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It's time to rethink our high schools

Original post made on Dec 5, 2014

Thank you to all of the Gunn students who have spoken out recently after the suicide of your classmate. It's your courage and honesty that will help us change things for the better. I'm a Paly parent and a Paly grad. We're across town, but we understand Gunn all too well, and we have the same problems you do.

Read the guest opinion here Web Link posted Friday, December 5, 2014, 12:00 AM

Comments (149)

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 5, 2014 at 9:15 am

Hi this is Cathy Kirkman. If you've read this far, thank you for taking the time to read this piece. I welcome your comments, and will be at Peet's Coffee next Thursday, December 11th at 10am to discuss in person with anyone who is interested. I will be the person with a redbone coonhound.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 5, 2014 at 9:20 am

That's Peet's at Town & Country, to clarify, thanks.

Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 5, 2014 at 9:36 am

I think you are making some very good suggestions that could go a long way in improving our high school culture and reduce excessive stress. I wonder if our high schools could change the way grades are rationed in some of the classes. This would mean more A's and B's as a result. And I don't think anyone is suggesting that these very "hard to get good grades classes" should be dumbed down. It just shouldn't be from the get go a teacher tells the class that only a few can qualify for A's and esoteric tests and/or excessive homework is used to raise the bar. It would be like taking the freshman Stanford class and telling them the same.

Can the high schools change even this one part of the problem?

Posted by Middle College is Great
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 5, 2014 at 9:46 am


Thank you Cathy, for a great editorial! I wanted to second your suggestion to expand the community college option for high school students. My child is in the Middle College at Foothill where they can earn high school and college credits concurrently.

My child enjoys the independence, the ability to take advanced classes (more math and computer science than what is offered at Gunn), the fewer classes (which are more intense), and just being treated as a adult. A quarter class at Foothill is equivalent to a year class at Gunn.

This is a jewel of a program which has a historic reputation for being filled with "kids who didn't fit into high school". That is a falsehood! It is such a shame that the program is not promoted by the high schools. Why isn't it listed in the high school course catalog?

Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 5, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Thank you Kathy for writing this and talking about both Gunn and Paly. I am tired of hearing about Gunn as being the school with problems and Paly being ignored. I think both our high schools need a great deal of help and support. I applaud your suggestions and hope things can be changed.

I also hope that perhaps some sort of grass root effort could and should be made to alter the college application process throughout the country. It has to begin somewhere so why not Palo Alto? :)

Unfortunately I am not available on Thursday, but hope that many can join you and that things can be done to help both schools. Please report back and let us know what happens and how we can help too.

Thank you again.

Posted by parent
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 5, 2014 at 12:57 pm

Great article. I hope that with Dauber on the school board and you leading the way on tough issues in the community we can finally make progress. Our kids very lives depend on it.

Posted by Commion Sense
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 5, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Wow! I love all of these ideas but lets get real. The person who wrote this as well as people agreeing with this are forgetting something very important: Paly and Gunn are academic machines driven by the parents in this district, by a hunger and need to succeed in the classroom.

[Portion removed.] A overall majority of these parents were very successful as students themselves and went to very good colleges and want and demand the same thing from their kids.

Paly and Gunn teach and grade to the highest levels because it is demanded by the parents. Teachers and administrators have their hands tied when it comes to grading and curriculum etc... Majority of parents want their kids challenged and will go nuts if expectations are lowered.

Dauber and this lady have all kinds of great ideas, seen them for the last 18 years around here. Palo Alto is an academic machine full of pressure to succeed, driven by very successful parents.

Posted by Questions??
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 5, 2014 at 1:49 pm

I agree with Commion Sense - most of the problems come from parents.

Also, I know the academic stress levels are high in Cupertino and Fremont High School areas. How come they have no sad news like us? How can their students survive in these areas?

