In only the second contested election since the 1990s, seven candidates for the Mountain View-Los Altos School District board made their pitches to district teachers Tuesday.
Teachers made their way over to the Los Altos High School library, just hours after the school let out for the day, for a candidate forum hosted by the District Teachers Association.
Incumbents Joe Mitchner and Debbie Torok lauded the district's efforts to reach out to minority and at-risk students and the upcoming formula designed to help disadvantaged students. But some candidates challenged the board for being too passive and came out in favor of a more active, hands-on approach to district governance.
By the end of forum, after some discussion among attendees, representatives from the District Teachers Association voted to endorse Mitchener, Dana Bunnett and Sanjay Dave for the school board over candidates Torok, Kevin Kramer, Doug Moore and Fiona Walter.
Candidate Dave said the district needs to look at new ways to give low-income students equal opportunities for success. He said schools need to provide programs for students who might not decide to go to a four-year university after graduation, and advocated for an expansion in programming classes as well as vocations classes, like automotive and woodworking. He said these programs also bring together high- and low-performing students -- an important part of the high school experience.
"We need to get high and low achievers together, because that's the real world," Dave said.
Mitchner, the current board president, said school board members have been very successful in closing the achievement gap because they've made it a priority as a district, and because of the time and effort put in by district teachers. He said the district hired liaisons to connect families with the schools, including families who don't speak English, and touted the success of the AVID program, which focuses on getting underrepresented minorities college-ready.
Incumbent Torok said the partnership with Equal Opportunity Schools helped the district seek out underrepresented students with high potential to do well in advanced placement (AP) and honors classes, and encourage those students to take on the more challenging courses. She said the district needs to support what's in the Local Control Accountability Plan, a new funding formula that will address the needs of low-income and minority students.
As a director of the nonprofit Kids in Common, candidate Bunnett told teachers at the forum that the achievement gap and the "opportunity gap" is a passionate topic for her. She said the effort from the district has been good, but she feels a sense of urgency for the students going through high school right now.
She said she believes strongly in the AVID program, and that the district needs to encourage students who have the opportunity to be the first in their family to continue their education after graduation.
"Every first-generation student that's going to be the first in their family to go to college needs to be reached out to and told they can go to college," Bunnett said.
Candidate Kramer said the district and the school board are responsible to bring up test scores for under-performing students, and said they need to look at other schools that are doing better, in terms of closing the achievement gap, and find out why they're doing better.
Candidate Doug Moore said that Latino students in Mountain View have been getting a "bad deal." He said the AVID program is great and needs to be expanded, but other school districts are getting Latino students into top colleges at a much higher rate than the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District.
He said new board members would bring fresh ideas to fix these programs, and suggest the district would need Latino representation on the board if they want to get serious about closing the achievement gap.
Getting graduates ready for the real world
When asked to describe the ideal skill set of a graduate from the district and how the district should hone those skills, some candidates said they supported more "middle ground" classes between normal courses and AP courses, while others advocated for more alternative programs, and opening up as many options for graduates as possible.
Torok said it's important to keep students on track for the A-G requirements -- course credits needed to be eligible for admission into University of California schools -- and offer up as many different classes as possible to broaden their horizons. She said the district also needs to continue to enhance STEM courses, and increase the accessibility of technology both on and off the campus.
Bunnett said the greatest gift they could give students is a life-long love for learning, and that students should leave high school with compassion, commitment to the community and creative problem-solving skills.
She said an annual school climate survey for district teachers, students and families that asks personal questions could give interesting feedback on whether the three groups are aligned, and show trends that reveal the district could be headed in the right direction.
As an executive at Yahoo, Kramer said part of his job is to hire and fire people for a living, and he has a good idea of what skills to look for in graduate students. He said students need to be able to communicate, cooperate and have the ability to get work done. To get there, Kramer said the district should offer middle ground courses and more flexible schedules, and should look into offering more online classes.
Moore said the district needs to educate kids to be leaders, not followers, and needs to encourage students have civic awareness. He said the district would need to find ways to reduce unnecessary stress in the classroom, and work to reduce the disparity between normal classes that are a little too easy, and AP classes that are very difficult.
On a personal level, Dave told district teachers he graduated high school without much direction, and stumbled upon stuff until his early 30s.
"To students, it sometimes doesn't make sense altogether why they're learning the stuff they are," Dave said.
He said the district needs to provide students with the foundation they need to compete in the global economy, including the fundamentals of language, written and verbal communication, civic duty and math skills. He said the district and the school board have the responsibility to assess whether or not students are leaving high school with those skills, and recognize that not every student is college-bound.
Walter said graduates need to be ready for whatever comes their way, and while the district is a college-bound high school district, the school board needs to support students who don't choose that path. She said would advocate for more parent engagement, and get them involved in what's going on in the district rather than just communicating good news and press releases. Like Kramer, Walter would support more middle ground classes that give students another option.
Mitchner said giving students more classes and different ways of learning is an important addition to the core academic skill set students need for graduation. He boasted that the district has added more classes and program in the last five years than any time before, and Middle College, Freestyle Academy and Alta Vista are all programs that offer alternative ways to learn. Going forward, he suggests the district should look at new, online learning opportunities, such as with Khan Academy.
"A well-rounded graduate ready for whatever might come their way means being open to new, innovative approaches to learning," Mitchner said.
Mady Miraglia, vice president of the District Teachers Assocation, said she was happy that all the candidates were willing to show up, and felt that each candidate had their merits. She said the candidates also expressed that they would like to work closely with the teachers in the district, beyond just going through the "proper channels."
Opportunity to shake things up
In closing comments, Kramer noted that the election gives the community the chance to create a "new direction," and bring in board members that are active and engaged. Moore said a turnover in board members would re-open communication with board members and teachers, and urged teachers to seize the opportunity.
"We haven't had a real election since 1994. You don't want to wait another 20 years for another opportunity," Moore said.
At the forum, Moore told teachers that over the last eight years, the school board has voted 478 times. Of those votes, he said all 478 were unanimous -- indicating the board took a very passive approach to governance. Kramer said the statistic Moore raised at the meeting leads him to believe that more active management is needed at the board level, and that board members need to have a more engaged relationship with parents and teachers.