Feature story: All the world in a single classroom

One-third of Palo Alto students speak a language at home that's not English

The teens come from every corner of the globe and land in Rick Jacobs' classroom at Gunn High School.

One said he was a neighbor of Steve Jobs. Others go home to the trailer park off El Camino Real.

In Jacobs' class, they bond over their status as newcomers and the fact that they're all "English language learners."

Their families were attracted to Palo Alto by its reputation for great schools -- a reputation that's becoming global.

Fully one-third of Palo Alto's 12,300 public school students report that they speak a language other than English at home.

Mandarin is predominant, followed by Spanish, Korean, Hebrew, Russian and Japanese. Many of those students are fully bilingual in English as well.

But a subset -- about 1,400 -- are considered "English language learners," a designation based on results of a language test they take upon arrival here. So-called "E.L.L. students" are singled out for special instruction until their English is deemed adequate for them to participate in regular classrooms.

Among English-language learners, the top home language is Spanish, followed closely by Mandarin. Further down on the list are Korean, Japanese, Russian and Hebrew.

In elementary grades, English learners stay in mainstream classrooms and receive special in-class assistance from tutors who speak their primary language.

But English learners who arrive in middle school or high school are placed in special classrooms -- such as that of Mr. Jacobs -- for English and social studies. In that setting, a full range of "primary-language tutors" are available to help them in any subject.


In the shadow of Stanford University, schools in Palo Alto historically have drawn a fair share of international students.

More recently, the rise of Silicon Valley -- and the Internet -- have magnified the attraction.

Close to half of Santa Clara County residents -- 49.6 percent -- reported that they "sometimes or always spoke a language other than English at home," according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The Los Altos School District says 30.4 percent of its current students report a primary home language other than English.

The percentages appear to be up, at least slightly, from a decade ago. The Palo Alto school district's "Home Language Survey" of 2000-01 indicated that about 25.6 percent of students spoke a primary language other than English. Like today, Mandarin was predominant, followed by Spanish, Korean, Russian, Japanese and Hebrew.

Students land in Palo Alto because of a parent's job with a technology company or appointment at Stanford.

Others -- with means -- have searched around and chosen to move to Palo Alto because of its reputation.

"They find out about Gunn through education consultants -- especially in Asia -- that put their finger on Palo Alto," Jacobs said.

"We also get special-needs students because parents identify Palo Alto as a district that takes really good care of students with special needs.

"People are really good at using Google these days."

One student from Asia reported that his family first moved to New York but didn't like the weather.

"Then we searched and we asked friends. They all said Palo Alto is the best place -- near Stanford -- so we decided to live here," the student said.

Another student, injured by a truck while playing street soccer in Mexico, arrived here in a wheelchair some years ago and graduated from the program, Jacobs said.

"If we're so happy to have all these wealthy Asians and Europeans coming, then why shouldn't we be happy to have the lower-income people who are washing dishes and cleaning houses?" he said.

"Americans are irritated and bothered by it. They think they're automatically illegals, but they aren't, necessarily. Why shouldn't they have the same opportunities as the rich folks that have come in and bought a $5 million home in Palo Alto?"

Some students, who were born here but whose parents have moved to Mexico, return here for schooling and live with relatives.

But Jacobs, who has taught English as a Second Language (ESL) for nearly 40 years, 20 of them at Gunn, said, "Every ESL program has some illegals."

Students sometimes will share that information once they've developed a trust with teachers that they won't be turned in, he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 invalidated a Texas law denying education funding for illegal immigrant children and also struck down a school district's attempt to charge tuition for undocumented students.

The National School Boards Association relied on that case in a 2009 publication -- sent to every school district in the United States -- summarizing legal issues surrounding the education of undocumented students. In general, the publication favors providing those students an education.

It advises school districts not to question students about their immigration status and not to report such information, if known, to federal immigration authorities.

The Palo Alto school district has no official policy on undocumented students but follows a circular from the U.S. Department of Education advising that districts may not adopt policies that discourage students from participation.


Though most teen English learners in Palo Alto live with their families, some are living largely on their own in apartments that have been rented by their parents.

