Balancing achievement with 'assets'
Palo Alto schools seek more 'supportive environments' in 2011
The year began with a triumphant parade for youth, with thousands cheering as Palo Alto High School's state championship girls' volleyball team and boys' football team rolled down University in cable cars Jan. 8.
"This is what Palo Alto is all about," Mayor Sid Espinosa told the festive crowds who turned out on a Saturday evening to support the teams. "Congratulations. You have made this city proud as state champions."
But in a year that continued to witness the heights of achievement by a broad range of students, there came a deepening community awareness that the high-flying youth environment of Palo Alto — if not tempered — comes at a cost to many children and teens.
Surrounded by so many stellar classmates, otherwise excellent students can feel "like amateur athletes in an Olympic Village," school board member Barbara Klausner noted late in the year.
Even as youth across the city continued to rack up major athletic, artistic and academic honors, school leaders, parents, youth workers and religious groups in 2011 advanced a variety of measures to foster more purposefully "supportive school environments" and embraced the so-called Developmental Assets, a framework to address the emotional wellness of the city's youth.
"We walk a tightrope in this town," school board President Melissa Baten Caswell said in November.
"These are conversations our community needs to have and be cognizant that it's a double-edged sword in our schools. If we can offer our students opportunities and support — with resilience and strong mental health — then we're staying on the right side of it."
Released in the spring, results of a Developmental Assets survey of 4,000 kids — nearly all Gunn and Palo Alto high school students as well as seventh-graders and fifth-graders — presented a mixed picture of youth well-being.
While kids possess many strengths, or "assets," the majority said they do not feel valued by their community. And the older they get, the less valued they feel.
Ironically, for an intellectual community that insists on research-based policies, the survey results pointed to deceptively simple cures — intuitive to most people, yet sometimes overlooked in the crush of life in a high-achieving town: Know the names of the kids on your block. Talk to them and get to know them. Make eye contact with — maybe even smile at — young people on University Avenue. Take time to care about the opinions of kids — yours and others'.
School and community leaders took steps in 2011 to promote Developmental Assets throughout their programs.
Groups passed out a colorful wall poster titled "150 Ways to Show Kids You Care," with suggestions like "Notice them. Smile a lot. Acknowledge them. Learn their names."
Paly Principal Phil Winston added a standing tagline to his emails: "Take advantage of every moment to build assets in every child."
"'ABC' — academics, belonging and creating wellness — is a guide for everything we do here," JLS Middle School Principal Sharon Ofek said in a discussion with middle school principals on their efforts to combat bullying.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he wanted policies that "weave together" academic excellence and social-emotional support for students so that "when you're talking about one of those things, people don't think you're choosing."
With the goal of creating more "supportive school environments," the board of education voted to take a closer look at homework policies and counseling programs as part of the school district's "focus goals" for 2011-12. Reports from both of those initiatives are expected in 2012.
In a more controversial move, the board narrowly voted to reform the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic calendars, shifting the start of school to a date earlier in August and finishing the first semester before the December break. The calendar change has been popular in surrounding communities and independent schools as a means to reduce stress by giving students a work-free winter break. But many in Palo Alto strenuously objected to the change, insisting that it will not work here.
A group of parents organized under the name We Can Do Better Palo Alto emerged in the spring of 2011 to argue that Palo Alto had been lackadaisical about addressing "the core issue of academic stress." A handful of parent members of that group continue as a regular presence at Board of Education meetings to hold the district's feet to the fire on stress-related topics.
Toward year's end, We Can Do Better aligned itself with the Parent Network for Students of Color and the Student Equity Action Network on issues of academic laning and graduation requirements.
The groups have asked the district to ensure that basic, non-honors lanes in math and science are available at both high schools, with standards that meet but do not exceed state standards.
They also have called for Palo Alto to raise its graduation requirements to align with entrance requirements for the University of California and California State University, the so-called "A-G requirements." That move is seen as a way to boost expectations, particularly for African-American and Hispanic students who currently have a low rate of completing the four-year college-prep curriculum.
Amidst it all, the school district steadily continued on a building boom to modernize its 17 campuses and make way for the increasing rate of enrollment growth Palo Alto has recently witnessed, particularly in the elementary grades in the southern part of town.
In mid-December, students and teachers at Ohlone Elementary School dedicated a new, two-story classroom building — the first of many such structures planned to be part of this construction wave.
Major construction, also involving two-story classroom buildings, is underway at both Gunn and Paly. Other campuses nearing groundbreaking for major building include Fairmeadow Elementary School, JLS and Jordan middle schools.
And on Nov. 1, the Palo Alto school district closed on its first land acquisition in a half century, purchasing 2.6 acres at 525 San Antonio Road for $8.5 million.
School officials have yet to decide what will be built there. The property is contiguous with Palo Alto's Greendell School campus, which abuts the 35-acre Cubberley Community Center site.
But the acquisition was viewed as a turning point — and opportunity — for the future.
"It's been a long time since the Palo Alto Unified School District moved forward on acquiring any property, so this is big news," Caswell said.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.