JLS eighth-graders sum up accomplishments in 'exit interviews'

Students practice eye contact and present their accomplishments

Wearing their best dress-up clothes, eighth-graders at JLS Middle School practiced firm handshakes and conversation skills this week as they presented "portfolios" of their most treasured schoolwork to adult interview panels.

"Exit interviews," a nine-year-old tradition at JLS in Palo Alto, draws on outside volunteers to listen and probe as each student spends 15 minutes reflecting on his or her three years in middle school, ups and downs as a student and hopes for the future.

The interviews were held in the gym, where about 12 pairs of interviewers sat at tables that were spaced out to facilitate private conversations.

Despite the "monstrous" logistics of arranging individual, face-to-face interviews for 342 students, Principal Sharon Ofek said the effort pays off.

"The students take it seriously," she said. "They look so good, and they take pride in how they present themselves. It's a marvelous way for them to grow some self-confidence, to stop and pause for a minute and realize that, 'I'm only 13 or 14, but look at what I've done.'"

Kids begin amassing work for their portfolios during their first year in middle school, sixth grade, choosing everything from poems they've written to math tests, social studies projects or choir CDs.

On their interview day, some bring in hand-made pencils and pens -- even hand-built clocks -- constructed in the school's Industrial Technology class. Also hauled in during Wednesday's interviews were several small electric vehicles built by student teams in an after-school club.

"The idea is to select work they're proud of," English teacher Jennifer Coluzzi said. "Not just the things they got the best grade on, but something that helps them showcase their growth as a learner."

On Wednesday, an eighth-grader named Lisa carried a first-place trophy from karate and discussed her passions for singing, theater and teaching children. She showed photos of some of her "most lasting memories" of JLS -- singing at Disneyland with the school choir on two different trips.

Lisa said she'd like to improve in "social studies, because I'm really bad at memorizing names and dates. It just doesn't stick with me, and I want to have better study habits. Also math ..."

But asked what she considers her positive characteristics, she said, "I like speaking my mind and standing up for people who can't. I've been bullied before and I don't want that to happen to others, and the important thing for me is to be there for other people when they can't for themselves.

"When a person doesn't support me as a friend, is fake or a bully, I can't deal with them, and since I need (friends) in my life I have to be that person too."

Students said they were nervous going into their sessions, despite having gotten a preview of the questions and spending class time practicing everything from proper handshakes to presentation skills.

"At first I was nervous but then I realized they don't bite," wrote one student after an exit interview Tuesday.

Wrote another: "At first I was very nervous, but over time I relaxed a bit. It went faster than I thought it would."

At the end of her interview Wednesday, Lisa said: "I like having all my accomplishments in a folder. It's so surreal to look at what I've done, and I can do so much more in high school."

Another student wrote: "It was really exciting to talk about myself to some accomplished people. I felt very grown up, and it wasn't stressful at all. Overall, it was a really great experience."

Interviewers cannot be current JLS parents but generally are members of the community -- in many cases friends or family of JLS teachers or school district office administrators who pitch in. Among Wednesday's interviewers were school district nurse Linda Lenoir, former Palo Alto school board member Ray Bacchetti, Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers and John Saukitoga, a 2006 graduate of JLS who now works for the nonprofit Youth Community Service.

Interviewer Jim Messano, a retired Lockheed-Martin engineer and father of a JLS science teacher, was interviewing for the second day in a row.

"All in all, I thought for the most part (the students) were very good," Messano said. "In the evaluation, they want us to be very upbeat."

When offering advice to students, he said he tried to make it encouraging.

"I tried to reinforce the fact that whatever they don't know now, there will be other opportunities in the future," he said. "As a retiree, if I weren't doing this I'd be working in the garden or something."

Ofek, who has been principal at JLS since 2009, said the practice of exit interviews began under the leadership of Joseph Di Salvo, who was principal from 2001 until his abrupt resignation in 2005 due to conflict with staff. He is now an elected member of the Santa Clara County Board of Education, representing San Jose.

Reached Wednesday, Di Salvo said he first tried exit interviews at Thomas Russell Middle School in Milpitas, where he was principal for six years before coming to JLS. The California Department of Education in the 1990s was promoting the idea of "student-led interviews," which he implemented at Russell and brought to JLS, Di Salvo said.

"I'm so glad this program is still alive today," he said. "It was very successful when I was there, and every year I get an invitation to participate but I don't."

