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PALO ALTO USD: Dr. Austin

Palo Alto USD is building the optimal learning environment for students.

When Superintendent Don Austin came to Palo Alto Unified School District four years ago, he brought with him a new mentality for educational leadership: run the district with all the efficiency, teamwork and dedication of a business in order to build the optimal learning environment for students. For Austin, when a district is backed with concrete and measurable goals, streamlined processes, and an effective team, it can make steady and tangible progress towards providing the best student support.


The first step in his business model? Deciding which goals to bring forward (and which to not). At Palo Alto, this means giving more direction to board meetings that used to touch on many topics but make little headway. Instead, the priorities for the year are now streamlined into five focus areas: mental health, service to others, early literacy, equity and healthy attendance.


“They're the things that if we're going to say that we're the number one school district for K-12 schools in the state of California, which we currently are ranked, I want to be able to say that that's true for every one of our students,” Austin said.


With these overarching goals in mind, the district can make sure the most important battles do not get lost in the noise. By crafting teams dedicated to these areas, allocating resources efficiently, and looking at concrete data to understand how interventions are impacting students, Palo Alto has made progress attainable, predictable and measurable.


“We know and people in the community know exactly where we're putting our time, money, and resources,” Austin said. “You can go to our website and see really detailed metrics that are not like the generic metrics a lot of districts use, with very concrete goals – both inputs and expected outputs.”


Susan Cook, COO and Leadership Coach at SI&A – which recently partnered with Austin and the Palo Alto School District to support his focus of healthy attendance– says Austin has the right leadership mentality necessary to achieve his goal of success for all students.

“Austin’s leadership style is impressive. He clearly understands the fundamental principles – people, process, measurement, oversight, and communication, plus leadership –necessary to move the needle.”


What is as important as having the right goals is curating the right team to make strides towards achieving them. For Austin, this goes beyond getting any single stand out individual into a particular position in the district. It’s about first recruiting people who understand the interdependence of the work environment and can work together to bring about the best educational experience, then making sure there’s the right developmental opportunities in place to keep the system running like a well-oiled machine.


“We're trying to build a successful program of succession – planning and grooming the right people, moving people up, and trying to operate more like the stability you see around some of the Fortune 500 companies,” Austin said. “You don't see massive upheaval at Nike. You don't see massive upheaval at Apple.”


Austin strives to impart on his staff the importance of showing up whenever possible and being willing to respond to immediate circumstances. An effective team is one that understands the job is more than just its job description – it’s doing whatever it takes to support students and adapting to whatever challenges present themselves. Faced with the ever-changing demands of a pandemic world, adaptability and work ethic have never been more key.


“You have to be a person that shows up every day,” Austin said. “It doesn't matter what you're asked to do. You just go do it. You do it with a smile, and you do it to the best of your ability.”

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