Midpeninsula Post

PAUSD elementary ELA curriculum spurs debate between teachers, board members, parents

Palo Alto High School in September 2021. (Emily Yao)

A Palo Alto Unified School District board discussion over elementary ELA curricula sparked contentious debate between teachers, board members and parents Wednesday night. 

Numerous teachers involved in the curriculum adoption process expressed dissatisfaction with the piloted curricula and urged the board to allow more time to make a better recommendation. The board will vote on whether to implement the chosen curricula next school year at its May 10 meeting. 

The adoption process to switch out the current curriculum was initiated last May; the current curriculum was not formally adopted using the board policy and administrative regulation and failed to support underrepresented students, according to Superintendent Don Austin. He said that the district has been falling short of its equity promise because scores of underrepresented students have continued to lag. 

The Elementary ELA Pilot and Adoption Committee — composed of 41 members representing librarians, reading specialists, education specialists, community members and administrators across all PAUSD elementary schools — was formed last August and tasked to pilot two to three curricula, then make a formal recommendation to the superintendent. 

That recommendation, presented at Wednesday’s meeting, was to adopt the “Benchmark Advance/Adelante” and “Teachers College Unit of Study in Writing” curricula by Benchmark Education Company and Heinemann.

But the recommendation did not receive much support: A majority of teachers abstained from making a final recommendation at the last committee meeting, according to Danae Reynolds, lead principal of literary instruction. Reynolds presented the curricula recommendations at the meeting.

“When it came time to vote for one of the proposed curricula, 20 of [25] educators abstained from voting,” said elementary teacher Jennifer Koepnick, during public comment. “While it’s one issue to not have a clear majority, it’s an entirely different concern when so many professionals, like the very educators who piloted this curriculum, chose not to vote at all. We ask [the board] to reconsider adopting a curriculum that does not meet our expectations and does not best serve our students.” 

Over 50 teachers part of the Palo Alto Educators Association opposed piloted curricula at the board meeting; Koepnick and 21 other teachers spoke during public comment, as well as several parents and a former PAUSD student.

“I could not in good conscience choose between three teacher-centered, one-size-fits-all programs that go against everything I have learned to be effective literacy instruction,” said Angeline Rodriguez, elementary teacher and one committee member who abstained from voting. “Having to choose between three sub-par literacy programs is not upholding the PAUSD promise.”

Rodriguez asked the board to give the committee more time to pilot other ELA curricula, emphasizing that such an important decision was not to be made in haste.

Elementary teacher Christina Nosek added that had she voted for something that she believed was not good for her students, she wouldn’t be able to look her colleagues, or herself, in the eye again; doing so would have violated her duty as a teacher during public comment. 

“Many teachers have told us that they will not serve on district committees in the future,” said elementary teacher David Cohen to the board. “It is sad that our dedicated professional educators doing the work in the classrooms feel their professional opinion — which was sought out — now does not matter.”

Other community members voiced support for the new curriculum, arguing that it was compliant with state ELA and dyslexic guidelines, and that PAUSD teachers were capable of implementing the curriculum well. 

Board members Shounak Dharap, Todd Collins and Jesse Ladomirak acknowledged that while it was unideal that teachers were not satisfied with the curricula recommendations, there was no perfect solution.

“I know it’s a lot to do, and I know this feels rushed, and I know if the process had slowed down, maybe it would have been less imperfect — but I am very resistant to the idea that we should give this any more time,” Ladomirak said. 

In the end, Reynolds said she holds confidence that the district will be successful if members of the PAUSD community put in their hearts and minds to do what’s best for students. 

“It isn’t about [the curriculum]. It’s about how we think about teaching students, knowing each of the students and knowing what they need,” Reynolds said. “What we have right now will get us very far.”

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