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Proliferation of Choice Programs in Palo Alto - A Vision

Original post made by Matt Passell, Charleston Meadows, on Nov 7, 2006

Imagine the following dialogue between a new homeowner in Palo Alto and a school board member.

Board Member: “Congratulations, you’ve just bought a home in Palo Alto. Now your children will attend a fantastic school and receive a great education!”.

Homeowner: “Yes, that’s why we looked so hard for a house in Palo Alto. One of the attractions was that the PAUSD offers more than just a core curriculum, including Art, Science, and Foreign Language.”

Board Member: “Yes, our fundraising group run by parents helps support the arts and sciences. Years ago we established a policy to promote centralized fundraising in our district, so that all schools would benefit from these programs, even though our budget cannot cover the full costs.”

Homeowner: “Wonderful. I also hear that children can learn Mandarin.”

Board Member: “Yes, I voted to establish our Mandarin Immersion program.”

Homeowner: “So my neighborhood school teaches Mandarin?”

Board Member: “Well, no. Your child has to win a lottery to be taught Mandarin”.

Homeowner: “What? I thought this was a public school district, where all children were provided an equal education.”

Board Member: “No, of course not. This is Silicon Valley. We promote the core values of luck and chance. After all, not all start-ups succeed, and there’s plenty of luck involved. So we might as well teach our children the real-world values. Why would we educate all the students? I mean, how many fluent Mandarin speakers do we need?

Homeowner: “Well, I suppose. Is there a PAUSD goal to establish a target number of bi-lingual students?”

Board Member: “Actually, there’s no PAUSD goal related to foreign language at the elementary level. But we’ll have forty per grade level graduating each year. That’s about five percent of our children.”

Homeowner: “But if foreign language was not a PAUSD Strategic Goal, why did the board divert resources from other important priorities to establish a program for a select few?”

Board Member: “Well, the budget’s always tight, and a group of parents came forward and waived money at us.”

Homeowner: “But my understanding of District policy was to promote centralized fundraising, so that benefits would be fairly distributed across all schools.”

Board Member: “Well, we’re already rewarding students who are lucky enough to win the lottery, so we figured we might as well charge them for it.”

Homeowner: “So if I’m lucky enough to win the lottery, where does my child go to school?”

Board Member: “Oh, you’d drive across town, where there used to be a neighborhood school.”

Homeowner: “Hmm. I’m not sure I’d want to deal with the traffic. Besides, pickup and dropoff must cause serious safety issues. Is there a program to promote car pooling?”

Board Member: ”Be serious, nobody in Palo Alto carpools. Besides, traffic and safety issues aren’t very interesting anyway. What’s important is that we can offer a special program to a few lucky students. I want to achieve something important in my tenure as a board member. New programs, new language offerings, maybe some kind of award…. Besides, if the current schools just continue the same old boring excellence, I won't get any credit for it. I had to drive to school, so why shouldn't everybody?”

Homeowner: “I guess that does sound exciting. But I do wish my child could attend a local school and still benefit the same as the other students. What about science programs?”

Board Member: “Oh, we do that by lottery also. We figured the world didn’t need that many scientists, so we select a few while they’re in kindergarten and immerse them heavily. That way we’ll raise our chances of having a Nobel Prize winner from a Palo Alto school. Besides, the average citizen doesn’t become a scientist, so why provide that opportunity for everybody?”

Homeowner: “Well, thanks for the information. I guess the core values of the PAUSD are much different than I thought.”

Comments (22)

Posted by Roeper
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 7, 2006 at 11:34 pm

And the Tony award goes to....
[Envelope ripping...]

Seriously though - great points brought to light in a humorous context. I've heard a lot of these buzzwords around, but I feel I have a greater understanding of how it all falls into place. Thanks! Better than "Cats!"

Posted by Concerned Parent in Barron Park
a resident of Juana Briones School
on Nov 8, 2006 at 9:01 am

Great comedy on a very serious subject! Thanks for putting this in a context that all can understand!

