Palo Alto students share ideas about approaching new school year

High schoolers on discipline, SATs, college tours

After scattering around the globe for the summer, Palo Alto's approximately 4,000 high school students return to school Monday, Aug. 18. About 8,600 kindergartners through eighth-graders go back the next day.

Below, a sampling of high school students -- from three "excited and nervous" freshmen to a more experienced senior -- share some of their ideas about approaching the new school year.

Also read: What's new on Palo Alto campuses this fall?


Miguelangel Cardenas: A passion, and a new leaf

After a summer setting up laptop carts and updating software as an intern in the Palo Alto Unified School District's information technology department, Paly junior Miguelangel Cardenas is looking forward to a fall filled with one of his great passions: football.

From an early age he played on Pop Warner and American Youth Football League teams, though a knee fracture forced him to take a few years off in middle school. His freshman year at Paly, he broke his heel during a preseason drill and sat out the season.

Sophomore year he played on Paly's JV team, and this fall, he aims to play varsity.

"My mom was a little skeptical at first, but I told her it was my decision," Cardenas said. "I have a passion for it."

He also thinks football helps him stay disciplined and organize his time.

"You have to plan really, really well because football is, like, from 3:55 p.m. until 6 or 7. My mom will pick me up; you take a shower, eat and then do homework and then you're dead -- and that continues every day of the week.

"Some would say that forces you to be organized, and some would think the opposite. They would think it's too time-consuming, that you don't have enough time to do anything anymore."

Heading back to school, Cardenas most looks forward to reconnecting with friends whom he missed over the summer.

He least looks forward to SATs.

"That's the main stress," he said. "I have to start preparing. I don't think the actual test is bad. I've heard from friends that preparing for the test is like hell."

Academically, Cardenas -- who graduated from Duveneck Elementary School and Jordan Middle School -- is hoping to turn over a new leaf this fall.

"I've been struggling in school since, like, first grade," he said. "I've been to lots and lots of meetings, and they've narrowed it down, and this year they're going to give me some extra help. I can't wait for that because this year might actually be my year to get the grades I really, really want."

His advice for students new to Paly: "Ask for help when you need it. That's something I never really did. I didn't know how to ask for help, and I was really self-judging."

Cardenas' second piece of advice to new students: "Don't be shy. Be yourself, and don't try to be someone that you're not."


Maya Rotman: Doing more with less

"Gunn is a really good place if you want to study all the time, but that's not good for you," incoming senior Maya Rotman said.

Rotman avoids the grind of constant homework by committing herself to outside activities, including managing Gunn's boys wrestling team and being a leader in her synagogue's youth group.

"You could easily spend eight hours on a Saturday working on an essay, but when you have that soccer game or movie night you have to do, it gives you less time to work so you work harder," she said in an interview over a white Gummi Bear smoothie at Jamba Juice. "If you have less time, you have to put more of yourself into working to get done what you would've gotten done in a larger amount of time.

"You don't spend that time on Facebook while you're writing your essay and wasting time and not really working when you're working," she said.

One of Rotman's earliest childhood memories is moving to the United States from her native Israel when she was just shy of 3.

"It was the third of July when our plane landed, and there were fireworks in the sky. Great America or one of those places must've been having a show. I thought they were very pretty and very loud and very cool."

She attended El Carmelo Elementary School and spent her middle school years at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, returning to Gunn for high school.

Arriving as a freshman after a three-year absence from public school was "somewhat intimidating," she recalled.

"I don't think there's a time in your life when you're more awkward and self-conscious than when you're a teenager," she said.

Still, she likes to think of herself as the kind of person who's willing to "go outside my comfort zone and meet someone new."

And that would be her advice for any new student at Gunn.

"People kind of live somewhat sheltered lives at Gunn (and stay with the same groups), but you'd be surprised at how many people are very nice once you go up to them and say 'hi.' There's always time for new friends."

Rotman, who got her driver's license in April, looks forward to "enjoying the perks of being a senior, getting to do all those fun things like homecoming, going on college tours and grad night."

She least looks forward to making all the preparations to leave home for college.

"As much as I'm looking forward to my future, I'm not really looking forward to leaving," she said. "I like my family; I like my home; I like my city. Palo Alto's great, and leaving is not necessarily something I really want to do."


Andrew Baer: Making it enjoyable

Incoming Paly junior Andrew Baer loves playing around on the keyboard, arranging songs he's heard in movies or on video games, especially the action role-playing game Kingdom Hearts.

Though he stopped taking lessons years ago, he still plays for fun an hour or two each day -- and if it's late at night he just plugs his headphones into the keyboard so as not to bother his parents.

One of his performance opportunities came just two weeks ago, when he played some contemporary pieces by composer Jim Brickman in the lounge of the Palo Alto senior housing complex Stevenson House.

"I had played (at Stevenson House) in eighth grade when I was volunteering with JLS for service day, and I thought I might as well go back because I've improved, so I sent them an email and they said 'yes,'" Baer said. "It was a very small crowd. It was very pleasant, and I'd love to go back."

