'Choice programs' offer range of teaching styles

But most families opt for neighborhood schools

For elementary school parents in Palo Alto, this is a season of deadlines and applications -- and the awaiting of lottery results -- for alternative educational options offered by the school district.

From "basics" to "developmental," from Spanish Immersion to Mandarin Immersion, the Palo Alto school district long has offered a range of programs that diverge from the community's dominant educational style.

A number of choice programs held parent information nights in January, with selection lotteries coming up in March.

Most kindergarten families opt for schools in their own neighborhoods, with ease of walking or bicycling to campus and having classmates who live nearby.

But "choice" programs have developed over the years, including the basics-oriented approach of Hoover School; the "developmental" style at Ohlone School; Spanish Immersion at Escondido School and Mandarin Immersion at Ohlone.

Admission to any oversubscribed choice program is by lottery, with preference given to younger siblings of already-enrolled children.

Lottery odds vary from year to year, depending on the number of sibling applicants and the ebbs and flows in program popularity.

Ohlone Principal Bill Overton said the school traditionally gets 100 to 150 kindergarten applications annually. There are about 90 spots for the coming year, he said in an e-mail.

The 35-year-old Ohlone option is the school district's oldest "choice" program.

Teachers are called by their first names, "since we realize that respect is something that is earned and not given due to a position," the school notes on its website.

"We embrace a philosophy based on the uniqueness of every person, the trust and respect that every person deserves, and the need to develop the whole child," the school states.

"As a result, we spend a proportionate amount of time giving students the tools to navigate life, as well as the curriculum."

At the basics-oriented Hoover School, siblings occupied 40 of the 66 kindergarten spots that were available last fall, according to Principal Susanne Scott. There were 71 lottery applications for the remaining 26 spaces.

For this fall, about half the kindergarten spots are expected to be occupied by siblings and, so far, 59 applications have been received for the 33 remaining spots, Scott said.

"Based on past experience, our secretary is expecting this year's applicant pool to reach 100," she said.

Hoover's lottery is scheduled for March 4.

In December, the school board elevated the district's three-year-old Mandarin Immersion Program from "pilot" to "ongoing" status.

The program, currently serving 88 K-3 children in four classrooms, eventually will go through fifth grade, with no provision for continuation into middle school.

In the kindergarten lottery for the current year, 43 English-speaking children applied for 14 spots and 26 Mandarin-speaking children applied for eight spots.

Lottery odds are rough for the district's popular, 15-year-old Spanish Immersion Program at Escondido School.

Principal Gary Prehn said he's received 25 lottery cards for two spots for students who are proficient in Spanish, with 12 of the 14 spaces for next year taken by siblings.

For English-speaking students, Prehn said there were 67 lottery cards for seven spots, with 23 of 30 available spaces taken by siblings.

At Jordan Middle School, where Spanish Immersion is available through eighth grade, Principal Michael Milliken said, "We haven't had to use a lottery for SI in recent memory."

Other "choice" programs for middle school students are the Connections Program at JLS Middle School and the Direct Instruction option at Terman Middle School, perhaps comparable, respectively, to Ohlone and Hoover.

Hundreds of parents and students turned out recently for an information session on Connections, presented by teachers as well as current and past students in the program.

Students said they liked the close relationships with classmates that develop in the program and the autonomy they are given to choose their own projects.

"Project-based learning is when you take a project based on the interest of the student, and develop it outward to teach what you'd teach," Connections teacher Kim Lohse said.

"You find the student's interest first and figure out how to teach the skills as you go along."

JLS Principal Sharon Ofek said Connections, with space for 54 sixth graders, has attracted "a few more than 100" applications in each of the past two years.

In the more structured program at Terman, there were approximately 75 applications for 28 sixth-grade spots last fall, according to Principal Katherine Baker.

A lottery drawing will be held at the district office on March 31, with parents notified if their student is chosen or if their student has been placed on the waiting list, and if so, what their number is.

Direct Instruction is described on the school district's website as emphasizing "the accountability of individual students, as distinguished from groups of students, for scholastic achievement."

"Teachers provide the majority of instruction in the core academic subjects in the discrete, single-subject areas of English, mathematics, social studies and science, as distinguished from an interdisciplinary approach, where multiple subjects frequently are taught in combination," the website states.

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Like this comment
Posted by Hurray for Neighborhood schools!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 19, 2011 at 3:21 pm

PA Weekly, please give the benefits of our wonderful neighborhood schools some attention when you write these articles. Every year you write about the choice schools and make NO MENTION that an excellent available option is to go to a neighborhood school where children and parents find and build friendships with their neighbors. They will establish a cohort group with whom they will move through secondary school. Our neighborhood school was a wonderful experience. By the way, BOTH of my children were VERY well prepared for the upper grades. They have been very successful academically and socially, thanks to our neighborhood elementary school!

