MV schools take on big challenges in 2016 | December 30, 2016 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

Mountain View Voice

News - December 30, 2016

MV schools take on big challenges in 2016

Some schools grapple with controversies, others pursue big opportunities

by Kevin Forestieri

It's been a busy year for all three of Mountain View's local school districts. Whether it's building new schools, closing the achievement gap or finding ways to pay teachers without breaking the bank, district officials have had to deal with touchy subjects all throughout 2016.

But based on how things panned out this year, each school district will be heading into 2017 on a different note. The Mountain View Whisman School District resolved major differences with its teachers union, put together a plan to finance a new school at Slater Elementary and developed a five-year strategic plan that lays the groundwork for improving performance among the city's lowest performing students.

Although the Los Altos School District scored a big victory by renewing its parcel tax this year, it's still unknown whether the district will buy new land for another school campus — and if it does, where it will be located and at what cost to the taxpayers. On top of that, district officials feared they may not have the financial wherewithal to give teachers a 3 percent raise this year.

Mountain View Whisman looks to the future

The Mountain View Whisman School District kicked off 2016 on a somewhat unpleasant note, after mulling through the results of a scathing district-wide audit that had some choice words about the way the district teaches its most needy students. The firm that conducted the audit, Cambridge Education, found that the district had a series of systemic problems that are holding back students throughout the district, particularly English-language learners and students with disabilities. The report called the district's English Language Development program, for example, "ineffective, inconsistent, and, in many cases, counterproductive."

District staff, under the leadership of Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph, have since opted for a slow and methodical approach to solving these problems, starting with a months-long process to create a new strategic plan for the district. Among other things, the plan calls for increasing proficiency in language arts, math and science among the district's English-language learners, with a goal of reducing the achievement gap between traditionally under-performing students and their peers by 10 percent in the next five years.

Families in the Whisman and Slater area of Mountain View got to rejoice this year, after the school board agreed to commit an extra $40 million to construct a new school at the site of the former Slater Elementary school, which closed down in 2006. Whether to build a new elementary school has been a testy debate going back several years, as district officials went back and forth on whether there was enough money in the construction budget — or enough students in the district — to spread amongst nine elementary school campuses. Families in the area will get to kick off 2017 with a meeting on what the new school at Slater should look like.

From January to June, the district sparred with the leadership of the teachers' union and, up until the last minute, appeared to be at an impasse over salaries and other contract terms. The Mountain View Educators Association (MVEA) fought for an ambitious 10 percent salary increase for the 2016-17 school year, claiming that the district's teaching staff is getting a raw deal compared to other school districts in the Bay Area.

Teacher union representatives clashed with district administrators during negotiations, claiming that the district's "Negotiations News" newsletter that it sent out to the school community was biased and indicated that all the teachers' union cares about is money. A proposal to work together on a joint news release after each meeting was rejected by district staff in March. The contract, which was ratified in August, gave teachers an 8 percent raise.

Just like last year, 2016 was also marked by several heated arguments at board meetings involving former board member Steve Nelson, who finished his term as trustee this month, and the superintendent. Last month, Nelson demanded that Rudolph "sit down and be quiet" during an argument over public records requests. In September, both Nelson and Rudolph had a heated exchange after Nelson canvassed a Mountain View neighborhood regarding a possible teacher housing project at Cooper Park without first getting the approval of the district.

Nelson opted not to run for re-election this year, and the newly sworn in board members have vowed to create a more cordial and friendly dialogue with the district's leadership.

Plenty still up in the air for Los Altos School District

Throughout 2016, the Los Altos School District has been pushing to find a suitable location for a new school, as board members and district officials alike claim that the best way to solve overcrowding — both now and in the future — is buying land and building a new campus.

But the district will be ending the year with little progress after multiple deals with private property owners and a possible agreement with Los Altos city officials went nowhere. The first setback came in January, when the district negotiations to buy land at 201 San Antonio Circle fizzled out. The decision came after the property owner made it clear the deal would be for a ground lease, and not a sale of the property.