Ofek credited JLS teachers for laying the groundwork for the student portfolios. The program has been tweaked over the years based on suggestions from teachers, interviewers and students.

"Maybe the kids don't realize it but the staff certainly does -- this all begins on day one of sixth grade," she said. "Every department prepares, and it all leads up to this one culminating event.

"We're trying to give the students a positive experience about two things: being interviewed and being reflective about their growth over time at JLS. We really believe in this."

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Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Tears
a resident of JLS Middle School
on May 16, 2014 at 10:04 am

OMG...only in Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Reed
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 16, 2014 at 10:47 am

Whatever happened to letting kids be kids? So sad.

Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of another community
on May 16, 2014 at 11:05 am

It's ironic how this is published in tandem with Web Link

As a somewhat recent graduate of Paly returning to Palo Alto, there are definitely some experiences I look back on and question what the "powers that be" were thinking.

I think one of the most valuable things I learned from leaving Palo Alto was that the people in charge of our school districts (and this can probably be projected to other aspects of this city) really have no more of an idea what they're doing than anybody else. Students need to realize that what the adults are spouting isn't canon - luckily, I think that the intelligence here is high enough that they'll be able to come to that conclusion just as I did.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 16, 2014 at 11:40 am

I think evaluating your work and presenting it to others is very useful. Thinking about what you're most proud of helps you focus on what direction you want to go. This is about self-reflection, not about packaging yourself - at least, that was my take from the article.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 16, 2014 at 11:55 am

Been thinking about this for a few minutes. Still can’t decide if I think this is overkill, or not. Certainly sewing the seeds of personal accountability, lifelong learning, and establishing meaningful metric for our lives is given a push by this sort of exercise. However, I think that some sort of orals for Seniors might be more meaningful. It’s helpful to remind kids that they are going to soon be adults—but for sure, at that age, they are still just kids.

Like this comment
Posted by former JLS parent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on May 16, 2014 at 12:03 pm

For a few years I was a community member on the interview panels & I loved being part of it. The kids were great & I think they benefited from the experience. I'd do it again if asked.

Like this comment
Posted by Katherine
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 16, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Wow, is this really necessary? They are 8th graders for goodness sakes! I am so glad my children are in college now and did not have to go through this. There is enough for our students to do, especially at this time of year, without throwing exit interviews into the mix. Stop the madness!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 16, 2014 at 1:39 pm

Wow, I love this idea. It helps encourage reflection, and build confidence, while also introducing skills around presentation and interviews that will be a huge help during the high school years. So impressed with PAUSD.

Like this comment
Posted by Penny
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 16, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Both of my kids went through it. It required them to take time to look through what they had done and accomplished. They're bright kids, but not Rhodes Scholars. They were interested to look at their writing from 6th grade to 8th grade. They had made big strides in their cognitive abilities and skills. That was evident in their work, and it gave them some pride and perspective. They also got to talk with a grown-up and reflect on what their interests are and what they might like to try next in high school.

The process was supportive and promoted self-reflection. It taught them a little about how to organize an informal presentation. They also learned some etiquette for interviews.

All in all, it was a good experience...very worthwhile. I thank staff for the work they put into supporting it.

Like this comment
Posted by JLS dad
a resident of JLS Middle School
on May 16, 2014 at 5:42 pm

My son just did his "exit interview"this week, and was really excited by it. I think he really enjoyed looking back on the three years of middle school and reinforcing how much he's grown and learned.

He also appreciated learning how to tie a tie -there's some things a dad is still good for :)

It helps him (and me, frankly) ease into the transition to the added responsibilities he's going to get next fall in high school.

I didn't realize how much of an effort this takes behind the scenes, I'm so thankful for this JLS tradition.

Like this comment
Posted by Renu
a resident of Green Acres
on May 16, 2014 at 5:59 pm

It is a great idea to compile the accomplishments at the school and reflect on them! However, the term "Exit Interview" should be changed to make it more positive.

I am sure the feedback from the students and the parents has been positive so please implement in the other two middle schools aswell. Also, it would be a good idea to do this in the high schools.

Like this comment
Posted by former JLS Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 16, 2014 at 6:00 pm

My kids did this. The experience varied from low grade stress to nonchalance. All were pleased to get it over and done with as they had been given the impression that it was extremely important. Looking back on it they remember it with more amusement as a middle school memory than anything worthwhile. My suspicion is that it probably helped them more than they would admit.

