PAUSD Promise envisions, outlines new district goals

Kepa Neesen, Reporter

Like any school system, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) has gone through numerous changes in its 125-year-history. The School Board and Superintendent Don Austin’s current priorities are concisely summarized in The PAUSD Promise, an online document published on March 26. The Promise outlines the district priorities for the next few years, and determines progress in each category. Subcategories include high quality teaching and learning, equity and excellence, wellness and safety, special education and inclusion, district office operations and moving the needle.

PAUSD has created similar outlines in the past six years, with three plans being published over as many superintendents.The Strategic Plan, compiled under Kevin Skelly in 2013, had a heavier focus on budget, infrastructure and communications than the current Promise. Meanwhile, Max McGee’s District Goals for 2017 put an emphasis on students, including teaching and learning, equity and access and wellness and safety. With the Promise, Austin took elements of both, with a focus on achievable objectives. “Most of [the priorities] came from previous committee work and a plethora of plans,” Austin said. “My goal is to try to take things from aspirational to operational.”

Moreover, Board Vice President Todd Collins saw the Promise as a way to concentrate the district’s resources on its most pressing issues. During his School Board candidacy, he had criticized a previous action plan for containing 128 distinct goals. “Try to spread yourself too thin across too many things and very little will change,” Collins said. “The top priority is improving our academic performance with low-income students, which historically PAUSD has been really bad at.”

“Moving the Needle” represents Collins’ primary focus. The needle, a tool created by the California School Dashboard visualizes student performance across subjects and demographics. The needle categorizes performance into color bands, with red indicating lower performance and blue indicating high performance. Based on the data, PAUSD aims to improve the status of disadvantaged and minority students in the coming years. “One of the fundamental things we’re supposed to do as a school district is help all kids achieve proficiency,” Collins said.

While those kinds of goals are meant to be pursued across the district, there are some that affect Gunn specifically. “I think a lot of academic and instructional priorities do affect high schoolers,” School Board Representative senior Arjun Prabhakar said. “For example, science standards, standards based grading, and other things that affect curriculum directly.”  

Principal Kathie Laurence also believed the Promise was about standards. “We’re really working to align [Gunn and Paly],” Laurence said. “That doesn’t mean the two schools will be identical. It means that when a student leaves a high school in Palo Alto they will have had common learning outcomes.”

Developing the Promise was a collaborative process involving input from the School Board, Austin, principals, instructional leaders and student representatives.

The Promise is still unfinished despite its publication. Described as a “living document” by Austin, it’s still in a draft form, with the expectation that some problems will be resolved and others will come up. Continued editing will allow the district to stay flexible and avoid complacency. “You need to make progress in an organization like a [school district],” Collins said. “You need to have a sense of urgency, you need to have important goals and to be able to articulate to your people why they’re important.”

Ultimately, the Promise is meant to outline priorities and hold the administration accountable. “You may neglect a strategic plan,” Austin said. “But you shouldn’t break a promise.”