Summertime, and the learning is fun | July 5, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 5, 2013

Summertime, and the learning is fun

Summer school students catch up, or get a jump start on something new

by Chris Kenrick

Singing in Spanish, building poetry websites, making paper models of the Titanic, re-taking math after failing a class — it's summer school time in Palo Alto.

More than 2,000 students have been pursuing enrichment, academic intervention or skill-building this summer on four Palo Alto campuses.

About 650 elementary students finished up their 18-day summer programs Wednesday at Ohlone and Nixon elementary schools.

Nearly 1,000 middle school students got an early taste of high school by taking summer classes at Gunn High School due to construction on Palo Alto's three middle school campuses.

At the high school level, located this year at Palo Alto High School, this week was semester break. The program — attended by 500 the first semester and an expected 400 the second — is focused mainly on "credit recovery," with fewer electives than the number offered for younger students.

Summer school can be a chance to pick up a new skill, prepare for a new subject in the fall, make up lost credit or just have fun.

At Gunn this week, each of about 25 middle schoolers played on a large screen in a darkened room in Maureen Willis' class in Multimedia, Internet and Web Page Design.

The students used HTML coding to build their own poetry websites and experimented with software programs.

"Typically I teach them something the first hour and the second hour is their chance to learn something new," said Willis, who has taught in Palo Alto middle schools for 15 years, most recently at JLS.

"Some students become experts in their chosen fields, and they teach the others."

A seventh-grade boy named Vinay proudly showed off his Photoshop drawing of a character chopping down a tree.

On the other side of the room, seventh-grader Angel called Willis over to see her turkey with flashing colored feathers, which she had created with Adobe Fireworks animation software.

A few students figured out how to add music to their websites, and soon the information had spread to the whole class.

"They went out on the Internet and dug until they figured out how to do it," Willis said. "It's so much fun to see the knowledge start in the corner and travel around the room."

Sometimes, kids don't even realize they're learning programming, she said.

"They just think they're teaching dragons to fly."

In the math department, kids worked in small groups either in intervention classes for students needing extra help or skill-building classes for student who want to sharpen their math skills.

The Teenage Gourmet class was going on in the Gunn kitchen, where students were preparing seven-layer cake.

Sixth-graders Aria and Tyler listed the ingredients: marshmallows, Oreos, white chocolate, chocolate chips, sprinkles, condensed milk and confetti cake mix.

"It's not the healthiest, but this is the last day of summer school so they get sugar on top of sugar," said teacher Erica Goldsworthy, a Jordan Middle School science teacher during the regular school year.

Earlier the teenage cooks had mastered some healthier options including pizza, veggie platters, French toast and pasta salad, Goldsworthy said.

In the music room, teacher Teresa Merchant conducted six young violinists in the American fiddle tune "Devil's Dream" as well as "America" and the "Star Spangled Banner" in preparation for a concert for parents scheduled for Thursday.

In a "jumpstart" class, Terman Spanish teacher Margarita Mendez used music to prepare middle school students who will take Spanish 1 this fall.

For teachers, summer school is an opportunity to create new curricula or practice administrative roles.

At the elementary schools, Jennifer Segall and Arcia Dorosti, who normally teach, respectively, at Escondido and Barron Park elementary schools, were principals at Ohlone and Nixon.

The middle school principal this summer and last summer was Keith Rocha, who has taught history and social studies at Jordan Middle School for the past six years. This fall, Rocha leaves Palo Alto to become assistant principal at Kennedy Middle School in Cupertino.

High school summer school principal is James Lubbe, Gunn's dean of students during the regular academic year.

Segall and Dorosti completely revamped elementary summer school and began planning intensively in January, with help from Director of Elementary Education Kathleen Meagher and teacher coaches.

Rather than having a single, four-hour block as students did in the past, the students' day was divided into three, 55-minute segments. They could choose instructional blocks in math or literacy, or any one or two of 14 electives.

Instead of segregating the students who needed math or reading intervention, students were mixed in classes and taught in small groups.

Rather than staying in one classroom all morning, students — even 6-year-olds just entering first grade — moved between classes. To build executive functioning skills, students were expected to organize their materials into "traveling portfolios" and carry them from class to class.

"Every aspect of what we did differently this year we did very purposefully," said Segall, who has taught at Escondido for the past 10 years and recently earned an administrative credential at Santa Clara University.

"We wanted a fun experience for kids, so we have the elective piece, and they move between classes."

Teachers were invited to submit proposals for electives.

Tara Hunt, who normally teaches third grade at Walter Hays Elementary School, offered an elective on all things Titanic.

Nixon teacher Mary Blazensky gave a course in American Sign Language, with help from a classroom aide and a high school student volunteer.

On Wednesday, 20 students stood up and silently signed to recorded music of "It's a Wonderful World."

Elementary summer students began and ended each day in homerooms, where they discussed and wrote about the summer's eight "theme words," which were posted all over the campus: evidence, predict, explain, observe, compare, analyze, support and reflect.

In academic subjects, students took pre- and post-assessments to measure progress, data that will be reported to parents and next year's teachers.

In another feature new this year, academic teachers met daily in a 55-minute block while students were in electives.

"The embedded collaboration is huge," Segall said. "It gives the teachers time to really look at the student data and use it to drive instruction, looking for progress toward goals and thinking about next steps."

"It helps for the teachers to feel empowered, and heard."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


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