Four district school board candidates offer diverse qualifications
Written by: Rebecca Alger, Misheel Enkhbat, Eileen Qian and Regina Tran
Melissa Baten Caswell:
Melissa Baten Caswell, an incumbent school board member and former president, is running for re-election.
After graduating from Dartmouth College, Baten Caswell worked for various technology companies such as Apple and Sun Microsystems, not knowing that she would later work in the field of education. While taking some time off her career, Baten Caswell was asked to help in the Parent Teacher Association (PTA). Baten Caswell eventually became an active participant on the school board. “It was like a domino thing after that,” Baten Caswell said.
Baten Caswell believes that senior first semester finals should be optional as a means of giving students the opportunity to start making their own choices. “We should be giving [students] more choices because when [students] get out of [their parents’] house, [students] will have a lot of choices, and [students] need to be comfortable making them without help,” she said. “The only way [students] can do that successfully is with practice.”
Baten Caswell doesn’t feel that the Palo Alto High School (Paly) guidance system should necessarily be implemented at Gunn or that Gunn’s should be implemented at Paly. She believes that student surveys indicated both programs could use some improvement, and she would like to see both schools work together to produce a more effective guidance system. “I’d like the schools to work together to come up with what the purpose and metrics are of the counseling programs,” Baten Caswell said. “If they can agree on that, then actually I don’t care how it’s done at each school, because I’ll assume that quality will be as good at both because everyone will be going towards the same metric.”
One of Baten Caswell’s main goals, if re-elected, is to allow students to focus on what they love. “I feel like we don’t give [students] enough opportunities to find their passions. So whether it’s giving [students] enough time to explore things or providing enough things to explore, I think we could improve how we’re doing that,” Baten Caswell said. “So, I’d like to invest in that in my next term.”
Ken Dauber, a software engineer at Google, is running for a first term as a PAUSD school board member.Dauber, who has spent the last ten years as a consultant for educational data and development for various companies, hopes to incorporate the use of data in order to improve upon and solve current issues. “I would work to make sure that we have the data that we need to support our goal of giving every student an equally excellent education,” Dauber said.
Dauber hopes to put a consistent homework criterion in place. As a former member of the district homework committee, Dauber aims to set guidelines for every grade about the number of hours students should spend working on homework. “The policy [I hope to implement] says that homework isn’t supposed to be about learning organization skills because it isn’t very good at teaching those skills,” he said. Dauber also plans on fully implementing Schoology in the school district by promoting its use amongst teachers and students.
If elected to PAUSD school board, Dauber plans to negotiate the implementation of Palo Alto High School’s (Paly) Teacher Advisory system at Gunn. Paly’s guidance system uses teacher advisors to discuss school-related issues with students. Each teacher meets with the group of students he or she is in charge of every week. The meetings are mandatory and scheduled after school, similar to Gunn’s Titan 101 program. Paly’s counselors focus exclusively on students’ social-emotional issues. According to Dauber, Paly also offers additional guidance services for issues such as dropping a course, or switching lanes. “The students would benefit from more contact with adults, and counselors and other adults would have more time with students and be able to give each student more of their attention,” Dauber said.
Dauber hopes to implement these changes in order to fulfill the larger goal of reducing stress across the entire district. “I have a strong background as a volunteer advocate for these issues in the district, and years of experience using educational data to understand how to improve achievement and learning in our schools,” he said.
Heidi Emberling is a parent educator at Parents Place, a parent resource center in the Bay Area and a part time teacher. She has a fourth grader at Juana Briones Elementary School and a sixth grader at Terman Middle School. She is running for the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) School Board in order to provide a voice for younger students and families.
Emberling aims to create an academic environment where all students are supported socially, emotionally and academically. “The first priority for me is making sure that students have a positive connection to school and that there’s a trusted adult on campus,” Emberling said.
Another major problem affecting not only Palo Alto, but the entire state, is lack of sufficient funding for public schools. California is currently 47th in the nation in per pupil spending. “Budget priorities must begin with our teachers,” Emberling said. “Innovations in the classroom that support teachers are also a priority.”
Emberling hopes to improve the district’s handling of over-enrollment concerns. “We are facing enrollment growth issues right now, so we need to prioritize adding new facilities to accommodate the growing student population,” Emberling said. “We are fortunate to have passed a $378 million construction bond for new facilities.”
Emberling supports creating two comparable counseling systems at both Gunn and Palo Alto High School (Paly). “Paly’s academic advising has a much better student to counselor ratio than the academic advising at Gunn,” Emberling said. “As a district, we have to look at providing comparable outcomes for students and move toward similar models that have a unified purpose and vision.”
While Emberling did not initially have an opinion on the calendar change, she now believes that moving finals to before winter break just shifts more stress for students, especially seniors. “I saw that perhaps we were just moving the stress from January to December and we were combining finals with final performances and college applications and sporting events and everything was sort of piling in December,” Emberling said.
Current president of the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) School Board Camille Townsend, who has served two terms on the board, is seeking re-election. She was first elected in 2003 and was re-elected in 2007. She has served two years as president, the first time from 2006 to 2007 and the second time from 2011 to the present. All board members are required to serve as president for a year.Having two daughters who attended PAUSD schools, Townsend aims to maintain the district’s high academic standards by ensuring financial stability and protecting teachers who allow students to thrive and connect with their peers. “Teachers are the core of our program,” Townsend said. “Excellent teachers motivate, encourage and stay current with our students’ 21st century demands.”
Townsend has worked to protect the positions of teachers who bring professionalism and enthusiasm to their jobs. Despite financial debacles in recent years due to over-enrollment concerns and state budget cuts, Townsend prevented the shortening of class time by cutting positions and by leaving non-teaching positions open. According to Townsend, these actions kept the relationship between students and teachers strong.
Townsend also hopes to continue engaging the district in tackling the budget challenges, keeping classes engaging, working on delivering better counseling services and giving students the opportunity to excel in the changing world. “Life takes many turns,” Townsend said. “I want to make sure that students keep all doors open as the future unfolds.” She also believes that it is important to keep the community engaged in the decision-making process. For instance, during her term, the community passed a bond parcel measure with 79 percent approval, which generated a higher budget for new classes and for Project Safety Net.
With board member Barbara Klausner stepping down from office, Townsend believes it’s her job to ensure the excellence of the district. “Challenges to our budget, our teachers and our students require ongoing stability,” Townsend said. “Innovation is alive and well on our campuses, encouraged by our board.”