Posted by concerned parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 5, 2014 at 2:22 pm

I think that Common Sense is right in some ways. Parents pay a lot of money to come to Palo Alto because of the schools, and they will demand the best education, and continued excellence, so that their house prices will hold up.

But I think that you can eliminate some of the most stressful forces and still maintain high standards. You can still teach students just as well, but inflate the grades a bit, so that there isn't so much stress related to getting Bs and Cs. Assign a reasonable amount of homework, so that students and their tutors/parents aren't spending every night toiling away.

It's possible to maintain high academic standards and high test scores without harsh grading and tedious low-yield homework. I think that very few students would complain about too many As being given out, or too little homework being assigned.

Those that complain about that can move to some other cutthroat place...Palo Alto doesn't have to be like that.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 5, 2014 at 3:49 pm

A few thoughts based on these comments.

Great advice about Middle College, thank you!

Common Sense makes the point that the schools are "academic machines" which I agree with, hence the piece. I think where we disagree is that I think we can do something about it, and I think that other parents want to do something about it too, even "successful" parents, myself included. While I was very successful as a student at Paly and want the best education for my children, that doesn't mean that I want an academic machine.

I agree that we parents want the teachers to "teach to the highest levels" but that should mean the highest professional level of pedagogy, with content appropriate for what the level of the course is. Language Level 2 should not be Language Level 4 (example only); there are objective benchmarks to maintain in regard to the course content.

I don't agree about "grading to the highest levels" whatever that means. Grade deflation is a major issue to address. The Campanile periodically has student articles hoping that a "B" here will be viewed as an "A". Most parents I talk to are unhappy about stress and hard grading. I have not talked with anyone who wishes their kids were graded harder, or who feels that how we grade now is "just right". Of course kids need to earn their grades, we just need to evaluate this matter as a community, and get off the steroids, so to speak. The public schools belong to all of us. No one's hands are tied.

Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 5, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Cathy - what a great article! Great, common sense suggestions that are SO counter to what Paly does now, I can't see how they would be implemented without using the "blunt interment" you mentioned!

In addition to the truly unfortunate suicides experienced by the Gunn community, I would like to know why so many Paly students end up in either residential treatment programs, wilderness programs or therapeutic boarding schools? I can think at least 8 kids from just the classes of 2013, 2014 and 2015 who have needed to be sent away.

Posted by common sense
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 5, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Look, I love all the ideas, I really do and find them admirable. Mr.Dauber will find this out really quick! Palo Alto is a educational machine built to produce high achieving students who come from high achieving parents, very high achieving parents. Palo Alto is basically a public school system that is run like a private school system with all the donations etc... Their are some parents I'm sure that would like to see less homework and educational stress. Believe me, if the standards for excellence were lowered in Palo Alto parents would be lined up at the doors in time demanding why, as well as all the realtors etc.... lots at play here that is bigger than just the schools.

As far as kids being sent away, in most cases look no further than family dynamics, parent pressure etc..

I really do agree with Mrs. Kirkman but I believe that Palo Alto is as I call it an academic pressured filled machine created by parents, realtors,etc... successful schools with pressure to succeed keeps housing prices up. Maybe it always goes back to the almighty dollar and fear!

I do find what Mrs.Kirkman is saying and doing correct and wish her well! Change has to start somewhere and I commend her big time for stepping up. Personally I think what gets lost in Palo Alto and most education today is the teaching of moral values and character. I know a few Harvard graduates who have nothing I want or value character wise. Education does not always equal common sense

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2014 at 5:29 pm

I have two kids. My older one is very academically inclined and loved school. She took many AP’s, got terrific grades, didn’t actually work that much, and is now in a very selective Ivy League college. My younger is still in high school and is less academically inclined. She works longer hours, gets decent but not spectacular grades, and will take few AP’s. It’s unlikely she’ll get into the Ivy League and even if she does it’s probably the wrong place. They are both great kids, neither one is a “robot,” and neither one has been unusually stressed over grades.

