Advocating for A-G in Palo Alto Unified School District

In late 2011, some really distressing news came across my email. The news was in the form of a letter. The letter was signed by math teachers at Palo Alto High School.

Generally, I would not be very concerned about what was going on in the high schools in my children’s school district. The elementary schools, where my kids are in first grade and kindergarten, have enough problems of their own 🙂

But this letter was different. This letter tore at the core of what I believe public education is all about. The teachers who wrote this letter looked at kids who looked like me and decided teaching them was not worth their time or effort, despite being teachers in a public school. This letter basically said that most of the black and brown kids in our community can’t learn the math that they need to know to go to college.

Here’s the background: in California, there are college-readiness standards named A-G. They represent the basic courses college going students should know to enter the University of California campuses or California State University campuses. Despite Palo Alto Unified School District’s reputation for being a great school district, the ugly secret that is not so much a secret anymore is that for kids like mine, PAUSD often does a miserable job. For kids like mine, the opportunity gap – opportunities to learn in regular classrooms, opportunities to be actually taught in those classrooms instead of tutored in for-pay tutor mills, opportunities to get into college – is large. White and Asian students outpace Black and Latino students in almost every area. In particular, that year, only 3 black students met the A-G requirements. Out of twenty. Many of the parents of these students were not even aware that their child would be ineligible to attend a UC or CSU. They just assumed that if their child graduated from PAUSD, then of course they could attend their state’s public institutions of higher learning. They were shocked.

To rectify this situation, a group I’m a member of – Parent Advocates for Student Success, formerly known as Parent Network for Students of Color – strongly advocated, along with others, for PAUSD to change its graduation requirements to meet the stringent requirements of the A-G. Other school districts in the area, including San Francisco Unified School District and San Jose Unified School District had already adopted the requirements as their own. Those school districts have nowhere near the resources of PAUSD, and much higher proportions of Black and Latino students, and yet still thought it appropriate. Research shows that high expectations for ALL students lead to high results, for both teachers and students. Making A-G the institutional norm meant that teachers would be responsible for actually teaching in such a way that was equitable for all students.

Long story short – not so in Palo Alto. Apparently not everyone can learn algebra II:

click to read the entire letter
click to read the entire letter

The letter went on to state that “diluting” the standards – basically teaching algebra two according to colleges like UC Berkeley’s standards is a dilution – would be mostly problematic because of the impact on the District’s reputation:


So I wrote an Op-Ed in the local newspaper bringing the “math letter” and its undercover racism to the community’s attention. The op-ed generated hundreds of comments, and most importantly, kick-started the effort to have A-G adopted as the District’s graduation requirements. And that is exactly what happened: by the class of 2018, all students will need to complete the A-G requirements to earn a PAUSD high school diploma.

As a result of this effort, I realized the power that just a few people can have on many lives. Children years from now won’t know that it was because of efforts like this that every kid in PAUSD will be eligible to go to college.

Read the Op-Ed here.