Imagine a well-established program that eases the transition into high school by providing freshmen with smaller learning environments, closer-than-typical connections with their teachers and peers, field trips that both bond and educate students, an emphasis on the whole child, project-based learning and teachers who pilot innovative ideas.
Sound like a pipe dream? It's real and has been offered at Palo Alto High School for 20 years.
This program is TEAM, or Together Everyone Achieves More.
"Our vision is a small community for freshmen where we really get to know them," said Liz Brimhall, who teaches biology for TEAM.
Paly freshmen who sign up for TEAM (there's no application process, just a lottery) have their three core classes -- biology, history and English -- with the same three teachers and same group of 80 to 100 students. Their schedules are organized so on block days, they are with TEAM teachers and students the entire day. Other days, they're in both regular and TEAM classes.
The TEAM teachers also serve as the students' teacher advisers, so they also meet together during a weekly advisory period.
The three teachers share a common prep period, which they use to talk about their students, collaborate, meet with guidance counselors, parents or other teachers. The three teachers know exactly what the others are doing in their classes so that they can work with and support their students.
They also align much of their homework, grading and late-work policies, the teachers say, adjusting their assignments or test schedules when students are overloaded in another class.
In history teacher Steve Sabbag's TEAM class this week, students taking a quiz got to go through at least two rounds of the quiz -- first, taking it as they would any other test, and second, going through with a packet of notes and a pen to correct wrong answers. If they get it right after that, they get a half point back. A potential third round is going through the quiz with the textbook.
Though this practice is one Sabbag uses in his other classes -- it's not TEAM-specific -- it's a philosophy the teachers in the freshmen program share.
"'You didn't do so well on that. Why don't you keep working on it?'" Sabbag said. "(There are) second, third chances to help kids."
Greater familiarity between teachers and students is also part of the TEAM experience. Teachers often are involved in after-school activities that create connections outside of the classroom. The TEAM cohort starts the year with an overnight camp-out at Foothills Park, goes on a week-long trip to Yosemite later in the fall and goes to Monterey in the spring, among other trips, service activities and events. And more than the teachers and students are part of these activities: Parents come as chaperones, and past TEAM participants, now upperclassmen, return as student leaders.
The field trips are geared toward both education that applies to all three core subjects (learning about the local environment, nature, history and more) and connectedness. During the Yosemite trip, students in small groups participate in hikes and other guided nature activities. They learn about the geology of the region, the history of Yosemite Valley and the National Park Service; do trust walks (walking through a dark cave depending on the person in front of you to guide you through) and other group-bonding activities; and last year, performed community service by clearing brush around the campsite for fire safety.
"It really was amazing, over the course of week, how much the kids changed and how much they bonded," said Sally Kadifa, a TEAM parent who went on the Yosemite trip this fall. Her fourth child is currently in TEAM, and she's hoping her middle-school aged child will also get to participate.
She said the trip also breaks down typical walls between students and teachers. One of her children in particular, she said, sometimes felt overwhelmed with school and like "the teachers are just there to give us work and hard tests." Hiking with the teachers, waking up together for 7 a.m. breakfast calls and realizing "they are just people" changed that, Kadifa said.
"I think it could be the best thing we could do for them (students), honestly," she added. "I wish more kids had some kind of experience like that coming into high school. I think it would be beneficial for all of them, to give them that sense of community and sense of being valued and having a place."
For Siggi Bengston, now a senior and TEAM student leader, it offered exactly that. She attended Ohlone Elementary School but left the district for middle school, attending the private Girls Middle School before returning to go to Paly. She said TEAM offered her a "cushion" back into a larger school environment very different from what she experienced in middle school.
"I was so used to a different way of teaching and a different way of education in general that coming into quote unquote the 'system' again would have been really brutal without teachers that really supported me, really knew me and really knew what I needed," she said. "I just think it would have been a lot more isolating."
A current TEAM freshman, Caity Berry, said she signed up because she moved to the district from North Carolina in eighth grade and hoped it could help with her transition to high school. Her closest friends are now all from TEAM.
Bengston said the main difference for her between her TEAM and regular classes was that she knew everyone. They were more comfortable. She said her other classes felt more "cliquey" and less like a close-knit community.
"When you go from a TEAM class to a regular class, you feel like you've been thrown into room with a bunch of other people," she said.
Sabbag said the same. His TEAM classes just feel different: They're more relaxed, students are more confident, everyone knows each other's names, he said.
"What makes the difference in the education is having this kind of whole-child concept and experiential learning and field trips and the connections they make, the bonds they make -- like the quietest kid is all of a sudden raising their hand and joining in on a class conversation," TEAM English teacher Karin Kolb told a standing-room only crowd of eighth-grade parents and students at an informational session for the program in January.
TEAM parents say the program has helped their students advocate for their needs, too. Students feel more comfortable approaching their teachers with questions or for help. The upperclassmen leaders can serve as outlets for the younger students.
"They have someone they can come to with whatever issues they're having with friends or school work and they don't want to go to a teacher necessarily," student-leader Shiv Matta said at the January information session. "We're mentors as well as good friends."
The high attendance at the information session last month -- the entire first floor of Paly's Media Arts Center was full of parents and students -- illustrates a high interest in the community for programs like TEAM. Typically, there's a waiting list and lottery, meaning that about 10 to 15 students usually don't get in, Brimhall said.
"I think it sends a really clear message to the school and to the district that this is an important way for kids to come into high school, to have some sort of a smaller community," TEAM parent Rachel Weitzman said.
Given the program's popularity and success, Superintendent Max McGee has committed to making a budget request to enable the school to do away with the lottery and accept everyone who applies to TEAM next year. He'll be incorporating this into the budget requests for the 2016-17 school year, he told the Weekly. This comes during a year when the community discussed ways to create smaller learning experiences within the growing high schools, such as creating a house system where smaller groups of students move through their four years together in cohorts.
Bengston said TEAM should be something all freshmen participate in, and it should last longer than one year. She sees it as one vehicle for much-needed change in a district seeking ways to combat student stress, engender deeper connections between youth and adults and build community.
"TEAM is the only thing that I cling to that is different" at Paly, she said. "I think that everyone should do TEAM."
More information about TEAM is posted at team.paly.net.