Please include this important option in your reporting.

Like this comment
Posted by Erin
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Feb 19, 2011 at 5:07 pm

@Hurray - no need to worry, the neighborhood schools are not lacking students. They don't need any publicity! All of the schools except for just a few are currently either full or over capacity. All of us who go to our neighborhood schools know how great they are and that's why we chose them. Let the Ohlone and Hoover parents duke it out.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 19, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Unfortunately, neighborhood schools do not mean the nearest school to your home.

I don't want to get into the choice school debate, but I do think it is important for people to realise that getting into their nearest neighborhood school in some areas is not a sure bet. Many schools at the kindergarten level have to resort to lotteries of various types to those who live within their boundaries. For those who do not make it, driving across town to whichever school has space is becoming the norm.

So saying that there are lotteries to get into the choice schools is one thing. Following up by saying that there are also lotteries to get into the neighborhood schools is equally important.

Like this comment
Posted by Solutions are out there
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2011 at 10:17 pm

All of the choice schools used to be neighborhood schools. Try looking at a map of the district with all of the choice schools converted to neighborhood schools. It's VERY interesting.

Also, if we reassigned attendance boundaries more than once every decade (or more), a lot of the overflow problem would go away.

Like this comment
Posted by PAMom
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 21, 2011 at 7:09 am

Thank you for the subject. For the last few days I tried to find any parents blog or forum describing direct instruction program in Terman. Any input on it?

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 21, 2011 at 11:34 am

I'm not sure the automatic acceptance of siblings is a fair practice. The lottery should be true and fair with all kids being equal, not biased like that.

Like this comment
Posted by Know facts
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Feb 21, 2011 at 1:40 pm

If you register on time for kindergarten, you almost always end up at your neighborhood school.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 21, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Kindergarten "overflows" for the past three years (students that did NOT end up in their neighborhood school. This does not include the choice program deliberate transfers.

2010/2011 24 kindergartners
2009/2010 37 kindergartners
2008/2009 40 kindergartners

Siblings and VTP students receive first preference, then other students.

Like this comment
Posted by Barron Park Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 22, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Re: Direct Instruction at Terman

Terman has a new principal so things may have changed or may be changing. The prior principal believed that DI was almost the same as the regular program. She also said that it may require a bit more work. I do not know if the new principal has any new ideas about the program. The old one was just not that excited about it.

My child is in DI at Terman. The idea is supposed to be that students work more independently. They learn from the teacher or book as a class unit, but they do less group projects (and produce more work that is done by one student working alone). This is the philosophy. I think the reality does reflect this, but other non-DI classes can work this way also.

I do not know if the DI kids get more homework or not. This would depend on the teachers that they assign to DI. Sometimes they rotate them.

However, this is what little I know about DI (and please don't anyone get too mad at me for saying these things):

1. A student out of the Terman catchment area but within PAUSD can study at Terman through DI. This makes sense for kids who really don't want to be at the other two schools for whatever reason. For example, a family who has moved from Barron Park to another part of Palo Alto might want their child to attend Terman with his friends from elementary school.

2. By selecting DI you are going to be with the other families that have made that choice. Therefore, if you know lots of people who all agree to pick DI then your child has a good chance of being with kids he/she knows. This is great for kids who want to do homework together. DI is not all that sought after so one really can pick the group in this way. If your child doesn't get in, and his/her friends do, it is really not a big deal. No one will care after "Tiger Camp" which makes everyone feel comfortable during the first few weeks.

3. Some people think that Hoover families tend to pick DI. I don't think that is overwhelmingly the case. My child does not think this is the case either. About four DI kids this year opted in from Barron.

4. The kids don't get why DI exists. They don't mind being in it or not, but they don't get it.

5. Is DI harder? The grading may be a bit harder in DI, but being in DI probably won't help a student to get into advanced math. If anything, the slight increase competition, would decrease these chances. Terman only has a few spots in Algebra 1 for 7th graders, maybe five or less, so one won't get such a spot unless one is really ready to jump through hoops of fire. However, most kids are going to get PreAlegra A in 7th grade no mater what .. that is the Terman "philosophy" as dictated by budget and classroom constraints.

6. Can avoid, or get, certain teachers by being in DI? Unless you have inside information, this is NOT possible. You get what you get at Terman.

7. Is there a blog that discusses DI? Not that I know of. DI, as of now, is not a strong choice community like Ohlone, or SI, or Hoover.

One more thing, if you have a child with special needs who really cannot stand a teacher that is very strict, or one that sometimes will put a kid down who has trouble, then let the principal know. She may not do anything about your placement, but at least you will feel like you did the best that you could for your child.

P.S. My child loves Terman. It is a lot of work. A few of the teachers are not great, but we have at least one that totally exceeds our expectations.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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