A big part of Ms. Kirkman’s approach to the problem of kids stressed out over A’s and AP’s seems to be to get rid of B’s and C’s, and limit access to AP’s. This would short-change both my children: it would hold back my older one, who really belongs in the most challenging academic environment available, for the sake of holding out what is probably a misfit vision to my younger one.

This is exactly wrong. My two kids are different people. Giving them both the same transcript will not create more openings at Harvard and Princeton, but it will make it less likely that the one who will truly benefit from being there will be the one who actually gets there.

It’s right to attack the stress culture, but not the standards. It has to really be ok to get grades that aren’t A, and ok not to take 10 AP classes, and ok not to go to Yale. This has to be divorced from our kids’ sense of self-worth. This is a much, much harder problem than simply messing with grades and courses. It is a very tricky message with deep implications, and it centrally involves parents and their expectations, which our schools don’t control. But this is the reality: every kid really does have a place, even if it’s not MIT. Any approach that doesn’t start with this, doesn’t address the problem. It just kicks it down the road a couple years.

Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 5, 2014 at 5:44 pm

Do progressive private schools have lower suicide rates than traditional private schools? Is there any reason they should be emulated other than feelings?

Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 5, 2014 at 5:58 pm

I think the grade inflation is a typical example of what we are talking about.

As an example, I know of one student who had some health issues and family issues at the beginning of last semester. As a result the math grade in particular was very poor. Halfway through the semester the student was able to start focusing again, but was never able to recover the grade above the F. Even 2 weeks before finals the student was told that there was no chance of improving the F and yet still had to do the final and performed well in it. All other classes were able to understand the situation and the student earned Cs and a B. But the math situation with the teacher being adamant about the fact that the F was the grade earned even though the second quarter performance was much better than the first quarter was totally unfair.

It isn't always the students that complain about a B instead of an A, it is often the difference between failing a class which has to be repeated and receiving a D or hopefully a C instead of failing.

Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 5, 2014 at 6:22 pm

@Parent - I totally agree with your sentiments about how restricting APs hurts everyone. The resistance to tracking is baffling, and is one of the root problems that exacerbates the "achievement gap". It is fine to group everyone at the elementary school level, but by high school, you need to give each student the opportunity to succeed at their own skill level. And if the answer is to dumb it down for everyone, that just isn;t going to work here, sodon;t waste your time.

Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 5, 2014 at 6:41 pm

@Parent -- I think you believe that asking for teachers not to grade so severely must mean dumbing down the curriculum. That is a misconception. What is being discussed is the belief that some teachers from the get-go tell students that A's and B's will be limited. An inordinate amount of homework will be assigned and esoteric tests used to sort out the students. This is not happening in other high schools. So a "C" grade student in AP History here might get a 5 while elsewhere an "A" might only get a 3 or 4 on the AP test. This puts our students at a disadvantage because grades are the first criteria colleges look at.

Comments above have noted that we have a very bright student population. It is like taking the freshman class at Stanford and telling them only a few will be allowed to go on.

It is not the place of our high schools to do the job of sorting for the college admissions officers.

The AP courses and other courses should not be dumbed down. But fair grading and reasonable homework assignments should be the practice. This will likely result in more students achieving A's and B's. If they were at other high schools, that would be the case.

Even the pushy parents would not need to push their own children so hard.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 5, 2014 at 9:50 pm

I appreciate all of the comments, and even where we will have to agree to disagree, it is valuable to have the conversation.

With regard to the comment about exploring progressive private schools, this is more of a hypothesis than a feeling. Progressive implies doing things in new ways, like getting rid of dunce caps was probably once progressive, and private schools are generally smaller and more closely attuned and responsive to their families.

With regard to limiting APs, what I’ve said is you could have an exceptions system, so those families who want more APs could still get them. Probably it would “help” those people because they could be viewed as exceptional, at least in that generic way. For everybody else, it would create a kind of reasonable norm to manage around. Many prestigious schools do this.

