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PAUSD vs. private for elementary school

Original post made by rp on Jul 9, 2008

I'm looking for opinions on the elementary schools in PAUSD. My son will be starting kindergarten in 2009, and we are trying to decide on whether to move to PA and put him in public schools - or put him in private schools.

We're looking for a balanced approach to education: something that will both challenge and interest him (perhaps something developmental). We definitely do not want an education that is high-stress, standards-based, and puts too much emphasis on core curriculum to the exclusion of other subjects.

While many private schools have missions similar to our preferences (plus with small class sizes and diverse curricula), every review I've ever seen about PAUSD elementary schools is just stellar.

Any thoughts from parents who've faced this decision before would be greatly appreciated. Especially, what you chose (public or private) and why.

Thanks for your help.

Comments (24)

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 9, 2008 at 6:11 pm

My kids have been in 5 different elementaries over the years, 3 in PAUSD. For my money, any pretty good quality school is fine; after that, it is just luck of the draw for teachers and fit with your kid. We've been at the highest scoring and lowest scoring schools in PAUSD; we actually preferred the lower scoring one. Shopping elementary schools is probably over-thinking it - you should live where you want to live, and then just decide if you like the school you are at; if not, you can change it.

By high school it is somewhat (though not hugely) different; there are some fancy high schools out there that really have kids making a huge effort. Of course, we have that product here in Palo Alto ;-)

My 2 cents...


Posted by Mom of 3, a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jul 9, 2008 at 9:53 pm

This is a tough question to answer because we cannot compare which private schools you are talking about. Also, PAUSD schools in town are all different and you can't possibly know each one without attending them. We have been in two and have a preference but if I begin spitting out reasons, there will be an uproar. Plus, my choice may not be your choice.

One more thing is that you might not exactly know which elementary your child will attend. You might buy in north PA and be overflowed to Barron Park (20 min. drive). But eventually, you should be able to get into your neighborhood school. People do leave PA. This year, my neighbor was 4th on the waiting list in January but was recently accepted into the school. She said that last year, the wait list was at 17 and all were accepted by the start of school.

Re Me Too's comment, there is a difference between Gunn and Paly and there are differences between the middle schools too.

rp, your best bet is to meet parents (at parks, etc.) and get opinions because you might get more straight facts than on this site. By talking to people, you may get a better feel of it all.


Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 10, 2008 at 2:39 am

Hi rp,

Ohlone's the developmental, project-based learning school. The school's great, though not all clusters are equally strong. It is a lottery school, so you need the luck of the draw.

Hoover is the Direct Instruction counterpart--also lottery.

The neighborhood elementaries fall between the two poles. Some are mellower than others. A lot of it, frankly, seems to be tied to parental expectations. In your case, I might avoid the neighborhood with the highest APIs--just because it will draw the most competitive parents. If you like the parents at a school, odds are that you'll also like the school.

Palo Alto v. private--if you can buy into Palo Alto then you're essentially saving that private school tuition--you're paying a premium for real estate, but you build equity instead of just paying out private-school tuition.

I know a lot of famiilies who rent--that's one option, rent, have your child try out one of the schools and then buy. Actually, I know of some cases where the renting goes on and on and on.

If you have several children, renting in PA can still be a better deal than paying for private schools.


Posted by a few cents., a resident of Midtown
on Jul 10, 2008 at 6:45 am

If your kid is bright and if you are an academic family that wants top math and English focus- go private.

PAUSD has mostly great teachers and schools..the problem is that math is poorly taught, in my opinion, in a rather circular pattern. They do a little bit of "everything" every year in the elementary schools, without a book or consistent curriculum articulating from grade to grade. English is taught the same way, so that by the time your kids leaves 5th grade, they may or may not know what a noun is, what a subject-verb-object sentence is etc. And, communication from teachers to parents is extremely spotty, without "tests" coming home for you, the parent, to track progress or catch problems and help your kid out. But, for public school, it is great in what it does, which is serve everyone the basics and provide tremendous opportunities for drama and art and music.

If you want more structured, daily PE, focus on 3 Rs, Challenger is extremely focused and structured, not for everyone, but produces excellent English and Math results through old-fashioned memorization, drilling, diagramming etc.You know exactly how your kid is doing weekly, since there are weekly tests that come home with scores. Perfect for some families and kids.

Keyes is more like most Palo Alto schools in teaching style and community emphasis, but with more consistent curriculum, less inconsistent teaching styles, virtually no behavior problems that we get in our public schools, and good teacher to parent communication. If you want a well articulated program more like PAUSD style, without some of the issues that are endemic to public schools and PAUSD, that would be the school for you in PA.

