New kindergartners waved goodbye to lingering parents, first-graders took "tours" of their first-ever own desks and some middle schoolers dove straight into academic learning on the first day of school for the Palo Alto Unified School District's 15 elementary and middle schools on Tuesday.
Palo Alto Unified's kindergarten through eighth-graders returned to school the day after the high schools started the new year.
Four elementary and middle schools also started the year with new faces at the helm, with new principals taking over at Palo Verde and Juana Briones elementary schools and JLS and Jordan middle schools.
"I'm new just like you are," Palo Verde's new principal, Hillary Miller, told a class full of kindergartners sitting in a circle on the floor, learning how to attach name tags to their shirts.
Miller comes to Palo Verde from JLS, where she was assistant principal for the last two years. She's bringing a sense of stability to the school, which saw a total of three interim principals in the last school year. Miller said in her first greetings with almost every parent and staff member she's come across, they said something about last year's turnover.
Paula Kaufman, the mother of two Palo Verde students and one preschool-aged child who will attend the school next year, said the school community is confident in Miller as an experienced administrator and "known entity" in the school district.
"She has a great reputation. ... People are looking forward to her being here," Kaufman said. "My expectation is that she'll just up the ante and add to what was already a pretty stable, happy environment."
Despite the high turnover last year, it's not a "turnaround situation" at Palo Verde, Kaufman said.
Both Kaufman and Miller credited Palo Verde's experienced staff for this. Miller said she doesn't "see the decline that I would have expected to see without the support from an administrator."
She said she's not planning to rock the boat in her first year, but rather continue to support priorities that teachers have been identified, like focusing on the schools' implementation of relatively new reading and writing curriculum in place at all of the elementary schools through the school district's partnership with Columbia University's Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. The research-based curriculum is Common Core-aligned and emphasizes student choice and independence in reading and writing.
Miller said she's also working with her new staff on what three higher-level, districtwide focused goals recently identified for this school year -- high quality teaching and learning; equity and access; and wellness and safety -- look like at Palo Verde.
This year, new kindergartners at Palo Verde, and at all of Palo Alto Unified's elementary schools, will phase into a full day in October. The school board approved in May full-day kindergarten for all, despite opposition from some parents and teachers.
Most of Palo Alto's elementary schools operate an extended half-day kindergarten model, where one half of the class leaves around noon while the other half stays for about two hours twice a week. Barron Park is the only site with a true full day, but Palo Verde is close. At Palo Verde, kindergartners stay in school until 2 p.m. four days a week. Starting in October, they'll be released at 2:15 p.m., so it's not a huge shift.
However, under the new model, Palo Verde kindergarten teachers will get more aide support and students will get to go to physical education for the first time, Miller noted.
"While they're only extending 15 more minutes this year, they'll actually have more opportunity for a better, balanced day," she said. "That's exciting. Kindergarten is definitely buzzing about that."
Miller is one part of a larger elementary- and middle-school leadership shuffle this year. Juana Briones Elementary School Principal Lisa Hickey has left to lead JLS after the former principal, Sharon Ofek, was promoted to a district-level position, chief academic officer for secondary education.
Jordan's interim principal, former Gunn High School administrator Tom Jacoubowsky, has moved to Juana Briones this year. And Jordan is now being led by Katie Kinnaman, a former Palo Alto Unified teacher who most recently served as principal of Gardner Bullis School in Los Altos.
At JLS on Tuesday, after the bell rang and students went into class, parents eagerly surrounded Hickey outside the main office to pepper her with questions. She, like Miller, is a known entity in the district and comes with a good reputation, parents said.
Hickey -- who herself is the parent of a middle schooler -- told the Weekly that her top focus for students in her first year will be "making sure that we're creating a safe environment where students want to come to school."
"That's really important for me in middle school. I really believe in, if they feel connected to school and they are excited to come ... then the learning takes place," she said.
Hickey said she plans to spend the next few weeks meeting individually with teachers, staff and parents.
In the meantime, back-to-school events are planned throughout the week for students and families, from the school's sixth-grade transition program, Panther Camp, to a picnic in Mitchell Park for the school's choice program, Connections.