Nearly 12,000 students head back to 19 Palo Alto public school campuses Tuesday.
Along with the new backpacks, textbooks, school fashions and gadgets come fresh resolutions to work hard, play well and make the most of the upcoming year.
Several returning high school students shared their thoughts on going back to school with the Palo Alto Weekly.
Kevin Zook: One step at a time
In the fall, Kevin Zook's days begin early -- about 5:45 a.m., when he gets up, grabs a granola bar and packs himself a breakfast, maybe a couple of yogurts or a bagel.
His dad usually gives him a ride to the Gunn High School pool, where he reports for the 6:30 a.m. water polo practice.
When practice ends at 7:30 a.m., he showers in the locker room, downs the packed breakfast and is ready for class by 8 a.m.
"I'm not an early-riser guy," said Zook, an incoming sophomore who said the early practice is probably the toughest thing for him about going back to school.
On the bright side, he said he looks forward to getting back into swing of the academic schedule.
"Getting back to school will give me a chance to see my friends again, have class periods with them, study with them," he said.
"Also, I'm going to be a sophomore, so (school) will be slightly better, I guess."
As a student at Terman Middle School, Zook had heard scary rumors about high school -- about freshmen "getting stuffed in trash cans and things like that."
Arriving at Gunn a year ago, he was pleasantly surprised.
"I was taken aback by how nice everyone was. It was very welcoming," he said.
One skill he's learned so far: time management.
"I had morning and afternoon practices for water polo. You learn that if you have free time you do homework so that on weekends you can relax a little bit more."
Zook first was introduced to water polo by Aileen Delaney, his PE teacher at Terman.
"She said, 'You'd be good at water polo,' and I just kind of took to it," he said.
To stay in shape, he participates in the Stanford Water Polo Club in the winter and swims for the Gunn team in the spring.
Aside from water polo, Zook said he plans to keep up with academic work -- and get as much sleep as possible this year. He hopes he won't need to see any doctors this year -- last year he cracked two ribs and this summer he had surgery for a torn meniscus.
Zook's advice to new Gunn students is to "take things one step at a time.
"Don't try and focus on the big picture of everything -- compartmentalize it," he said.
"Say, 'OK, now I have to do this, and then this.' Just go in baby steps 'til you get it all done."
Band he's currently listening to: Too busy for music right now, but Matchbox 20
Favorite YouTube video/channel: DudePerfect
Tech gadget he can't live without: iPod Touch
Motto he lives by: "You don't have to be faster than the lion; you just have to be faster than the other guy."
Hannah Mernyk: Buckling down
After a "pretty relaxed summer" of visiting relatives in New York, studying for SATs and organizing for a school club, senior Hannah Mernyk is excited to get back to Paly this fall to study the subjects she's chosen.
"I had more choices about my classes this year, and I'm really looking forward to AP Studio Art and AP Psychology," Mernyk said in an interview at her dining room table. The "Fisk Guide to Colleges" and an SAT prep manual were at her side.
"I feel like I could really like psychology if I get to learn more about it."
Mernyk also was excited about taking astronomy but thinks she'll have to drop it after hearing about the tough senior-year workload from students who graduated last year.
"They really underlined to incoming seniors that you need to have at least one prep (free) period, especially first semester when you're doing college applications," she said.
Mernyk has a passion for photography, developed through her Paly coursework. She also will be the co-president of the Youth Community Service/Interact Club, which organizes service projects and works in partnership with the Rotary Club.
Though looking forward to seeing her friends every day, Mernyk said she feels "nervous about the stress load" of senior year.
"I'm hoping I'll be able to do well in school as well as outside of school and the work on college applications," she said.
Asked whether she has any stress-relieving tips, Mernyk's answer echoes many teens': sleep.
"I need my sleep to function properly. I usually try to get my homework done right when I get home so I can usually get to bed by 11."
Mernyk uses Facebook for school as well as for keeping up with friends.
"It's really helpful if you need to talk to three other people you're working with. During the school year I check up on (friends) usually once a day."
But there's no time to play games on Facebook, she said. She does enjoy listening to alternative and, lately, classic rock on her iPod and computer -- rap and hiphop not so much.
As for advice she would offer students new to Paly, Mernyk said:
"For freshmen I would say, 'Enjoy the first year. It's a lot better than middle school and not that stressful.'
"If you're in the higher grades I'd say, 'Try to buckle down and make sure you're keeping up with school, because it's probably only going to get harder.'"
Band she's currently listening to: The Doors
Favorite YouTube video/channel: RemiGaillard
Tech gadget she can't live without: iPod Nano
Motto she lives by: "Keep things in perspective."
Tremaine Kirkman: A welcoming place
Paly student Tremaine Kirkman looks forward to "taking it to the next level" during his upcoming junior year, especially in athletics and extracurricular activities.
Outside of class, his passions are football, track and campus unity -- making sure Paly is a "more inclusive" and welcoming place for students of all backgrounds.