With regard to how any of this would hurt the average student, I really don’t see it. If the average student is struggling to get a Paly B which could be an A elsewhere, it would seem to help him or her to earn higher grades (note the word “earn”) based on a rationalized grading system. It would certainly help in terms of applying to the UCs, CSUs, and any other public university, where objective measures are important.

With respect to grade deflation, again it is not clear to me how this helps any student or family. It reminds me of when we visited a private technology college, and a family told us they were very disappointed because the grade deflation was hurting their daughter’s chance of getting into a UC medical school, and the college was apparently known for its grade deflation (with comparable programs at comparably prestigious Stanford and MIT not grading like that). I don’t know if what I was told was accurate, but I don’t know why the family would make it up and warn us; anyway take it if you will as a scenario comparable to our situation.

Also I think it’s worth exploring our instruction and assessment practices more fully. At another prestigious school, Scarsdale High School, their profile says that 45.4% of semester grades were As (3.7 and above) in the 5 CORE subjects ALONE (English, math, science, social studies and foreign languages). Compare that with Gunn’s profile that says 45% of students have an unweighted GPA of 3.7 or above (90% A per College Board), but note this is GPA across ALL subjects including PE and electives, so GPA in the CORE subjects would be lower. So I think it would be interesting to understand our grading practices based on the 5 core subjects, on a department by department basis, like Scarsdale reports.

Posted by anne
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2014 at 2:03 am

Thank you for your great ideas and for ensuring we keep discussing and act.

What is the purpose of an educational system? Is it to optimally educate every child, or weed out the top ones by certain criteria for the benefit of ...? Both models exist in the world. We can choose. I believe that putting the focus on optimizing the gifts and educational experience of every child is not only possible, it's positive and means less stress.

I think Parent above is right that some kids do need and benefit from a rigorous, intense academic experience, and they should be afforded that opportunity. Others need different but equally high-quality educational paths. One has only to look at Nueva School to see that you can have excellence in education with a very different approach.

The world has changed, even in the last 5 years. Our ability to optimize the education of every child has also changed. In rethinking what to do, we should focus on the idea of optimally educating every child, a goal Max McGee expressed in his first email to district families.

If everyone hasn't seen this talk by Salman Khan of Khan Academy, it so speaks to this conversation:
Web Link

His analogy of educating children like building houses is very apt -- the goal should be for everyone to build a solid house, not to make everyone move on to the next stage at the same time even if some aren't finished.

Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2014 at 9:06 am

@common sense - on the subject of kids being sent away, I agree that it is somewhat dependent on family dynamics, but too many kids in Palo Alto use drinking, pot smoking, etc. as a way to reduce their stress and anxiety. The stress of our school system (and parent, peers, society) pushes kids to self medicate.

Posted by Mediator
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 6, 2014 at 9:43 am

Teachers need to referee and de-fuse social and racial problems in the classroom.

[Portion removed.]

Posted by Annabel
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 6, 2014 at 5:21 pm

Thank you for writing this thoughtful article. I welcome the discussion.

We pulled our kids and put them in private school. Their stress levels have dropped dramatically, and yet the private school they attend is rigorous.

I try never to discuss schools because invariably some PAUSD parent will make snide remarks about how all the money we're spending is a waste because their older public school kid got into an ivy league (P.S -the private schools have excellent financial aid). I've heard this over and over - these parents are bullies. Even when I say that my kids are quiet thrive in a small environment, they go on the offensive about how it's good for a kid to be pushed to the limit.
They refuse to acknowledge that the classroom environment and social issues (some mentioned above) at the public schools are toxic for a good number of kids.

Lots of other families agree, there are many Palo Alto/Stanford kids in private school and the number of applications to private school is soaring. None of my immediate neighbors send their kids to public 6-12.

I wish the public schools were a good option for all children. They aren't. The current environment is extraordinarily tough on quiet kids (and parents).

