Teachers take on strategic roles in new school year

Palo Alto high schools to tackle broader, more complex educational problems

Palo Alto's high schools are looking to newly assembled teams of teachers on special assignment, or TOSAs, this fall to lead the schools forward on several key issues, with a particular focus on social-emotional learning and educational inclusion.

TOSAs typically apply or are selected for the part-time position, which gives them time to serve as a leader for a particular schoolwide effort, from education technology to school climate. This year both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools created a new social-emotional learning TOSA position as well as hired a full-time co-teaching and inclusion specialist, funded by the district.

The high schools hope that hiring people with particular skills and backgrounds will bring more intention and success to areas regarded as in need of better coordination and communication.

The new TOSA positions were born out of goals and priorities identified in the high schools' recently completed Western Association for Schools and Colleges (WASC) reports -- in-depth self-studies conducted every six years to obtain accreditation (View Gunn's full WASC report here and Paly's, here). A top goal that both schools identified is engendering a more empathetic and creative school culture accepting of multiple definitions of success -- also a familiar battle cry in Palo Alto during the past school year's heightened debate over academic stress and student wellness.

Jeanette Tucker, a Gunn special education teacher with a master's degree in counseling and bachelor's in psychology, will spend the new school year as Gunn's social-emotional learning TOSA. She will tackle one of the school's WASC goals: creating a comprehensive, coordinated and tailored ninth- through 12th-grade social-emotional curriculum. Gunn has for several years had a school-climate TOSA (which continues this year), but that position is focused on bigger-picture events and programs like Not In Our Schools Week, the freshman-orientation program Titan 101, Camp Everytown and assemblies.

"While we have very good pockets of services for our students, they really aren't connected and they're really not coordinated," said Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann. "We don't necessarily assess developmentally. Is 12th grade the right age for this? Is ninth grade the right age for that?"

Herrmann said Gunn staff spent time talking with schools in the area known for their accomplishments in social-emotional learning, like The Nueva School in Hillsborough, which has long espoused "self-science" at all grade levels and also houses a Social-Emotional Learning Institute. Nueva and other schools' staffs told Gunn faculty it is paramount to have a person to coordinate the schoolwide social-emotional learning curriculum, just as any school would for math or other subjects, Herrmann said.

Tucker began her work this summer, assessing Gunn's existing services and resources, researching best practices in the area and compiling quick activities and lesson plans that can be implemented this year. She began her career with the idea of becoming a therapist, but time spent as a special education aide led her to get a master's degree in special education. After that, she spent four years in the classroom working with emotionally fragile teenagers.

Tucker described herself as the "glue" that will meaningfully tie together the current programs, services and even structural elements (like Gunn's new modified block schedule) that support social-emotional well-being in some way.

She'll also train teachers on how to incorporate more social-emotional learning into their classrooms. Much of this teaching will be delivered to students during a new 50-minute period every Tuesday that is dedicated to social-emotional learning or tutorial, an addition in the new bell schedule. Gunn is also piloting this fall new mindfulness curriculum for all incoming freshmen, to be delivered during physical education classes.

Tucker has also been tasked with developing new social-emotional practices, which could range from an hour-long lesson plan to a one-word check-in at the beginning of class (ask the students to take a minute to come up with one word to express how they're feeling and share it with the class).

"There are lots of ways to check in that encourages a student to take note of how they're feeling and provide a space where they can do that -- and you don't need to be a therapist to do that," Tucker said.

She will also be working with Gunn's new mental health coordinator, a position approved for both high schools in the wake of several student deaths by suicide during the previous school year. This new hire will oversee the school's mental health providers and services, conduct parent outreach and education and support high-risk students, such as those transitioning back into school after a psychiatric hospitalization, Herrmann said.

Across town at Paly, Josh Bloom, a science teacher with a passion for mindfulness, will lead the school's wellness efforts as the new social-emotional learning TOSA. He, too, will help teachers implement small- and big-picture social-emotional learning practices in their classrooms, provide parent education on mental health and bring a more "strategic focus" to the school's wellness efforts, said Principal Kim Diorio.

Notably, he will also be working with Paly's new mental health coordinator, Jonathan Frecerri, a mental health therapist who came to the district last year after working for several years at Palo Alto grief-counseling nonprofit Kara, to launch the suicide-prevention program Sources of Strength at Paly.

Sources of Strength, which was initiated at Gunn in 2011, is a national program that uses the power of peer influence to prevent suicide, bullying and substance abuse. The program trains student-leaders on campus, who then spread what they learn to others through their respective social networks.