Kirkman is the multi-cultural representative for the school's student government. Two years ago, he launched Paly's Student Equity Action Network (SEAN), which focuses on addressing the well-documented achievement gap between African-American and Hispanic students and their Caucasian and Asian peers.
"Generally, the way Paly works is you have most of the minority students hanging out at the wall right next to the student center," he explained.
"To some extent it's good to hang out with people you know and have grown up with -- but you don't want that to be the only place you hang out.
"The way it is now, if you try to venture off from that area, you're more of an outsider venturing into another group."
Kirkman's goal is to promote unity-building activities -- academic awards named after black literary figures like Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston, for example -- to make groups on campus feel more comfortable with one another.
"If we celebrate other cultures and create a diverse environment where people are more accepting, hopefully the whole 'Wall culture' will just evaporate," he said.
On the academic side, Kirkman said, "I've tried to ease back on the APs because at Paly everybody kind of goes crazy. Spanish 4 AP will be my one AP class this year."
Kirkman particularly enjoys being part of the leadership class offered at Paly for members of student government.
This fall, he most looks forward to the track season and working on the Student Equity Action Network (SEAN).
"I'm really trying to take it to the next level in both aspects," he said.
"In track I'm trying to go far in CCS (Central Coast Section) and, hopefully, state, with the 4-by-1 team. With SEAN I want to do more outreach, get more people involved and make an impact on getting people into colleges."
Kirkman least looks forward to what he calls "the workload."
"Junior year is going to be hard academic-wise. With all the sports and extracurriculars, it's going to be a lot of work to do, but I'm still excited to go for it."
Sports, he said, are a great stress-reliever.
"Even though sports create a lot of stress because of time management, they relieve a lot of stress too. You go out there -- you could've failed a big math test -- and you go out there and tire yourself so you really don't care how stressed you are."
For new students to Paly, Kirkman advises: "Don't get caught up in the overcompetitiveness of Paly. ... If you get caught up in competing with all your classmates and that's just not you, it can overwhelm you and your time at Paly won't be fun.
"If you focus on yourself and do what you can do, it will be a really fun place to spend four years."
For students of color, Kirkman offers the same advice, "but more so."
"It's important to set your goals, and don't let outside influences let you deviate from them either way," he said.
Band he's currently listening to: Jaz-Z
Favorite YouTube video/channel: BoondocksBootleg
Tech gadget he can't live without: iPhone "because it can do everything ... except make a call."
Motto he lives by: "Be the change you wish to see in the world"
Hannah Kim: Time management is key
Time management is an important skill for any high school student, says incoming Paly junior Hannah Kim.
If you do it just right, there should be time to hang out with friends and do well in school.
With a heavy courseload as well as extracurricular commitments, Kim herself is a test case.
Aside from attending two camps -- one for leadership and one for journalism -- Kim has spent much of the summer tucked away in a Stanford University library, studying for the October SATs.
What she most looks forward to about going back to school is seeing friends on a daily basis -- and her junior-year classes.
"I know they're hard, but I think I'm really going to like them," she said in an interview on the Stanford campus during a break from studying.
"I was debating about AP U.S. History, but it's really interesting to me, and I know the teachers are really good."
Kim also will take BC Calculus and Spanish 4 AP. A former co-president of Paly's Youth Community Service Club, she plans to focus her efforts this year on organizing a service-oriented spring-break trip to El Salvador or Guatemala.
Though she's a regular runner, time constraints make her hesitant about joining Paly's cross-country team.
"I'll still run but probably won't be on the team because the meets and practices take a lot of time. I have a lot of classes, and they're big, hard classes."
A stress reliever for Kim is participation in her church, Korean Emmanuel Presbyterian, in San Jose.
"For the whole week it's school and studying, and then on weekends I get to go to church, see my church friends. It's really relaxing for me. It's like a break.
"Running is also really stress-relieving. I like to run in the mornings -- it kind of wakes me up -- around the Stanford campus, Lake Lagunita."
Kim uses Facebook to keep up with friends and listens to music to help her concentrate and block out other noise -- sometimes even the noise of her siblings playing the oboe or clarinet.
Kim's advice to new students is to learn to manage their time.
"It's possible to balance things out if you use your time wisely -- being efficient, finishing all your homework, then hanging out with friends," she said.
"Junior year I will not have as much time to spend with friends, but it's still really important to have that social part of your life."
Band she's currently listening to: Bruno Mars
Favorite YouTube video/channel: LonelyLosers
Tech gadget she can't live without: cell phone
Motto she lives by: "Carpe Diem."
Gabriel Ortiz: Focused on the future
Gabriel "Gabe" Ortiz's high school day begins at 6:50 a.m., when a bus picks him up from his East Palo Alto corner to make the 10-mile trip to Carlmont High School in Belmont.
The youngest of five boys, Ortiz is determined to be the first in his family to make it to college.
