My very first work with school politics and advocacy was when I was in elementary school. Our school music program was facing the possibility of being cut way back, and my mom had put together a flier designed to build support. We had a copy machine in our basement, and my job was to run all the copies. This was back in a time when paper jams and small toner cartridges were the challenges of the day, so I got to have a little more fun than just pushing buttons and keeping a tally of how many copies we had made. Once word got out that we were doing this, the school district - wisely seeking to avoid a big public brouhaha - pivoted... ultimately a property tax override got passed, and we got to keep our music program.
Our music program at the time was relatively small, but very consistent. A few kids started on instruments each year in 4th and 5th grades, we had a high school band with 30-40 people in it, concert band, and a decent sized chorus. The community was clearly looking for more, and took a giant step with a critical band director hire right before I entered high school. Over the next five years, the program massively expanded, the marching band went competitive and tripled in size, we had two jazz bands, quality musicals, and much more. I performed on saxophone, french horn, trumpet, and mellophone across various jazz bands, concert bands, chamber orchestras, and musicals... and also served as one of our high school marching band's drum majors for two years. Amazing times, and super fun.
As parents at Monta Loma and Crittenden, my wife and I have been pleased with the opportunities available to our kids, and I don't think everyone realizes how lucky we are in Mountain View to have the performing arts programming that we do. Three middle school orchestras at Crittenden! Guitar classes! Musicals! Choral groups! Band! CSMA classes in the elementary schools! We finally got real performing arts auditoriums! And - every student in our elementary schools has to do an instrument, chorus, or art in 5th grade. This is fantastic, both in terms of opportunities for kids interested in the performing arts, and in ensuring all of our kids have a basic level of appreciation for the arts. The District, MVEF, and CSMA should all be commended.
So - why am I talking about strengthening the arts? Aren't things good enough?
Believe it or not, I think we can do better.
First, start with equity of programming. Why does Graham Middle School have a jazz band, but Crittenden does not? If it's a matter of not having enough musicians, why are the elementary schools north of El Camino generating fewer musicians than the ones south of El Camino? If it's a matter of instruction, why can't we support a broader scope? Are there cultural differences which are leading kids to make different choices? We can ask similar questions about any differences between the two middle school programs - and we should. I believe arts programming is part of the minimum equitable standard in our District - we need to make sure we've got that nailed so that no matter where a child lives in Mountain View, he/she/they have opportunity and access.
Second, grow participation. My biggest concern here is the size of the high school band programs, especially at LAHS. "But wait Patrick, why does that matter for a K-8 district?" This is where the lessons learned growing up, with that growing music program, come in. The only way to really drive up the size of a high school band program is to get more kids involved at the beginning, usually in 5th grade. Show them what the high school band looks and sounds like. Make sure parents have the right financial support to buy or rent instruments. Then retain musicians as they move into middle school - and even offer the most talented 8th graders the opportunity to perform with the high school groups. I'm oversimplifying a bit - there are other things that can help with a full-court-press in this area, and quality of instruction is a key factor that always needs to be there - but we can get even more kids into these programs, and set up our high schools with even more incoming talent.
Third, open up our facilities. MVWSD's two auditoriums are two of the best performance halls in our local area. Very good acoustics, seating, and size for different performances. If you've seen any show or concert there, you know what I'm talking about. But talk to the teachers, and you'll hear that the controls are very difficult to use. Not only is that a problem to solve for today's programming, that's a critical barrier to enabling others to make good use of the auditoriums. So let's fix that, and let's also talk about a community policy that will enable greater use of these spaces. We had an auditorium at my junior high school... besides using it for classes (the band and youth orchestras practiced there because they were too big for the fairly-tiny music classroom), we used it for assemblies, special classes, non-school-affiliated youth music group rehearsals, and more. Maybe we try things like that in Mountain View? Depending on the event, perhaps a small usage fee could help offset the additional costs. This was part of the original promise of the auditoriums for Measure G, was an important part of the rationale for the Board majority that supported them, and we need to follow through on this.
