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Excellence by Design

Mary Frances Callan, Palo Alto (Calif.) Unified School District.

Palo Alto (Calif.) Unified School District seems to be leading a charmed life. Located in the heart of an educational (Stanford University) and technological (Silicon Valley) region, its schools enjoy a phenomenal outpouring of community support. It shows. The district is routinely listed among the top in the state, and its students show up in articles in Forbes and Time. A non-profit foundation, Palo Alto Partners in Education, raised $1.8 million in 2004-05, increasing the per-pupil expenditure by $258 for every elementary student and $68 for every secondary student.

Despite its obvious advantages, PAUSD struggles with the same issues any public school district does. It succeeds, says Superintendent Mary Frances Callan, not by habit, but by design.

District Administration's contributing editor Elizabeth Crane caught up with Superintendent Callan to discuss her district's success and learn how it was achieved and how it will be maintained.

What does it mean to lead one of the best school districts in the state and country? And how do you continue to be "the best" once you've hit the benchmark?

Callan: There are different interpretations or definitions of what the best is. For example, Newsweek, bases "best" on the number of Advanced Placement courses that we offer. Other people place us there because of our high level of students going on to 2- or 4-year colleges [96%]. Others use our SAT scores. Our average SAT is 1,282, and 94% of our kids take the SAT.

How do you maintain that level?

Callan: We call it "Excellence By Design." We have to put the child first. We have a plan here called Kid By Kid. We offer preschool as well as adult ed. Every year, our staff meets at our school sites and discusses every child and where they are on every single measure of achievement that we have, and what needs to happen to keep that child where they are or move them forward.

That's 10,700 kids. We have 18 schools. We also have a Young Fives program for youngsters who are not quite ready for kindergarten and yet they're of the age to go. We also have programs starting at six months of age Mommy and Me or Daddy and Me kinds of programs for our youngsters. In addition, we bring in 600 youngsters under court order out of East Palo Alto, and we run the Lucille Packard Children's Hospital school, and all of the youngsters who come through there. So we have every kind of student imaginable.

"Over the last four years, thanks to the dotcom bust, the district?s budget decreased by $6.5 million. But unlike many school districts, we grew by 700 students. Our community passed a parcel tax. That just tells you the kind of community commitment that we?ve got."

You can't get complacent. Believe me, no one here would let you. There are more programs that people would like us to add. We already have a very advanced curriculum, but we have parents saying, you know, we have really gifted kids who might do better if you could do even more advancement. It is a very demanding district. This job is not easy. I know how hard all of our staff works. That's why we need to stay so focused, because it would be so easy to get distracted. There's a lot to do.

How do you balance the work of being superintendent with getting out in schools as much as you'd like?

Callan: At the beginning of each year, I visit [all 18] campuses. I do principal visits, site visits and have lunch with school staff. I'm on every site a minimum of three times each year.

I don't know how to judge any other way how we're doing. I can't be effective if I can't see what's happening at the school sites.

What's your goal for each student?

Callan: What we try to do is to take each student and say what do we need and what programs do we need in order to move forward, and then go back through and evaluate those programs. We would like to bring everybody up so that they're achieving in what California considers the "proficient" or "advanced" level. So if we have students in the "basic" level we do have some then our goal is to not only make a years' progress with that child, our goal is to try and make more than a year's progress with them so we can move them from being basic to being proficient or advanced. So we have set up some very specific programs for that. One's called The Academy, where we do Saturday school, we have afterschool programs, we involve parents by running parent education nights so we can help the parents better understand how to work with the child at home. We are very student focused. There is a real commitment on the part of this entire community and the board and the staff to make sure these kids have what they need.

Talk to me about the district's Strategic Plan. You mentioned that you came to the district when they were putting it together.

Callan: They had just put it together before I came, and a decision was made that every three years we would revisit it. So two years after I'd been here, we met Hewlett Packard generously donated facilities, we were able to use this wonderful consultant from there who worked with us previously and did the first plan with them, and we revised the Strategic Plan. We believe we need to do this on a three-year cycle. In the last revision, we involved 150 staff and community members, representatives from every school, representatives from the community at large, and community colleges, Stanford, the city chamber all of these people were invited. Our major focus is fostering the genius in each child. It really is a very positive statement.

The second part is to work in partner with our community so we can support our schools. We're in the process now of gathering data on program priorities from our community; we'll be doing a survey in the late spring so that all of this data can be brought to that group of 150 next year so that we have information from the broader community. Every time we go through this process, we learn about how to gather even more information so it is more reflective of the needs of the community and the students we serve.

You have said that your community's "caring" has helped attract better teacher. What do you mean by that?

Callan: Over the last four years, thanks to the dotcom bust, the district's income decreased. We cut our budget by $6.5 million, but unlike many school districts, we were also growing. We grew by about 700 students, so we were not only growing but cutting. Our community said, "This isn't going to do." They stepped out and passed a parcel tax. That just tells you the kind of community commitment that we've got. People want their schools to succeed and while money isn't the only answer, I truly believe you do need to have resources to put this kind program together.

The parents in your district must be demanding. I know that can be both good and bad.

Callan: It seems as if I'm always talking with districts that are saying, "How do you get your parents involved?" If I had to pick, it is far better to have parents who are involved. Yes, there are times you can say, we've had a lot of input here. There are times when it appears to be overwhelming and the board will step in.

How do you deal with state and federal mandates?