I think it is outrageous that the Board would vote to implement a program that goes against the core values of the PAUSD. We do pay a lot of money to live in Palo Alto and all of our children deserve to recieve and EQUAL education. If the Board were really concernced about our children they would be working on a way to implement a program that offers lanuage to ALL of our kids not a select few.

Posted by Shan Phillips
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 8, 2006 at 9:41 am

While I agree Matt’s article is funny…I don’t find the objective humorous.

It attacks a potential new choice program Mandarin Immersion (MI) by turning it into a referendum on Choice vs.. Neighborhood schools. Why does it take the advent of a new Choice Program to rally people concerned about the erosion of "Neighborhood Schools"? There has been plenty of time to focus on this issue in the 11 years since Spanish Immersion was successfully started. While I think the discussion of Choice vs. Neighborhood schools is a worthy one, I don't think it is fair to hold MI hostage to "resolving" this issue. There is strong demand for MI so it is the logical next Choice Program.

Separately, we should evaluate the evolution away from neighborhood schools towards a more choice-based model and what it means for Palo Alto. In the process of this evaluation lets remember that Palo Alto used to have 20+ neighborhood elementary schools and is now down to 10 Neighborhood elementary schools. Bottom line, choice programs have not been the major driver of neighborhood schools being consolidated.

Posted by Ali Green
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 8, 2006 at 10:00 am

Matt's well written post addresses what seems to be the most interesting question in the whole MI magilla. Can a city the size of Palo Alto really justify another choice program? How much of our resource can we divide among how many programs? And from what I read above the resource isn't just money.. it's also about using roads, buildings, travel time, neighnorhood values etc. etc.

Yes we are an innovative city, and clever at making less do more, but at what point must we say: We are we trying to do too much and as a result we will fail too many of our children. I compare this to the Palo Alto library problem... we are dividing our resources into 5 branches and the overall library system is suffering as a result. Resources are finite... At what point are we splitting ourselves into too many directions?

Posted by Jamie Maltz
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Nov 8, 2006 at 10:13 am

The community has not had to circle the wagons around the neighborhood school concept for more than 11 years, specifically because no one has shown up to threaten that concept since the last choice program was put in place.

Just because we have some choice programs already doensn't mean we support having any more, or that we need any more. (Two wrongs don't make a right).

Please see PIE Benchmark study to see that PAUSD is already brimming over with Choice programs. This is not necessarily a good thing. By expanding choice programs are we adding complexity and overhead to our system, and diverting resources from focusing on core issues. Going overboard on Choice program relative to our benchmark peers isn't a good thing for the health of our district.

Consolidating neighborhood schools is a lot different than abandoning the concept all together. Fewer schools with wider boundaries, still neighborhood schools.

Just because a single group of parents with money wants a specialty program doesn't make it the logical choice. (Interesting use of the term logic.) A LOGICAL approach would be to evaluate new curriculums and programs based on a needs assessment, district strategic priorities, California standards, current gaps and community priorities.

To my knowledge there has not been a single split second of discussion by the board on what the right "next" best choice program should be, or how that decision should be made. Apparently "first come first serve" appeals to the board's sense of logic.

For more information about how this is LOGICALLY carried out, please go to the websites of several of the excellent benchmark schools that PAUSD was just compared to in the PIE study. Those schools perform a very rigorous strategic review of curriculum against clear standards and against clearly stated priorities.

Those benchmark schools by the way, also offer languages to all their elementary students in balanced strategy, reaching all students, in a FLES based approach (not through choice lottery programs to reach select few).

If great school districts can move with logic and strategic thinking, why can't we also strive for greatness and try the same thing?

Its the LEAST we can expect from our Board.

Posted by Ex paly parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2006 at 10:42 am

Sometimes I ask myself why in the world we are bothering anyway. Yes our schools are supposed to be excellent and getting our kids into great colleges is made easier because of all the wonderful programs in our high schools and below, and blah blah blah blah.