"Some kids live with very little supervision, and other kids live with parents who are controlling every minute of the day," Jacobs said.

In all cases, "I encourage parents to let them function as American students -- let them go to school dances, football games, baseball games, homecoming activities, join clubs," he said.

"You want to expose them to as much as you can."

Each year a handful of kids turn up at Gunn with no English at all and are placed with Jacobs' assistant, Kira Levina, for small-group instruction.

This year, Levina is working with a student from Spain and another from China.

"We start with the alphabet," Levina said.

"When they come they sometimes miss their country, and their parents in some situations, so it's sometimes very emotional for them," she said.

"This is when it's challenging to teach them and to make them feel comfortable. It's very important for them to feel comfortable because we want them to be happy. That helps them learn English better."

For students who aren't rank beginners, Jacobs said he still starts with something basic: Gunn's student handbook.

He explains to them how to find a computer at school, how to sign up for a sports team or what to do if they feel sick in class.

They talk about the American concepts that may seem new and strange -- sexual harassment and bullying.

They learn about grade point averages, SAT tests and how to get help from Gunn's College and Career Center.

"They're all here for the educational opportunities," Jacobs said.

"Either there's very little opportunity where they came from, or the competition is so rough that their parents brought them here -- that would be China, Japan and Korea. They don't have a community college system for kids that don't have top GPAs."

In other home countries, money is a barrier.


For students with hustle, the United States still looks very much like a land of opportunity.

Moscow-born Henry Matevosyan, who speaks Ukrainian, Russian and Armenian, came here in 2009 after his mother, a software developer, won a green-card lottery.

In Russia, Matevosyan said, there are cost barriers that prevent students like him from pursuing their fields of choice.

"Here, you can get wherever you want -- you just have to study for it," he said.

Besides his coursework at Gunn, Matevosyan works 20 hours a week at McDonald's, making burgers, staffing the register, sometimes even helping with the computers.

"I'm going to be next month manager," he said with pride.

The Gunn junior -- who also works at computer programming on the side -- aspires to follow in his older brother's footsteps by attending Foothill College and then transferring to the University of California.

He likes biology and math, soccer and tennis, and hopes to pursue a career in computers.

"I played last year tennis and soccer for Gunn, but this year I don't have time -- I'm very busy," he said.

Related stories:

At JLS Middle School, a global crossroads

In their own words


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 27, 2012 at 8:37 am

This is abhorrent. If the school teachers know that kids are living alone in a rented apartment while the parents are in Asia, shouldn't this be reported to Child Protection Services?

The fact that this article mentions that the school is promoted on Asian websites and the school authorities are not only hiding the fact from Child Protection is not something we should be proud of. And when this happens, it is up to the schools to teach them English?

I know we aren't allowed to ask about their immigration status, but surely we should not be abling and abetting children living on their own without adults.

Like this comment
Posted by recently retired teacher
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 27, 2012 at 9:15 am

"In elementary grades, English learners stay in mainstream classrooms and receive special in-class assistance from tutors who speak their primary language." Well, no they don't. Ten years ago they did. Did this information come to the reporter from the district?

Only the language groups (usually two) with the highest number of students in the district get tutors, then for 30-45 min., twice a week, and even then not always, dependent on financial constraints.

This year, the district has moved to a new model where students who used to work in small groups with an ELL teacher, a few days a week for an hour each time, no longer get this instruction. Some classes have a teacher who comes into the classroom, usually 23-26 students, to try to assist with the instruction for the ELL students (sometimes 5 or more students) during lessons. This is woefully inadequate for students above 2nd grade, who must have the language fundamentals in the topic being taught to benefit from the lesson. And students arriving in the upper grades with little or no English are in some cases getting no assistance since the pull-out class time has been eliminated, again probably due to financial constraints in the district. Teachers and the union reps have spoken up about this, but no actions have been forthcoming. Morale is plummeting among the district elementary teachers as they try to adapt an ever increasing curriculum load to this group of unsupported students.

Doesn't seem like the right approach for the "Lighthouse District".

