The hallways, classrooms and administrative offices of Palo Alto and Gunn high schools were abuzz on Monday for the first day of school.
Administrators helped freshmen find their classes; seniors arrived in varying costumes, as is tradition for the first day of school (Gunn seniors wore crowns for a "royalty" theme and Paly seniors donned their usual camouflage pants, shirts and hats); and parent volunteers collected last-minute back-to-school packets from students.
The two high schools returned to school Monday, while the elementary and middle schools start on Tuesday. Several campuses have new faces at the helm, with new principals at Paly, Escondido, Fairmeadow and Hoover elementary schools. The district also has a new superintendent in Don Austin, who visited both high schools on Monday.
At Paly, students were adjusting to a new bell schedule, which was revised over the summer to meet the state's minimum requirement for instructional time. The school had to ditch its plan for later start times and more flexibility during the school day to be legally compliant. Principal Adam Paulson announced the revised schedule in a message to students and families on Aug. 2.
Some students said they felt frustrated by the last-minute change. Others were simply confused about what their schedule would look like this week.
"We were told that the schedule was going to be one thing and then two days before school started it was posted on Facebook that it's not going to be that," said senior Tessa Fletcher.
She appreciated, however, that the schedule still eliminated Paly's "C" day, a seven-period day that students and parents said caused undue stress and work.
Senior Alexis Marriott was frustrated because she and other students built their schedules with the new, later start times in mind. The previous schedule proposed shifting the start time from 8:15 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and 10:05 a.m. on alternating days, which followed the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that no secondary schools start earlier than 8:30 a.m.
Under the revised schedule, Paly will start daily at 8:20 a.m.
The schedule change didn't dampen Fletcher's spirits about her last-ever first day of high school, however.
"I'm having a lot of fun. I have a good attitude about this year," she said. "We're going to make it the best one."
Paulson said he communicated with teachers and staff in small groups and via email this summer about the schedule changes. As of Monday morning, he said only two teachers had taken him up on an offer to come see him directly if they had any issues with the schedule.
He plans to conduct surveys to evaluate the bell schedule and to re-engage the site committee that recommended the original schedule that had to be revised.
Meanwhile, major construction projects are underway at both high schools. Paulson expects Paly's new library to be completed in November, with occupancy slated for January. The library will have a new study room, multimedia collaboration rooms for students, meeting space for staff and a maker's space, among other features.
The $14.2 million library renovation follows the opening of Paly's new athletic center, performing arts center, media arts center and classroom buildings, all built in recent years under the school district's 2008 Strong Schools Bond.
At Gunn, the center of campus is still fenced off as the two-story Central Building takes shape. The $24.9 million project is slated to be completed on time, in January, according to Principal Kathie Laurence. The new building will house Gunn's wellness center, guidance department, student activities office, classrooms and flex space. Laurence hopes to the building will be fully functional by the start of the 2019-20 school year.
Gunn will also get new music buildings this year. Laurence anticipates they will be done by late September or early October.
This fall marks the second year of existence for Gunn's new teacher-advisory program. Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality, or SELF, pairs a cohort of 20 to 24 freshman with one teacher who will be their mentor for all four years of high school. Upperclassmen, dubbed Titan Ambassadors, also volunteer to help out during freshman orientation and other activities.
This year, the program has expanded to include both ninth and 10th graders (it will continue to grow through all four grades). Freshmen met their cohorts and mentors at orientation last week, while sophomores will meet during school this Thursday. After last year's pilot, the program will be "more structured" this year, with four eight-week units focused on topics such as self-awareness and social responsibility, said Courtney Carlomagno, a social-emotional teacher on special assignment who oversees the advisory program.
Staff plan to run focus groups and work with an advisory committee to continue evaluating and adjusting the program as needed.
Gunn junior Nikki Karnik is a Titan Ambassador; she is also a leader with Sources of Strength, which trains students to become peer leaders on mental health, and hopes to become a psychiatrist in the future. On Monday morning, she was standing in a long line of students requesting course changes with that career in mind. She was hoping to move from honors to normal chemistry (to ensure a better grade, she said) and to enroll in Advanced Placement psychology.
Asked how she's feeling about the notoriously demanding junior year, she replied hopefully: "A little bit stressed, but it will be OK."
District focuses on communication, compliance in new year
At the district level, staff have been adjusting to a new superintendent after several months of interim leadership. Austin, who was most recently at the helm of the Palos Verdes school district, is starting to leave his mark on Palo Alto Unified. He started this summer by bringing in a communication specialist to train all of the district's administrators before school started.
Tom DeLapp of Communication Resources for Schools advises districts on effective communication, community engagement, crisis management and media relations, his website states.
Austin said he asked DeLapp to come to Palo Alto because "holes in communication loops" quickly emerged as a common theme in the new superintendent's discussions with staff and others since he started the job.
DeLapp talked with principals and administrators about how to improve both internal and external communication, Austin said.
Before school started, administrators also participated in required training on federal civil-rights law Title IX and state anti-discrimination law Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP), led by Title IX Coordinator Megan Farrell. Farrell is also leading in-person trainings of all staff and teachers at the elementary, middle and high schools in the coming weeks.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights found last year that the district had repeatedly violated federal and state law and board policy in its handling of sexual misconduct on and off its campuses. Concern over the district's flawed response to sexual misconduct was reignited last spring by a student sexual assault case at Paly, which has led to a renewed focus on compliance and training.
Austin said the administrators' training reviewed the nuts and bolts of law and policy on Title IX as well as promoted a reporting philosophy he described as, "When in doubt, report up."
Austin is looking to reorganize the district staff who work with or close to Title IX — including Farrell, a full-time investigator, a legal request specialist and compliance officer who handles Public Records Act requests and potentially a general counsel (which would be a new position for the district) — into one department that would be overseen by Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Karen Hendricks, who served as interim superintendent after former superintendent Max McGee resigned last fall.
The goal this year, Austin said, is to "tighten" district procedures to ensure that all staff properly respond to reports of misconduct.