Baer, whose family moved to Palo Alto from Stockton when he was in fourth grade, found his new elementary schools -- first Barron Park and then Palo Verde -- to his liking.

"I came from a private Christian school, and their programs were very limited because they didn't have much funding," he explained. "When I got here I was able to take music classes, and I feel like my overall math and science classes were better and were taught better. The variety of programs they offer in Palo Alto really made a difference for my education."

At Paly, Baer ran cross-country his freshman and sophomore years and plans to continue this year. He and his friends started a Smash Bros. Club, which competes, in face-to-face matches, against other schools in the fighting video game. They plan to invite Gunn students to a tournament this year.

"It's a lot of fun to just meet people and play this game with them," he said.

This fall he's especially looking forward to making new friends, meeting new teachers and taking Paly's music-theory class. He least looks forward to "the homework, and having to be up really late all the time."

But, Baer said: "That's just part of school, so I'm sure it will work out again. I think Paly is a great school and I love it, and I can't wait to see how this next school year's going to be."

The secret to managing stress at Paly, he said, "would be to not care so much about what your grades are but just making sure you're learning and doing what you love. Grades are insignificant when you focus on whatever college works for you and whatever career you want."

He himself is considering music or business.

His advice to any student new to Paly is simple: "Do your homework, make new friends and just do what you can to make it as enjoyable as possible because you're going to be here for four years."


Nandeeka Nayak: Avoiding the midnight oil

Incoming Gunn junior Nandeeka Nayak spent nearly a year and emailed about 30 organizations before settling on a project to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award.

She finally executed it this summer, offering a free computer programming camp for 20 low-income middle school students at a charter school in San Jose.

The week-long camp in early July allowed Nayak to share her interest in programming, which she had developed even prior to joining Lego League as a seventh grader at JLS Middle School. Lego League, a science and robotics competition for elementary and middle school students, is sponsored by FIRST, a national organization that aims to attract students to science and technology.

"I think I've always been a little interested in programming because my dad works at Google, and even before that he worked at a startup in programming," Nayak said. "But I really got interested with FIRST Lego League in seventh and eighth grade, and it just kind of took off."

To help staff the programming camp, Nayak -- who has been in the Girl Scouting program since second grade -- recruited friends from her troop and her robotics team, the Space Cookies, which is co-sponsored by NASA and the Girl Scouts.

The middle school campers learned about user interfaces, conditionals and grids. They built a tic-tac-toe game and also an app that allowed them to draw with their fingers.

After running the programming camp, Nayak headed off to Carlton College in Minnesota, where she was a camper herself in a three-week Summer Computer Science Institute for high school students.

Looking toward fall, Nayak, a member of Gunn's swim team, said she's especially excited about her classes in statistics and chemistry and doing more complicated programming with the Space Cookies.

Asked for tips on how she manages the heavy workload, she said: "I don't waste time. When I come home I just get right to my homework."

Only one time in her first two years of high school did she have to stay up past midnight, she said.

"I wake up at 6:15 a.m. so I can do homework in the morning, too, but I generally don't leave big things -- only things I know I can do in 45 minutes or less. I like Gunn, and I've had some pretty good teachers," she said.


Ladaishia Roberts, Alberto Salgado, Elizabeth Tapia: Finding their motivation

"Excited and nervous" are the words Ladaishia Roberts, Alberto Salgado and Elizabeth Tapia use to describe their feelings about the upcoming school year.

All entering freshmen at Paly, the three spent most of June together in a "summer bridge" program at Gunn to help kids make the transition to high school.

In July, they reconvened for a week at the Foundation for a College Education in East Palo Alto for a "FCE Fundamentals" class. During the school year the three plan to go to FCE regularly after school for college preparation and support. But they must maintain a 3.0 grade point average to stay in the program, they said.

"I'm determined to go to Paly, but thinking about going to college I think I need bigger and stronger motivation," said Tapia, who graduated from Duveneck Elementary School and Jordan Middle School. "I guess as the years go on I'll find my motivation.

"As you get older there's more people talking to you about college, what's best for you, so you start getting ideas about what you want to do with your life."

With encouragement from her mother, Tapia said she's considering some kind of career in the medical field.

Roberts, a graduate of Addison Elementary School and Jordan, also mentioned her mother as one of her major motivations for doing her best in school.

"The reason I need to graduate is because I know how happy it will make her, so that's going to be my motivation," she said.

"The other motivation is that I'd be a first-generation (college) graduate, and that would mean a lot to me."

Salgado, who came to Jordan just a year ago after moving to Palo Alto from Redwood City, said he's heard that Paly is "strict."

"It's a new chapter in my life -- unknown," Salgado said. "I don't know much about high school, but I've heard you have to work hard."

In high school, Tapia said, "Nobody's going to help you unless you ask questions, and I'm not really good at that."

But in the summer bridge program all three of them had the opportunity to get a head start by getting to know Paly counselors Crystal Laguna and Charles Taylor.

Tapia said she hopes to play volleyball in high school, while Roberts wants to play softball and volleyball. All three said they want to investigate the options for joining one or more of Paly's many clubs.