Like this comment
Posted by overcrowding?
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 27, 2012 at 9:20 am

"... and land in Rick Jacobs' classroom at Gunn High School. One said he was a neighbor of Steve Jobs. "

How did the student end up in Gunn? Steve Job's house is in the Paly boundary: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Chris Kenrick, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 27, 2012 at 9:34 am

To Overcrowding:

Gunn is the site of the English Language Learners program for all high school students in PAUSD. Even kids living in the Paly attendance area, if they're English learners, are assigned to Gunn.

For middle school students, the English Language Learners program for years has been at JLS. This year, an ELL program for sixth-graders also is offered at Terman.

Like this comment
Posted by overcrowding?
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 27, 2012 at 11:08 am

Thanks, Chris.

Like this comment
Posted by microcosm of the future
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 27, 2012 at 11:38 am

Wow. This started out as a nice article describing Palo Alto and the surrounding area as a uniquely diverse community, but quickly devolved into raising issues around immigration status and parents from Asia treating PAUSD as a cheap boarding school.

I'm glad that my children are being educated in a globally diverse community (although one w/little obvious economic diversity), but special resources for a growing segment of the school population does come with a high price tag. No easy answers. If our area is a microcosm of the future, not only will education costs continue to rise, but my American born caucasion children will need to work a lot harder than I did to get into university, no?

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 27, 2012 at 11:46 am

"Here, you can get wherever you want -- you just have to study for it."

Wow. Too bad there are so many people who haven't figured that out.

Like this comment
Posted by Just a question
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 27, 2012 at 11:52 am

Does anyone know how students without language skills are treated in other countries? Say if one were to move to Germany with a limited German language skill do the public schools support that student with free tutorial? I have heard that many do not but I do not know the facts.

Like this comment
Posted by answer
a resident of Southgate
on Jan 27, 2012 at 11:56 am

There are so many international schools in a foreign country, they teach foreign students english as well as foreign language, so after a while, you can enroll kids into local schools where they only use their own language.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 27, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Doesn't anyone else think it wrong that children in our schools are living in apartments on their own without adult supervision?

I thought that this was a crime?

Nothing about being anti global diversity, just want to see children properly cared for.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 27, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Diversity aside - it is a crime for kids to be living on their own and they ought to be turned over to social services

Did you know that when an elementary child arrives who speaks only Spanish the district provides support, but if they arrive speaking a language other than Spanish then the principal has to use discretionary funds to cover and aide - taking away from other programs? Shame on the District!!!! Why do the elementary schools take the constant hit?

Like this comment
Posted by I teach now
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 27, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Recently retired teacher,

Your post reads like a lot of whining, especially the end ("Morale is plummeting"). Since when did "union reps" ever care about kids? Please publish the union reps' concrete plan to increase my child's language abilities without pulling her out of the classroom.

Like this comment
Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 27, 2012 at 10:20 pm

Moi je suis ne a Palo Alto et meme chez nous on parle une autre langue!

Like this comment
Posted by Recently retired teacher
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 28, 2012 at 8:07 am

@I Teach Now: if you consider the "morale" comment whining, remove it and read the rest of the comment. It is all about the situation the student is put into by the lack of language support in the classroom. Pretty miserable for the child.

And if you think the morale of the teacher in a classroom has no effect on the daily instructional environment, you have had a very sheltered teaching career. Inspite of the propaganda, the union reps, who are all teachers, share the same driving concern we all have, the best educational experience for all children.

Like this comment
Posted by Ned
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 28, 2012 at 8:07 am

So a free, quality, public education in Palo Alto is being gamed by a bunch of foreigners? Hilarious.

Like this comment
Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 28, 2012 at 10:20 am

I will pay $1000 each to the first ten people who refer to me students who are living *either* alone in apartments/housing in Palo Alto and whose parents do not live in Palo Alto (upon verification), or who are living with friends or relatives (upon verification). Regardless of what other city, other county, other state or other country the student is from, there needs to be *zero* tolerance for sponging off of us citizens of Palo Alto.

I repeat, I'll pay $1000 to each person who brings to my attention students living on their own in Palo Alto housing in order to illegally profit from Palo Alto's great educational system. I will then refer those students' names to PAUSD's Residency Officer and we will see what becomes of it.