This is a complex issue and I don't have a solution. I'm looking forward to hearing more from Ms. Kirkman.

Posted by PAUSD Retiree
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 6, 2014 at 6:22 pm

I live in Palo Alto. I graduated from Paly in 1970. My son went to Paly. And I worked with PAUSD students for almost twenty years. I, too, appreciate Ms. Kirkman's editorial but I find it sad (and a bit telling) that there is a large population of students who are not being addressed in any of the comments. What about the B/C students? Students who don't take AP classes? Students who barely squeak by in regular classes? Students who might transition to junior college?
If you really want ALL students to thrive, not just survive, both high schools need to offer other options to primarily sitting in 6 or 7 classes a day with little or no alternatives to learning other than sitting and listening. Yes, there is Middle College but that is not the best alternative for all students who are struggling.
Paly and Gunn pride themselves as top high schools but they are stuck in '70s pedagogy when it comes to delivering academic material. Not much has changed since I went to Paly in the 60's. We live in a very entrepreneurial and innovative city. Why not apply those winning principles to our high schools? ALL students could benefit from 'real world" experiences and have options for project based learning, vocational (YES vocational!) experiences and hands on learning.
Almost every teacher I worked with at Paly and Gunn were innovative, bright individuals but were afraid to be too innovative for fear of parental disapproval. If we truly want to have exceptional schools we need to come together as a community and think outside the box and not be afraid to try new ways of doing things.

Posted by parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 6, 2014 at 8:18 pm

Thank you Ms. Kirkman for writing this article. I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestions. Quantity of homework should not be at a level that hurts. Grading should not be at a level that hurts. Everything at school should not be competitive. It creates a harsh environment, but most importantly it creates lack of empathy (teachers-to-students, students-to-students, students-to-teachers).

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 6, 2014 at 11:59 pm

Thank you for these thoughtful comments. I will have to watch the Khan talk, so thanks for pointing to it.

The theme hat resonates for me in the various comments is the fact that these are our public schools, which belong to all us, so we all can participate in defining them together. I am not interested in dumbing down the curriculum, and I think that is a red herring, as the AP course content is set by the College Board, and the State of California sets content standards, and so on.

Rather I am interested in embracing modern pedagogy and having consistency, fairness and accountability in instruction and assessments to enable all of our kids to get the most out of schools. One of the goals of the project is to lay out what we are doing in our curriculum, so people can navigate the status quo better and provide input to the system as they wish.

Our public schools are a function of public law and also our community's values. Another goal of the project is to make the public law aspects of our system more transparent to non-specialists, so families can understand what their options are in navigating the school system. From independent study to grade changes to suspensions to student fees, to enrollment, to some many other things, these all are informed by public law.

With respect to those opting out for private school, I appreciate what you're saying. People will vote with their feet and do what's best for their family. In any event, for those of us in the public system, we need to be able to define our educational experience in accordance with the law and our values, and have it be a place where everyone can thrive. For those who value the "push to the limit" model, they can keep doing it that way. They can seek out the teachers who give out only two As in the class or who assign piles of homework. However other values of the community also need to be reflected in our school system, not just one set of values.

With respect to the Paly grad, thank you for your comments about B/C students. I agree with you entirely that we need to design more pathways for all levels of students. We do have the new social justice pathway at Paly, and we have more flexibility in our graduation requirements for students. That said, parents need more information about how to go about doing taking different paths. Grade deflation also pushes B students into Cs, and C students into Ds and Fs at the other end of the achievement spectrum. The Paly WASC report for accreditation emphasizes that we need to move away from so many Ds and Fs, but it's not clear we've made progress because of entrenched instruction and assessment practices.

