We arrived in Palo Alto from Hamburg, Germany, on Aug. 6, 2015, with a 5-year-old daughter who was proud to master writing her first name -- MALINA -- in somehow clumsy capital letters but could barely speak a sentence in English. We will be leaving Palo Alto on June 28 with a 6-year-old who corrects me when I make mistakes in English, has written her first books, knows the difference between a hexagon and an octagon, and who wants to invent something "really cool" when she grows up.
What happened in between? My daughter went to an elementary school in Palo Alto.
You can meet with startup founders, talk to Stanford University professors and have coffee with venture capitalists to try to understand Silicon Valley. Yet, if you want to really grasp what makes this special place thrive, sending your kid to a nearby public school is the shortest path into the heart of the Valley's culture. Thinking big, being wholeheartedly techie and always aspiring to change the world -- it all starts in kindergarten.
The full Valley experience starts for us every morning on our short walk to school. On the way, Malina meets and greets a lot of her new friends. And while my daughter kisses me goodbye to begin her day in Room 2, saying "Tschüss" -- German for "bye" -- you can hear her classmates parting from their parents with "au revoir," "zai jian" or "adios." Every morning I feel as if my daughter is about to head off to a miniature United Nations assembly.
That's because Malina's classmates' parents resemble Silicon Valley's overall population mix. A new study finds that 74 percent of all Silicon Valley tech workers age 25 to 44, such as many of the parents in Classroom 2, are foreign-born. And 51 percent of the Valley's population over age 5 speaks a language other than exclusively English at home. This was according to a local newspaper report. The families at our school come to Palo Alto from countries such as France, Israel, China, India, Spain, Russia and Korea. And it is really impressive for me to see what an outstanding job the school has done to integrate everyone into the community.
For kids such as my daughter, who start the school year with poor command of the English language, our school brings in a special English teacher in the first months. For Malina, the school district even made an extra effort to find a native German-speaking teacher for this purpose.
The school staff is exceptional, too: Malina's classroom teacher, Lisa, will go down in our family history forever as the one who sustained Malina through rocky times at the beginning. Thanks to Lisa, she has now grown into a curious and happy learner.
It's in the system. Trying hard to integrate new arrivals -- just as our school does with the youngest -- pays off for the whole area. Another new study shows that 51 percent of the most valuable new companies were started by immigrants.
While schools in California are among the worst in the country, most public schools in Palo Alto score top levels. To overcome the shortages in California's decaying public school system, everyone here has agreed to a kind of a silent pact -- to donate money.
Our school even has an anonymous donor who recently agreed to give $17 million for school renovations. The incredible flow of private money into the public school system means great teaching assistants, such as Anita, one of my daughter's best friends on campus. And it means iPads, books and libraries as abundant as chalk stumps in German classrooms.
Of course, Malina has started to learn how to code here. Her teacher has provided parents with a password for an app that teaches kindergartners the basic principles of Java using a game. Malina loves this app. She plays it at home in the afternoon. The after-school program offers -- for a fee -- training in coding, design thinking and 3-D printing. While I don't think all of this is necessary for elementary school kids, I get that tech savvy belongs here, just as Waldorf schools and clay pottery belong in Germany.
Yet, the most important ingredient, the one with all the Valley flavor to it, is the part money cannot necessarily buy: It's the spirit.
Every Monday Malina's teacher sends a blue note home with her, explaining what the class did last week and what the plans are for the coming one. The other day it said they would focus on persuasive writing, composing letters "to fix problems and change the world." Had I read this when we first arrived here, I would have probably laughed and thought it to be a sign of your typical Valley grandeur. Ten months later I wholeheartedly appreciate this attitude. My daughter is learning how to read and write and do her first additions and subtractions. But much more important to me, she has developed a self-assurance and stronger sense of her capabilities than any other school would have probably ever taught her back in Europe.
Back home Malina always wanted to be a singer when she grew up. Now, she wants to invent something. Malina's year at a Palo Alto school has taught our whole family that Silicon Valley is less a spot on a map than a mindset.
There is always an opportunity to start something new and hopefully better. Anyone can aspire to change the world! Innovation is about psychology. If Europe doesn't start adopting this attitude in our own educational systems, there's really no point in Germany sending over whole troops of CEOs, politicians or other delegations to learn how to become more innovative, more like Silicon Valley. We have to start with our youngest.