There are other great private school options, Pinewood in Los Altos( a cross between Challenger and Keyes in style, leaning more Challenger..very expensive, Trinity ( again, a cross between, but more Keyes-like),etc.

If you decide to stay in PAUSD..check out which local school you are in and see if you can actually get in. Otherwise, you will be overflowed and stuck driving in any case. Also, some of the schools are much more "competitive" in nature than others, and some have much better ( in my opinion) communities for parental involvement and "fun". Some are pretty mono-chrome, some are very diverse in all ways. Each school has a distinct flavor, with tremendous control by the Principal to set the tone and the style, so there is a wide variability.

Ok, my few cents are done.


Posted by Keys, a resident of Community Center
on Jul 10, 2008 at 8:12 am

Just a spelling correction: It's Keys School.


Posted by qwerty, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 10, 2008 at 3:08 pm

from above: "... produces excellent English and Math results through old-fashioned memorization, drilling, diagramming etc. You know exactly how your kid is doing weekly, since there are weekly tests that come home with scores. Perfect for some families and kids." -- My assumption is that the post above suggests "excellent English results" are primarily good writing skills, and good test scores secondarily. For what it's worth, the research on teaching writing suggests that this general approach is ineffective, even counterproductive. The "good results" are likely coming from a host of other factors that are probably great about the school; good test results may also just show good alignment - teach grammar, test grammar. Well-educated adults who have good writing skills tend to assume that their grammar drills and sentence diagramming helped, and for some individuals, maybe they did. There's little if any research basis to suggest an emphasis on "drills" or memorization or grammar exercises will help most students most of the time. "Perfect for some families" - sure, the school is giving the parents what they want.

From Ntl. Council of Teachers of English:
"Watch out for 'the grammar trap.' Some people may try to persuade you that a full understanding of English grammar is needed before students can express themselves well. Some knowledge of grammar is useful, but too much time spent on study of grammar steals time from the study of writing. Time is much better spent in writing and conferring with the teacher or other students about each attempt to communicate in writing."
-- - that's not an argument against the use of grammatical concepts in instruction, but rather an argument against teaching them as if they are a goal unto themselves.

More info on writing instruction: Web Link
More info on grammar instruction: Web Link


Posted by Paly parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 10, 2008 at 3:56 pm

I once lived in another Bay Area city and a Challenger leased the closest public elementary school. I checked out Challenger and found it to be a commercial institution, eager to sell videos for pre-school children, filled with phonics and costumed characters. These seemed highly aggressive to me. The commercial aspects turned me off.


Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 10, 2008 at 5:07 pm

Qwerty,

I had an eighth-grade teacher who got obsessed about grammar and diagramming sentences--to the extent that she dropped about half of her normal curriculum so that we could focus on diagramming sentences.

It was awful--boring and disconnected from both reading and writing. I hated English that year because it had nothing to do with most of the subject. It did nothing for my writing; it didn't even help my punctuation. It was too far removed from the process of writing to be meaningfully incorporated into my writing process.

I think for some kids, diagramming may clarify certain issues, but for others it's worse than pointless.


Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2008 at 6:20 pm

Diagramming sentences was part of the standard fifth-grade curriculum at my school. It was not that difficult, and all the kids learned it.

My family moved, and in eighth grade the teacher tried to teach some grammar (far more basic than what I'd done in fifth) without diagramming, and it was a disaster. It was obvious that the kids who did not understand grammar were at a tremendous disadvantage in trying to write.

Knowledge of grammar served me extremely well through the years, helping me to write more interesting sentences, spot errors, learn foreign languages, and understand punctuation.



Posted by TEACHER, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 10, 2008 at 6:23 pm

I have 3 kids in PAUSD at all levels and overall their education has been pretty good (you only get out what you put in to it). My feedback is coming from a teachers perspective. I have taught at both private and public schools. Most private schools pay teachers about 5-10 K less than public school teachers and most private school teachers don't have a teaching credential (i.e. have no formal teachers training). So most private school teachers are not highly trained (there are exceptions) and are working at that school until a higher paying position opens up somewhere else. I made $32,000 a year at a prestigious private school here in Palo Alto. So this is who's teaching your child. Palo Alto teachers are generally from good schools and have had teacher training (although that doesn't always make them good). Private schools have the benefit of have having less behavior issues, language problems, and learning disabilities, but that is also exposing your child to an unrealistic peer demographic. Public school generally has better art, music, and things like girl scouts.... I hope this helps!


