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Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 18, 2011

School 'choice programs' offer range of teaching styles

But most families opt for neighborhood schools

by Chris Kenrick

For elementary school parents in Palo Alto, this is a season of deadlines and applications — and the awaiting of lottery results — for alternative educational options offered by the school district.

From "basics" to "developmental," from Spanish Immersion to Mandarin Immersion, the Palo Alto school district long has offered a range of programs that diverge from the community's dominant educational style.

A number of choice programs held parent information nights in January, with selection lotteries coming up in March.

Most kindergarten families opt for schools in their own neighborhoods, with ease of walking or bicycling to campus and having classmates who live nearby.

But "choice" programs have developed over the years, including the basics-oriented approach of Hoover School; the "developmental" style at Ohlone School; Spanish Immersion at Escondido School and Mandarin Immersion at Ohlone.

Admission to any oversubscribed choice program is by lottery, with preference given to younger siblings of already-enrolled children.

Lottery odds vary from year to year, depending on the number of sibling applicants and the ebbs and flows in program popularity.

Ohlone Principal Bill Overton said the school traditionally gets 100 to 150 kindergarten applications annually. There are about 90 spots for the coming year, he said in an e-mail.

The 35-year-old Ohlone option is the school district's oldest "choice" program.

Teachers are called by their first names, "since we realize that respect is something that is earned and not given due to a position," the school notes on its website.

"We embrace a philosophy based on the uniqueness of every person, the trust and respect that every person deserves, and the need to develop the whole child," the school states.

"As a result, we spend a proportionate amount of time giving students the tools to navigate life, as well as the curriculum."

At the basics-oriented Hoover School, siblings occupied 40 of the 66 kindergarten spots that were available last fall, according to Principal Susanne Scott. There were 71 lottery applications for the remaining 26 spaces.

For this fall, about half the kindergarten spots are expected to be occupied by siblings and, so far, 59 applications have been received for the 33 remaining spots, Scott said.

"Based on past experience, our secretary is expecting this year's applicant pool to reach 100," she said.

Hoover's lottery is scheduled for March 4.

In December, the school board elevated the district's three-year-old Mandarin Immersion Program from "pilot" to "ongoing" status.

The program, currently serving 88 K-3 children in four classrooms, eventually will go through fifth grade, with no provision for continuation into middle school.

In the kindergarten lottery for the current year, 43 English-speaking children applied for 14 spots and 26 Mandarin-speaking children applied for eight spots.

Lottery odds are rough for the district's popular, 15-year-old Spanish Immersion Program at Escondido School.

Principal Gary Prehn said he's received 25 lottery cards for two spots for students who are proficient in Spanish, with 12 of the 14 spaces for next year taken by siblings.

For English-speaking students, Prehn said there were 67 lottery cards for seven spots, with 23 of 30 available spaces taken by siblings.

At Jordan Middle School, where Spanish Immersion is available through eighth grade, Principal Michael Milliken said, "We haven't had to use a lottery for SI in recent memory."

Other "choice" programs for middle school students are the Connections Program at JLS Middle School and the Direct Instruction option at Terman Middle School, perhaps comparable, respectively, to Ohlone and Hoover.

Hundreds of parents and students turned out recently for an information session on Connections, presented by teachers as well as current and past students in the program.

Students said they liked the close relationships with classmates that develop in the program and the autonomy they are given to choose their own projects.

"Project-based learning is when you take a project based on the interest of the student, and develop it outward to teach what you'd teach," Connections teacher Kim Lohse said.

"You find the student's interest first and figure out how to teach the skills as you go along."

JLS Principal Sharon Ofek said Connections, with space for 54 sixth graders, has attracted "a few more than 100" applications in each of the past two years.

In the more structured program at Terman, there were approximately 75 applications for 28 sixth-grade spots last fall, according to Principal Katherine Baker.

A lottery drawing will be held at the district office on March 31, with parents notified if their student is chosen or if their student has been placed on the waiting list, and if so, what their number is.

Direct Instruction is described on the school district's website as emphasizing "the accountability of individual students, as distinguished from groups of students, for scholastic achievement."

"Teachers provide the majority of instruction in the core academic subjects in the discrete, single-subject areas of English, mathematics, social studies and science, as distinguished from an interdisciplinary approach, where multiple subjects frequently are taught in combination," the website states.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at