"But I'm nervous because I have to stay on top of my studies," Roberts said. "I just had no motivation before, but they told us freshman year will count for college, so I have to do my best."


Nikhil Ghosh: A wide sampling

Nikhil Ghosh has had a varied summer -- from busking with his trombone in a touristy spot near the ferry in Victoria, British Columbia, to interning long hours in a Stanford University physics lab. He also volunteered at the Kids Zone of the Palo Alto Family YMCA, where he's been a member since he was 10.

Pondering his return to school as a Gunn junior, Ghosh has pared down his commitments to things he really loves -- music, lab work, some clubs and one sport -- to make sure he has time to do them well.

"Second semester of sophomore year was kind of a struggle, but I came out of it finding out more about how I work, how I can keep myself more organized and how to keep up with myself and not let myself get too out of hand, taking on too much," Ghosh said in an interview near Stanford's Varian Physics Building, where he's interning in a basement lab.

He said he got the internship by emailing a postdoctoral student he'd heard sometimes takes high school students.

"I've fallen in love with research and what they have down there," he said, enthusiastically describing some of the projects that involve attempting to demonstrate Einstein's equivalence principle.

Ghosh's earliest memories of Palo Alto come from second grade, when his family moved here from Burlingame and he entered Palo Verde.

"I remember significantly more playtime, like outside recess and stuff," he said. "Palo Alto's a pretty outdoorsy place."

During the school year, Ghosh plays with Gunn's jazz band and wind ensemble and participates in the Youth Community Service/Interact and Model UN clubs. To make enough time for other things, he's narrowed down his sports commitment to track.

One of his most memorable YCS activities, he said, was recruiting Clarence Jones, once an adviser to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and now a scholar-in-residence at Stanford, to speak to students participating in a recent Gunn Community Service Day.

"He gave us an awesome speech, rousing and really inspiring," Ghosh said.

Ghosh said high school has taught him to organize his time more efficiently, and he's learned that he works best when he has a "tangible deadline." Playing musical instruments and sports with friends "really helps to alleviate stress," he said.

To freshmen at Gunn, he advises: "It's good to bite off more than you can chew, especially freshman year because you're playing a lower-stakes game. Freshman year is sort of a trial. Don't be afraid to try new things. Take a big sample, and then narrow it down to things you really enjoy."

To students coming in from overseas, he said: "Gunn has a very international student body, so any international student wouldn't have a hard time finding a friend, or someone to follow around. And the counselors -- or anybody here -- are really welcoming," he said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Michael O.
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 16, 2014 at 1:24 am

What a pressure cooker environment, Palo Alto, both at Gunn and (less so) at Paly. It's kind of nauseating to read that a student said, "Gunn is a really good place if you want to study all the time, but that's not good for you." Yikes.

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 16, 2014 at 1:53 am

Michael O, what makes you think Paly is less of a pressure cooker than Gunn? Because Paly's football team historically beats Gunn's? Things have actually equalized in both academics and sports and the old stereotypes should be put to rest.

I'm wondering why they chose unique students to interview instead of regular students. These students aren't good representations of PAUSD high school students. Maybe the regular students had nothing good to say. . . since they are doing homework weekdays and weekends while their teachers relax.

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 16, 2014 at 1:58 am

[Post removed due to hearsay.]

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 16, 2014 at 7:14 am

I know some of these students and they are grounded kids with drive and purpose. Good for them.

Like this comment
Posted by Michael O.
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 16, 2014 at 10:02 am

@Paly Alum: All I know is what I'm reading and the Gunn students sound more academically stressed in this article than the Paly kids. It's what many people say (the grades are higher at Gunn, whatever that means), but I imagine the difference isn't enormous. Remember, a student at the 25th percentile on the SATs across Palo Alto has a score higher than the 75th percentile nationally, meaning the bottom students here are similar to advanced students elsewhere, on average. That must be hard for the kids.

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 18, 2014 at 8:33 pm

I appreciated hearing the perspectives of these well-spoken young people.

As has been mentioned on these threads, the Hoover kids go through Terman and then on to Gunn, and that kind of environment clearly suits them. The JLS Connections kids get split between Gunn and Paly, and they're probably a little better off at Paly especially with the block scheduling, but they still don't have a project-based curriculum, and there is no place for that end of the academic spectrum at all at Gunn (yet).

The administration should find a way to extend project-based whole-child-oriented instruction into Gunn for the Connections kids, and others seeking that kind of balanced, intrinsically-driven, integrated instruction.

It's really important not to assume there are any one-size-fits-all programs at the high school level, some kinds of solutions work well for some learners and stress out others. We have the kind of program that works for the Hoover kids, but not the Connections kids.

Like this comment
Posted by Historian
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 19, 2014 at 12:10 pm

True, since Paly has easily beaten Gunn since the beginning of time, they have taken a two-year break from competing against each other due to lack of competition. Paly has historically had better sports teams but Gunn has caught up with some good teams these last years. And Paly is not easier academically than Gunn.

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

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