My daughter graduated paly this June. This time last year she was busy with college tours, college applications and feeling very confident about getting into a good UC or something similar. Her grades have been good but not brilliant, dipping occasionally, but her SAT scores were excellent and she was doing AP courses which she had high hopes for (she actually did do very well, but these results come out too late to make a difference while waiting to get into college). Unfortunately, when March came along, we started getting rejection after rejection letter. Her friends with their equally good grades were getting the same thing, the only acceptances coming from more obscure or out of state colleges specialising in one area that the student had declared a major in. My daughter, although a good student (maybe a very good student) could not be called an excellent student and it was only these excellent students that were being accepted into the UCs with multiple offers. What she ended up doing was going into a State University hoping to transfer when she wasn't being compared to other Palo Alto students. In other words, she would have done much better if she had been applying from a high school somewhere other than Palo Alto. Until this problem is sorted out, I fear it doesn't really matter what happens in Palo Alto if these good kids can't get into good colleges. She is now feeling smart for the first time in her life and rather sick that she is repeating material already learnt in high school and being prevented from doing classes because she's told "this isn't high school anymore and you won't survive the pressure of too many classes". I think to some extent she is a bit bored with some of her classes and is waiting for her next year to be challenged more. So, this is what Palo Alto education has done for her. I can't call it a success, and somehow she does feel a failure. Here's to her next semester!!

Posted by Pauline Navarro
a resident of Juana Briones School
on Nov 8, 2006 at 11:45 am

Matt, funny conversational starter. Thanks.

For a serious ability to speak to the Board members, please get the PA Weekly today, look for, cut out, mark, and mail the 1/2 page Ad some of us put in called "Attention Palo Alto Residents- Urgent". It specifically points to many of Matt's conversational areas. Do so now, because NOW is when the next step toward undermining our neighborhood schools is happening.

We need to stop it.

Posted by Advice Column: Ask the Board
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2006 at 12:00 pm

Dear Board,
On my way to work this morning, a large Bald Eagle hit me in the windshield. I never thought of owning a pet before. Its very big, and I have a very small house, we're already crowded. I probably will have to move three of my six small children out of the guest room they're in now, all into one bedroom to make room for this big eagle. I also don't have much extra money, we get public assistance already for many of our basics. We rely on the kindess of our neighbors for our livelihood. I also have very little extra time to run the household because I am spread so thin. I don't have much time or money for home maintenance, and I'm not sure my kids are as safe as they should be in our home that is very old.

What should I do?
Do I Need a Pet

Dear Do I Need a Pet:
Yes, clearly you should adopt that Eagle. You will be revered for owning an Eagle. It will set you apart from others. Eagle Ownership is a very unique skill that you will be hailed for in the future. Eagle ownership is not for everyone but since this one smacked you right between the eyes, obviously this is the best course of action for you.

By the way don't confuzzle your decision by looking at the pros and cons, your long term goals, effects on your kids, your budget, your overhead, your lifestyle, or by attempting to look at how other eagle owners do, or how eagles themselves do in this scenario. It will only divert your attention from the ultimate prize of being able to say you own an eagle. Besides, I'm sure your six kids will figure out how to fend for themselves while you divert your efforts to this eagle. Good Luck!

The Board

Posted by Karen
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 9, 2006 at 12:31 pm

Thanks, Matt, for the well-written humor and great points!

thanks, Pauline, I just opened up my Weekly and found the ad - I will add my voice to yours opposing MI.
Karen Latchford

Posted by sue
a resident of Ohlone School
on Nov 9, 2006 at 2:21 pm

Matt forgot to mention that his fear is for his specific neighborhood school because another choice program would mean another option for those families clamoring for a way out. Maybe that's the real issue that needs to be addressed. If he believes that PIE has brought equality to all Palo Alto schools he better wake up and smell the coffee.