Finally... address the impact of COVID-19. We're experiencing this first hand, as our older child is not able to perform on violin right now, and our younger child really struggled to get into playing an instrument after elementary school programming was curtailed last Spring. I know many others are struggling as well. Because group rehearsals and performances are so difficult right now, COVID is going to impact both quality and the number of kids who continue with the performing arts. That's yet another sad consequence of the pandemic and our response to it. We're going to need to redouble our efforts to get kids excited about performing arts, try to get kids to come back who may have gotten frustrated and left, and make sure we're not making any short-term cuts to programming (based on current enrollment) which might cause us to lose critical teaching talent.
I recognize that the performing arts aren't for everyone - but the arts are part of what makes us human, and an essential part of our community and culture. Music programs can be great opportunities for leaders to develop. Careers can get started there. As someone who has been a committed musician since I was 11 years old, I'd love to be able to play a part in setting policy for our schools that promotes the arts, and helps take our programs to the next level.
I recently was asked a question about my position on special needs on the MVWSD Community Open Forum on Facebook, and realized it would be worthwhile to share more broadly on this blog - this is an important and essential topic for any public school district.
Let me start off by saying that I've enjoyed knowing many parents of special needs students - and their kids - during our 9+ years in the District. Every family, every child, and every story is unique. More recently, I've come to more deeply understand parents' struggles, as my nephew was diagnosed with autism and sensory issues a little over a year ago; our extended family is learning how to adapt and continue to show him our love. It's a journey, for sure, and for every amazing day there are some tough, tough days as well - it's important that anyone in school leadership recognize this and be able to empathize with parents.
My goals for special needs education have been posted on my web site since it launched & I'll expand on them a bit here:
Ensure the District is ready to solve problems and create the right opportunities: Each student's need is unique, and our special education instructors AND principals need to be well-versed in how to address this. Not only having the right menu of solutions, but having strong relationships with parents. When we see turnover in instructors and principals, we lose the understanding of families' specific situations, and put parents in the difficult position of having to tell their story again. Opportunities should extend from independent instruction to appropriate assistance within the regular classroom environment; while it doesn't always work out, my bias is towards placing students in regular classrooms whenever possible, both in order to afford the students opportunities to work with others, and to help the rest of the class relate & understand how children with special needs are part of regular life. And please, let's not forget to make accommodations (As an aside, if you've seen the raised planter bed on a stand - so it's at wheelchair-accessible height - at Monta Loma... I built that along with a couple community volunteers when we did Beautiful Day Monta Loma a few years ago. Very fun, and memorable!).
Periodically review District performance to legal requirements and standards, including timely processing of IEPs and other plans: I'm an engineer, and sometimes I think there's nothing like a good graph or control chart to show us how we're doing. I have yet to meet a special needs parent who has been 100% delighted with MVWSD's performance - so let's track a few important things and use the school board meetings to shine a spotlight on them. Time from issue identification to plan implementation. Dollars spent on litigation. Parent satisfaction. Compliance. Take some of the subjectivity out of the discussion and just be clear about how we're doing, and whether or not we're doing better. Sometimes that's all it takes to help teams perform better and do... well, what we're all expecting them to do.
Keep recognizing special needs students as part of MVWSD's diversity: Diversity is something that sets our district apart, but diversity isn't only about race or socio-economic status, it's also about the diversity of our students' learning needs. Students with special needs can give us a different perspective on the world. Their gifts can help us see new ways of solving problems. When we look through this lens, we stop being preoccupied with meeting a minimal set of legal requirements for education - we start to see potential and exciting ways for kids to contribute to school and society. We need more of that orientation & I think we'll get more positive outcomes from it.
As always, I'm happy to hear more from parents on this subject & to continue our learning journey together.
Last Spring, shortly before the coronavirus outbreak shut down our schools and altered the fabric of our lives, Mountain View voters approved Measure T, a $259M bond supporting near-term school facility improvements, teacher housing, and refinancing of the debt the district issued for construction work at Vargas, Stevenson, and the District Office, after Measure G funds ran out. I was part of the campaign team, gathering support and walking precincts to get our message out. It passed with 70% of the vote, a great result at a time when other bond measures in the state were not succeeding. Delivering on the promises of Measure T is a key goal of mine if elected to the MVWSD Board of Trustees. In this blog I'd like to share the details of my philosophy on school facilities, and why it is so important to have a school board that is capable of delivering outstanding school facilities to our community.
