In preparation for Palo Alto Weekly’s coverage of campaigns for the Palo Alto Unified Board of Education, we asked questions from our readers about their top concerns about the school district. With their many excellent answers, we have crafted a short questionnaire, which we hope will help clarify the differences between the four candidates.
They discussed their primary interests and experiences in education. They also provide their views on student achievement, COVID-19 learning loss, diversity and inclusion, and stewardship and innovations. Candidates’ answers to all of these topics will be published as separate articles, one per day, until September 26th. Here’s what they should say for the next question: What literal grade would you give a supervisor’s performance without Austin so far, and why?
Nicole Chiu Wang
To rank our supervisor’s performance so far, I’m going to grade hard and soft skills. For the hard skills, I’d give Supervisor Austin a “satisfactory” score because he focused and carried out our goals in many areas. For soft skills, I’d give a “needs improvement” score because the community had to be involved in implementing the area’s goals.
We were the first in the county to reopen schools during the pandemic, but the reopening has been scary for everyone — teachers, staff, parents and students. Unfortunately, the process of determining when to reopen has been problematic. For those particularly frightened, it felt like a rubber stamp process where the community was not invited to participate and their right concerns were not listened to. This points to a bigger problem – poor communication.
Supervisor Austin has implemented some impressive initiatives. Unfortunately, he is not a communications specialist and his communication was deficient. Without better communication, members of our school community lack the information needed to feel comfortable with change – even if it is done in good faith.
As the “chief” of the supervisor, I believe that the job of the school board is to recognize that no supervisor will be equally skilled in every area and that the right supportive people must be put in place to complement the supervisor’s strengths and weaknesses. In this case, we needed a liaison, and the district just hired an employee – now we’ll see how better communication will help our district!
It is also important to note the state of the area when Superintendent Austin started. We had a lot of issues to address, but we lacked clarity and prioritization. Seeing this, Supervisor Austin created the PAUSD Promise with procedures we could follow. This was an important step in the right direction and demonstrates the strength of Superintendent Austin.
The supervisor did an outstanding job in building a solid management foundation for the area, including by appointing and building a core management team capable of effectively implementing the policy direction set by the Board of Directors. This has led to strong recruitment and employment, increased academic grades, expanded learning opportunities (i.e. industry degrees and dual enrollment), and an emphasis on equitable achievement. Sharing it with other supervisors across California and the country has given us access to a broader perspective, knowledge, and resources for best practices.
During COVID, we were one of the first public school districts to begin reopening; And we did it safely. While this was a priority set by the board, it was Dr. Austin who implemented the directive and lobbied the county and state to make it happen, including by lobbying to prioritize teacher vaccinations when teachers are not in the first priority area for new vaccines.
His leadership has also been crucial in clarifying county and state guidelines for opening during COVID and I am confident that without him we would not have been able to open as early as we did; We also wouldn’t have been able to do it without the coronavirus outbreak on campus.
The reason for the “subtraction” is that there is always room for improvement. Dr. Austin has been in the area for about four years now, but for a good portion of that time, we’ve been in a state of crisis during COVID. Moving forward, there is an opportunity for Dr. Austin to continue to engage with the community and build his knowledge of the roots of PAUSD and Palo Alto, including the context of issues of historical interest to the community; In addition to building stronger links with the various stakeholder groups (teachers, staff, parents) that the district serves.
To better understand effectiveness, one needs to evaluate Dr. Austin’s strengths and areas for improvement. As a parent, substitute educator, educator, and regular attendee of Board meetings, I will provide the following assessment:
• SWIFT plan (2021-24)
• PAUSD Promise Plan (2019-20)
• Supporting the outstanding diversity of the PAUSD program in academic and co-curricular offerings.
• Cooperation with the PTA / PTSA
• Contacts with supervisors across the state
areas of improvement:
• Policy changes. For example: Frequent changes and rules in the academic schedule about non-classroom periods such as preparatory, self-administered, educational programme, classroom, etc. are not adequately explained to the students or parents.
Partner Provider Relationships: For example, last March, PAUSD suddenly announced, without explanation, that Right at School, a for-profit national chain, would replace Palo Alto Community Child Care (PACCC), a high-level childcare program Quality Nonprofit Inc. has served Palo Alto for decades.
• Many parents felt that Dr. Austin’s reactions to them were dismissive and/or intimidating. We need to cultivate a culture of mutual respect.
• Families discovered at the last minute that their primary school-aged children had been placed in multi-grade classrooms without explanation. Likewise, Palo Verde families found out from a newspaper article that their school would be moving to Coberly.
• Attracting and retaining high-quality teachers is critical to the success of PAUSD. Teacher morale is low. In a survey published in May, 50% of PAUSD teachers rated their morale as very low or very low. 63% state that the main reason behind this is a lack of district management support.
• Stakeholders report that parent, teacher, and student input is often overlooked or omitted.
• Enrollment rates have declined due to the pandemic or the cost of living. However, I have learned through a consultant that factors of satisfaction with school also play a role. Low enrollment leads to multi-grade classes, lower PTA/PIE donations and possible school closures.
I give him an A-.
I am very pleased with Dr. Don Austin’s performance as supervisor because he makes it his job to be involved in the business of running a high-end school district with consideration and care for students and parents. I have always been amazed at his level and willingness to engage with the school community. His open and accessible communication and style makes it very easy to talk to him about fears, hopes, dreams, lamentations, and really anything else. Through his tutelage, focusing on early literacy has been a progressive achievement at PAUSD and has brought literacy numbers and data to higher standards every year since 2018.
Check back on Palo Alto Online tomorrow to see which candidates are dealing with another problem in the school district.