Bloom is also co-facilitating the school's work with Stanford University research group Challenge Success, which is also working with Gunn this year on its new bell schedule and school culture. Paly last year also created a new school-climate TOSA position, and history and social sciences teacher Eric Bloom (no relation to Josh Bloom) will continue in that role. His focus this year will include the continuation of a student-led climate committee he formed last year and an effort to broaden Not In Our Schools Week to a more regular (perhaps once a month) and inclusive event.

A new authentic-research TOSA at Paly will spend time this year designing a statistical application class to be piloted with the school's first Social Justice Pathway cohort, now in its junior year. The goal is to create a project-oriented class for students in pathway programs like Social Justice or sports careers -- or any students interested in conducting more intensive research and doing project-based learning, Diorio said. This new TOSA will work with a new district administrator hired to oversee a pilot expansion of Paly's longtime Paly's Science Research Project (SRP) program, with the goal of eventually developing an Advanced Authentic Research program that offers research opportunities, mentors and internships in subjects beyond science.


With 27 teachers at Gunn -- and 19 at Paly -- now co-teaching classes, both schools also recognized a need to bring in full-time specialists to support what can be a difficult "marriage" between general and special education teachers.

Ideally, co-teaching means a regular and special education teacher share lesson planning, instruction and assessment in one class with a mixed population of students. The end goal is inclusion, a well-established model that Palo Alto Unified and many school districts have moved toward as segregated special-education classrooms fall by the wayside.

Gunn has hired a new staff member, Lynn Tabuchi, and Paly identified an existing special education teacher, Heather Johanson, to facilitate and support co-teachers full time. They will provide both informal and formal coaching on problem solving, modifying assignments and talking through classroom differentiation. They will also do classroom observations and analyze student data with teacher teams. Johanson and Paly history and social sciences teacher Ben Bolanos, who have co-taught together for several years, will set up their classroom as a space where other teachers can come to observe the practice, Diorio said.

"There is a disparity between (students) in the general ed population (who are) excelling and doing well and then those that are having a difficult time," Tabuchi said. "Following our vision of equal access, equal opportunities (for) all students, engagement for all -- that's what the push is for the entire district. There is so much research shown that co-teaching is an effective model for all students."

Educational equality issues were identified as "critical areas" by WASC accreditation teams who visited Paly and Gunn this spring. The team urged Gunn to increase achievement for all learners, including special education students, and "create a more consistent and systematic method for providing in-school support for all learners." Paly was encouraged to "increase the opportunities for under-represented sub-groups to access the rigorous curriculum and provide academic support to assure success" and develop strategies and programs to "address the academic achievement gap that persists for underrepresented minorities and at-risk students in all classes."

Creating a true co-teaching partnership and collaboration to address these issues can be challenging, Tabuchi said.

"A lot of people think of co-teaching (as), 'OK, we're going to teach together. You teach one day; I'm going to teach the other day, and vice versa.'

"But a true co-teaching model is where you're in there together the whole time and you work with each other and it's difficult to tell who the regular teacher and the special education teacher is," she said.

Whether focused on social-emotional learning or co-teaching, the TOSA model, Dioro said, brings more credibility and impact to the work.

"It's really empowering teachers and teacher leadership and flattening that hierarchical structure of a traditional system, like a school, so that the teachers really have a say and they're making a lot of the decisions and they're really influencing their peers and their colleagues," Diorio said.

"The beauty is that they're still teachers," she added. "How do you influence and change or motivate an organization? It takes time and it takes the right people."

Related content:

Palo Alto school district deploys specialists for Common Core transition


Start dates

First day of school, 9-12: Monday, Aug. 17

First day of school, K-8: Tuesday, Aug. 18

Terman Middle School back-to-school check-in: Monday, Aug. 17, 8 a.m. to noon

Jordan Middle School Jordan 101 for new families: Monday, Aug. 17, 3:30-4:30 p.m.

JLS Middle School Parent First Day Coffee: Tuesday, Aug. 18, 8:15-9:15 a.m.

Sixth-grade orientations

Jaguar Journey at Jordan: Aug. 18 and 19

Panther Camp at JLS: Aug. 20 and 21

Tiger Camp at Terman: first week of school

Back-to-school nights

Palo Alto High: Thursday, Sept. 3, 6:30-9 p.m.

Gunn High: Thursday, Aug. 27, 6-9 p.m.

Terman: Wednesday, Aug. 26, 5-8:30 p.m.

JLS: Wednesday, Aug. 26, 7-9 p.m.

Jordan: Wednesday, Aug. 26, 7-8:30 p.m.

Addison: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 6-8 p.m.

