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Need advice: Thinking of moving to PA for the schools
Original post made
by Redwood Shores mom, another community,
on Dec 24, 2009
Hi, as the mom of a 3 year old and a kindergartner, I could use some advice. We're considering a move from Redwood Shores to Palo Alto, mainly for the schools. Our public elementary and middle school API scores are comparable to that of PA schools. Our high school is in the mid 800's..not as good as the Palo Alto schools, but not terrible. So here are my questions:
- I know scores are not everything. Are there other factors that make the Palo Alto schools great (especially compared to similar scoring schools outside the district)?
- I've read a lot about the "pressure cooker" atmosphere at the high schools. For parents/students who have gone through Paly/Gunn..in retrospect, do you think it's better to be a small fish in a big pond (i.e. struggle to compete in an excellent high school), or a big fish in a small pond (be a top student in an above average high school)?
Given how much more expensive Palo Alto is than Redwood Shores, I can't help but wonder whether the move is worth it. Greatly appreciate the feedback!
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Posted by Jill
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 26, 2009 at 2:17 pm
I agree wholeheartedly with Anon and P.A. mom. We moved here when my daughter was going to start kindergarten, based on the fantastic reputation of the schools. My daughter is now a senior, and I've often regretted the move to P.A. for a number of reasons.
First of all, the elementary school was okay but not outstanding, a little bit of a letdown actually, considering the rave reviews that PAUSD receives. However, she had two excellent teachers to whom we will always be thankful. Not hearing especially good things about JLS and thinking that we could do better, we sent my daughter to private school for 6th-8th. For high school she wanted to return to public school. Since we had heard that both Gunn and Paly were excellent, we figured either would be fine. Wrong choice! While many students seem to thrive at the local high schools, I have been unimpressed for the most part. Since the students generally come from families that support education and assume their sons/daughters will go to college, one positive is that the motivation to do well in school is high. Unlike some other high schools in the area, there is not a large group of students who don't care about academics. Unfortunately, many here care about grades and getting into high-status colleges more than they value learning. There's a lot of competition, which leads to a fair amount of cheating and some cynicism. ("Half the class didn't even read the book; they read the Spark notes online.") Students feel the pressure, some more than others. Some of her friends seem to have gotten through it okay, except for the sleep deprivation and level of stress mentioned by a previous poster. In my daughter's case, the competitive atmosphere and pressure have taken their toll on her in terms of self-esteem and belief in her own academic ability. What makes me sad is that she entered high school with much more confidence and excitement about learning than she's leaving it with. It's impossible to know how different this might have been at other high schools, but since I've taught at the secondary level for many years myself, I can say that many of the teachers at Paly put less into teaching, grading and supporting students after class than at some other schools. I attribute this to the fact that so many students at the school (and I would assume Gunn is similar in this way) can afford to have tutoring, so it takes the pressure off the teachers to teach well. Also, because the test scores are high, due to numerous factors including the socio-cultural status of the majority of students, the staff doesn't strive as hard as they might to improve. Fortunately, there are a few exceptions; my daughter has a couple of wonderful, helpful teachers this year who genuinely seem to care.
You didn't mention whether you would be renting here or be able to afford a nice (i.e.,expensive) home in P.A. You should also be aware that many Palo Altans are very conscious of social status. If you rent a home or own a condo, your child may sometimes be made to feel inferior to friends whose families own very nice homes. In the teen years the focus, of course, is more on clothes, cars and expensive trips. As P.A. mom suggested, you may want to think about the social aspects of the move also. These can have an effect on academics and personal growth.
The social status of students and their parents also comes into play sometimes at school sites in ways that have surprised me. At the elementary schools the influence seems to be more on a personal level. At the high school level family influence is often felt through monetary contributions, and some donate large amounts of money (to athletics, for example). It's often obvious that administrators, both at the district and school sites, pay more attention to the opinions and wishes of wealthy parents. I guess, given the financial situation of California public schools, this is not too surprising, but it bothers me since these are public, not private, schools.
So, back to your question...if I were making the decision again, I would choose a less affluent community which I feel is a great place for children to grow up. I would then check out private schools, hoping to find one that values diversity and creativity and which instills excitement about learning, reading and writing. If I didn't find one that I could afford or felt really good about, I would stick with the public school and make sure that my child got what they needed at every step, through tutoring, art lessons, etc. I would be especially mindful of what happens at the middle school level because, in my experience, this is where some students start to go the wrong direction, often due to peer influence.
Good luck with your decision! It's an important one.
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Posted by Paly student
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 28, 2009 at 3:34 am
I am currently a student at Palo Alto High School and am shocked by many of the above unfounded assertions. Although the work is significant in classes such as AP US History and AP Chemistry, most of the classes are not too imposing and manageable. I know very few people who have ever had tutors outside of school as most students ask for academic abeyance from other students in the Academic Resource Center or from teachers (i.e. Analysis H, BC calc, and several other classes have weekly study sessions).
