Palo Alto High goes back to school

Gunn, Paly start new year Monday; elementary, middle schools on Tuesday

"Who knows what sophomore means in Latin?"

There's no response from the class full of 10th-graders, so Palo Alto High School teacher Eric Bloom tells them: The word derives from "sophos," which means wise, and "moros," meaning fools, or foolish.

"You're called wise fools," Bloom told a room full of Paly students on their first day of sophomore year Monday morning. They are no longer scared, uncertain freshmen, but now self-assured sophomores embarking on the next phase of their high school careers.

"This is just the beginning of your academic life," Bloom said. "Freshman year was chaos and uncertainty; now you begin this growth of having this wonderful time."

Paly sophomores, along with freshmen, juniors and seniors at both of Palo Alto Unified School District's high schools started a new school year on Monday.

Paly's campus was hectic with a mix of excitement, nerves and some dread about the year ahead as new freshmen familiarized themselves with the campus, upperclassmen reunited after the summer break and teachers kicked off the new year with a range of activities.

Echoes of "do you know where room (fill in the blank) is?" rang through the halls as students rushed to their first classes of the day. More confident groups of seniors -- many clad in green camouflage shirts, pants and hats in a Paly first-day-of-school tradition -- strode in groups together through the quad. (Across town at Gunn High School, seniors wore togas and enjoyed their new status posing for pictures sitting on a regal Greek throne on the quad, surrounded by four columns with "2017" in Greek numerals.)

At Paly, every student met first thing on Monday morning with their teacher advisor. For freshmen, this teacher is supposed to be their go-to person, academic and otherwise, for the next four years -- a consistent point of connection, source of support and that "trusted adult" on campus that is repeatedly referred to as crucial to supporting teenagers' social-emotional well-being.

Bloom, a longtime history and social sciences teacher who created Paly's Social Justice Pathway program with English teacher Erin Angell, also serves as a teacher advisor, with Angell, for every student in the program. The three-year pathway melds typical subject curriculum with social-justice themes and project-based learning, and the students stay with each other and the same teachers in cohorts for their sophomore, junior and seniors years. Juniors participate in an internship with local nonprofits focused on social-justice issues. The program's first cohort of seniors will spend the year developing an in-depth capstone project, starting with a research paper first semester that outlines some sort of social-justice-driven action they will enact second semester.

Bloom and Angell spent Monday morning checking in with students during short advisory periods before more in-depth lessons during the day.

With the juniors, even this brief period on the first day of school was about preparing for the college-application process. Bloom urged the Social Justice Pathway students to make the most out of being part of a program that allows for more student autonomy and plenty of self-directed learning.

"The idea is that junior year is the year that you really want to take off," he said. "In social justice, this is the year where you guys want to really dig deep and find those things."

Even some sophomores were thinking about college on the first day of school. Otto Berndt, a Social Justice Pathway student, said he signed up for the program because "it's a different way of learning," -- which appeals to not only him, but also prospective colleges, he said.

Sophomore Will Robins, though, said he likes learning about current events and appreciates Social Justice Pathway's ties to what's going on in the real world. (This year, the program's history classes are starting with government in the first rather than second semester because of the presidential election.)

These kind of opportunities make school "more interesting," Robins said.

The first week of school for Social Justice Pathway students also looks very different from the typical handing out of syllabi or academic assignments in other classes. Teachers have organized special activities each day this week, starting Monday with an interactive puzzle that blends logic, teamwork and social psychology.

During Angell's second-period class, senior social-justice students participated in the "prisoner hat riddle," during which they have been captured by fictional aliens who want to eat them, but won't if they prove they are rational, logical beings. The aliens give them a riddle to solve in order to escape. In it, five or six people must line up in descending height order, so the tallest person is in the back and can see each group member in front of them. Each person is given a red or white hat (it's placed on their head so they can't see it), and must guess one at a time from the tallest person forward what color hat they're wearing. They can only say either color and make no other signal or noise.