Callan: I am not against standards and accountability. I think it's crucial. Where mandates get in your way are mandates that come with no dollars attached, where you might be asked to teach a subject and there's no way to pay for it. I think we need to be very thoughtful about that.

There are some real flaws in No Child Left Behind, but what I do think is good is that we are constantly looking at how are students are advancing and how sub-groups are doing. Since I've been here, we've hired a director of research and assessment who has really helped us get into the data in such a way that, even though test scores may look high, we find out there are sub-groups that aren't performing well. Or, what is hidden behind, maybe, being in the 80th percentile instead of the 90th. We are very data driven, and I think that it's good.

What about NCLB specifically?

Callan: The other piece that's hard is NCLB has one set of rubrics that you use, and our state has another, and I wish those two were better blended. That's just crazy-making: here's your AYP, here's you API, and a parent's looking at you like ... huh? Here's your ERB score and your MARS math score. We do private school testing and we do public school testing and they're looking at you like "Aaaah!" I think the coordination could be better, but I would not throw the baby out with the bathwater, I just think we need to work on it.

California schools used to be among the top in the nation. Why has that changed, and what do you think can be done to improve the state education system as a whole?

Callan: I'm a native Californian. When I grew up, California schools were among the top in the nation. There are about 1,000 school districts in the state. About 50 of them are funded the way Palo Alto is. The other 950 rank somewhere from 44th to 48th out of 50 in the nation. There is no question that additional resources are needed in California schools.

Part of the problem is the unintended consequences of Proposition 13 [which reduced property tax revenue]. K-12 public education was absolutely devastated by Prop 13. Prop 98 [which mandated that a certain amount of the California budget be allocated for education] tried to fix that, but it wasn't enough to bring us all the way out. We need to look at better ways to fund schools. You can't just rob the districts that are doing well. You need to pull everybody up.

"Technology plays a huge role here in Silicon Valley and yet our budget is woefully thin. I think people think because of where we?re located and who we are that everybody is throwing technology at us. And they?re not."

California has the highest standards set and I do think we should have high standards but with its diverse population, low funding, and so many mandates to meet, it's difficult to maintain those standards.

We need to be forward-looking and get the teacher training and prepare. Our state wants to go there, but they're going to have to fund it. If they don't, there are high prices to pay on down the line. Ignorance costs.

Would you say the location of Palo Alto has a lot to do with its success?

Callan: I'm sure it does. Stanford is across the street, and several of our campuses are on Stanford-owned land. They are wonderful partners. When we opened our third middle school they gave us $10 million and helped us close the deal on getting land. They are very committed to making sure that the schools here maintain their excellence because they have students' children as well as staff members' children coming here. And of course that means we have parents who are professors at Stanford. We have enormous positive things working for us.

But, we also have pockets of poverty here. At one of our schools, 25% of our kids are on free and reduced lunch. We have three Title 1 schools with two more that could apply if they wanted. Those are the things that I don't think people realize. I think those students who may not have as much constantly see modeled around them that education is a top priority. That's of great value. Our students are very serious about their education and what it's going to take to get into the college they want to go to for the career they want.

Where you are also has a lot to do with technology. Where do you see the role of technology in your schools?

Callan: Technology plays a huge role here in Silicon Valley and yet our budget is woefully thin. The National School Boards Association picked us out last year and visited us last April as a model technology district, but they were amazed at how much we do with so little. I think people think because of where we're located and who we are that everybody is throwing technology at us. And they're not. Does that mean people aren't generous with us? Absolutely not. But we are definitely in need of refreshing our technology. We need $10 million at least every six years, and we don't have those extra dollars at this point.

How does the community help with this?

Callan: It doesn't do any good to say we need it, you've got to have a plan on how to do it. We're talking with the foundation [Palo Alto Partners in Education] about helping us, if that becomes an interest of theirs. And then we are doing this 20-year facilities plan, where we would build [technology] into it. As our technology director says, we don't even know what technology is going to look like in 10 years. We have got to set up systems that will be able to respond to what the needs are.

Our students, many of them, I think, are far more advanced than we are. Google hosted the event when NSBA showcased us. One of the Google representatives said, "We want high school students." That's what they're looking for in this valley: bright, innovative kids who come up through our district. To my knowledge, they hired some of our students that summer to come work for them.

If someone else is looking at this and wants to try and reproduce what's happening in Palo Alto, what do they need to do?

Callan: They will need some resources. I don't ever want to say it's all money. I hate that when people say, "Of course your kids achieve." It's an easy correlation to make, but it's too simple. I don't know what we would do if we didn't have the money; on the other hand it isn't the only piece. They'll need commitment on the part of the community. They'll need the vision of the board. Yes, you need deep pockets, but not as deep as you would think. You need to have the focus on kids, that's your first focus. You have to set the vision and the parameters for your staff and then let 'em loose.

We have high expectations. We assume that every child will learn. We are not going to assume that there will be someone who doesn't. When we see that happening, we will step right in. I think half of it is these students know they're going to succeed. There is no option. They're going to succeed. And we're going to be right there if they don't.

There's been a lot of discussion in our magazine recently about the lack of female superintendents. Do you think this is a problem and how have you bucked this trend?

Callan: I worked with AASA and the Ford Foundation in the early 1980s to promote women and minorities [into school management]. We've got to get more women in the pipeline. It is an ongoing challenge.

Personally, I don't think of myself as a female superintendent. I'm a superintendent and these are the issues we have to confront. I don't think of it in terms of male and female. DA

Elizabeth Crane is a contributing editor.