First, some background: After writing an opinion piece to advocate for the construction of performing arts auditoriums at Crittenden and Graham Middle Schools, I served on the MVWSD Board Facilities Committee and District Facilities Committee over a 3-year span. I gave input that guided many of the new facility designs you see at our schools today, took plans to our local neighborhood association and PTAs for feedback, and presented our recommendations to the MVWSD Board. Later, as School Site Council Chair and parent with kids at Monta Loma Elementary, I was closely involved with the design and construction progress at our neighborhood school - including our challenges with DSA review at the State level - and stood up for our community when district boundary discussions threatened the stability of our neighborhood school. In my professional career, I've been involved in the design and bidding of numerous construction projects, commercial facilities improvements, and capital equipment purchases. When it came time to remodel our home, I took the opportunity to engage with local construction experts to gain perspective on the current state of contracting and subcontracting for construction work in Mountain View, and better understand how contractors see the current environment. More recently, I closely followed the saga of providing electricity to Vargas Elementary.
All this experience has been invaluable in understanding what works... and what doesn't work... when it comes to school facilities. Equity matters. Hold all schools to a consistent facilities standard. Communicate early and often. Engage the community in ways that allow rapid, iterative input on projects. Think about how facilities decisions impact students, staff, and the broader community. Engage experts that understand contingencies and historical issues at each of our sites. Understand the critical path in the schedule, and manage it closely. And much, much more.
Looking forward, the MVWSD Board has already made decisions on facilities priorities which informed what we took to voters as part of Measure T. This was a huge step forward in governance. Measure G had some great benefits for our schools, but the Board at that time supported about $400M in School Facilities Improvement Plan (SFIP) priorities on the back of a $200M bond - leaving the real argument about priorities to take place after the bond was approved. Delays in Measure G decisions were costing the District about $220,000 a week in time-value-of-money, since construction costs were rising about 8% a year at that time - I still believe that if the Board had acted quickly and set up an agile framework to align on priorities, MVWSD would not have had to borrow additional funds to complete the task at Stevenson, replace the District Offices, and build Vargas Elementary. If the next Board decides to renegotiate the scope of work for Measure T, I am concerned that we will repeat that mistake. I'm more inclined to suggest "70% of voters liked the plan... how about we stick with it?" and get the work done.
That said, there's a whole lot that happens after we all vote to approve a few words describing facilities priorities. Measure G showed us that details matter. Here's one example: part of the scope at Crittenden included replacement of the library building with a new Innovation Center. But where should we put it? The library stood in the middle of the campus, a tough building for anyone to avoid. Many concepts were reviewed; the one that stood out to me, and which I advocated for strongly, was one which created an open quad area in the middle of the Crittenden campus. Not only was it beautiful, but it also allowed for clear lines of sight for teachers and staff to spot any bad behavior, and this was a particular area of concern we were hearing from folks familiar with Crittenden at the time. The lesson is clear: understand the facts on the ground and drive design decisions based on that. Get community input. The result can be fantastic. Years later, I spoke at a Board meeting to advocate for the same level of design review detail on the Measure T work, because someone had floated a design drawing that put solar panels in the middle of that wonderful quad - the ask was acknowledged, and I was relieved to see an improved location for the solar panels when this came to our Crittenden School Site Council for input. The Board needs to ensure MVWSD follows this process for the rest of the Measure T work and if elected, I plan to see to that. We can get so much more out of our investment that way.
Details also matter so we can avoid potentially costly mistakes: there are smart ways to secure our schools, and then there are ways that fundamentally alter the relationship between schools and the neighborhood; simple decisions like the location of a fence can have a huge negative impact. New buildings can come in with features that are an architects' dream vs. what we actually need, or complex controls that no one seems to be able to use. Do-overs are costly; and let's remember that the window to get big things done on schools with minimal disruption is basically 8 weeks during the summer - so if we miss a DSA approval window and can't get a project bid out in time to hit the summer window, it's a year delay... that's not just a cost impact, it's a school year's worth of missed opportunity for the students.