As an alternative, school board members hoped to broker a deal with the city of Los Altos for city-owned land — likely somewhere on the civic center site. But the Los Altos City Council dumped the joint-committee between the two agencies, criticizing the board and district officials for failing to consider putting a school on the district's existing land.

The final land purchase attempt to kick the bucket was in November, when the district pursued a deal with Boston-based TA Realty to buy land at 5150 El Camino Real, the current site of an office complex just blocks away from the San Antonio Shopping Center. District residents, parents and representatives from Bullis Charter School voiced opposition, calling it an ill-conceived idea to build a school on a small 3.8-acre piece of land along such a busy thoroughfare.

The start of 2016 was also a tough time for teachers in the Los Altos School District, who faced losing a 3 percent salary increase this year. The school board agreed to re-open the three-year contract to reconsider the final salary increase amid worries that the district may blow through its reserves in the coming years, prompting layoffs and other drastic cuts. District officials eventually agreed to the raise.

Teachers seeking relief from the high cost of living in the Bay Area may have found help from some unexpected places this year, after Los Altos School District board member Sangeeth Peruri spearheaded multiple efforts to help house teachers. Peruri launched a program that links teachers with district residents willing to rent out a room at below-market rate, and brokered a possible partnership between the district and a new startup aimed at helping teachers with a down payment on a new home.

High schools face controversies

The Mountain View-Los Altos High School district is typically a quiet, well-oiled machine, with uncontroversial leadership at the helm and plenty of awards and recognition for both academic achievement and for pushing low-income and minority students to challenge themselves with tough classes.

This largely remained true in 2016, but it also came with a series of controversies and school-related police activity that occasionally put the school district in an uncomfortable spotlight. What's more, the district's state standardized test scores showed students performance went down by no small margin, leaving district officials at a loss to explain what happened.

One of the most recent controversies to hit the district was in the immediate aftermath of the presidential election, when Mountain View High School history teacher Frank Navarro was put on administrative leave for allegedly making politically charged comments in the classroom. Navarro, a noted Holocaust scholar, told the press that he was put on paid leave by school and district administrators for an unfounded complaint by a parent that he compared President-Elect Donald Trump with Adolph Hitler.

The decision prompted an outcry from parents and students, as well as comments from around the country supporting both Navarro's right to free speech as well as his right to make connections between current and historic leaders. A Change.org petition asking Principal Dave Grissom to reverse the paid administrative leave picked up more than 42,000 signatures in few days. District officials changed course over the weekend and allowed Navarro to return to school after missing only an afternoon of class, and flatly denied that the administrative action had anything to do with Hitler comparisons.

Just one month later, it was revealed that the Mountain View Police Department had been quietly conducting a four-month long investigation of several Mountain View High School students, following reports that the teens shared naked photos over the file-sharing service Dropbox. The investigation, which was first revealed by the San Francisco Chronicle, remained under wraps until December after district officials said they were told by law enforcement not to mention the investigation to prevent suspects from destroying any evidence.

The online behavior of students has been an increasing problem among high school students in Mountain View. In October, three students attending Mountain View High School were arrested over alleged threats made over Snapchat.

Perhaps the biggest outstanding question going into 2017 for the high school district is what to make of this year's state standardized test results, which showed that the district's overall academic performance had declined. The number of students meeting state standards for English language arts dropped precipitously from 75 percent in 2015 to 69 percent in 2016. Performance in math was a little off the mark, dropping from 65 percent to 64 meeting state standards.

It was all shrugs and speculation at a special school board study session on the topic, where district officials conceded that the drop in test scores was both a surprise and an anomaly. Other metrics, including SAT test scores, ACT scores, participation in Advanced Placement (AP) classes and performance on the AP test, all showed that students were doing much better than the state and Santa Clara County as a whole. As spring approaches and junior-year students prepare to take the test, district officials suggested that putting more emphasis on its importance — which currently has little effect on a student's college prospects — may be a top priority.

Email Kevin Forestieri at kforestieri@mv-voice.com

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