Posted by Ron
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 9, 2006 at 2:46 pm

Homeowner: I'm so happy to have finally purchased a house in North Palo Alto.

Board member: Yes, you are so fortunate. By the way, you've been entered into the overflow lottery and have won a spot at Juana Briones!

Homeowner: You mean I'm going to have to get in my car twice a day and drive my child all the way across town, even though I live right across the street from my neighborhood school? If I must drive, do I at least have another option of sending my child to a school that will provide something that I can't get in my neighborhood school?

Board member: Yes, we call them our choice programs Ohlone, Hoover, Spanish Immersion and perhaps a new one, Mandarin Immersion. These are all wonderful alternatives started years ago by innovative and progressive parents. And, by the way, they have a secondary benefit of providing more space in neighborhood schools and many of the parents at choice school do form carpools with neighborhood children.

Homeowner: Thanks, I feel much better now, knowing that Palo Alto schools are as progressive as I had understood them to be.

Posted by Kate
a resident of Juana Briones School
on Nov 9, 2006 at 3:44 pm

To Sue From Ohlone:

Could we please keep postings on this forum civil and respectful?

Your comments..."Matt forgot to mention that his fear is for his specific neighborhood school because another choice program would mean another option for those families clamoring for a way out... If he believes that PIE has brought equality to all Palo Alto schools he better wake up and smell the coffee..." are mean-spirited and totally uncalled for.
The Briones community is proud of its neighborhood school and I don't know of anyone who lives here "clamoring to get out" as you so gently put it. I do know of overflow students who opted to stay, of families who have begged to transfer in and families who wouldn't choose anywhere else for their kids.
Furthermore, your comment to Matt about waking up and smelling the coffee re PiE is completely naive and harmful to a very good person. Matt volunteered hundreds of his (and his family's) hours to facilitate the ASF (the predecessor to PiE) and bring a new fundraising body to PAUSD.
I believe you owe Matt and the entire Briones community an apology.

Posted by Dave
a resident of Addison School
on Nov 9, 2006 at 3:59 pm

Kates right, and not only that, but PIE is certainly attempting to do just that, create equitable schools.. It's special interest groups that want to buy their way around equitable distribution of resources across all schools that create more harm than good to this goal.

Posted by Matt Passell
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 10, 2006 at 2:27 am


Thanks for your comments and for suffering through my humor. I’ll try to keep this piece on an even keel, though there may be hints of sarcasm interspersed. Although we may not agree, debate is good. You’re absolutely right in that I would like my school’s community to remain intact, as it is a fantastic, well-operated school. My kids are extremely happy, and we wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else.

Of course everybody in Palo Alto raves about their school, which they should. I hear nothing but good things from parents and kids at Ohlone, Barron Park, Juana Briones, Hoover, and all the other schools in Palo Alto. In fact, I’d be quite surprised if any school would like to have their community disrupted by a new choice program, especially one with such a dramatically different curriculum.

And regarding people ‘clamoring to get out’, let’s evaluate the underlying issues. Is it average test scores that scare people off? Don’t worry, your child’s score won’t suffer because his neighbor has special needs or is struggling. Differentiated instruction is the norm, and the top quartile at any neighborhood school can compete with the best in Palo Alto.

Is it fear of diversity? Juana Briones and Barron Park share a wonderfully diverse community, but maybe that’s not for everybody.

Or to be fair, maybe there are substantive educational issues of which I’m not aware. But if there were, shouldn’t the District address those issues in a positive, collaborative way? Are we incapable of working through issues that can truly improve a school, rather than splitting it in half and forcing it to co-locate with a separate program. Does a district have to be run by fear and intimidation? That’s not an effective strategy for maintaining a community spirit or positive educational environment.

Regarding equity, I do enjoy the smell of coffee, and still retain the vision of a fully equitable school district, and all votes being counted in Florida. The fact that neither will ever come to fruition does not deter me from sticking to principles and doing what I can to inch us along a path towards those elusive goals.

