Palo Alto High program makes frosh feel connected

Twenty-year-old TEAM program keeps students together longer

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

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3 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 12, 2016 at 1:16 pm

This is a great program that really hits the bullseye in terms of increasing helping students and teachers connect. This seems like the kind of program that could be built on and expanded to address concerns about the high school experience.

5 people like this
Posted by Questions
a resident of Los Altos
on Feb 13, 2016 at 2:01 pm

This sounds like a wonderful program that would be great for all freshmen district-wide. However, it must be more expensive than the "regular" program that is provided to the majority of freshmen at Paly and Gunn because otherwise, why wouldn't the program be enlarged to create space for everyone who wants to participate? So my concerns are about equity. How many people enter the lottery and how many are turned away from the program? Why isn't the program offered at Gunn? Also, is it available to freshmen who want to take honors level classes (ie biology honors)?

5 people like this
Posted by Barron Park parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 13, 2016 at 2:26 pm

TEAM is an excellent program for increasing student connectedness. But it serves only the lucky few, and even those only for one year. There are about 1000 students per high school year (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior), and TEAM serves less than 100, so about 10% at best.

And note it isn't even offered at Gunn.

TEAM is like a poor man's version of the 'house system' that has been recommended by the EMAC parents, which would span at least 2 years, and serve all students in a given year, not just the lucky 10%. Look at Hillsdale High School.

16 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 13, 2016 at 4:48 pm

@Questions & Barron Park: Read the entire article before posting. It states that McGee wants to eliminate the lottery and accept everyone and is incorporating it into the budget.

TEAM has pros and cons. Looks fantastic on paper but there are other considerations such as teacher quality, whether they follow the stated principles of non-test-stacking (they didn't follow it two years ago) and whether the TEAM students of the year jell together or not. It's not necessarily one big, happy family. Some years, the TEAM kids stay together the following years, other years, not. One could be stuck with a year of cliques or a year of a great bunch of sociable students. I know students who have enjoyed TEAM and others who have disliked it. And there is no knowing if it's going to be good year when students enroll in the program. With that, good luck with your decision!

2 people like this
Posted by Gunn mom
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 14, 2016 at 7:28 am

Gunn does have this - it's called SLC (Small Learning Community). It sounds very similar: core classes together, teacher collaboration and alignment, ropes course early in the school year, trip to Yosemite in January.

6 people like this
Posted by Joy Learns More
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 14, 2016 at 11:04 am

Thanks Gunn mom - Not only does Gunn have SLC, which sounds identical, its champion was Tom Jacoubowsky who really made sure everyone who really wanted to be in SLC was taken. I know kids for whom it was a godsend. Unfortunately I also know kids for whom it's not enough. Many of the practices were also in place at JLS, and were not enough to overcome the hostility and disconnection resulting essentially from district-personnal-initiated backbiting for us and some others we knew. For many others, it was helpful, yet did not fill the educational needs.

Helping kids cope with the system might be the right thing for some. Many need the educational system changed.

I just read that 100 years ago, a medical degree took 1 year because that's all the time it took to learn the medicine of the day. Prior to that, the scientific revolution came about mostly by people who were essentially amateurs. Then science became the domain of professionals only, and recently again, the amateurs enabled by technology are doing things no one could dream of 100 years ago. What if we used technology more intelligently so that once again, becoming a doctor (in at least some specialties, particularly family practice which faces acute shortages) could take far less time again? There's a human limit to memorizing facts. How much of what kids do will they remember? We are at the dawn of a new age, and shouldn't just be doubling down on the old ways. Burning kids out in school, making them more comfortable in a system still likely to burn many of them out, isn't what we should be aiming for. I think a history course with some really great films, books, field trips, and a lot of discussion is more likely to make history helpful to any child than memorizing facts to pass tough exams.

Some kids love the system we have. Perhaps that is what should become the small learning group...

9 people like this
Posted by PAUSD retiree and parent
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2016 at 12:10 pm

The TEAM program began at Paly with the 1993-94 school year.....22 years ago. At that time there were five courses in its curriculum: the 3 currently offered plus math and theatre. The teachers were outstanding and at that time there were two field trip options: Yosemite or Ashland for the theatre festival.
This exemplary program has existed for nearly a generation. Can it possibly be that this is the first time the Weekly has taken note of it? So refreshing to read a Weekly article acknowledging the creativity and professionalism of district teachers.

9 people like this
Posted by Amen
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 15, 2016 at 1:03 pm

"So refreshing to read a Weekly article acknowledging the creativity and professionalism of district teachers."

Amen to that

12 people like this
Posted by PAUSD Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2016 at 11:27 pm

This program is a joke.

Team is a half-hearted attempt at Frosh bonding. It provides a little more than a handful of group meetings and trips. It falls far short of what the potential of a Connections-like Program could be at a High School level.