Posted by Parent without handles, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2008 at 6:27 pm

I also had to learn grammar rules, parse sentences and understand grammar rules in my elementary years. It made no sense to me. Then I had to learn 2 years latin, along with 2 other languages. The latin really helped me learn English grammar and this plus the other two languages showed me how languages function. As a result, I feel that I write better and understand text much better. I am also able to communicate well with people who have limited English as I find that I break down my sentences into mini phrases which are much more easy to understand. I also had to use as much vocabulary as possible, using different verbs, adjectives and adverbs rather than repeating the same words over and over.

I am a little out of practice now as in my everyday life I do not need to use writing as much, but I find badly written text annoys me. I appreciate all the time I spent learning English grammar and foreign language as a child even though I have very little opportunity to utilise it today.


Posted by diagrams, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 10, 2008 at 6:35 pm

I also learned to diagram sentences in the fifth grade. There were some ambiguities. The teachers tended to insist that words have specific roles but sometimes words are used in roles other than their "assigned" roles. This, among other things, taught me that you can not learn to use correct English by learning how to diagram sentences. (You have to know English better than the diagram to do it).

The skill probably put me ahead by a half lecture or so in my later compiler courses.


Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 10, 2008 at 8:08 pm

Parent wh,

I also found that studying foreign languages helped. If nothing else, they made English grammar seem so *simple.* It wasn't even a conscious thing--I studied a couple of languages intensively at one point and my bad habits in English disappeared.

Diagrams,

Now I know what diagramming *is* good for! Part of the problem with English is that it's not a tidy language. French-German vocabulary, semi-German grammar--and what are those little bits of a subjunctive case doing there? Then there's that rule about not ending sentences with a preposition, which results in all sorts of odd manglings. (There are things up with which I will not put!)

To me, the main problem with diagramming isn't that it doesn't make things clearer for some kids, but that it's disconnected from the writing process.

I mean does anyone diagram sentences when writing? Or reading?

(Oh, heck, my main reaction to seeing a diagrammed sentence was to try to turn it back into its properly sequential self so that I could read it.)


Posted by a parent, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 10, 2008 at 9:54 pm



"every review I've ever seen about PAUSD elementary schools is just stellar."

it's true, nothing is perfect, but there are mostly great teachers, and it's a great place to grow up, if you can afford it. Many go to private school for Middle School, but are here for the neighborhood elementary school experience. Good luck


Posted by mmmmMom, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 10, 2008 at 11:34 pm

The most important aspect of deciding on a school is to really know your child - what works best for one child may not be ideal for another. You must also recognize & separate your own issues with education from the learning path of your child. Keep in mind, too, that no school is perfect in any way - to expect perfection is to invite disappointment & even bitterness.

For our time & money, the Waldorf School in Los Alto is the single BEST place for the kindergarten & first through third grade. It just can't be beat for nurturing creativity, wonder, & appropriate cognitive developement. It is truly a magical place. After the age of 9 or 10, however, it becomes a matter of the individual needs of the child, & the lifestyle of the family.

Try to visit classrooms in the various schools you are interested in......spend an hour or 2 in each one. It is quite an eye opener! I did that, which is how I made the exceedingly easy decision to choose Waldorf. I have never regreted that decision.


Posted by good luck!, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2008 at 7:31 am

I love the instant dishing by English Teachers of grammar.

Given that 1/2 of all high school grads in the USA now need remedial English if they go onto college, I think I trust the old fashioned, pre-teachers getting it messed up, way better. Then, if you graduated high school, you knew grammar, and surprisingly, you could put together sentences!

I learned to diagram, I learned "rules" and when the "rules" were to be broken about everything in English. It was a pain, but when it came time in high school to write essays, guess what? I relied on them to actually make sentences that meant what I wanted them to mean.

I also memorized multiplication tables, not strategies...guess what? When I hit 6th grade, my math skills were better because I didn't have to work through every little thing. Sort of like sight reading..at some point you have to just recognize a word in order to read, you can't decode every word you see.

Don't diss the traditional methods. They aren't the ONLY way to learn, but I stand by them as a great basis for everything else in life.

If you learn another language in school, you MUST learn the grammar et al in a traditional way, which means that you learn English grammar better. This is the main reason I believe that foreign languages need to be required in middle school. As a way to circumvent the mushy English teaching.

Back to topic, good luck in deciding what works best for your child and you. Everyone, every family, has its own "best ways", and if you pick one and are involved, you will be fine and sort it out as you go. Try not to stress too much over it. All the options listed above are good ones, and for the most part, not too many of them will make or break your kid and where he ends up.

Just stay involved, check your kid, you will know if he is growing and happy and learning. If it isn't working, you will know because he won't want to go to school, he will regress, he will say things like "I can't do this", " I am too stupid" etc..if that happens, don't hesitate to pull him out and change him, but other than that, relax.


