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Double Secret Elementary School Information!!

Original post made by Alana, Midtown, on Nov 19, 2009

I went to the prospective parent information session at Ohlone the other night. I wanted to learn more about the school and the MI program.

The people running the school seem to have their hearts in the right place, with their emphasis on students' feelings, promoting self-esteem, and so on. Making these things so central to an elementary school curriculum certainly would not appeal to everyone, but since this is a choice program, it's great that there is a school that can provide these things to families who believe in such an approach.

What I found surprising was the caginess on the part of the school representatives during the question and answer session. Given the school's emphasis on "trust" and the implicit respect for honesty and truth, I would expect heartfelt, straightforward responses to parents' concerns.

Two examples stick out in my mind. One parent asked how many applicants there were to Ohlone this past year--certainly an innocuous, fair question.

The answer: we cannot tell you. First of all, I can't understand why this is such secret information in the first place. Second of all, if the school doesn't want to reveal too much, in the spirit of "trust" and honesty, couldn't they just say something like, "We don't like to provide the exact numbers because [whatever their reasons are], but I can tell you that in some years there have been as many as X applicants and as few as Y applicants, though it's impossible to predict what will happen in any given year."

Such a response would have at least acknowledged the parent's concerns and provided some context for the probability of getting in without revealing exact numbers. But providing no information at all was kind of jarring. It seemed uncomfortably like a politician stonewalling. Very strange after hearing for an hour about the school's concern for everyone's feelings and being supportive.

The second example was their talking about a brief essay that parents have to write when applying to the program that should describe why the parent wants their child to attend. When asked about this, they provided contradictory answers, alternating between saying that this essay does not matter at all and is merely just a way to encourage parents to formulate their own thoughts while minutes later saying that it actually did matter in that it was a way that the school could determine whether or not the parents' reasons for applying were consistent with the school's philosophy.

Why not just come out and say yes, the essay is one of the criteria we consider and just leave it at that. Why the need to confuse matters by saying it doesn't matter at all and that it's just for the parents themselevs? Again, this seemed like an uncomfortable kind of double-talk that I didn't really expect in this setting.

We know lots of Ohlone families, and they have been thrilled with their experience there. I think being in touch with feelings, self-esteem, and getting along with each other are laudable objectives, and the more children who can achieve these things the better. Like I said, I think Ohlone's heart is in the right place. I hope that in the future they can be less evasive and more straightforward when dealing with parents' questions. Doing so would be more consistent with their core values and would give prospective parents a better impression of the school.





Comments (7)

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2009 at 7:33 am

Welcome to PAUSD, so many things are kept top secret! I have lost count of the amount of times things are not told to the parents. Egg wars at Paly is one of those that comes to mind in recent weeks.


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Posted by Mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2009 at 1:59 pm

I had the same experience. When I went to the program last year, interested in the MI program, I got practically NO information, just "Trust us". I do trust them for the standard Ohlone program because of the long history. However, MI does not have the long history and most of the folks have little or no experience in Mandarin Immersion. The one expert there was an expert in Spanish immersion.

The only information I get is from the current parents, but it is spotty. Like most school districts, it is who you know which determines what information you get, and to some extent, what resources your kids get.



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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 19, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Look, here's the deal--Susan Charles retired abruptly last year and the new principal had to step in really quickly. He's a good guy and a very experienced teacher, but very new to the whole principal thing. He's really still very much feeling his way through the whole principal/management thing.

Susan Charles tended to hold her cards close to her chest--so she was in the habit of not revealing the number of applicants. In fact, this information is often made public (in fact required to be so may be the case) by the district in some damn packet or another.

Siblings have priority. This means that while there are 70 Ohlone main openings, anywhere from 35 to 50-plus are being taken by younger sibs. With the remaining spots, there's an attempt to balance by sex.

The end result is that it's easier to get a girl than a boy in through the lottery. More parents of boys than girls apply. In recent years, there have been fewer open spots--so in the range of 19 to 25 for Ohlone main.

There's also a neighborhood preference, though it's not clear to me how that works.

MI is a separate lottery with its own issues. There it is much, much easier to get in as a native Mandarin speaker. Indeed, keeping enough native speakers in the program is an issue since we don't actually have that many in Palo Alto and many of those parents prefer a program like Hoover (more similar to the type of instruction offered in China) or a neighborhood school. Ohlone did lose a chunk of its native speakers in the first year of MI--the parents felt their children were not picking up English quickly enough.

No STAR tests yet as the kids are too young. MI/Ohlone is an experiment with no exact precedent. The two programs run fairly separately despite the lip service at community events. They have to simply because of the difference in the curriculums. The MI kids are always in class with other MI kids--there just isn't a real crossover as a result. MI parents mostly hang with MI parents for the same reason.