Posted by Maggie
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 7, 2014 at 8:08 am

Listen to yourselves read the intensity of this thread - yes parents need to change their behavior and mindset too
And not just those with HS kids - even in elementary grades many kids have tutors - not because they need the extra help but because they want their kid to be better than others /be at the top of their class in HS so 8 year olds are spending their afternoons in tutoring vs other well rounded activities and physical play.
Middle school parents all push to get their kids in the higher level 7 th grade math even when they didn't meet the set standards - it's amazing how easily the MS lift the requirements all because the parents want the direct route to AP math vs what's the right level at the right time
These kids then spend their evenings being tutored in math ...

Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 7, 2014 at 8:40 am

Chris Zaharias is a registered user.

The #1 issue children themselves directly correlate with undue stress is the amount of time they must spend doing homework and preparing for tests. Isn't the solution, then, to enforce the standards we already have for total homework time and put teeth in that enforcement (social chastisement, fines or other)?

Posted by Charles
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 7, 2014 at 8:49 am

I graduated from Gunn a decade ago. My experience as a student there was devastating. I thought of jumping in front of that ole' train @ East Meadow and Alma almost every day.

The entire focus of many teachers and students at Gunn is an obsession with "getting into" a prestigious college, as if this guarantees financial security.

The students have fear of financial insecurity in their future drilled into their minds, which motivates them to game the system to achieve a high GPA.

They are taught how to write an essay, and graded over how obedient they are in perfectly following the *format* to *prove a thesis* because this is some holy requirement for the all important mission of "getting into" a college or else... "you will be a failure a life"

The actual content, purpose and meaning of the essay is of secondary importance.

Actual life-learning, and developing passions and specific skills are an afterthought... with the exception of Camicia's excellent Auto class, as well as some other rare standout teachers.

However, I don't think any amount of reforms will fix this problem because humans are morally imperfect.
Public law is fundamentally flawed, there's no way to fix it other than to remove it entirely.
The only real solution, in my opinion, is to end public education and encourage home-schooling/competition-driven private schools.

And a kid who has a backbone, desires freedom and tries to escape the harsh lies and peer pressure they face in school, and decides to take it upon himself to do something better with his time and pursue his passions or simply relax and indulge himself for day... (i.e. committing the sin of "cutting class") should not be labeled a TRUANT.

Posted by TallTree
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2014 at 9:09 am

Thanks to Mrs. Kirkman for the article, and fellow parents for sharing individual opinions. I have seen similar discussions whenever we had new superintendent or new high school principals coming in to PAUSD.

As parents, we all have expectations for our own children. What is different is exactly what expectations we have, as individual families, or even individual parents from each family, toward our children.

After the most recent heart-broken tragedy at Gunn, a fellow parent recommended a book "The Optimistic Child", by Dr. Martin Seligman. The author discussed a formula for self esteem: it is proportional to one's success and is inverse proportional to one's pretensions. That is, the more success one feels s/he has achieved, the more self esteem s/he feels. In addition, the more pretensions one has, the less self esteem one feels.

I think it is up to each family and each child to interpret what it means by success. It could, among other things, mean academically strong, creative and artsy, athletic, entrepreneurial, social and/or influential, etc. Every family is different, and every child is different.

Sometimes it is hard to know exactly what one wants, and where one's strengths lie. It makes it even harder when, in a high achieving town like Palo Alto, for both parents and students, there are some of our neighbors and peers who do better in certain aspects than us. We just can not pretend that everyone is made the same way. We are simply built differently, even for siblings from the same family.

So let's not pretend that every student needs to fit into the same curriculum, participate in the same extracurricular activities, take the same courses, receive the same grades or even go to the same college (I am not saying that other parents suggested this one-xxx-fits-all model). Our own strengths and propensity determine who we are and how we succeed in this world.

And sometimes, the achievements from individuals may not be as well received. But the good news is, the individual tried one's best, worked hard and deserves true celebration in one's own success. The high power parents do not need to rush in to fix these less well received success for our kids. They will learn and know better, about the world and themselves, next time. I believe the PAUSD even hosted a talk recently by one of the renowned authors in this area.

