School board discusses math pathways, non-PUSD courses

Staff: Conversations still in early phases, seeking input and engagement

The Pleasanton school board waded into murky waters Monday night as trustees and staff talked over math pathways and policies surrounding non-district courses during a three-hour-long public workshop.

Both topics were in the early phases of conversation, and the meeting was more of an update on some of the ongoing issues going on as well as an opportunity for staff to solicit board feedback.

"We wanted to just let you know what we're working on, again to be transparent, to look at our current practices and what we think are in the best interest for our students," said Odie Douglas, assistant superintendent of educational services.

Though the two halves of the meeting focused on separate topics, student stress was a theme that threaded through both discussions.

The opening math discussion saw a a full house, with parents and teachers filling the seats in the district board room. This presentation was primarily conducted by Ken Rocha, director of secondary education, who shared some of what staff has mulled over regarding math pathways and courses in the district, including new teaching structures and refining board policies on student placement.

Staff placed a particular emphasis on increased professional development for teachers, particularly as instructional models move away from a more traditional "stand and deliver" style and more toward collaborative structures.

"How do we break the barriers of those classroom walls, and make sure that our teachers have opportunities to collaborate, share best practices, and provide them time and space?" Rocha said.

He also raised possibility of the district joining the Silicon Valley Math Initiative, a network of California school districts and local foundations which works to improve mathematics instruction.

Though not brought up during Rocha's presentation, parents still raised concerns during public comments about potential math pathway changes -- a worry that families have voiced ever since the district released a draft proposal in December that recommended phasing out of an accelerated, five-year middle school pathway.

Rebecca Thomas said that her son had enjoyed the challenge of the accelerated math program, and the accompanying stress was natural.

"The world has stress in it, there are problems, kids are going to confront problems at different levels," Thomas said. "We as parents, that's our responsibility, to prepare them for those challenges. And if they want to opt out, there's always that option, nobody is going to force them."

"I don't know if changing the math curriculum is going to remove stress from a child's life, if that's one of the reasons," she added.

A few parents who spoke during public comments also voiced the concern that the district would remove accelerated opportunities from all students in the name of equity.

Rocha emphasized that staff is not planning on cutting accelerated math program.

"But it really came down to the concept of, can we do better than the day before," he said. "Can we look at our practices, can we have an authentic conversation, can we bring our teachers and our staff and our administrators to the table to have a quality discussion. And I think we've achieved that."

Staff did say, however, that they wanted to continue talking about how students are placed on particular pathways, taking into consideration the appropriate age for assessment and making sure students are truly put on the correct pathway.

Arick Little, a math teacher at Amador Valley High School who sat on the panel for Rocha's presentation, said that for some students, the accelerated middle school pathway can lead to an incomplete foundation for future math classes, which was the reason he and his colleagues wanted to take a second look at the program.

"When we see them compressing two years of mathematics into one, it can cause unhealthy results, and it can cause this situation where a student is taking the mathematics for a different reason," Little said. "And not seeing the same connections that we want them to see."

Robin Munsell, principal at Harvest Park Middle School, added that the pressure to be on a faster pathway can lead to student stress and even academic bullying, as students compare one another's different levels.

As this was a workshop in the preliminary stages, no decisions were made, though trustees offered their thoughts on the issue at hand.

Board member Jamie Yee Hintzke expressed support for the increased investment in professional development for math teachers.

"We probably need to make that huge investment in professional development, like we did in ELA," she said, pointing to the success of their English language arts program after intense focus on the subject's pathway years ago.

Board president Mark Miller directly addressed the equity concerns some parents had raised.

"I do feel very strongly that we should not be removing opportunities from more advanced people to narrow the equity gap," he said. "We should be really focusing on raising the other side."

Parents are invited to share their input on PUSD math programs via an online survey.

The other item on the agenda involved a multi-person panel of high school counselors, principals and vice principals.

This was again a discussion rather than a specific action item, with counselors bringing forward some issues they see related to the high volume of students taking non-district courses, online or at nearby community colleges. Students take these classes either for acceleration, remediation or to accommodate busy schedules.

More specifically, counselors wanted to discuss the possibility of removing non-required outside courses from the PUSD transcript, and how to better communicate with families about the full implications of taking these classes.

The rationale for possibly removing outside courses from students' transcript, counselors said, was that by including them on the PUSD transcript, students oftentimes felt that was sufficient for their college applications -- when in fact, separate transcripts need to be ordered from each institution.

"We've had some seniors, this year in particular, say 'oh my gosh, it looks like I attended four different high schools,'" said Winter Jones, a counselor at Amador.

She added that district students on average apply to 10-12 colleges (sometimes many more), this process could contribute to a significant amount of work during an already stressful year.

From an improved communication standpoint, counselors also expressed that some students opt for outside courses as a way to "game the system" and avoid a more rigorous district class -- a fact well-known to universities and colleges.

And lastly, counselors said that some online courses available "less than ethical," and it's not always clear which courses are accredited or not -- meaning that families might be fooled into paying for and taking a course that actually won't count toward graduation or college requirements.

Board members thanked panel for their thoughts and consideration of student health, though they were somewhat skeptical about the issue at hand.

"My son is a dual enrollment student, he's an Amador senior," said board vice president Valerie Arkin. "And for the last two years he's been taking classes at Las Positas....It's been a way for him to forge his own path."

Overall, though, trustees agreed that there may be a problem with the accreditation of the online courses and the potential of students "gaming the system."

"What I see is our counselors spending hours and hours every day focusing on outside courses," said Amador principal Michael Williams.

"All that time spent there is time away from students that need support that are on our campus that are taking our courses. So anytime that we can make sure our resources are allocated to support the students that are working on our campus, I'm 100% for."

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