A tangible sense of excitement was in the air Tuesday morning at Palo Alto's elementary and middle schools as about 9,000 kindergarten through eighth-grade students started their first day of the new school year.
In South Palo Alto, the blocks of East Meadow Drive near Fairmeadow Elementary School and JLS Middle School were full of kids and parents heading to the first day of school some on bikes, others walking hand-in-hand with parents or friends and some even stopping to pose in front of the schools' signs for photos.
The picture-taking and hold-handing continued at Fairmeadow, where parents, children and staff expressed further excitement about the feeling of starting anew with anticipation about what the upcoming year will bring.
"The first day of school never loses its magic," said Fairmeadow Principal Grant Althouse. "We really try to capitalize on the energy of this day."
Palo Alto Unified's 13 elementary schools and three middle schools started the 2015-16 year on Tuesday, the day after Gunn and Palo Alto high schools did.
Althouse said much of the upcoming school year at Fairmeadow will be focused on literacy instruction, with the implementation of a new reading curriculum from the Columbia University Teachers College Reading & Writing Project, which develops instruction based on a workshop-style approach to teaching literacy.
The project curriculum is fully aligned with the Common Core State Standards, and emphasizes differentiation and using performance assessments, learning progressions and rubrics to both amp up students' writing achievement and increase teaching consistency.
Many K-8 Palo Alto teachers attended multi-day institutes at the Teachers College in New York the past few years as their schools worked to roll out the new literacy curriculum.
"The focus on strengthening K-5 writing instruction and student outcomes grew out of a shared concern on the part of the Board, staff analysis of Strategic Plan Survey data, student writing outcomes, and teachers expressing the need for a high quality, evidenced-based approach to writing," a 2014 staff report on the topic reads.
Althouse explained the Reading & Writing Project's approach as cultivating "independent" versus "compliant" readers.
"A compliant reader and writer just does assignments; an independent reader and writer explores their thinking through reading and writing," Althouse said.
The school district added two years ago the project's writing unit, and is starting this year with reading. Fairmeadow's staff development day on Friday was dedicated to working on reading instruction, Althouse said.
Fairmeadow is also continuing its work around social-emotional learning and school climate. Fairmeadow in its fifth year of working with two social-emotional programs called Second Step and Steps to Respect, which other Palo Alto Unified elementary schools also use. Developed by national social-emotional learning and anti-bullying nonprofit Committee for Children, both programs seek to teach young children skills like listening, self-regulation, empathy, identifying feelings and self-advocacy. Steps to Respect, in particular, targets bullying at both the policy and classroom level in elementary schools.
"Across the district but especially at elementary schools, we show kids that this is a safe place and that we're here to support each other and to explicitly teach some of those skills like empathy," Althouse said.
Fairmeadow parent Mathilde Lenoir was dropping off her kindergarten- and second-grade-aged children on Tuesday. She said this year's first day of school felt better than last's, when her family had just moved to Palo Alto from Italy for her husband's tech job. Last year, she was worried about her children not only starting a new school and not knowing anyone, but also learning English at the same time.
"It's totally different from last year maybe that's the biggest thing about today," she said. "It's thinking about last year and how lost we were knowing nobody and this year we have friends to welcome us with open arms and people to greet and be greeted by. That just feels awesome."
After class started, Lenoir was lingering on the blacktop with Tatiana Conte, another European transplant who moved to Palo Alto from Barcelona last year. Her oldest child started at JLS this year and her younger one is in second grade at Fairmeadow. She, too, had worried about her children adjusting while learning a new language (though it was their fourth, after Italian, Spanish and Catalan).
Lenoir said she chose the Palo Alto school district for her children because the family arrived in the United States during the summer, after regular registration, and felt certain her children would be overflowed from their neighborhood school. (And they were.)
"I understood early on in my researching that we needed to find a district where all the schools were good because of this overflowing," she said. "That's the reason we chose PAUSD."
A few miles down Middlefield Road at Jordan Middle School, groups of sixth-graders were engulfed in schoolwide scavenger hunts, practicing locker combinations and learning about school rules for cell phones and bullying as part of "Jaguar Journey," the school's orientation program for incoming sixth-graders.
Jaguar Journey, which takes place over the first two days of school, aims to reduce start-of-the-year stress by familiarizing new middle schoolers (and their parents) with the physical campus, school rules and more, said Patricia Balbuena, a sixth-grade core teacher who helped develop the orientation program several years ago.
Before Jaguar Journey, sixth-graders did team-building exercises on the fourth day of school and had to wait several weeks before getting their lockers and IDs, Balbuena said.
"If they have their lockers and they have their IDs and we answer all of their questions, then the stress would go down," she said. "It makes a huge difference."
All of Palo Alto's middle schools have similar programs in place. At Terman, "Tiger Camp" runs for the first week of school, and at JLS, "Panther Camp" this year runs Thursday, Aug. 20 and Friday, Aug. 21.
On Tuesday at Jordan, parent volunteers led classes of sixth-graders through four different stations, with four others to go through on Wednesday. Each of the sixth-grade teachers leads a station. There was a scavenger hunt to get to know the campus (learning the names of the school's front office staff and administrators, including new Principal Tom Jacoubowsky; the name and location of their counselor; where the library and bathrooms are) as well as "locker Olympics" (finding their lockers in the hallways and practicing with how to unlock and lock them) and "Jordan Rules," during which Jacoubowsky went over important school rules and policies with the students.
During Jordan Rules, each student was given one red and one blue card to hold up if they either agreed (blue) or disagreed (red) with various statements, from "Students are allowed to use their phone before and after school" to "Bullying is a serious problem in middle school." Almost all blue cards went up for both statements with one group of more than 30 sixth-graders sitting attentively in a classroom.
"I do not believe bullying is a serious problem at this school, but it can happen and you need to watch out for each other and let us know when things are going on," Jacoubowsky told the group.
He went on to discuss other school policies, from cyberbullying and tardiness to backpacks and running in the hallways.
It was, too, Jacoubowsky's first day of middle school: The longtime educator left a 14-year post at Gunn to serve as Jordan's interim principal this year.
He said in an interview that his top focuses for the year will include writing, instructional differentiation, school climate and response to intervention, an intervention program for students who need additional support but do not qualify for other programs. These areas were identified in May as the school's top goals for the next three years by Jordan's school site council, a group of students, parents and staff. School climate-related activities, events and initiatives for the 2015-16 year will draw on five themes: respect, open-mindedness, kindness, community and safety.
Jordan mother, PTA and site council member Lisa Rimsa said she hopes the new administration will focus in particular on the second identified goal: "Develop and implement a clearly-articulated schoolwide writing approach with shared expectations across all grade levels and departments that develops skilled and confident student writers."
"The goals that Greg set those are areas that we should always be doing," Jacoubowsky said. "For me, the blueprint he left is very straightforward."