. Rumley said.

Ms. Du Bois noted the absence of the charters' names from district letterhead and the difficulty in finding them on the website. Asked if there should be regular contact between charter and comprehensive principals, she said she didn't see how the resulting perspective could possibly hurt.

"I can't imagine what the argument against that would be," Mr. Weiner said when asked. "It's part of the deliberation."

As for budget cuts in a state increasingly strapped for education dollars, Mr. Weiner noted the importance of strategic rather than ad hoc priorities.

The assumption that cuts be kept away from the classroom is not "irrebuttable," he said. The way charters evaluate teachers is interesting, he added. "I think we need to have a better sense of which of our teachers are doing a great job."

Mr. Moody recommended partnerships with regional foundations and salary cuts in the district office, with the top third losing 10 percent, the middle third 6 percent, and the rest about 3 percent. "We all have to pitch in for the benefit of the kids," he added.

Lacking an inside-the-district perspective, Ms. Du Bois said she was not ready to comment on budget matters.

Asked about career technical education, Mr. Moody, after a long pause, said he would have the district do "clear assessments" to gauge a student's strengths. "Priority should not go to kids who would otherwise take opportunities away from kids who could use these classes to become contributors," he said.

The unemployment rate in East Palo Alto is 21 percent, and 46 percent of the population there is 19 or younger, Mr. Moody said.


Allen S.Weiner

Experience: Co-director of Stanford Program in International Law at Stanford Law School, wide experience in international law, including participation in U.S and international forums, negotiation on behalf of United States, authorship and co-authorship of op-eds and amicus briefs.

Education: Bachelors degree magna cum laude in social studies, Harvard College; law degree from Stanford Law School.

Profession: Law school lecturer

Age: 48

Family: Married, three children (Menlo-Atherton High School graduate, M-A sophomore, and Hillview eighth-grader)

Lorraine Rumley

Experience: 12 years on Sequoia Union High School District board, including four years as president; chairperson, Redwood City 2020; member, Board of Directors, Latino Leadership Council of San Mateo County; executive board member, San Mateo County School Boards Association 2003/2004; past member, Board of Directors, Sequoia High School Education Foundation.

Education: Honors graduate, Camden High School in San Jose; business classes at Mission college.

Profession: Business Owner

Age: 54

Family: Married; two children (Sequoia High School graduates)

Larry James Moody

Experience: Executive positions with faith-based and community-based organizations, mostly in East Palo Alto, including Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, parks and recreation, police activity league. Former school board member for Ravenswood City School District.

Education: University of Nevada Las Vegas/Clark County Community College, Trinity College, Robinson High School Academy

Profession: Director, East Palo Alto Police Activities League

Age: 55

Family: Two children (seniors at Menlo-Atherton High School)

Carrie Du Bois

Experience: Elementary school board member in San Carlos, delegate for California School Boards Association, past president of education foundation, active community volunteer, including in East Palo Alto and with foster youth.

Education: Bachelor's degree from California State University at Sacramento

Profession: Real estate agent

Age: 53

Family: Married with three children (one at Carlmont High School)

Olivia Martinez

Experience: 12 years on Sequoia Union High School District board; Peninsula Community Foundation; YMCA of the MidPeninsula; Latino Leadership Council of San Mateo County; Foundation for a College Education, National Advisory Board, Haas Center for Pubic Service at Stanford.

Education: Bachelor's degree, San Francisco State University; master's degree, University of California at Berkeley; doctorate in education, University of San Francisco

Profession: Retired Vice President & Sociology professor, Canada College

Age: 67

Family: Married; three children


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