There's never a dull moment in the Mountain View Whisman School District.
In just the last few years, parents and community members have witnessed major shifts in school boundaries, construction projects at every school and the looming potential for the district's student enrollment growing by 50 percent. A new school named after Jose Antonio Vargas at the former Slater site is slated to open up in just 10 months.
Four candidates -- incumbents Greg Coladonato and Ellen Wheeler, and challengers Devon Conley and Tamara Patterson -- are vying for two seats on the board, arguing that they're the right choice to lead the Mountain View Whisman through a critical time in the district.
The two top vote-getters will have to contend with several big issues on the academic front -- a persistent achievement gap along ethnic and economic lines, new school schedules and significant teacher and administrative turnover. But they'll also have to put on their real estate hats, managing land negotiations with major tech companies, including Google, and working with city of Mountain View to secure a future North Bayshore campus. Teacher housing proposals made by the district -- one of which already flamed out due to community feedback -- will also likely require cross-agency collaboration.
The latest news is that Mountain View Whisman will also face having to approve, and somehow accommodate, a new charter school proposed by Bullis Charter School that would eventually house 320 K-5 students. District officials are bracing for how that might throw a wrench in newly approved school attendance boundaries set to take effect next year, and not to mention uncertainty over where a charter school could be housed.
The Mountain View Whisman community is also still reeling from major controversies in recent years, and current and prospective board members are seeking to rebuild trust with families. Earlier this year, the school board voted 5-0 to remove and reassign four principals without an explanation, prompting a monthslong protest by families demanding answers amid a trickle of information about how district leaders arrived at the decision.
Last year, the school district also faced scrutiny over how the superintendent and district leadership implemented a digital math program called Teach to One, which was adopted without adequate community input, "piloted" for an entire grade level, and was put into place before a contract had been signed. A donation to cover the estimated $500,000 cost of the program never materialized and the level of dissent from teachers and administrators was hidden from the board and only revealed through emails procured by the Voice through a Public Records Act request. The two incumbents, Coladonato and Wheeler, say that new checks and balances have been put in place to avoid such a thing from happening again.
Occupation: Director of of product management at Orbital Insight
Education: B.A. in computer science from Cornell University; B.S. in applied and engineering physics from Cornell; MBA from Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania
Years in the district: 9
Board member Greg Coladonato joined the school board after eking out a close election victory in 2014, vowing the narrow the achievement gap, create an evaluation-based teacher pay system and ensure that bond funds would be spent building facilities for new students generated by housing construction in Mountain View.
A Stevenson Elementary parent, Coladonato gained a reputation as the trustee most likely to push for fiscal prudence and cost-cutting, and ask probing questions that occasionally spark tense arguments. He has been a relentless advocate for creating a new school for Whisman residents, and clearly has bigger political ambitions -- getting involved in city politics and making an unsuccessful run for the California State Assembly in 2014 and the Mountain View City Council in 2016.
Following his first term, Coladonato said it's clear to him that the best way to make sure all students succeed, regardless of background, is to get kids fluent in English as quickly as possible. More than 1,200 students in the district are considered English learners, and they tend to fall significantly behind on every testing benchmark. The earlier proficiency is reached, he said, the better.
"Over the years I have been pushing the administration to set more audacious goals for accelerated English learning," he said. "But we still have a long way to go."
When asked about the stark demographic differences between Mountain View Whisman schools and the perception of "good" and "bad" schools, Coladonato said his accelerated English fluency idea -- coupled with a robust science, technology and engineering focus -- should peel away at the problem. When asked about the district's magnet school, Stevenson PACT, not being representative of the district's diversity, Coladonato declined to comment.
Coladonato said he acknowledges the reassignment and removal of four principals earlier this year -- which landed like a bombshell in the community -- wasn't handled perfectly, and that the district's leadership needed to do a better job communicating why the shake-up was the right thing to do. He said the decision was based on information and recommendations put forward by the educational leadership at the district.
"If the district had been more proactive in communicating deficiencies in some of our schools and the measures the administration thought were needed to improve outcomes, I don't believe the community would have been this surprised by the personnel changes."
Coladonato was on the board during the ill-fated Teach to One math program in 2016 through early 2017 and agreed that the rollout of the program was a "disaster." But he said the district has since adopted new policies related to piloting programs and signing contracts that would prevent something like Teach to One from happening again.
"It was a major learning opportunity for our administration, and policies put in place in the aftermath should prevent a reoccurrence of anything similar," he said.