Eventually, the mountain of projects and capacity improvements at our schools will be in the hands of contractors to execute. We'll be looking forward to having teachers move in to new affordable housing in Mountain View. And we'll have reinvested the savings we got from refinancing district debt and reducing energy costs into things like teacher salaries and our efforts to close the achievement gap. What's next? This gets even more fun - we get to work on the long-term growth needs for Mountain View schools. As I've engaged in school enrollment, capacity, and boundary discussions over the years, I've been able to reapply my professional experience in strategy and capacity planning to the problem of school growth - and I'm super excited to work on the 50-year decisions in front of us: where will we put a 3rd middle school? Where will the next two elementary schools go? Are there synergies with what the high school district needs? How will x-factors like COVID-19 and the re-evaluation of employee colocation affect demand for public schools? And if MVWSD knocks it out of the ballpark with respect to delivering quality education, how might we handle the onslaught of families who will now choose free Mountain View public schools instead of private school alternatives? That's what's next. Fun problems to solve. A school board that can provide the right facilities guidance and oversight to ensure we succeed.
Look around at our neighboring communities, and you'll find many different visions for K-8 academic expectations. Some areas have become known for high-pressure, competitive academic environments with substantial homework, leading to significant student stress, burn-out, or worse. When MVWSD adopted its latest strategic plan 5 years ago, I was part of the working groups discussing where we wanted our district to go - and what kind of 8th graders we wanted to be sending to Mountain View and Los Altos High Schools. The clear consensus was to focus on producing well-rounded students who are prepared for the world ahead. Solid analytical skills. Socio-emotional skills. STEAM, not just STEM.
So how are we doing?
I'll be one of the first to say that I really wish we had a data point from state testing last Spring. Tests aren't perfect, and they do take time away from instruction, but until someone comes up with a better way to assess the consistency of results across our schools, here we are. The trends heading into 2020 were mixed, with some areas improving, inconclusive results in others, and a continuing achievement gap. But alas, along came COVID, testing was canceled, and we were all preoccupied with just making the basic infrastructure of education do something positive for our kids. In preparing for this campaign, I've spent time talking with parents within MVWSD, parents and staff from other public school districts, and parents of children in private schools. We've reflected on our experience with our own kids as we went through MVWSD's elementary and middle schools. Bringing all that input together, I see a great opportunity to raise the bar for MVWSD and build on what's been done to date.
A few examples:
Homework: If you're a district parent, you know there are days when your student comes home with no more school work to do. Or maybe your middle schooler had 20-30 minutes of work to finish off. It's on to sports, time on electronic devices, artwork, music, TV, or whatever activities your household enjoys. Then exams come around, or the next set of assignments, and you have one of those conversations where you realize that what they've been getting taught just didn't quite stick. They bomb a test. They get stuck on a new subject because they didn't master the foundation that should have been built before that. I look at what students in other schools are doing, and I think we're running a little too light with the follow-up and reinforcement that comes from having enough assigned homework. We don't need to have hours upon hours of it... but we need a little more than we have today. This sounds easy - just encourage the Superintendent to ask teachers, via our principals and academic officers, to assign more, right? Not so fast... I know from personal experience grading homework for classes I taught or where I was a teaching assistant, and from past history with housemates who were teachers, how much work that creates for teachers. If we go down that path, it will take some dialogue about class size, number of classes per teacher, and the type of work (automatic assessments, essays, etc). But let's start that conversation as a community.
Academic Rigor: There are many examples of areas we can do better, and I should probably devote an entire blog to iReady or the rigor of our elementary math programs at some point, but let's talk about one example that I know some of our parents (and former students!) are particularly passionate about: the writing expectations for 8th grade. It's a big leap to go from a 2-3 page essay in 8th grade to the lengthy reports that are expected in 9th grade at our high schools. The MVLA high schools are among the best in the state and set a challenging bar for students. I think that's great. What's not great is when a student, who's likely in the middle of many changes including everything that comes with adolescence, gets that shock entering high school. So let's have a look at that area. Written communication is an absolutely essential skill in our connected world, whether we're writing blogs, research papers, stories, or tweets - and one that needs a deeper look as we embark on the next strategic plan for MVWSD.
