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Portraits of a Community

 

The serious business of school

Students feel more pressure to succeed; teachers feel less connected to the community

by Charlie Breitrose

Tim Farrell remembers the first day of class a few years ago at Gunn High School, where he teaches senior English. Shortly after everybody had taken their seats, a student spoke up.

The student said, 'Well, Mr. Farrell, I've been waiting for this class for four years. It better be good,'" recalls Farrell, who has been at Gunn for 24 years.

What struck Farrell was not what the student said but how he said it.

"He was serious. None of the students laughed."

Education in Palo Alto is serious business.

Veteran teachers like Farrell have watched the attitude of students evolve over the years to a more focused, hard-driven approach. New teachers say they also notice students' intensity. Many of the teachers, both new and old, believe it reflects a community that increasingly expects the performance of its schools to track the cost of its real estate.

The lofty expectations, teachers say, help make Palo Alto one of the most desirable districts in which to teach. To the extent, however, that the expectations flow from the wealth pouring into the city, they're also a reminder of changes in the community that are straining teachers' lives.

The sharp increases in income and property values have put Palo Alto homes beyond the reach of most teachers--especially the 40 percent who have started working in the district in the past five years. While 47 percent of district teachers listed a Palo Alto address in 1979, only 34 percent do so today.

Forced to commute from San Francisco, the East Bay and beyond, many teachers now live at distances that largely preclude their participating in their students' extracurricular lives. Trinity Klein, for example, drives 45 minutes each way from San Francisco to her job at Palo Alto High.

"Sometimes I wish I lived closer so I could see my students perform in plays or concerts in the evenings," said Klein, an English teacher.

For students, teachers say, the academic strains trace eventually to the enormous pressure to get into college--or, rather, the best colleges--and filter down through the grades from there; each grade is preparation for the higher expectations of the next.

Katherine Lawrence, who has taught chemistry at Palo Alto High School since 1969, remembers when students took advanced-placement classes because they were deeply interested in the subject. It's different these days.

"There is a real urgency now to take the 'right classes,'" Lawrence said. "Paly students want to take five AP classes because they want to get into Princeton or Stanford."

Nathan Osborn, a member of the Paly class of 1991, experienced this urgency when he himself was a student, and he sees it now as an English teacher at Gunn.

"We have a lot of kids working super, super hard, and they don't know why they're doing it," the second-year teacher said. "If they are just going though the motions, they are missing a lot."

Paly social studies teacher Marilyn Mayo said the change in students' attitudes mirror changes in society. Success and results are more important than ever before.

"There is an emphasis on grades," Mayo said. "It reflects what's important in society: 'What's the bottom line?' In school, the bottom line are the grades."

While the community's wealth has tracked sharply upward in the past 20 years, the district's finances have headed in the opposite direction.

Paly's Lawrence called the 1970s "the money years," when the school district, while not awash in money, didn't have to scrimp and save at every turn and parents weren't tapped so aggressively for donations.

It was during that period, for example, that Lawrence's science department was able to buy state-of-the-art equipment for classrooms. Much of that equipment is still around, and it's not so state-of-the-art anymore.

Gunn's Farrell remembers being able to buy enough copies of a novel to enable the entire student body to read the book at the same time. Things quickly changed.

"Now, 1,200 copies of any book would deplete my department's textbook fund for the year," Farrell said.

What happened? Schools, like other public agencies, got hit hard by Proposition 13. The 1978 voter initiative limited schools' ability to raise funds locally by requiring two-thirds voter approval of any property tax or assessment.

Fortunately for Palo Alto, the schools in the late 1970s and early 1980s could endure some financial uncertainties. Most of the elementary and junior highs were in good shape structurally, and both Paly and Gunn still looked new. Gunn was only about 15 years old. Much of Paly was rebuilt in 1975.

Two decades later, the same buildings and equipment don't have the same luster. Teachers at both high schools hope the district's new $143 million renovation project, funded by property owners, will make their schools state-of-the-art once again.

Students have changed. Finances have changed. So have the characteristics of the district's teaching staff.

Farrell, now head of the Gunn English department, said that in 1979, he was 38 and the youngest teacher in the department. Today, a 38-year old would be considered "an old fogy," he joked.

In recent years, the district has seen a massive infusion of new teachers. This year, for example, six of the 17 teachers in Farrell's department are in their first or second year.

Paly, too, has many new teachers. Klein, who had been a student teacher in San Francisco, came to Paly three years ago because she saw that teachers here could focus on their students.

"It seems that in San Francisco, teachers are consumed with administrative work," said Klein. At Paly, by contrast, she not only has time to teach English but to start her own course, Women in Literature.


 
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