Tuesday marked the first day of a new school year for thousands of middle and high school students in the Palo Alto Unified School District, with the district's younger students set to return to classes on Wednesday.
At Gunn High School, excited students poured into the much-anticipated Central Building, a massive two-story, $21-million project designed to transform the entrance to the Arastradero Road campus. The building, which was completed in the spring but wasn't in full use until this fall, houses five new classrooms, a student activities center, the wellness center, therapists' offices, the registrar and college, career and guidance counseling. Gunn's Spangenberg Theatre was also updated as part of the project, with two new band and choral classrooms (complete with acoustic wall panels) and other smaller instrument practice rooms.
"This is luxurious!" one student exclaimed as she walked into one of the new music rooms on Tuesday.
Freshmen and sophomores in Lisa Hall's advanced communications class made use of a new ground-floor classroom in the Central Building on Tuesday, getting to know each other through a typical first-day-of-school icebreaker activity. They sat at new tables with surfaces that double as whiteboards to encourage collaboration and creativity.
Upstairs, students in need of last-minute schedule changes lined up outside the new counseling office. Counselors met with students in a conference room with floor-to-ceiling windows that can open up all the way onto a second-floor terrace overlooking the school's quad.
Gunn senior Zainab Ali proclaimed the Central Building "the most colorful building on campus." Exterior accent walls are painted blue, red and yellow.
Ali said she had mixed feelings about returning to school in general: "I'm very excited to see everyone again after two months ... but I'm also sad because it's our last first day."
She and her friend, senior Sophia Dhanani, said they're both looking forward to homecoming and spirit week in the fall, but not looking forward to Advanced Placement classes and the start of the stressful college-application season. They're also excited to be starting what they believe is Gunn's first Muslim Student Association (MSA).
"In an environment where there are so many people, it's kind of hard to find people who are like you," Dhanani said. "MSA will bring Muslim students together, give them a place to express their faith and feel a sense of community."
This year's seniors are the last class that won't have experienced Gunn's teacher-advisory program, Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality, or SELF, which launched in 2017. This year, freshman, sophomores and juniors are all part of SELF cohorts paired with a teacher-mentor. The cohorts will stay together through their senior year, meeting together in a weekly advisory period.
Principal Kathie Laurence said Gunn is pursuing this year several high-level goals, including revamping assessments and getting more teachers to use evidence-based grading, or measuring students based on the progress they make toward pre-determined course objectives rather than letter grades. This kind of innovative grading, focused on demonstration of mastery and skills, is happening in pockets across Gunn, Laurence said, but she wants it to be a schoolwide practice by the fall of 2022. Shifting more teachers to evidence-based grading is also a districtwide goal for Palo Alto Unified.
"A 'B' for one student could measure something different than a 'B' for another student in the same class," Laurence said, "and that shouldn't be. It is more equitable for all kids."
At JLS Middle School, about 70% of teachers use evidence-based grading in their classrooms, Principal Chris Grierson said Tuesday. He plans to focus on growing that number this year.
"Part of the purpose (of) evidence-based grading is that it offers the students more of a growth mindset. They can self-reflect and understand their progress and how they're learning through a standard rather than just, 'I got a B+,'" he said. "It lowers stress, lowers competition, lowers ranking."
While many parents are excited about the promise of an alternative to grades, others are less receptive, he said. Teachers often spend time answering these parents' questions and explaining the benefits of a less punitive approach to evaluating students' academic performance.
"It's a complete cultural shift, especially for many of our parents who come from abroad because they are looking for that Palo Alto rigor of grades and percentage points," Grierson said.
New at all three of Palo Alto Unified's middle schools this fall is a science curriculum pilot that is aligned with the state's Next Generation Science Standards. Later this fall, the district also plans to convene a middle school literature selection advisory committee to review new state-recommended core texts for sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The group will make recommendations to the school board in the spring, according to the district.
Grierson is starting his first year as principal at JLS, where he was once an assistant principal and teacher before spending eight years as principal of Duveneck Elementary School. He replaced Lisa Hickey, who is now working in human resources at the district office.
Several JLS parents said in interviews on Tuesday that they hope Grierson focuses primarily on academics and safety at a large school. (The district office is also evaluating and improving safety procedures this year, Superintendent Don Austin said in an interview, including adding cameras on all campuses and hiring a person devoted to emergency preparedness.)
Several JLS parents welcomed the fact that their new sixth-graders could adjust to school through Connections, a small, project-based learning choice program. The sheer size of JLS — 1,100 students and 150 staff members — is also an adjustment for Grierson, who is used to the smaller elementary-school environment.
Grierson's two main goals this year are to learn all student and staff names by December (he's been studying the school yearbook, he said) and to ensure every student enjoys coming to school (a partly personal goal given his daughter is starting sixth grade in Half Moon Bay this year). He invited a group of mothers peppering him with questions on Tuesday morning to reach out to him if their children were not having a positive experience at JLS.
"A principal is only as effective as well as they know what's going on at their school site. If they don't know what's happening, if they don't know how people are feeling, then they can't make any type of changes," he told the Weekly.
• Watch Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin discuss the PAUSD Promise initiative, the differing timelines to redevelop Cubberley Community Center and more on "Behind the Headlines," now available on YouTube or listen to the podcast version at PaloAltoOnline.com/podcasts.