The Achievement Gap: MVWSD has tried many things to address the socio-economic achievement gap since we first came to the district. When I was on the District Facilities Committee, we had a great deal of discussion about this, because the decision to split the Dual Immersion program and neighborhood program at Castro Elementary was front and center. Would we carve out the necessary funds from Measure G to go build a new school? What would that school look like? We knew that decision would have consequences for our ability to open a neighborhood school in the Slater area and create a stand-alone permanent campus for Stevenson, so we had to be confident that this move would be the critical step needed to enable the program at Castro to focus. Ultimately, that's the direction the Board decided to go in. Years later, I think we're still trying to get it right at Castro and Mistral. What I've seen from my own experience at Monta Loma is that we can improve areas like reading - RTI, when properly staffed, works. When we build a school community based on mutual respect and compassion, where students from different backgrounds engage with each other inside and outside of the classroom, it creates access and agency for kids who might not have had it otherwise. I want more conversations like one I had with a parent at our daughter's birthday party years ago, where she was beaming over the fact that her child had just reclassified. That kind of pride can go viral - in a good way! So let's get the problems out on the table, shine a spotlight on them at our school board meetings, and encourage our district leaders and principals to be really clear with everyone about how we're going to solve them.
The next board is going to jump in to the middle of MVWSD's process for developing a new 6-year strategic plan for our schools. Ultimately it will be asked to approve that plan. I believe we've got a great opportunity in front of us to raise our expectations, while avoiding the pitfalls that have hit other schools in our area. If you have input on this - whether you agree with the above views or not - I'd love to hear from you!
The 2021 edition of the MVWSD Board of Trustees will inherit a pandemic that's either declining, steady-state, or exploding. That's going to be determined by what our community does in the next few months. If we follow health orders, wear masks, and work hard to avoid indoor gatherings, we've got a good shot at improving the situation. If we try to bend the rules, I don't like our chances. We'll see what happens... It's really not up to our school community - it's up to everyone.
One thing I am certain about: this pandemic will have a long-term impact on our kids, and the longer it goes on the deeper that impact will be. It will disproportionately impact Latinx families - looking at the data, it already is. We should all have an interest in shortening the duration, whether we've got kids in the schools or not, because like it or not, we're all going to be paying for the recovery in one way or another. Actions that will prolong the pandemic in our area - including premature reopening of schools - must be avoided. I look at proposals to reopen for specific ages with a great deal of skepticism - the science here is extremely limited, and if we want to get into a discussion of ACE2 receptor density vs age + ability to follow instructions vs age, and argue about R-factors, I'd suggest we bring in some health experts to have that discussion for us.
We need to be super-careful about thinking that if we can just get everyone back in the classroom and make them submit to the voice of teaching authority, the world will just march in lock-step towards a glorious post-COVID future. What we can and should be doing is focusing on any actions we can take today to drive down transmission, so that we can get to where we can contact-trace all infections - that's what will give us enough control over this small strand of RNA to where we can start to have some confidence in reopening schools. We should be insisting that our state and national leadership keep their feet on the accelerators for development of vaccines and therapies. And we should make sure we're able to survive the current state.
In the short term, there are a few things we can do to get through this:
Make sure that parents of younger students and special needs students are getting the help they need. Everyone is going to learn a lot as school reopens, but we already know that it's incredibly difficult for working parents to do double-duty and help their kids through the day. Companies need to be looking at ways to give employees added flexibility, and teachers need to be able to also meet families halfway. The district should keep looking for ways to help teachers who have their own young or special needs kids, in a way that doesn't jeopardize their hard-won career benefits. If you're the parent of an older child who does well in the online system, I hope you can appreciate how much of a blessing that is & if you can, try to help other families (and teachers) out, whether it's a gift of time, expertise, or money - or simply a gift of compassion.
Routinely publish metrics for online access & drive to 100%. Access really isn't a new thing. We crossed the chasm a long time ago with technology, and are now working on that long tail of the adoption curve. That takes focus. Every week: what % of enrolled students have their own Chromebook, what % of students have Internet access in an appropriate study location (which might not necessarily be home), and what % of students actually logged in. Solve the problem one student at a time. If those numbers aren't going up every week, there should be a very clear discussion as to why, and actions taken to address that. I'm not here to prescribe what those are - that's up to the district staff and their partners in city infrastructure & telecommunications - but school boards can certainly make sure there's a focus on results.
