Palo Alto teachers, students back to school next week | August 9, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 9, 2013

Palo Alto teachers, students back to school next week

New buildings to greet students at five campuses, new principals on two

Palo Alto's 800-plus teachers return to work Monday morning to ready their classrooms for the first day of school Thursday, Aug. 15.

Teachers and staff will convene for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast at Gunn High School for the annual "chow down," a kickoff to the school year.

They will hear a presentation from designer and inventor Brendan Boyle, a partner at the Palo Alto design firm IDEO and consulting professor at Stanford University, who will discuss how "design thinking" is used as a creative problem-solving method and the role of play in the innovation process. Boyle teaches a course at, Stanford's Institute of Design, called "From Play to Innovation."

They'll also hear from Board of Education members, union presidents and Superintendent Kevin Skelly, who will honor employees marking major anniversaries with the school district.

Two of the district's 17 campuses — Palo Alto High School and Terman Middle School — open the school year with new principals.

At Paly, Kimberly Diorio, assistant principal for the past six years, takes the helm, replacing Phil Winston, who resigned in June. At Terman, Pier Angeli LaPlace, a teacher and administrator at JLS Middle School for the past 20 years, replaces Katherine Baker, who becomes the district's director of secondary education.

With property-tax revenues up, district officials for the first time in years say they have some financial breathing room. Board members in March approved $2.6 million in new spending — boosting principals' discretionary funds and counseling budgets and adding teachers at middle schools and high schools as well as coaching and technology support for elementary teachers. They also allocated $5 million for staff "professional development" to be spent over three years.

In addition, the district created a new position of "communications coordinator," hiring former Santa Clara Unified School District Public Information Officer Tabitha Kappeler-Hurley at a salary of $130,000. Kappeler-Hurley was an English teacher and vice principal at Santa Clara's Wilcox High School before moving into the public-information role in 2004, where she also directed career-technical education and a program to boost female participation in math and science.

Major new buildings open this fall on several Palo Alto campuses, notably Gunn High School, JLS, Jordan and Terman middle schools and Fairmeadow Elementary School. The buildings — including two-story classroom buildings and a new high-school gym — were funded through a $378 million facilities bond measure approved by more than 77 percent of district voters in 2008.

Construction disruptions continue at Duveneck Elementary School and Palo Alto High School, where the opening of a new Media Arts Center and a two-story classroom building have been delayed until at least December because of a dispute with a contractor.

About $177 million remains in the bond fund for future projects, including a new elementary school and a new performing-arts center at Paly.

The Board of Education resumes its twice-monthly meetings Aug. 27 after a two-month recess interrupted by brief special meetings Aug. 1 and Aug. 9.

Upcoming agenda items include new school-district policy and procedures on bullying, sparked by a December 2012 settlement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The federal agency found that the district's mishandling of the bullying of a disabled Terman student violated the student's civil rights.

The district agreed to revise its bullying policy as part of the settlement agreement in that case. Meanwhile, five other Office for Civil Rights cases involving the district have been filed or come to light.

In the settlement of another case, the district agreed to adjust environmental factors at a middle school after parents filed a complaint.

In another case, the Office for Civil Rights concluded June 14 there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of racial discrimination after a middle school minority student was searched by school officials after a substitute teacher accused the student of stealing $20 from her purse.

Three other Office for Civil Rights investigations are pending. They include two complaints filed by parents — one at Duveneck and one at a middle school — alleging civil-rights violations in the bullying of students with disabilities.

In addition, the federal agency in June initiated its own investigation of whether Palo Alto High School complied with legal requirements designed to ensure an "educational environment free of sexual harassment, and whether it responds promptly and effectively to complaints or other notice of sexual harassment."

Also on the board's horizon this fall is a vote — likely to be controversial — on district-wide academic calendars for 2014-15 and beyond.

For the first time last year, the district shifted the calendar to a mid-August, rather than late-August, start date in order to complete the first semester before the December holidays. Though polling showed the work-free semester break was popular with high school students, some parents are dissatisfied with the calendar change and are seeking alternatives.

A calendar advisory committee of parents, school staff and students, representing a spectrum of views, was to analyze survey responses and generate options for the future.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


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