Gunn High senior Benjamin Vakil speaks at the Aug. 22, 2023 Palo Alto school board meeting. Courtesy Josh Scheinman/Midpeninsula Post.
Palo Alto Unified School District school board meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 22, featured 25 students at open forum, all speaking on a contentious topic: math. In a continuous speech to the board, students from schools across the district called for PAUSD to implement more fluid math lanes, offer multivariable calculus during the school day and create an ad hoc math committee, among other things.
The effort, which included students from Henry M. Gunn High School, Palo Alto High School, Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School and Ellen Fletcher Middle School, was organized by Gunn senior Benjamin Vakil, who emphasized the need for math classes to meet the needs of all students.
"We've had really, really bad experiences with PAUSD math," Vakil said.
Like many students, Vakil didn't score high enough on PAUSD's math placement test to skip a grade in math. This, he argued, is because PAUSD's policies and placement tests are designed to prevent acceleration. PAUSD's policies were even ruled illegal earlier this year, following a lawsuit filed by parents.
So, Vakil had little choice but to spend a boring year in Gunn's analysis honors course, which he said did not meet his learning needs. He ended up self-studying for the AP Calculus BC exam, on which he said he easily scored a five.
"What (PAUSD) did to us was wrong; it was illegal," Vakil said. "We're fighting to make sure that never happens again."
Students: More fluid math lanes
In their speech, which was broken up into 25 one-minute segments to accommodate the one-minute per person limit, students stated that PAUSD should create more fluid math lanes course pathways that vary in difficulty and remove restrictions on math advancement.
One such restriction they cited was the unnecessary difficulty of questions on PAUSD's skip tests, which determine if students can preemptively take the following grade's standard math course.
"The district was rumored to be opaque about the test topics, so I was unsurprised to see that the test consisted of various AMC-style questions that deviated significantly from what I had been taught in school," Gunn senior Sophie Rong said during open forum, reflecting on her experiences taking the placement test in sixth grade. "I ended up failing."
Gunn senior Albert Lee, who managed to skip two grades of math, said he's been looking at the situation from an alternative perspective. Skipping, Lee said, gave him the opportunity to learn at the appropriate pace for him, making him motivated to help ensure other students have the same opportunity.
"I'm really happy to have (skipped) because I've had so many great experiences and gotten to meet new people and learn in a way that I wouldn't have if I didn't manage to skip," Lee said. "I was having a terrible time (before I skipped)."
Dissent regarding Multivariable Calculus
Students who haven't skipped generally aren't in a position to take multivariable calculus. For students who are a year ahead in math, however, the course appropriately completes a four-year math pathway and builds on knowledge in ways that math electives cannot replicate, Gunn junior Ayush Agarwal said.
And there is high demand for the class; according to data from a survey sent out by the district in March, 42% of respondents stated that they were somewhat or extremely likely to take a class beyond AP Calculus BC in high school if they could.
Multivariable calculus is currently offered at Paly in person, after school. The problem, Vakil said, is that the time is inconvenient for students with extracurriculars.
Moreover, due to recent changes in GPA calculations for off-campus courses, multivariable calculus can only show on high school transcripts as credit or no credit, meaning it adds no weight to students' GPAs. At the meeting, students proposed reinstating GPA for courses taken at Foothill and De Anza College, to accurately reflect the classwork done outside of school.
"We strenuously object to the assertion that including community college classes taken at these two schools in any way degrades the quality or character of the PAUSD transcript," Gunn sophomore Mary Yu said during open forum. "To that point, we believe that it only strengthens the community and educational resilience of PAUSD and its students."
Transparency and communication
Students called for the district to create an environment where community members are encouraged to voice their concerns, namely through a committee made up of students, parents, staff and teachers to discuss various aspects of math education in PAUSD. This, they said, would allow the district to facilitate discussion with a variety of stakeholders and gather different opinions.
Students also said they hope the district will provide more information about how to move between different pathways. This way, students are better informed to pursue the track that best fits their needs.
"We believe that allowing all students to learn at a pace which is both challenging and appropriate will allow more students to reach their full potential," Gunn junior Tanush Aggarwal said during open forum. "Students want to continue learning, and the district should help to facilitate this, as education is the ultimate goal."
Questions about peer pressure
With the push for more advanced math opportunities comes the question of its potential impact on PAUSDs already academically centered and occasionally toxic, hyper-competitive environment.
While community members generally agree that PAUSD needs to foster a less stressful environment, when it comes to math policies, there are varying opinions on how to go about promoting that.
When asked about the potential parental and peer pressure that could arise from more students pursuing higher-level math classes, Lee said advanced options should still be available to those who genuinely enjoy and excel at math.
"Not everyone is exactly the same in every single thing," Lee said. "Just because a parent could potentially push their kid into something they are not available for, or they're not ready to do, does not mean that that should not exist as a pathway for kids that want to take it."
"But the question of how students even get to the point where they are prepared to take advanced math courses is another issue," Gunn senior Vandana Ravi said.
"It's very difficult to be in PAUSD and skip classes and get to whatever the highest level is without any outside tutoring, without parents helping you out, without a peer network," Ravi said.
As a result, for two students with different access to resources, even if they had the exact same amount of academic commitment and put in the same amount of effort, they likely still wouldn't get to the same place.
"And that just doesn't seem fair," Ravi said.
Resource allocation and equity
Throughout PAUSD, and at Gunn in particular, there is a heavy emphasis on STEM courses, Ravi said.
"I have definitely felt that there is an uneven allocation of resources between humanities and math, Ravi said. And of course, that's because of demand and that totally makes sense. But I wonder what would happen if we gave students a chance to take advanced courses that are not in math or not in STEM."
Focus on STEM fields, Ravi said, may be because some people never take an arts or humanities elective, and therefore can't realize it's something they could enjoy or pursue. Community members also look down on the humanities and treat it with less respect, further demotivating people from taking such classes.
She cited her experiences in philosophy class last year as an example. Ravi's class consisted of many STEM-focused students, and initially, their central objective was just to get the elective credit. But as the months went on, conversations shifted and gradually became more personal. Halfway through the semester, Ravi said, everyone was raising their hands, interested in sharing ideas and discussing philosophical questions.
"I think that we can completely change what student life is on campus because it is us, we can change it," Ravi said. "But it's also about the class you're taking. I mean, if everyone is taking three math classes, plus two science courses and econ, the conversation isn't going to change. Because what are you going to talk about?"
What are the next steps?
Vakil plans to organize another speech at a board meeting in October if he feels the student voice hasn't "been heard". Ultimately, he said, it's about student advocacy.
"It takes a lot of guts to speak," Vakil said. "I'm very proud of everyone who spoke and I hope we can get more people... The main thing is student voice."
"It's really heartwarming and uplifting to me to see so many of our students so passionate about their education and coming down here and being so amazingly articulate," board member Todd Collins said at the meeting. "I can't think of a time when I've seen that done. I really respect and appreciate all the students that took the time to do this."
This article was originally published by Midpeninsula Post, an award-winning, independent news publication by student journalists serving Los Altos, Mountain View and Palo Alto since 2020. Read more at midpenpost.org.