Communicate. We're all learning together, and need to keep sharing what's working, what's not working, and what's expected. We've come a long way from when MVWSD had no mobile-friendly web site and no Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) sheets posted online. Dr. Rudolph had 900 families call into one of his many Zoom sessions over the summer. The reopening framework sessions have received quite a bit of praise as well. But we're still learning how to do better, both with the technology and the substance of what we communicate. One thing that's helped our family, even before COVID started, was to make sure we had a connection with our kids' teachers and principals, and to provide feedback on both what was working and what needed to be better (we also got feedback in return, which helped us grow ourselves!). Our middle schools challenge our kids to solve problems by working directly with their teachers - I wonder if we might ask some of our 4th and 5th graders to rise to that challenge as well during these times. Communicating problems and solving them at the classroom and school level is way more scalable than e-mailing the school board for help, though the Board will always be there as a final step in the escalation of issues. We just need to do it.
The long-term picture is something that I hope everyone thinks about before the election. The real challenge for the next Board is going to be the path forward after we've got a vaccine and schools have fully reopened. I'm hopeful that we'll see a vaccine in early 2021, and much of my thinking about COVID and schools rests on that assumption - If I'm wrong, we'll be revising a lot more than just school policies. I've outlined a few things as part of my goals page on this site: understanding the enrollment picture, closing the new achievement gaps that will emerge from COVID, and more.
As someone who championed the current school sizing models as part of Measure G, I'm very concerned that a COVID-induced flight to private schools and homeschooling might take us below critical mass at some of our elementary schools. With all due respect to families who find that other approaches work well for them, I am super passionate about winning more people over to public schools and making sure we have the critical mass that's needed for vibrant neighborhood schools, outstanding school choice programs, and amazing middle schools. That means making sure we've got the bar for MVWSD set in a pace where the District wins that all-important enrollment decision more often than not. It means finding ways to gradually bring families back - including taking a fresh look at MVWSD's approach to homeschooling. And it means doing the very best we can at distance & blended learning right now.
Academically, I believe we're going to need to get creative (post-COVID) to help accelerate learning and get kids back on the traditional K-12 track - and if we can't, we're going to need to talk about gap years or even additional grade levels. There's a whole strategic discussion to be had about the stack-up of deferred college start dates and how that flows back to K-12 academic planning. We're going to need a Board that can work together very collaboratively with District leadership and the community, and one that can think very strategically about the paths forward. There will be difficult financial decisions to be had, including whether or not post-COVID-catch-up investments are something the District has to absorb itself. We'll have new achievement gaps to address, and I think we're going to find that they'll form along both traditional lines, and along some new lines that might surprise people. As someone who really enjoys strategy, organizational development, and resource planning, I think this sounds incredibly fun and exciting. Not everyone feels that way, I know. I wish we didn't have these problems either. But what a great set of problems to try and solve!
Right now we need to be doing the best we can to keep the long-term burden down - we can't just assume there's going to be a solid economy to help fund whatever we need later. That means attention to detail on math tracks, academic cohorts, and quality of instruction. It means investing more to help communities that are seeing more of the impact of COVID. Communicate and keep learning... we will get through this! Then we can all start working on the long road to recovery - I hope to be part of that as one of your future MVWSD Trustees, and appreciate your consideration.
Tradeoff decisions can be hard, but they shouldn't be delayed. In 2015 the MVWSD Board had already waited years, in an environment of rising construction costs, to start key projects. As part of the District Facilities Committee, and building on service in the prior year's Board Facilities Committee, I collaborated with parents and leaders from across our schools to develop and present a plan to move forward within the limits of our budget. Today, with Measure T passed and a massive amount of facilities work to do, we need this same focus to ensure we deliver on what we promised to voters - and a Board that knows how to do this. As a member of the Measure T campaign team, I feel a strong personal commitment to follow through on the $259M investment that 70% of Mountain View voters supported in the March 2020 primary election.
Interested in my experience in this area? Check out this article from 2015 in the Mountain View Voice