Barron Park: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 6-7 p.m.

Duveneck: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 6-8 p.m.

El Carmelo: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 5:30-7 p.m.

Escondido: Thursday, Aug. 20, 5:30 p.m.

Fairmeadow: Tuesday, Sept. 1; K-2 at 6 p.m., 3-5 at 7 p.m.

Herbert Hoover: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 6-8 p.m.

Juana Briones: Monday, Aug. 24, 6-8 p.m.

Lucille M. Nixon: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 6 p.m.

Ohlone: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 5:30-9 p.m.

Palo Verde: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 5:45-8 p.m. (5:45-6:45 p.m. for grades 3-5 in students' classrooms; 6:45-7 p.m. meeting for all parents in MP room; 7-8 p.m. grades K-2)

Walter Hays: Monday, Aug. 18, 8:45-11 a.m. (back-to-school coffee)

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


31 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 14, 2015 at 10:24 am

This is all laudable and well and good, but likely to end up more expensive window dressing if the district doesn't do something about the trust problem. It's almost like they still think that if they just got rid of any families whose kids had the most trouble with district staff dishonesty, they could start afresh and all would be fine. The need for honesty, trust, protection from bullying or retaliation by adults in the district or school especially when families or students have the courage to stand up when things are wrong - There is no honest implementation of any of the above unless the district gets out the rot.

I wish I could repeat all the experts in different areas, even hired by the district, who have quietly advised to pull out of PAUSD. Good luck to everyone for a better year.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Walter Hays School
on Aug 14, 2015 at 1:09 pm

FYI - Walter Hays BTS night:
Kinder: Monday, August 31 6:00-7:30 p.m. in your child's classroom
Grades 1-3: Tuesday, September 1, 6:30-7:00 p.m. in the MP room, then in your child's class from 7:00-8:00 p.m.
Grades 4-5: Tuesday, September 1, 5:30-6 in the MP room, then in your child's classroom from 6:00-7:00 p.m.

14 people like this
Posted by Pausd Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 14, 2015 at 2:06 pm

Love that teachers are talking, coordinating, co-teaching, and implementing innovative pathways and other great programs. Our students will surely benefit.

However, I don't understand why PAUSD thinks expanding the TOSA program improves education? Adding more TOSAs is the management consulting syndrome. Spend more money, bring in more administrators, use fancy educational buzz words, throw the so-called Stanford “experts” into the mix, and strategize about how to help the kids emotionally-socially. Yet the irony is that students and parents have all said the biggest single stresser is too much homework. This is not rocket science. Set a 60 minute homework load per teacher per week. Bam. Done. Does the district really need to spend more money on TOSAs to reduce homework? And this is after the PA Teacher’s union threw a hissy fit on behalf of some Gunn teachers about having to use something as simple as Schoology to make homework loads more transparent and coordinate testing schedules. Seems like reducing (homework) vs. adding (more expensive teachers/administrators) could be the answer.

8 people like this
Posted by Gunn Father
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 14, 2015 at 5:33 pm

I wish them luck I really do ... but listening to students AND parents on homework, starting time, and the cooling off the overall stress machine that is PA education today, is where the effort should be focused. Not sure TOSA is the answer and so happy my kid made it out of Gunn, alive.
Wish the money would be spent weeding out the bad apples and taking on the third rail of education : Teacher Tenure.

6 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 14, 2015 at 7:58 pm

Dear Fellow Onliners,

Especially because there is much hope and effort being put into these changes, and because Gunn and Paly so badly need adjsutments, I find no happiness in stating that these approaches will not help.

Piling more curriculum onto our young people--even if it is "social and emotional curriculum"--is always and ever to simply increase the stress and depression they already feel, and which we would relieve them of. We ask them to sit through more lessons, we give them more yardsticks against which to measure their success or failure--and we hope their spirits will somehow lift!

I despair that the good people and administrators of Palo Alto will ever get over the impulse to decrease stress by increasing curricula and schoolwork. Our kids already have almost zero time, as it is, to make use of their chief source of support: their close friends.

And the touted "team-teaching," too, is counterproductive. Already this year, our professionals at Gunn--already among the adults in town who spend more time with our beleaguered teenagers than any other grown-ups--are being required to re-think, redesign, and reconfigure all their teaching approaches to fit the new bell schedule.

If every carefully constructed lesson plan, unit plan, and semester plan constitutes the telling of a story--a narrative about how light bends or why wars start or how innocence is lost--then we have asked our teachers, already this year, to completely rewrite all their work.