I would like to point out that high school is in very few ways "too difficult". People have a choice as to what classes they would like to attend, whether it be focusing on arts, sports, or taking 5 (or even 6) APs junior year. I am annoyed that all these parents are talking about stress and about supercilious and pompous behavior on the part of the community and its students. I do know more than one person who has gotten a 2400 on the SAT (without taking three courses and intensive tutoring) and would like to say that the people who get high scores on the SAT or PSAT and who take 10+ APs throughout high school are in fact some of the most modest people at the entire school. People with SAT scores over 2350 rarely want to divulge what they got, and will be very annoyed if others find out that they got a 2390 or 2400. The people who brag about their scores are often the rich kids with legacy and the more social ones who somehow get "good" (2100s=) SAT scores while being somewhat obtuse in most of their classes. Rich does not equal smart. Sorry if this is a bit harsh, but I had to say it...
Although there are some teachers that I deem incompetent (2 or 3), most of the teachers are excellent, engaging, erudite, and interesting. Although most of these teachers teach AP courses and are older, there are still many great young teachers at Paly. Many of my teachers have taught college courses in the past, were very good students themselves, are extremely excited about the subjects they teach (to the point that they read 1+ new books a week about the subject), and mangage to keep their classes quiet and productive simply by their presence (and serious but sometimes playful demeanor).
Additionally, I am also disturbed by comments such as "PAUSD is only good since the parents in the district are well-off and smart" and "you shouldn't send your kids there because the community is good but schools are only average". Maybe they are, but so what? What make Palo Alto high good are not the schools themselves, but the communities that surround them. People should accept the fact, and be happy that their kids are on a quotidian basis in the presence of other driven and academically driven people. The fact that Palo Alto is an academically-driven community encourages students (even less driven ones and those from less affluent or educated families) to try harder. In fact, most of the educated and esoteric classmates of mine come from average households with average incomes as opposed to many of the wealthier students from more educated households who end up in lower math lanes and at parties instead of math club meetings, weekly community service events, and so on.... (I'm not trying to be stereotypical; this is simply the truth that I have observed around me).
What matters in the end, is who one's kids hang out with. Although there are no social "cliques" so as to say, there are some kids that are more academically driven (20%) than others and some that are true delinquents (50 or so out of 1700). Most kids (50 percent or so) are just normal, take one or 2 APs, manage to have fun, and do a sport. Who one hangs out with in high school is of paramount importance. Though I do not want to sound sardonic or cynical, in the end it all comes down to the indirect influences of one's friends. As a junior taking several advanced placement courses, I am blessed that many of my friends also take 3-6 AP classes and challenge themselves as much as they can. Although there is competition and some stress, it does pay off in the end for without the competition, stress, and driven people I know, I probably wouldn't be as passionated about learning as I am. In the end, the reason why many people are not successful in the end, just as in all schools, is not their lack of knowledge nor the school's incompetence, but the students' lack of determination. It is therefore crucial that one hang out with knowledgeable people in order to want to succeed and actually be successful. Studying has to be "cool" or "in" amongst a group to be effective and practical just as a sport or hobby would be.
I must add that I am not trying to sound harsh or somewhat elitist. As a matter of fact, I often tutor other students at school, and have learned through this act about the lack of dedication for education and not the dearth of wit that many students possess as a consequence of their social lifestyles.
To conclude, Palo Alto schools are splendid. They allow students extraordinary academic possibilities such as taking calculus as a freshman in HS, taking countless challenging classes, or taking math classes at Stanford as a sophomore, junior, or senior in HS, and encourage kids to excel in sports, fine arts, and performing arts. In the end, what one puts into the system is what one gets out of it. If one is not willing to try hard, the system will be forgiving but not generous, but if one puts in all his/her effort, the system is extremely generous and can match the student's effort in ways that most school districts cannot. Children are truly reflections of their parents, and a good parent will consistently encourage his or her kids to study and restrain his- or herself from inappropriate behavior, while at the same time leaving the kid room to work alone, creatively (without a tutor), and independently (i.e. a good parent lets his or her kid cope with failure instead of driving to school during work hours to bring the essay the student forgot on the kitchen countertop).
With all due respect,
PS. I have been to many private schools in the past and can firmly state that I am learning far more than I would ever have had I gone to a private school such as Menlo, SHP, or Saint Francis. Unlike private schools which often water down their advanced courses so that more people will take them, AP courses such as APUSH at Paly are treated far more seriously though they involve much more work (APUSH alone consisted of 5 books to read, 2 essays to write, 2 chapters of textbook reading, 2 chapters of supplemental textbook reading, a personal biography (4 pages-ish), typed notes for both the textbook readings and supplemental textbook readings, a map to fill in and color and to memorize for a quiz on the first day of school, and a book report as summer homework!)