Posted by Paly '80s Alum, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 11, 2008 at 10:20 am

I agree that memorizing, diagramming isn't an effective approach to teaching good writing. Sure, some kids may get something out of it,but others will simply forget (as I did). I think it is more important to have the students write a lot. They really learn from papers returned to them with red marks all over them. One can learn pretty fast when one has to think and redo their writing. The people in my graduating class all write very well. We lived in the midwest for awhile and the teachers had our children write, but they were too lazy to correct the writing, which was a disservice to the children!

Regarding moving your kid from one school to another to get the "ultimate learning experience", I think it is important for the children to start in a school system and graduate with the same children. I have a fondness toward those elementary school memories. As others have said, there is not going to be a school system where all the teachers are perfect.


Posted by Don't sweat the small stuff, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2008 at 11:42 am

It sounds like you'd like to choose a community that shares your desire for balance, and I think that's a wise strategy. You won't be able to cherry-pick perfect teachers for your child, but you will be comfortable participating in his/her elementary school community, and feel confident that he/she is appropriately engaged.

WRT multiplication tables and sentence diagramming, it's surprising how easy it is to fill in the gaps at home if the teacher happens to go light on these areas. The more creative aspects of teaching are much harder to add at home, so I'd favor a community that valued creativity over drill, and that welcomed parent involvement. But it all depends on what you're looking for.


Posted by Parent without handles, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2008 at 12:55 pm

We moved to Palo Alto for the one reason that it was cycling distance to work. At that time we had a toddler and did not expect to remain here long enough to need to worry about the schools. In effect, you may say we lucked out as at that time house prices were dropping. School enrollments were just beginning to rise and when it came time for our first child to start kindergarten, parents were camping outside Churchill to guarantee a place in the first come first served allocation of kindergarten spots at our local school.

Our theory on education was simple, we would try out the local schools and if we found a problem then we would look into private schools.

I think the PAUSD lower grades are much better now than when we started, but we were new to the game. My advice is to ask trusted friends, coworkers, neighbors, in the area what they think. I am a little bit of a sceptic when it comes to trusting published data as there is usually a spin depending on what they are trying to say. Unless a school is really low, then don't worry too much initially as the difference between many schools on lists are usually only a few points and many schools get into the same narrow band.

I wish you good luck in your school choice as the main difference having your first child in kindergarten is the overall affect it has on the whole family and the way it changes family life forever. Enjoy the preschool time because I guarantee that as soon as the first hits kindergarten, your lives will change much more than you expect.


Posted by goodd luck, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2008 at 1:10 pm

Yes, the elementary schools ARE better now than they were, thanks to forcing some conformity in curriculum and materials from the NCLB trickling through to the State and down to us.

As the one who thinks memorizing tables and diagramming/grammar are important enough to not be thrown out in our education system ( I never said "only effective" and I haven't read "not effective"..quit the black and white, all or none thinking folks!) ..I agree that if your teacher is light on it, you supplement. There are enough side materials that are easy to get to give your kid in the summer to keep him on track if he got a light teacher.

The rest of the stuff that you can't teach at home..don't sweat the small stuff had it right.


Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 11, 2008 at 4:55 pm

Okay, I'm not going to be specific here because it would be a bit mean, but I noticed numerous usage mistakes in the posts favoring diagramming.

Which to me, gets to one of the problems with diagramming; it doesn't really teach writing. Precise English usage is quite a bit more complex than what can be broken down on a diagram. Diagramming doesn't show you, for example, which prepositions to use. And people screw up prepositions all the time.

Studying a second language helped my English, but I never diagrammed sentences in a second-language class.


Posted by RP, a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2008 at 11:05 am

Thank you all for your helpful comments. The sense I get after reading the posts is that while there are no guarantees with specific schools, for the most part, PAUSD schools are all quite good, anyway. Plus, there is the added benefit of living (and owning) in PA.

I didn't mention it in the initial post, but the private schools we are considering are Hillbrook and Harker. They cost much more than we'd like to pay, and are located much farther south than we'd like to live.

Thanks again,
Rani


Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 16, 2008 at 11:31 am

If I had it to do all over (children's education) I would certainly consider Hillbrook.


Posted by Difficult Choice, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 22, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Choosing an elementary school in PA is much more difficult that middle or high school; there are MANY elementary schools here. Also, there are many good private schools in PA. If you choose to go to public school, I would turn you to either Ohlone or El Carmelo. If you go to private school, There is the Keyes school, and Living Wisdom School.


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