At Gunn High School on Tuesday, 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 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 and other smaller instrument practice rooms.
"This is luxurious!" one student exclaimed as she walked into a music room.
Freshmen and sophomores in Lisa Hall's advanced communications class met in a ground-floor classroom in the Central Building, getting to know each other through a 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.
Pursuing school goals
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 increasing 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 the large school, which has 1,100 students and 150 staff members. (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.)
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. 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.
Practice new educational approaches
Palo Alto Unified's 12 elementary schools, plus Greendell (which houses pre-kindergarten), returned to class on Wednesday, kicking off new priorities and continuing to focus on existing goals.
In room 10 at Escondido Elementary School, 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.
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, students with dyslexia were identified if they were diagnosed by outside evaluators, according to the district.
Now, the initial screening is being done on a computer, and a student flagged as possibly having the learning disability will then be evaluated by a trained specialist, according to Anne Brown, assistant superintendent of elementary education.
"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.
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 those 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 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 differentiate 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 (states that) your socioeconomic status does not determine your success."
The district's PAUSD Promise also includes as a goal increasing elementary students' reading performance.