If the high achieving parents could just take the time to have a deep breath, understand what we expect out of our own children, get rid of the anxieties in us with regard to our children for a moment (it is hard, isn't it), be honest with our successes, there will be a lot more happy families and happy kids who feel that they are solidly grounded.

I also dislike with a passion some of the course arrangements at PAUSD. But I would suspect that the teachers are experts in what they are doing, even though I know my kids better. But I will save that for another day.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 7, 2014 at 10:10 am

Thank you for these comments, especially from Charles for sharing about his Gunn experience. It leads me to add to to this thread the discussions of stress at Paly and Gunn in the student newspapers:

Web Link

Web Link

Also there is the related cheating problem in a high stress environment, most recently at Paly last spring where over 100 Algebra 2 finals were invalidated because of cheating.

Web Link

Students I have known have regularly complained about unfairness and inconsistency in their learning experiences. I think we owe it to our kids to ensure that if we ask them to take on a course and try their very best, they will have a reasonable chance of mastering the material, a reasonable chance of completing the assigned work, and some assurance that they will not have the misfortune of being assigned to a section where grading and work policies are viewed by the students as extreme and outside the norm.

I also appreciate TallTree's referral to the Seligman book. Will add that to my GoodReads list. I think the more we can help students map out their pathway to success, the better their educational experience should be. Sometimes "success" can be defined in a fuzzy way, and my only concern there is that this should not be construed as alleviating the district's responsibility to educate all of our children to a proficient level.

Otherwise, imagine our campuses with an intellectual buzz and hum where each student is pursuing his or her course of study based on their defined interests and plan (almost like intellectual life on a college campus, although I would caution I do not mean to suggest we are anything other than high schools). In many ways families can design this type of experience today, but it takes knowledge and initiative, and we need to do more as a community to lay this out for families who are not aware of this, another goal of the project.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 7, 2014 at 10:34 am

Also I thank Chris Zaharias for pointing out that we have a homework policy and need to ensure compliance:

Web Link

Web Link

Web Link

The AR policy above states that "Site administrators (principals) shall be responsible for ensuring compliance with the homework policy, including the use of feedback processes to support its implementation."

This is an important issue, and if anyone knows the feedback loop that is currently going on with this please share that. If it is going on internally among staff, it's not clear that it's working very well. Having attended site council at both Paly and Gunn, it's not clear to me that those committees are actively engaged in any of the real issues facing the schools. At least that was my experience when I have attended as a member of the public, which leads to the related point that the site council is a public body that could work on these important issues with staff, but instead the meetings usually just have an agenda around awarding some teacher grants and otherwise just taking up space.

Posted by Mother Jones
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 7, 2014 at 12:57 pm

The teachers union is refusing to comply the Gunn principal sent a letter to parents. The teachers should have to cooperate.

Posted by Rogue Trader
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 7, 2014 at 2:02 pm

It seems to me that a lot of the emotion directed against Gunn, Paly, and the PAUSD is largely misplaced.

Gunn and Paly are not forcing any kids to take high lanes or APs. APs are certainly not a requirement to graduate.

Rather, it is the top colleges that are creating all the stress, as (a) they pretty much demand high school kids excel in the top lanes, and (b) they look favorably on high schools that hold back grade inflation.

I think the demands of the top colleges are outrageous. However, I am extremely grateful to the PAUSD that they are able to deliver on those demands from colleges. I'm very happy with our family's experience.

In summary, I think most of the stress comes from (a) the outrageous demands of the top colleges, plus (b) parents and kids trying to meet those demands, when maybe dropping a lane would be more appropriate and result in a large reduction of stress.

The PAUSD is just the middleman that can deliver to all types of students. Life is much less stressful out of the top 1 or 2 lanes.

Posted by parent
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 7, 2014 at 2:32 pm

middleman? If the schools are just an unfiltered reflection of parent and student and college demands, then why do we pay teachers and admins at the level of independent professionals expected to exercise judgment? You cannot have it both ways. If teachers want to be paid as trained professionals then they have to act like it and cannot hide behind delivering what others want.

