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Parents Aim to Close Minority 'Achievement Gap'

We Can Do Better takes aim at gap between minority students, Whites and Asians.

Palo Alto students who are in danger of not graduating high school may have an easier path to their diploma.

A proposal by PAUSD Superintendent Kevin Skelly to tweak the district’s graduation requirements in order to meet the diverse and changing needs of its students was warmly received Tuesday night.

If adopted, the plan would increase the number of English and Performing Arts units required of all graduating students, require two years of a world language, three years of math, including geometry and algebra 2, and two years of science with a lab required.

The total number of units a student would be required to take would increase to 220, but Skelly said the new rules would not be burdensome for most students, since the average completes 267 units today. Only 28 kids, or three percent of the student body, are currently taking fewer than 220 units, he said.

The rationale behind the changes is deep, touching on broader economic factors as well as community needs.

“Education has, for most of our human history, been an education for the elite,” said Skelly, adding that there has been a longstanding struggle for equal access to learning. Today, years after Brown vs. Board of Education, students are integrated, but face a new set of hurdles.

“Now the conversation has changed from one of universal access to universal proficiency,” he said. And proficiency, he argued, need not necessarily equate to a college education.

“About twenty percent of students don’t want to go to college,” he said. “We should be talking to them about what else they can study.”

The new requirements would primarily affect four groups of students, he said. The main group would consist of students who have a particular interest in something other than post-secondary education, he said.

The second group would include students who are new to the district and are lacking skills or coursework that would place them on equal footing with their peers.

The third group, he said, would include Special Ed students—a group expanded to include diagnosed kids who may be school phobic or be grappling with other debilitating mental illness.

The fourth group would be English learners.

The plan comes on the heels of an emotional meeting last May in which the board

“A-G” refers to the requirements held by both the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems to make a student eligible for admission. It sets forth a minimum number of years students must take in various subjects—known as the “A-G” subjects—such as English, world languages, mathematics, laboratory science, visual and performing arts, and history and social sciences.

Twenty four attendees at Tuesday night’s meeting spoke out entirely in favor of Dr. Skelly’s proposal.

“We’ve all come to the conclusion that A-G alignment is the right plan for Palo Alto,” said Alex, a Paly student and ASB member. “I implore you to act now, because now is the future.”

A parent, Mr. Liebert, agreed.

“While we churn out Stanford brain surgeons and lawyers, let’s also remember that we need electricians, plumbers and carpenters and farmers,” he said.

In addition to offering a new track to non-college bound students, the new plan would also take a step toward —a problem that local parent group We Can Do Better has been focused on.

Stanford Law professor Michele Dauber, one of the group’s co-founders, said Tuesday night that Dr. Skelly’s plan was very promising.

“I think it’s excellent, I think it’s well thought out, I think it’s thoughtful,” she said, adding that she hopes the board ensures that if adopted, the rules will have teeth.

“The board should basically put a stake in the ground, and say we’re going to hold kids and teachers accountable for meeting those expectations,” she said.

A study session on March 13 will continue evaluation of the plan in advance of any vote by the board.

Jennifer van der Kleut contributed to this report.

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