This is a monumental task!--exhausting for a staff that only last year had to absorb great griefs (the loss of students they loved), while helping their kids get through it all too.

A staff with low morale cannot help kids with low morale; yet we have signed on to run that risk.

And being compelled to teach in teams, now, means even more work. It's no different from requiring novelists to write novels in pairs, or captains to work two to a helm. No adults, without their consent, enjoy being handcuffed to one another in a pursuit that involves, as teaching does, leveraging the individual's creativity, sensitivity, and ability to lead.

When, oh when, will we stop making these mistakes? Taking these steps that are steps backward?

Readers, let your administrators know how you feel, and let's together take a step forward with Save the 2,008--the city's only comprehensive, principled, wise plan for changing the life of our high schools.

Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Campaign Coordinator, Save the 2,008

P.S. You can learn more at:

3 people like this
Posted by District Teacher
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 14, 2015 at 9:20 pm

While I often agree with everything MV has to offer, I'd have to respectfully disagree about team teaching. It is a vital model to help reach all students. (It's an equity issue, as far as I am concerned.) I understand the concern that it might be too much change for teachers but if not now, when? If it's not one thing, it's another. I'm sure there will be new initiatives next year and every year so team teaching (and the opportunity to reach more students) should happen now.

Again, it's a lot of change for a teacher, but we are adults and (expected to be) professionals. Adjusting to a new teaching model will be a challenge for a few months in a 30-year career whereas a student not having the opportunity to learn better in a team-taught class could have lifelong implications. Think of this analogy: if a doctor learns two new, complex treatments for patients with heart disease, it is the professional responsibility to provide both to his/her patients, not one or the other because it is too taxing to implement both treatments.

Also, I understand and empathize about low morale for teachers, but there is a point when the adults need to pull themselves up by the boot straps, use our coping skills as adults, take a deep breath, and move forward. This doesn't mean ignoring our feelings or stress, but relying on our understanding of an idea that can be very abstract to an adolescent: this [new challenges, etc.], too, shall pass.

I want to emphasize my support of the Save the 2008 project but also affirm the importance of team teaching.

6 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2015 at 12:57 am

I think it's pretty ironic that the article mentions advice from Nueva. Nueva's take on homework is that they don't waste students' time. The whole program is geared to support creativity. The PAUSD program may as well have been designed to kill creativity.

I agree that social-emotional learning should begin with giving kids time to be with friends and family. Time to be alone (without homework).

3 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 15, 2015 at 8:21 am

Free and easy advice is to just teach the a-g credits to state guidelines and then grade the kids. They would not need any support or funding if PALY teachers would just stay within normal standards for curriculum and evalutations. No one cares where you get a-g credits so they need not be harder than anywhere else. Money could go toward updated sci. lab equipment or toward anything else but groups of teachers and administrators who created the problem sitting around talking about the problem. Big elephant in the school.

7 people like this
Posted by LongTimeParent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 15, 2015 at 4:24 pm

I agree with PAUSD Parent above - they can yammer on for years avoiding homework solutions, or on day 1 simply announce a budget - every teacher gets 'x' minutes per grade per day.

Top - down mandate is the only way to go.

Provide an email address where students can report violations.

Post violators on a public web page, sorted by man-hours abused.

At the end of the semester, the top violators are assigned as the next TOSA in charge of endless chatter.

Guaranteed solution in one week. Nobody really wants to be publicly called out as an abuser.

Problem solved.

It'll leave plenty of time in week 2 to solve test and project stacking.

16 people like this
Posted by History Repeats Itself
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 15, 2015 at 5:29 pm

Historically, anything in the way of "solutions" that PAUSD does is merely a bandaid on a bullet wound.

I recall the principal of Paly bragging, on Back-to-School night, in the late 90s, about how difficult the work was and how high the expectations were, and how the staff was relentless in this.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

5 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 17, 2015 at 11:38 am

Rate my teacher has mixed issues and is not to be used for teacher evaluation, but when there are 7 posts removed and all very negative common complaints that are all very similar, the district needs to consider this. Kids need to speak up and perhaps refuse to sit in these types of "rigorous" impossible to get an A type classrooms. there should be an option for online uc approved coursed through Brigham young or Apex. when teachers brag about how difficult their classes are, they should be ashamed that they are not making the material easy. Good teachers want kids to all succeed with ease.

Teachers need to be honest and match their actual teaching with how they evaluate students. We have only experienced having to teach them at home, hire teachers or pay for extra classwork to fill the very large gap between instruction and evaluation.

1 person likes this
Posted by Cindy Goral
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 18, 2015 at 11:55 pm

Co-teaching is a step in the right direction.