Like this comment
Posted by PALY parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 28, 2012 at 12:53 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

The United States is incredibly welcoming of legal immigrants and this should be acknowledged and we are all grateful for this; some of us come from countries (or are 1st gen.) other than those featured so often here in local pages, too. However, the current U.S. administration's decision to not enforce existing immigration laws and borders is unsupportable and potentially dangerous to all of us legally here. If you are a citizen and vote, please take this into consideration when you vote for President. Thank you.

Like this comment
Posted by Disregarding Facts
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 28, 2012 at 2:37 pm

"However, the current U.S. administration's decision to not enforce existing immigration laws and borders is unsupportable and potentially dangerous to all of us legally here."

You do realize that the current administration has deported more illegal immigrants than the previous one, right?

Like this comment
Posted by Just a question
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Hey Chris,

Have you looked at the apartments near the schools that never have lights on? Do a reverse look-up and I bet you will find names of families that actually live in Fremont, Woodside, etc.
This happens all the time and landlords love it, no wear on the apartments.

Like this comment
Posted by Cubberley
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2012 at 7:27 am

Do you really think this is new? I went to school in the mid-70's in Palo Alto. I was in a band with a Gunn student who was our pianist. He was from Hong Kong and spoke great english, but had no folks there with him - just a man servant. The internet changes perception - especially in Palo Alto. My college roomie got her MA from Stanford and ended up adopting a boat-person teen at a local hs just outside PA where she taught in the 1980's - he was here alone too but without a home. I'm glad we have this place to read about today but don't be naieve about yesterday, or the contributions of any graduate of PAUSD back TO Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Maya
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 29, 2012 at 9:01 am

This is a very poorly researched article and it is completely irresponsible to throw half truths at the public. Students in elementary school, who do not speak English get 18 hours TOTAL for the entire school year upon arriving only, where they receive assistance from a tutor that speaks their language. 18 hours, that is all the district will pay for. I use the term pay loosely. The position is more akin to a volunteer position! District support is for only 5 languages. If a student arrives speaking German or French or Swedish, then you can forget it. The errors and misstatements in this article go on. Extremely disappointed in the publication of this article.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2012 at 9:51 am

I actually think it is wrong of the parents to expect the school district to teach a child English if they arrive here in middle or high schools without English.

I feel sure that if I decided to move to a country that didn't use English as their first language for educational purposes, that I would pay for tutoring in that language or find an English speaking school. I certainly wouldn't expect them to teach my children English. If we are talking elementary age, then perhaps I would expect some language coaching from the schools, but I still think I would be paying for outside language lessons.

I really am against the schools teaching English to non-English speakers expect perhaps in the very early grades or in afterschool ELL classes for a small charge.

Once a child knows the basics of English, the more they read and interact with other English speakers, the better their language skills become. Getting them to read good literature is key, not language which has too many colloqialisms, Narnia books, Anne of Green Gables, etc.

Like this comment
Posted by I teach now
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 30, 2012 at 7:35 am

Recently retired teacher,

Your second post is just as dreary. I agree that your misery does affect the students.

Like this comment
Posted by jb
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 23, 2012 at 9:32 pm

My chinese friend tells me there is a lot of immigration fraud. To get a visa from China you need to employ a number of American citizens in a business. These immigration lawyers have businesses which their clients can pretend to buy into, while many others share the same business interests. Its fraud. The government is too small and busy to do anything about it. That is who your children are at school with. And who do anything to increase grades and nothing to increase deep learning.

Like this comment
Posted by jb
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 23, 2012 at 9:37 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Feb 24, 2012 at 6:21 am

I have to crack up every time I hear how "racist" palo alto schools are...when my kid was in 3rd grade, I counted how many of his classmates weren't "white" and it was half the class. Half the class spoke non-English at home, though it was a Venn Diagram, ie not all the non-whites spoke non-English at home.

Like this comment
Posted by David Garcia
a resident of another community
on Jun 30, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Mr. Jacobs was my ESL teacher back in 83. One of the best teachers ever.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Old Palo Alto

on Jun 5, 2017 at 11:52 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

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

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