Going into his second term, Coladonato said he would push for science, technology and engineering programs, the successful opening of the new Vargas Elementary and push to make sure the district remains an attractive place for teachers to work.
Occupation: Part-time teacher at Science is Elementary
Education: B.A. in architecture at Yale University; Master of City Planning at University of California at Berkeley; Master's degree in education at Stanford University; multiple subject teaching credential at San Francisco State University
Years in the district: 12
Devon Conley said she has devoted her career to education, teaching in classrooms up and down the Peninsula and the South Bay with children from families that range from affluent to poverty-stricken. She's teaching part-time now and working in education policy research, and said she believes both would be an invaluable asset on the Mountain View Whisman school board.
A well-connected Mountain View resident, Conley currently serves in leadership positions on the city's Parks and Recreation Commission as well as her local neighborhood group, the Shoreline West Neighborhood Association. Although she hasn't had an outsized presence at past board meetings, she said she's kept a close eye on all the meetings over the last year and wouldn't take long to acclimatize if elected.
Perhaps Conley's biggest focus going into the campaign is the need for a comprehensive, coordinated plan for closing the achievement gap, particularly for low-income students and English learners. She pointed an outside consultant's report in 2015 that showed the district's English language development programs had major problems, and thinks that the problem isn't going to go away without some major changes.
She pointed to recent decisions by the district to focus on so-called longterm English learners that she worries will focus solely on fifth-grade students in elementary school while abandoning the needs of younger children. The decision to relax standards for becoming "English fluent" may be taking away important support services too early.
"You have a combined English-language learner platform that I think was not serving students, and that's why test scores plateaued," she said, pointing to recent test results.
Conley said she doesn't take the fatalistic approach that low test scores are a fact of life among low-income families and other under-performing demographics, and said concentrating on early childhood education and differentiated instruction in the classroom -- tailoring lesson plans for high- and low-achieving student -- can simultaneously improve test scores and community confidence in all of the district's 10 schools.
With regard to the principal firings, Conley said administrative turnover shouldn't come as a surprise. Personnel details are private and can't be divulged, but she said there's plenty of information that can be made available. If goals are explicitly stated and shortfalls made clear to the community, the staffing shuffle that took place earlier this year wouldn't have been a shock.
"When turnover happens like what happened this year, people might not agree with it but at least they understand, 'this was the goal, we aren't achieving what we wanted to achieve, and now there's going to be some administrative change to try and move forward,'" she said.
Conley described Teach to One as a valuable lesson in how to adopt innovative new curriculum and instructional practices, and that key ingredients -- teacher buy-in and family and community involvement -- can't be missing. She didn't point fingers, but rather described it as a misstep worth learning from.
If elected, Conley's top goals are improving classroom instruction for gifted and struggling students alike, attracting and retaining high quality teachers, and strengthening the relationship between schools and families.
Occupation: Product manager at a Redwood City tech startup
Education: B.A. in physics from Wesleyan University; B.S. in engineering and applied science from the California Institute of Technology; MBA from the University of California at Berkeley
Years in the district: 10
Tamara Patterson describes herself as a non-traditional candidate that could bring a "fresh voice" to the Mountain View Whisman School District, and who has the biggest vested interest in the future of the district -- three young children, with the eldest one entering kindergarten next year.
Patterson said she believes her background as a product manager is entirely compatible with the role she would take as a school board member: keeping a close eye on data and results that will guide her decision making. She also believes that as a woman of color in a science and technology careermakes her acutely aware of what it means to be a minority voice.
As a trustee, Patterson said she would support "proven" programs no matter what they look like -- project-based learning, technology, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) programs -- so long as there's sufficient buy-in from the community. She said raising test scores, particularly among lower-performing demographics, can only come if parents, students and teachers are all on the same page, particularly parents who feel disconnected from the school system.
"We need to make it safe for people to come and communicate," she said. "We need to bring a sense of ownership and resources for folks to be engaged."
Although Mountain View's schools are in many ways divided on ethnic and economic lines, with significantly divergent test scores from one campus to another, Patterson said she believes the city's rich diversity is an asset, and would work to make sure the district fosters a "safe" culture that accepts students and families regardless of their background.
"Diversity is an untapped resource, and I think it's an amazing resource in Mountain View," she said.
From the outside, as a resident without knowledge of what went down in closed session, Patterson said she doesn't know much about the district's administrative turnover in recent years. But she said in the future, she would want the district to divulge as much contextual information as possible so the community isn't stuck second-guessing the decisions.
