Wearing their best dress-up clothes, eighth-graders at JLS Middle School practiced firm handshakes and conversation skills this week as they presented "portfolios" of their most treasured schoolwork to adult interview panels.
"Exit interviews," a nine-year-old tradition at JLS in Palo Alto, draws on outside volunteers to listen and probe as each student spends 15 minutes reflecting on his or her three years in middle school, ups and downs as a student and hopes for the future.
The interviews were held in the gym, where about 12 pairs of interviewers sat at tables that were spaced out to facilitate private conversations.
Despite the "monstrous" logistics of arranging individual, face-to-face interviews for 342 students, Principal Sharon Ofek said the effort pays off.
"The students take it seriously," she said. "They look so good, and they take pride in how they present themselves. It's a marvelous way for them to grow some self-confidence, to stop and pause for a minute and realize that, 'I'm only 13 or 14, but look at what I've done.'"
Kids begin amassing work for their portfolios during their first year in middle school, sixth grade, choosing everything from poems they've written to math tests, social studies projects or choir CDs.
On their interview day, some bring in hand-made pencils and pens -- even hand-built clocks -- constructed in the school's Industrial Technology class. Also hauled in during Wednesday's interviews were several small electric vehicles built by student teams in an after-school club.
"The idea is to select work they're proud of," English teacher Jennifer Coluzzi said. "Not just the things they got the best grade on, but something that helps them showcase their growth as a learner."
On Wednesday, an eighth-grader named Lisa carried a first-place trophy from karate and discussed her passions for singing, theater and teaching children. She showed photos of some of her "most lasting memories" of JLS -- singing at Disneyland with the school choir on two different trips.
Lisa said she'd like to improve in "social studies, because I'm really bad at memorizing names and dates. It just doesn't stick with me, and I want to have better study habits. Also math ..."
But asked what she considers her positive characteristics, she said, "I like speaking my mind and standing up for people who can't. I've been bullied before and I don't want that to happen to others, and the important thing for me is to be there for other people when they can't for themselves.
"When a person doesn't support me as a friend, is fake or a bully, I can't deal with them, and since I need (friends) in my life I have to be that person too."
Students said they were nervous going into their sessions, despite having gotten a preview of the questions and spending class time practicing everything from proper handshakes to presentation skills.
"At first I was nervous but then I realized they don't bite," wrote one student after an exit interview Tuesday.
Wrote another: "At first I was very nervous, but over time I relaxed a bit. It went faster than I thought it would."
At the end of her interview Wednesday, Lisa said: "I like having all my accomplishments in a folder. It's so surreal to look at what I've done, and I can do so much more in high school."
Another student wrote: "It was really exciting to talk about myself to some accomplished people. I felt very grown up, and it wasn't stressful at all. Overall, it was a really great experience."
Interviewers cannot be current JLS parents but generally are members of the community -- in many cases friends or family of JLS teachers or school district office administrators who pitch in. Among Wednesday's interviewers were school district nurse Linda Lenoir, former Palo Alto school board member Ray Bacchetti, Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers and John Saukitoga, a 2006 graduate of JLS who now works for the nonprofit Youth Community Service.
Interviewer Jim Messano, a retired Lockheed-Martin engineer and father of a JLS science teacher, was interviewing for the second day in a row.
"All in all, I thought for the most part (the students) were very good," Messano said. "In the evaluation, they want us to be very upbeat."
When offering advice to students, he said he tried to make it encouraging.
"I tried to reinforce the fact that whatever they don't know now, there will be other opportunities in the future," he said. "As a retiree, if I weren't doing this I'd be working in the garden or something."
Ofek, who has been principal at JLS since 2009, said the practice of exit interviews began under the leadership of Joseph Di Salvo, who was principal from 2001 until his abrupt resignation in 2005 due to conflict with staff. He is now an elected member of the Santa Clara County Board of Education, representing San Jose.
Reached Wednesday, Di Salvo said he first tried exit interviews at Thomas Russell Middle School in Milpitas, where he was principal for six years before coming to JLS. The California Department of Education in the 1990s was promoting the idea of "student-led interviews," which he implemented at Russell and brought to JLS, Di Salvo said.
"I'm so glad this program is still alive today," he said. "It was very successful when I was there, and every year I get an invitation to participate but I don't."
Ofek credited JLS teachers for laying the groundwork for the student portfolios. The program has been tweaked over the years based on suggestions from teachers, interviewers and students.
"Maybe the kids don't realize it but the staff certainly does -- this all begins on day one of sixth grade," she said. "Every department prepares, and it all leads up to this one culminating event.
"We're trying to give the students a positive experience about two things: being interviewed and being reflective about their growth over time at JLS. We really believe in this."