Again thanks, and no apologies required. Like I used to say in the ASF days, if we ever have an issue in Palo Alto and nobody argues, then we have a real problem.



Posted by Matt Passell
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 10, 2006 at 2:37 am


Thanks for your comments and your ability to respond in kind. My ability to articulate in dialogue is suffering at the moment, so I'll revert back to prose.

The problem of overcrowding in the North is best served by evaluating enrollment and boundaries, not by choice programs. Let's not solve one problem with a completely separate solution. What if an 'overflowed' north child doesn't want to enroll in a choice program? Choice programs were not created for people to choose to drive a shorter distance.

The capacity problem can be solved in a number of ways, which is what the AAAG is now studying. In reading the data in the AAAG minutes, it's clear that choice programs make the puzzle even more difficult, and in some cases even create more imbalance.



Posted by another parent
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 10, 2006 at 7:17 am


I hope you see your thought:

"Let's not solve one problem with a completely separate solution."

with respect to solving the world language strategy with or without Mandarin immersion.

FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School) is a completely separate soluntion. Both of them solutions, not working against each other.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 10, 2006 at 12:11 pm

I think it would have been appropriate to say: Lets not solve a problem with a completely different problem.

Issues in overcrowded schools solved with a Mandarin Immersion program? If Pace were not proposing MI, this would have been the farthest thing from peoples minds as a solution for neighborhood school overcrowding.

But is sure adds alot of divisiveness and a whole new set of problems to and already thorny situation. Sort of like throwing water on an oil fire..

Posted by jane
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 11, 2006 at 12:55 am

Matt, I don't quite follow your comments on choice programs making the AAAG puzzle more difficult and creating more imbalance could you elaborate?

I'm hoping that I and the rest of the families in my neighborhood can count on you being as vocal for the reopening of our neighborhood school as you are for the preservation of existing ones, even if it means greater expense and the loss of revenue for the district as a whole.

P.S. I don't mind sharing my child's campus with a choice program if that means that it will reopen.

Thanks in advance for your support,


Posted by AAAG Member
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2006 at 1:33 pm

Grace & Nico

Since you have an idea of who the people are that are interested in MI for their kids and that they presumably have preschoolers, it would be interesting to know in what area of Palo Alto they live. You talk as if you know that people will travel from all over Palo Alto to get to wherever, those who have already stated that they are interested may only be interested if they are only travelling a short distance. So, information on this would be enlightening.

Posted by A REAL AAAG Member
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 7, 2006 at 10:11 pm

If you're really an AAAG Member, you'd have the PACE presentation that showed the number of children by neighborhood school and by cluster who want MI in their backyard. Yes In My Backyard - YIMBYs!

Please contact your Fairmeadow AAAG for the data and don't pretend to be what you aren't. John Markevitch, john@, and Carol Acker, carolacker@ .

Posted by Grace Mah
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 8, 2006 at 4:02 pm

The feasibility study is on-line here:

Web Link


Posted by really confused now
a resident of Meadow Park
on Dec 8, 2006 at 5:34 pm

Thanks, Grace. I appreciate having the chance to read for myself this document that has been the focus of so much speculation and rumor.

Unfortunately, I think this report will serve to galvanize anti-MI groups, and with good reason. It glosses over any difficult issues (except site placement) and ends up sounding like a pro-MI editorial rather than a neutral study.

One example is the assertion that this program would further the district's goal of closing the achievement gap, because all residents would have an equal opportunity to participate. Does anyone else find this assertion disingenuous at best? I expected something mo thoughtful from the authors of this study.

The second is the assertion that the program would qualify for and receive additional grant funding because the program only narrowly missed obtaining funding this year. Actually, as anyone with any experience in grantwriting will tell you, until you have a grant in hand, all bets are off. To state otherwise is misleading.

I thought the long-awaited Feasibility Study would provide us with a much-needed objective look at the program. Not so. What a disappointment. I suspect this report will galvanize opponents more than anything else so far.

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