"When there are changes, some of them are abrupt," she said. "Again, we won't know why -- but we're all going to move on and we want to know our leadership is thinking about the next steps ahead."
Patterson didn't make any criticisms of the district's handling of Teach to One, instead espousing the importance of piloting programs and trying new things. The district can make successful curriculum changes, she said, once the leadership learns from failures. She said "stakeholder input" seems like the critical missing piece in the implementation of the program, and should be emphasized in the future.
If elected to the board, Patterson would prioritize community involvement in district decisions, academic excellence, and encouraging and valuing diversity.
Age: Declined to state
Occupation: Former mediator and attorney at law
Education: J.D. from Santa Clara University School of Law; B.A. in social sciences; multiple subject teaching credential from San Jose State University
Years in the district: 27
The longest-serving trustee with deep knowledge of the district's past, board member Ellen Wheeler has held her leadership position in the district for four straight terms and is seeking a fifth. To many community residents, she holds great responsibility for the successes as well as the challenges the district has faced going back to the early 2000s.
Wheeler touts her extensive experience, knowledge and passion for education, mostly focused Mountain View Whisman but occasionally branching out to regional and even statewide policy issues, as strong rationale for why she would be the right choice to lead the district for the next four years. She has a teaching credential and did part-time teaching in second- and fourth-grade classrooms.
"I believe that my knowledge of the district and my knowledge of current and past education practices is a huge benefit to the students in Mountain View," she said.
Although test scores going back to at least 2008 show a sobering picture of the district's achievement gap, Wheeler said the results need to be read with context. Mountain View, as it exists today, has a huge number of "highly educated parents" who can provide enriching activities for their children, along with a fairly large population of low-income families who can't afford the same opportunities.
"Stevenson (Elementary) has a lot of high-income families. They've got a great program, a great principal, great teachers, but their demographics are what they are," she said.
Still, Wheeler said more needs to be done to make sure all students succeed, and she believes the closest thing to a silver bullet is high quality preschool. She said kids throughout the country are not guaranteed preschool education at ages 3 and 4, creating divergent starting points for students when they reach kindergarten. The result, she said, is a "stubborn" achievement gap that's a lot harder to solve in later years.
"I believe that big efforts toward high-quality preschool make a big difference in closing the achievement gap," Wheeler said. "If children have high quality preschool, for multiple years, with parent engagement and parent involvement, then the achievement gap starting at kindergarten is very small."
Wheeler has long stuck with the idea that all of the district's schools are good and equally capable of providing a high-quality education, despite what test scores or other broad, general metrics might show. She said the large differences in diversity at each school, particularly Stevenson PACT -- which is supposed to draw from the entire district -- may simply be a product of families picking the closest school to home.
Wheeler, like the rest of the current trustees, stood by her decision to remove four principals from their jobs earlier this year, but looking back she said the district should have done more to prepare the community before dropping the news out of closed session with no solid explanation.
One of the things the district could've done, she said, was put together a series of meetings with presentations showing the schools in question and the ways they were underperforming. Some of that rationale was eventually given the public, albeit following significant protests from parents.
"I think what we were doing was trying to be respectful to everyone involved, but at the end of the day it was really hard for parents who didn't know about all of these things to understand those changes," she said.
Reflecting on Teach to One, Wheeler said she suspects the rollout of the program was the problem, rather than proof that Teach to One -- and by extension other computer-focused individualized instruction programs -- was a dud. She said the program has been successful in other districts, and she still isn't quite sure what to make of that.
But Wheeler said she agreed to hire the current superintendent, Ayinde Rudolph, under the assumption that he was going to be an innovative leader and try new things, and that she doesn't want the failure of Teach to One to have a chilling effect. The district shouldn't be afraid of innovation she said, and the new process in place for piloting new curriculum should avoid a repeat of what happened last year.
She said some of the backlash may have come from parents who thought it was a fully automated math program that essentially relegated teachers to being tech support, which she claims was not the case.
"A lot of parents parents in the Teach to One thing didn't understand that there was still a very large component of teacher instruction and teachers helping students, standing by their desk and doing small groups and that kind of thing," she said.
If elected to another term, Wheeler said she would prioritize fiscal responsibility, closing the achievement gap and emphasis on the "whole child," which calls for a holistic education program that doesn't leave out drama, art, sports and other activities.