Wish they were taught in high school how to dress and prepare for an important interview as this is another life skill that seems to be ignored.

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 16, 2014 at 6:33 pm

@former JLS parent - why do you want to rely on the schools to teach the kids life skills? I thought that is what parents are for. If you read all the comments on this forum on bullying, etc., essentially the parents have no role in raising their kids.

Like this comment
Posted by Former JLS Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 16, 2014 at 7:32 pm

PAHS Parent

Good Point. I was thinking in terms of the living skills class which is a graduation requirement and seems to consist mainly of drug and sex information. According to my kids, this class is a complete waste of time and they learn nothing to help them in life. (I would say that the most useful component which I am not able to teach them is the cpr training. I am quoting the kids with the complete waste of time comment.)

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 16, 2014 at 7:44 pm

Of course the kids say Living Skills are a complete waste of time because they don't comprehend that they will actually need to use these skills someday and not rely upon their parents. My kid said the same thing. It was time for her to grow up.

Like this comment
Posted by Cathleen
a resident of Community Center
on May 17, 2014 at 11:31 am

Having participated in this process for three years, I think every middle school should do this. The students are amazingly reflective and honest while doing the interview and some even ask for advice on how to handle their years in high school. It is also a chance for the students to interact with someone they don't know and do it in a safe and supportive environment. Every interviewer I have talked to has come away with a positive feeling. I hope that his continues and maybe is adopted at the other two middle schools in Palo Alto. I would be willing to be an interviewer at each one. The best part is that every student is given the same courtesies and attention no matter what his/her accomplishments are. It is about personal growth; not who has done the most.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent of 7th grader
a resident of JLS Middle School
on May 17, 2014 at 11:51 am

I have to say I have mixed feelings reading about this, probably because I have a JLS child who has never in all his life even from infancy felt the need to jump through hoops for others - to the point of resisting it even if it makes people think he doesn't know or can't do something - and whose portfolio I just saw at Open House night, and it's a shambles devoid of virtually any accomplishment from the past few years. His handwriting looks like a 3rd grader's (and not the best 3rd grader's either), and written about at a 3rd grade level (you got it, not the best 3rd grader's either). They never taught the kids cursive in this district so it's a 3rd grader's misspelled PRINTING. I could tell most of the things in there he put in because someone told him to. The one he put in recently of his own accord is so poorly written up, you would have no idea of the extent of the accomplishment if you didn't already know it. (I don't think the school knows it either.)

I was told they work more with the kids in 8th grade to get them to put together their portfolios, and for a kid like mine that would be a good thing, to learn a little bit of that kind of self-promotion. But I can't see them putting the kind of time into him that he would need to have something reflecting what he's done even in the last few years — and even just overcoming the sad state his portfolio is in now. (And given that they can't put the kind of time into him to bring his school work such as composition up to the level of what he's willing to write at home on his own, for example.) I do have to editorialize a bit that this seems to be pretty typical for a segment of boys who are very similar.

It really seems like the 5th grade teacher got a much better book out of the kids when she billed it as a MEMORY book for them, and worked to make sure they all had the basics in there.

(Furthermore, Linda Lenoir's presence would be a painful reminder for my own kid, her presence smacks of the interviews being used for a little bit of district politicking, with all due respect, they should be a little more aware of things like that so that if not a positive experience for everyone, it's at least not a traumatizing one.)

Like this comment
Posted by MidtownMom
a resident of Midtown
on May 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

My kid experienced this process at JLS .. there was so much excitement. The whole thing about being dressed "formal" was amusing to watch as a parent. The discussions that the kids were having amongst themselves about what constituted a formal dress were very interesting… the unique personality of each individual kid was reflected in what s/he chose to wear as a 'formal'.

The entire process caused the students to think / reflect. I understand that there will be group of kids who won't care about this process and many of them have very good reasons to justify (vs just being lazy and not wanting to do the work that comes along with this )

I would so recommend this process for 5th grade graduation. Perhaps not a portfolio - but talking to an adult in a formal manner, discussing what they are looking forward to .. adds a whole new perspective.

Good work JLS - keep it up !

Like this comment
Posted by revdreileen
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 19, 2014 at 3:59 pm

revdreileen is a registered user.

What a wonderful idea, a great way for each child to be "seen" for who they are by adult in the community, to be reflective about their work, and to practice presenting themselves well. I'm happy to know that the JLS kids in my church have this experience when they complete 8th grade. I would love to be an interviewer!

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