Some of the benefits which have been researched and documented are:
1. All students receive increased attention from teachers. The students not only had access to two teachers for help and attention, but they had the advantage of another perspective and one other teacher with whom to connect.
2. Differentiated instruction
3. Increased emphasis on social skills
4. Improved classroom communities
5. Students who were previously unengaged were not participating because the environment was open and welcoming. Effective co-teachers can make learning for all students a dynamic process...students with a variety of abilities can become more fully engaged.
6. Both students with disabilities and students without disabilities learned to care for one another and were more willing to help each other. Students grew in their level of tolerance for and acceptance of differences and students without disabilities improved their cooperation skills.
7. Improved academic performance outcomes for all students.

Teachers also benefit from the collaborative process, a broader understanding of students' learning styles and increased knowledge of instructional methods plus more time with the students.

Yes, this will require change and work. Teachers will need to build relationships with each other and be less siloed and this requires administrative support. But we need change, and this is a step in the right direction. Most special ed teachers at the high school level also have an expertise area. With the changes to common core and class schedule changes at Gunn, it may be the perfect time for expanding co-teaching and working together on creating the improved curriculum and classroom environment.

I would urge anyone with questions or concerns about co-teaching to become more educated about how it benefits all students. Paly has been co-teaching for several years and is expanding their program under Heather Johanson, whom I have the utmost respect for and confidence in. I would encourage anyone with questions or doubts about co-teaching to talk with her and others about this and familiarize yourself with the benefits it has to offer.

Cindy Goral
Paly special ed parent rep 2010-2014


1. What Teachers Wish Administrators Knew about Co-Teaching in High School,s Nierengarten and Hughes, Electronic Journal for Inclusive Education, Vol. 2, No. 6, 2010
2. Benefits of Co-Teaching in Secondary Mathematics Classes, Magiera, Smith, Zigmond and Gebauer, Teaching Exceptional Children, Vol. 37, No. 3, pp20-24, 2005
3. Co-Teaching Experiences: The Benefits and Problems That Teachers and Principals Report Over Time, Walther-Thomas, Journal of Learning Disabilities, Vol. 30, No. 4, 1997
4. The Co-Teaching Journey: A Systematic Grounded Theory Study Investigating How Secondary School Teachers Resolved Challenges in Co-Teaching, Gerst, Dissertation for Doctor of Education, Liberty University, 2012.
5. Co-Teaching: How Does it Affect Students? Gerst, 2012, Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by for differentiation to work
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 19, 2015 at 9:48 am

Is this what the high schools meant when they said that they were going to eliminate more lanes (think English 9 and 9A) and amp up differentiation instead?

Some things to note if differentiation is going to be the go-to model in more Paly classrooms:

After teachers, participating in a large UVA study run by differentiation guru Carol Tomlinson, were given 3 years of extensive differentiation professional development and coaching, none differentiated. Differentiation is difficult to do according to 80% of US teachers surveyed.

Harvard and Stanford's "Education Next" magazine ran a long piece on differentiation: Web Link

"Ideally, [differentiated] instruction is customized at the individual student level. Every child receives a unique curriculum that meets that individual’s exact needs. A teacher might even make specialized homework assignments, or provide the specific one-on-one help that a particular kid requires."

Short of that, here is how the school featured in that article got differentiation to work (Piney Branch in Takoma Park, Maryland which serves the "übereducated white and black middle-class" and poor immigrant and low income elementary-aged children):

Reading: "students spend much of their time in small groups appropriate for their reading level [and] staff works hard to make sure these groups are fluid — a child in a slower reading group can get bumped up to a faster one once progress is made."

Math: "students are split up into homogeneous classrooms. All the advanced math kids are in one classroom, the middle students in another, and the struggling kids in a third."

The other subjects: students are in "heterogeneous classrooms [which often are] separating the kids back into homogeneous groups again"

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 19, 2015 at 10:10 am

The problem, as I see it in high school, is that in certain subjects e.g. math, we have students of different abilities in the same classroom and some are able to work at different paces and some have even been tutored ahead. This makes the students who may be older but slower put in the same class as younger students all learning the same material and being graded at the same level. This is very unfair for say a senior or junior doing Algebra 2 and finding it hard to keep up with say a junior or sophomore who has been tutored ahead. The older kids in this case have very low self esteem as well as lower grades when the younger kids are breezing ahead getting As without problems. Is this fair?

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

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

If you do nothing else, do These Three Things
By Sherry Listgarten | 43 comments | 2,216 views

Lentil Brownies
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 611 views

Finding Balance
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 335 views


Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.