His older siblings reflect the high school graduation rate of East Palo Alto youth. Two of them graduated from high school but did not go to college. A third dropped out of high school in his senior year and a fourth did not make it past middle school.
Ortiz envisions a more ambitious educational future for himself, largely because of mentoring he got from older students through the Youth Community Service (YCS) program.
"When I was a freshman, my mentors told me, 'Don't go on the wrong path in high school. Don't go to the people who smoke. Don't go to the people who cut.
"'Go to the people who want to go to class, who want to have an education and graduate.'
"That was pretty hard because there was a lot of peer pressure from so-called friends. I really felt the pressure, but basically I ignored them and stuck to what my mentors told me," Ortiz said.
By his sophomore year, he was hired by YCS to be a mentor himself. This month he begins his junior year.
Ortiz recently took his two newest mentees Tiara and Serena -- incoming freshmen at Carlmont and, like himself, from East Palo Alto -- to serve lunch to the homeless at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.
"They experienced the needy people and heard how they became homeless, and then we came home and had a reflection period.
"What they (Tiara and Serena) said was that now they know to appreciate what they have," he said.
Like his East Palo Alto peers, Ortiz must travel miles to get to school because -- except for two small charter schools -- the community has no public high school. Teens who live in East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park are scattered among four high schools in the Sequoia Union High School District -- Menlo-Atherton, Woodside, Sequoia and Carlmont.
On a typical school morning, Ortiz is at Carlmont by 7:20 -- well ahead of the 8 a.m. bell. He uses the time to eat a school breakfast and print out his assignments from the night before.
His favorite classes by far are those involving computers -- this fall he's in Computer Applications 2.
"I'm excited because we do Photoshop and all the Adobe products, which I love. I hope it will lead to a career."
His toughest class is math. To improve his grades, he is determined to take better advantage this year of a peer-tutoring program offered at Carlmont.
"It really does help me," he said. "This year I really need to go every single day."
Ortiz fell in love with the University of Southern California on a spring-break college tour organized by YCS, and his dream would be to attend the film school there.
Between homework and fooling around, Ortiz said he spends "a lot of time" on his laptop.
"I'm a Facebook and YouTube fanatic. I need to learn to get off Facebook and do my homework."
On the other hand, there's a good use for Facebook in promoting a new organization he is part of, Californians Acting to Reform Education (CARE). Ortiz learned about CARE earlier this summer when he attended the California Youth Summit.
Ortiz's advice to new students at his school is this: "Don't go down the wrong path. ... Don't do drugs, because I have friends that did that and they dropped out. I know they're going to struggle now because they won't have a high school diploma.
"Work hard and explore the world, and do the career that you really like."
Band he's currently listening to: Eyes Set To Kill
Favorite YouTube video/channel: ShaneDawsonTV
Tech gadget he can't live without: iPod Touch
Motto he lives by: "Knowledge is power."
Allie Pedersen: A whole new perspective
Leaving Palo Alto for a semester abroad last year gave Gunn High School student Allie Pedersen an entirely new perspective on her own country.
"It was really eye-opening," said Pedersen, who spent the fall semester of her junior year attending a public high school in Poitiers, France. She lived with a French family and attended school through the AFS program.
"I consider Palo Alto to be pretty open to ideas but when you move somewhere else it's a completely different experience.
"They love Barack Obama. They all thought we were super-modern, and they wanted to learn English and live in America."
Pedersen is preparing to buckle down for her final year at Gunn.
"I'm really excited about seeing my friends again and -- I'm going to sound like a complete nerd -- I'm excited about my classes because I'm really interested in them."
In particular she looks forward to AP U.S. History and Psychology. On the challenging side, she thinks, will be AB Calculus, which friends have told her is hard.
Pedersen spent five weeks of her summer volunteering in the summer program at the East Palo Alto branch of the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula. She has signed up to volunteer this fall as a mentor and companion to a younger girl through the Big Sisters program.
The toughest thing about going back to school, she said, is "having to start thinking about colleges and my academic record and getting all stressed out about that. You literally have no control over it -- a lot of it is like a raffle, depending on what kinds of students they (college administrators) want."
She keeps her stress level under control by jogging around her neighborhood and by remembering to seek out help when she needs it.
"When you don't understand something, just ask for help. Most of the time I ask my friends, sometimes I ask my sister (in college now), or e-mail the teacher. And at Gunn we also have the AC (Academic Center)."
Pedersen is attracted to the idea of an international career, either in business, the non-profit world or possibly the United Nations.
Her advice to a new Gunn student: "Take full advantage of every opportunity.
"Join a bunch of clubs, do sports and take the challenging class.
"You are given so many opportunities, and you only live high school once."
Band she's currently listening to: Katy Perry
Favorite YouTube video/channel: No favorite. "Sometimes when I'm procrastinating or just bored I watch random music videos."
Tech gadget she can't live without: Cell phone -- "I'd get lost."
Motto she lives by: "Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, amateurs built the ark. Professionals built the Titanic."