Weighing in on topics ranging from the Palo Alto school board’s recent decision to terminate its top lawyer to whether the district’s homework policy should change, the four candidates for the Palo Alto Unified Board of Education shared their opinions at an at-times heated forum hosted by the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com on Tuesday, Sept. 20.
Ingrid Campos, Nichole Chiu-Wang, Shounak Dharap and Shana Segal are vying for two seats on the five-member school board this November. They answered questions posed by Palo Alto Weekly education reporter Zoe Morgan as well as local high school journalists Anna Feng, Chris Lee and Jerry Xia.
The forum’s first questions focused on how the school district can support the academic needs of all students, as well as how to close gaps in achievement and opportunity that currently exist for students based on race, economic background and disability status.
Both Dharap and Chiu-Wang, both attorneys, spoke about the importance of evaluating and supporting students holistically, as well as about the progress that has been made through existing district programs.
Chiu-Wang said that it was important to assess the “entire student,” rather than just measuring progress with standardized tests. She also spoke in favor of current district initiatives like the SWIFT Plan, which lays out a framework for addressing educational inequity, as well as the Every Student Reads Initiative, which sets goals for improving reading achievement in third grade, with a particular focus on Latino, Black and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students, as well as those who are low income, disabled or learning English.
As an incumbent — the only one in the race — Dharap spoke about his work on the board to create a plan to help all students achieve success regardless of their background, an apparent reference to the SWIFT Plan. Having early interventions to make sure students are getting the support that they need is important, Dharap said.
Segal, an educator and PAUSD parent, similarly supported early intervention systems but also stressed the importance of differentiated instruction, which refers to techniques that teachers can use to tailor instruction to the varying skill levels of students in the same class.
“If differentiated instruction is done well, we are able to meet the needs of all students,” Segal said. “If we can support and challenge all students, then students feel a sense of belonging, a sense of engagement and love going to school.”
Chiu-Wang and Campos, both parents with children in the district, also mentioned support for differentiated learning, though Campos said that, while she isn’t certain, she thinks differentiated instruction is “going by the wayside” in the district. Campos supported having extra tutoring, including peer tutoring, on campuses. When it came to the achievement gap, Campos objected to the idea of considering race as a factor when offering aid, stating that she believes students’ struggles are attributable to circumstances like a lack of help at home or language barriers and that struggling students should be treated as individuals.
That prompted a sharp rebuke from Chiu-Wang, who said that these types of arguments lead to bad outcomes that don’t serve students.
“Her suggestion, basically saying we should be colorblind and not acknowledge systemic inequity and racism, is what leads to more systemic inequity and racism,” Chiu-Wang said.
Chiu-Wang also pushed back later in the forum on Campos’ suggestion that student discipline issues trace back in part to whether parents instill character through “traditional family values.”
Curriculum and homework
When it came to curriculum, one area where the candidates diverged was on the issue of the California Math Framework proposal that the state is currently considering. The Math Framework has generated substantial controversy at the state level, including for its suggestion that districts postpone Algebra 1 until ninth grade.
Segal said that while well-intentioned, she believed that the Math Framework fails to meet the needs of PAUSD students and that she favors offering Algebra to eighth graders.
Campos stressed that districts are not required to follow the framework and that she supports offering advanced math classes, including Algebra, early in middle school.
In contrast, Dharap said that he starts with the presumption that when the state develops a framework, a large amount of expert study…