TEAM is like a band-aid on a hemorrhaging patient. A little bit of group events with little academic change in the classroom. Its pitiful. The program could be so much more but is sugar water in comparison to Connections or Ohlone at an elementary level.

C'mon Mr. McGee and PAUSD Board. Let's get some real changes in the classroom at the High School level. Not just some horrays for TEAM's pathetic field trips.

11 people like this
Posted by Joy Learns More
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 16, 2016 at 8:56 am

@pausd parent,
Sad to say, Connections is falling short of its potential, too. Sixth grade is great, and then they start phasing it out basically, so the kids can be funneled into high school. There are only 2 classes that are Connections in 7th and 8th. They do a bait and switch on grading, too. Parents sign a document telling them there won't be grades, but the kids are graded and laned like everyone else. It is nothing like Ohlone anymore.

1 person likes this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 16, 2016 at 10:39 am

@PAUSD Parent, @Joy,

How would you like things could be different? The challenge with full-on differentiated programs ("school within a school") is that it becomes a scheduling nightmare - the students can't take the electives they want (including band, choir, or the math classes they are a fit for them. So it's a balancing act, with TEAM, Social Justice, etc., between team teaching and accessing the electives and programs in a larger school.

Are you thinking the whole school should be changed, like Ohlone? Or do you think there should be bigger version of existing programs, like 6th grade Connections? Or ???

9 people like this
Posted by Midtown Citizen
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 16, 2016 at 11:10 am

Midtown Citizen is a registered user.

My son did TEAM two years ago. He didn't really like it (he's kind of a curmudgeon), but my wife and I thought it was a good program; we hoped it would make the transition to the larger world of high school easier by reducing that world from 300+ students to 100. We still think that is true (and are happy our son did TEAM), but realize our original desires were more than a little utopian: the reality is that the social and academic dynamic is widely variable, particularly if a random lottery is used to select the participants (note: the lottery is not always necessary; our son's year did not need one). Our son is pretty social and probably didn't really need the more limited group to acclimate to high school. Two years later, only one friend was in the TEAM program with him (and that is a kid with whom he went to elementary and middle school). The academic advantages didn't really help because math and foreign language weren't included (due to academic lane accommodations) and those two were probably the most challenging academic courses for him (and I'm guessing he's not atypical). I think it is a program long on potential but pragmatically not truly implementable.

BTW, it is my understanding that the SLC program at Gunn is very similar.

7 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 16, 2016 at 1:51 pm

Gunn's SLC program is only for 25 students. School counselors suggest to certain parents that their kids would benefit from such an environment. As such, it is not really comparable to TEAM.

And then, TEAM itself is merely for 90 kids at Paly. So between the TEAM (at Paly) and SLC (at Gunn), you're talking only around 100-110 kids out of 4000 high school kids benefit. While laudable for effort, these programs are mere drops in the bucket.

The recommendations are that the District get more serious about improving student-teacher connectedness. The Stanford School of Education helped other high schools develop true schools-within-a-school.

8 people like this
Posted by Paly family
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 16, 2016 at 1:52 pm

One of our kids was in TEAM. He enjoyed it to some extent but did have one very problematic teacher.

The biggest problem for him, according to him, was that he entered his sophomore year feeling more like a freshman than a seasoned high school student. He did not have one person in any of his classes from the previous year so had to make new friends straight away and since he was a JLS rather than a Jordan alum, there were less familiar faces in his classes also. He felt very protected and separate in TEAM, but mixing with the full student body was harder for him than he expected particularly as social groups had already been formed that he felt excluded from. He had got on well with his fellow TEAM classmates, but found it harder to continue to socialize with them due to electives and sports choices.

Overall, his time in TEAM was a positive, but it was a harder 10th grade year than it should have been if he had not been in TEAM.

Like this comment
Posted by Decisions... decisions...
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jan 31, 2017 at 11:01 pm

Reviving this thread, since it's that time of year when we decide whether to go the TEAM route.

We would love some more insight into other students'/parents' experiences.

Is this a good fit for shy kids? Is TEAM considered by other kids to be "uncool," thereby making it difficult for TEAM kids to assimilate back into the regular program in the following year? Are TEAM kids ostracized from the greater student body? Are we overthinking this?!

The last comment from Paly parent is particularly troubling since our child finds it very challenging to meet people and make friends, purely due to shyness.

Many thanks for any and all advice!

7 people like this
Posted by Laughing All the Way
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Feb 1, 2017 at 2:25 pm

This is so much baloney! I can't speak for Gunn, but Paly keeps the freshman, especially the kids in TEAM, in a state of "controlled panic" ( to quote another parent).

The kids are constantly told that the freshman year is a walk in the park, compared to sophomore year.

They are also told that junior year is the year that "separates the losers from the winners" ( to quote another student who quotes a teacher).

The kids get awful, terrifying messages from teachers, counselors, even the deans!

Many kids are now begging to transfer to Menlo Atherton, where they can be winners more easily!

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

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