Also, it's true that MI/Ohlone is a three-year trial. It may very well be moved to Garland if and when Garland opens. It may be turned into a more traditional program. It may be shut down. One of the reasons you're not getting straight answers is that a lot of things are unknown.

As for the essay--it's very simple, Ohlone just wants to make sure that parents understand what the educational model is and be on board with it. It has been controversial online, so Ohlone admins don't say a lot about it. I've never heard of a case where it played an actual role in who got into the school. I think, as a parent, it's a good idea not to simply think that "choice school" equals "best school" for a particular child. Or parent. Does your child do best in a structured environment? Don't go for Ohlone. Is your child an independent and creative learner? Don't pick Hoover.

And be honest with yourself. What do you want out of school for your child? Are you okay with no assigned homework? Are you willing to commute for years when there's a fine school down the street? And the neighborhood schools in this city are excellent.

One more thing about Ohlone--the best thing you can do is sign up to observe the classes--that will tell you far more than any informational meeting whether the school would be a good fit for you and your child.


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Posted by A Different Ohlone Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Alana,

There is no reason for the school representatives NOT to know that information and to make that information available to you and to the community at large. You're absolutely correct; it undermines the "trust" that Ohlone is supposed to be modeling for PAUSD as a whole.

This "ask no questions, trust us completely" with your child and your money is one of my biggest problems with the previous administration. I had hopes that the new principal would be working to adjust that attitude. And I think he is. But some habits die hard. Or it may be the case that he simply didn't know the answers -- as original Ohlone Par was correct in saying the previous administration shared as little as possible -- and he fell into "Ohlone-speak" as a way to mask his ignorance.

Regarding the essays. It is my hope that they are not used in any way whatsoever. This is a public school. As such, it needs to be open to all of the community for any reason. If "they" are using the essays as a way to "weed out" undesirables, the community needs to know the criteria they are using and the committee who has the responsibility of reading those essays. And people need recourse should they not be admitted. And we need to change the name of the process from lottery (or random selection, I think Dr. Skelly calls it) to application. And treat it as such.

OhlonePar is also correct that the best thing to do is to go and visit lots of classrooms. You'll see there are dozens of ways to teach at Ohlone. And then do the same thing at your neighborhood school. The truth is, it is very hard to go wrong in Palo Alto.


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Posted by "Trust" in PAUSD?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2009 at 7:23 pm

Remember the Everyday Math fiasco when the superintendent touted "trust the teachers" opinions? And now there is an uproar about Everyday Math being a terrible program. When they say "trust" in PAUSD, it's because they know people won't be satisfied with the answer if they told them. And they don't want to hear the opposition.


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Posted by Midtown mom
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 20, 2009 at 9:56 am

I went to the orientation as well. I have exactly the same feeling as people who posted here. I want to aslo add that the event was not widely publicized, I found about it by chance. I did not buy into this whole "trust us" mantra, I want to know the facts, I want to know that they proactively manage issues, such as the selection process, etc. I also felt that they were trying to divert attention of parents from real issues - why would they spend 15 min on a silent slide show with photos of students - these could be made in any school! They also spent too much time talking about generic things that are not Ohlone or MI specific - in every PA school there are art and music classes, and in Ohlone ther are no different, what was the point to speak about it except that it took away time from other more uncomfortable questions that could have been asked. I personally wanted to ask them how they manage performance of teachers, what they think of new math program, etc but there was no time.


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Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 20, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Midtown,

Seriously, go in and observe the classes--that will tell you a lot. Go back and visit the Farm if it's open.

It doesn't sound like much of a presentation--as I said, the new principal's pretty overwhelmed right now, so I suspect that had something to do with the lackluster presentation.

As far as teaching performance goes--it's not perfect, but Ohlone teachers work closely together. The different clusters co-ordinate projects together--it's very hands-on.

As for EDM--one issue there is that the district wants it taught direct instruction. It's a challenge in the mixed-age classes because the different grade levels are on different topics. Ohlone's usual way is to teach the same subject, but on different levels. There is also a preference for differentiated instruction that's not being done yet with EDM. That said, teachers at Ohlone have quite a bit of freedom to supplement and adapt--and will do so.

Ohlone-style education takes a lot of management behind the scenes--so the school is in flux, though there's a lot I like about the new principal. It's been a great fit for us, but I know families for whom it's not the case.

Project-based teaching requires a lot of skill--it can be completely wonderful--but there's a real range as a result.

I will say that as a group, Ohlone students are a happy bunch. They really like going to school.

As far as MI/Ohlone goes--talk to the families in the program--that's really about all you can do there--it's just too much of an experiment for there to be a lot of data yet.


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