In room 10 at Escondido Elementary School on Wednesday morning, a group of second-graders sat cross-legged in a circle on the floor and turned to their peers, one by one, introducing themselves on the first day of school.
In addition to letting them learn each other's names, teacher Tara Feldmeier was laying the groundwork for future learning. The morning greeting is a tool from Responsive Classroom, a teaching approach that melds academics with social-emotional learning. As the school year progresses, for example, Feldmeier might prompt students to turn to one another in the same way to discuss a new English, math or science concept — creating a predictable, comfortable setting for students, Principal Marcela Simoes de Carvalho said.
"Kids get a chance to rehearse their thinking," she said of this particular practice. "Everything that's embedded in (Responsive Classroom) is understanding that kids can't learn academics unless there's that social-emotional learning going on at the same time."
Incorporating this approach from kindergarten through fifth grade is one of Escondido's goals this school year, Simoes de Carvalho said, to create more consistency throughout the grade levels. In Escondido's Spanish immersion classes, for example, teachers will build on activities introduced on the first day of school to teach more sophisticated vocabulary.
Escondido and Palo Alto Unified's other 11 elementary schools, plus Greendell (which houses pre-kindergarten classes), returned to class on Wednesday, kicking off both new priorities and continued focus on existing goals. Two elementary schools — Duveneck and Palo Verde — also have new principals this year.
Districtwide, all kindergarteners through third-graders will be screened for dyslexia this year as part of Palo Alto Unified's effort to implement new state guidelines for the learning disability, including identifying students earlier to make sure they're receiving necessary supports. Historically, early identification of dyslexia "typically resulted from outside evaluations," according to a district presentation on the topic. Universal screening in the earliest grades is meant to shift that, school officials have said.
Now, the initial screening is being done on a computer and generates a report on the likelihood of a student having dyslexia, according to Anne Brown, assistant superintendent of elementary education. If a student is flagged as possibly having the learning disability, they are then evaluated by a trained specialist.
"We're just excited we have a tool in our hand now that we can use to identify the possibility (of dyslexia)," Brown said in an interview.
All elementary school reading and education specialists are now trained in specific strategies to support students with dyslexia, Brown said. The goal is to eventually train all general education teachers on the same approaches, she said. Elementary school teachers on special assignment, who provide targeted training and support to other teachers, will also be offering training related to dyslexia this year.
This week also saw the beginning of two new transitional kindergarten classes at Barron Park and Duveneck elementary schools. The district decided to expand its transitional-kindergarten program to make it easier for families who live far from Greendell School, particularly in East Palo Alto, to enroll their children.
Another change this year affected some elementary Voluntary Transfer Program families who live in East Palo Alto but attend Palo Alto schools through a lottery (also known as the Tinsley program). The district announced in April that it would be closing new enrollment at four elementary schools for the Voluntary Transfer Program and asked parents to voluntarily move to other sites.
A total of 42 kindergarten through second-grade students were affected by the change, according to the district. Fifteen students moved to Fairmeadow, Duveneck, Hays and Escondido while 22 students stayed at their current schools. Five students left the district due to their families moving out of the area.
The district plans to continue to support all East Palo Alto families with its Family Engagement Specialist program, which has been redesigned this year and renamed the Student and Family Engagement program. The program, which has gone through several iterations since its creation, is meant to provide close outreach and support to minority and low-income families who feel less connected to their school communities. The district hired this spring Miguel Fittoria, who was born and raised in East Palo Alto and attended Palo Alto Unified schools, to lead this effort.
At Escondido, Simoes de Carvalho said she actually didn't know how many new Voluntary Transfer Program students had enrolled this fall. Once children from East Palo Alto arrive, she said, she doesn't distinguish them from other students.
"Once they're here, that label gets expunged," she said. "If we always use the labels that keep that dividing line between whether its ethnicity, where you live, your socio-economic status, then we're not doing our job as it relates to the Promise (the districtwide plan), which is your socioeconomic status does not determine your success."
Other goals for Escondido this year include implementing a social-emotional learning and anti-bullying program and focusing on differentiation in reading and writing instruction, Simoes de Carvalho said. The districtwide plan, the PAUSD Promise, also includes as a goal increasing elementary students' reading performance.
• 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.