The Paly students strategized their way through two rounds, some succeeding, some not. They reconvened during sixth period to discuss the takeaways from the activity, from learning to persevere through failure to courage and self-control. The seniors spent the entire period talking about pro-social behaviors, exploring topics like altruism, empathy and social capital.

Their first homework assignment of the year? Pick one pro-social characteristic, like self-compassion or wonder, to focus on the rest of the week.

Meanwhile, in Paly's state-of-the-art Media Arts Center, veteran journalism students ran their first classes of the year. The editors-in-chief of student magazine Verde led introductions and then split the class into mentor-mentee pairs, asking them to draw what they did over the summer on small whiteboards and then share with the rest of the class. Some had traveled out of the country; others had taken courses at local universities, volunteered at summer camps, studied for the ACT. One had crashed his car; another had learned how to drive.

The mentorship program is student-designed, Kandell said, with the goal of connecting older students with younger ones in a publication where there is regular turnover of more experienced students.

Between periods, students continued to mingle. In an interview, juniors Vivian Young and Annie Zhou worried about the notoriously difficult academic year ahead of them. Young said she feels like her "excitement for school is wearing off," and Zhou said she felt more dread than enthusiasm on her first day back at school.

But they're still excited about the trappings of typical teenage life that lie ahead this year. Young said she's looking forward to prom season, and Zhou, getting her driver's license.

With Palo Alto Unified's usual staggered start to the school year, kindergarten through eighth-graders will follow the high schools and start the new year on Tuesday. Check Palo Alto Online for more back-to-school coverage on Wednesday.

Related article:

Gunn, Paly expand student mental health efforts


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13 people like this
Posted by A roll of the dice
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 15, 2016 at 8:14 pm

I love the Paly social justice program. It sounds great for one of my kids when she's old enough. However, you have to be in the Paly footprint to even hope to participate, or hope for a transfer, which may not even be a possibility since the schools are so crowded, transfers aren't going to be allowed every year. Then you have to hope you lottery in to this popular program. And some kids are trying to get in just because it looks good on college apps rather than having a true passion for the topic or style of learning. All in all, while this program would be a great fit for my child, it seems the odds are stacked against kids who don't live in the Paly footprint. Couldn't this program be expanded? Could it also be offered at Gunn? Could it have some type of application in addition to lottery so kids had to at least show their interest and passion rather than their entire high school experience being based on their name being pulled from a figurative hat? I applaud the creation of the program and wish all the kids and teachers a great year. Just wish participation didn't seem so random.

17 people like this
Posted by Life's Unfair
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 15, 2016 at 9:34 pm

@A roll of the dice: The social justice program was started by two Paly teachers. Try to convince two Gunn teachers to start it. Gunn and Paly are two very different schools even though they are both in the same school district. Even their bell schedules are different. If you are renting, you can rent in the Paly attendance area instead of screaming "unfair". Frankly, my kids would not like to be in the same classes with the same students for three years. They couldn't wait to graduate from elementary school so they could have different students in every class.

14 people like this
Posted by unconscionable
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2016 at 10:09 pm

I'm stunned that in this city with two high schools, the reporter opted to write about only one high school, and represent the other only as a single side note.

Elena Kadvany: What message are you sending to Gunn students?

18 people like this
Posted by what do you expect
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2016 at 10:21 pm


How do you expect one reporter to report on two schools on the same day? I don't think any message is attempted at being sent, just a general back-to-school journalism piece with a focus on the Social Pathway at Paly.

9 people like this
Posted by What about Gunn
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 15, 2016 at 10:44 pm

Did you forget Gunn students?

Like this comment
Posted by Question
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 16, 2016 at 8:16 am

Just an aside, what class is that and where are the boys? There's one photo with what looks like a couple of token boys and pretty much all girl students.

13 people like this
Posted by Elena Kadvany
education reporter of the Palo Alto Weekly
on Aug 16, 2016 at 10:24 am

Elena Kadvany is a registered user.

unconscionable and What About Gunn: Thank you for your comments. Because we focused much of last week's back-to-school preview coverage on Gunn, we decided to spend the first day of school at Paly. You can read more about what's going on at Gunn in this story from last week's paper: Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 16, 2016 at 10:38 am

Ok social justice students, dig deeper and try to figure out why this guy thinks he can call you a wise fool and why he is grandstanding.

10 people like this
Posted by vmshadle
a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 16, 2016 at 11:26 am

vmshadle is a registered user.

Oh, please, outsider. The teacher, Mr. Bloom, didn't coin the term, he translated it. Translating a term known to everyone in the entire educational world for generation upon generation and explaining that term's origin is not grandstanding. It's called educating.

6 people like this
Posted by Ditto unconscionable
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 16, 2016 at 11:42 am

There are two high schools in this city, both start school on the same day. Why would you cover just one with the headline about school starting? @Elena Kadavny, I understand that the focus was on Gunn in the last article, but it would be nice to focus on something besides mental health at Gunn...

I grew up in Palo Alto and went to PAUSD schools k-12. My two kids are now in PAUSD. I have long felt that Gunn was the forgotten high school in Palo Alto unless there's bad news coming out of it.

More equal coverage please!!

8 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 16, 2016 at 12:14 pm

I read an article about all the new paint and outdoor amenities at Gunn last week.

A reporter can only report on where she has been on one day, she may be at one of the other schools starting back today.

Stop the rivalries between parents. It's bad enough when the kids do it.

5 people like this
Posted by Bill of rights
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 16, 2016 at 1:23 pm

The social justice pathway program sounds like brainwashing in fascist progressive dogma. True social justice is freedom from a corrupt government that has a different set of laws for its top officials and provides a revolving door to enrich its leaders.

How about a special program on capitalism and our constitution?

6 people like this
Posted by Bill of rights
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 16, 2016 at 1:42 pm

I hope the social justice pathway has a class on the fairness of taking a large tax increase and redistributing it to the school district teachers and administrators as a pay raise without addressing class sizes as originally promised.

Maybe there could be a lab on spending over $60M of city funds to purchase a trailer park in order to benefit a few dozen favored families.

Another class homework assignment could be how to trade mythical "neighborhood benefits" for zoning waivers and variances in order to line to pockets of developers.

Lastly, they could include a team presentation on how to impose a myriad of unsubstantiated environmental, gender and politically correct ideology on the populace without input from its citizens, open debate or supporting data.

Now that is justice.

20 people like this
Posted by Happy Gunn Senior
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 16, 2016 at 2:12 pm

Happy Gunn Senior is a registered user.

My daughter is happy to be a rising senior at Gunn. She had fun dressing up --as is the tradition for Gunn seniors first day--and is looking forward to a stimulating and fun year. She and her friends had fun creating their costumes while they had chatted and watched movies together this weekend.

It was a lovely summer--a good balance of work and play for her. She's ready for her senior year. Go, Titans and Vikings! Have a GREAT year!

Like this comment
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 18, 2016 at 12:09 pm

SEA_SEELAM REDDY is a registered user.

Welcome back students!

Make us all proud by being good students.

we have outstanding schools, teachers, facilities, teachers, students here.

Make best out of it.


Like this comment
Posted by Sally Kadifa
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 18, 2016 at 9:43 pm

Sally Kadifa is a registered user.

Great article! Makes me (almost) wish I were going back to school again! I want to correct a commonly held misconception about the Paly teacher advisor program. Students do not have a single teacher advisor for all four years. Freshmen are assigned a teacher advisor (who is one of their classroom teachers) for just the first year. As sophomores, students are then reassigned to a different teacher advisor for the next three years. The teacher advisor is not necessarily one of their classroom teachers. Students meet with their advisor and his/her other advisees in that grade during the weekly advisory period. Teacher advisors oversee three separate groups of students (sophomore, juniors and seniors), so the weekly meetings rotate among these three cohorts on a schedule set by the school. Thanks again, Elena, for the great coverage of a special time of year.

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