Posted by Alex
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 7, 2014 at 4:25 pm

How about telling kids that they don't *have* to get into Harvard/Stanford/Cal/Yale/etc.? I eschewed the average mindset of Gunn grads (Ivy League or UC) and went to a small liberal arts school. It was the best choice I've ever made in my life, and I didn't need a single AP or a 4.3+ GPA to do it.

Posted by Rogue Trader
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 7, 2014 at 5:21 pm

Alex's comment matches the points I made above. Let's try this example.

Suppose I have a child who is a good tennis player, and I enroll him in a tennis academy. This tennis academy has 3 lanes: (1) Elite, where the students are worked extremely hard, with the goal to get a scholarship into a top 10 tennis college (2) advanced (3) recreational.

Let's say my child enrolls in lane 1 and is very stressed, struggling, overworked, not having any fun, starting to hate tennis.

Should I (a) blame the tennis academy for the stress, and tell the academy to make the elite level easier for my child or (b) drop my child into a lower lane and relieve the stress?

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 7, 2014 at 5:38 pm

Thanks for these very interesting comments about college prep. I don’t think we’re just a middleman, and I don’t think we can pass the buck onto the elite colleges either. If you look at where our grads go, many more go to public universities than a few elite universities, so I don’t see that we would even be fulfilling the role of “middleman” if we have grade deflation that limits our students’ admission prospects to the public universities; the Cal Grant A has a minimum 3.0 GPA for example. Also it’s not clear to me that the statements made about elite colleges are accurate anyway or just part of the folklore.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 7, 2014 at 6:09 pm

Thanks Rogue Trader, however a tennis academy is not a public school, so myself I don't think it's productive to have a discussion around a false analogy that leads us into logical fallacy. Let's talk about public schools, there's enough to do within the context and clarity of reality.

Posted by Rogue Trader
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 7, 2014 at 6:15 pm

"Middleman" is admittedly a poor choice of words on my part and unnecessarily confused my point.

The subsequent tennis academy example above illustrates my point better. PAUSD can deliver for all types of students, and it's important for the student/family to choose the most appropriate lane.

Posted by m2grs
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 7, 2014 at 7:53 pm

While I agree with some "technical" issues raised in the article, such as fairness of grading, it is not convincing to me that the measures proposed are sound.

1) As someone pointed out, there is no comparative analysis of Gunn vs. other high-pressure schools, e.g. Lynbroook, Saratoga, etc. Why those schools have not shown the repeated tragedies? One cannot find out exactly what went wrong, and come up with a specific solution, without comparing with similar schools that do not have such problems.

2) The demanding school culture is the result of immigrant parents. They believe themselves are the successful products of such culture. For every Steve Jobs you tell them they can tell you one hundred of their former B- schoolmates who are carrying 50-pound coal baskets for 10 cents a trip in Buntappetra, or making $20 a day assembling iphones in Foxconn. They don't have the luxury of an extended family and friends support system in this country. Academics is pretty all what they got. There is no way they will be diverted to let their kids venture into other alternative growth paths, at least for most of these parents.

Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 7, 2014 at 9:36 pm

Chris Zaharias is a registered user.

I've created a survey for Paly and Gunn students to take that might help us find out whether or not PAUSD's homework policy is being enforced:

Web Link

Paly & Gunn students, please complete the survey. Others, please spread the word. I'm no statistician, but seems like if we can get 100-200 responses, we should know once and for all a) whether actual time spent on homework falls within PAUSD guidelines; and b) whether our schools are enforcing homework guidelines.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 8, 2014 at 8:02 am

Thank you Chris Zaharias for setting up this survey, we will link to it also on the site. I had a couple more thoughts about homework. Since the principals are responsible for administering the board policy, then we just need to look to the district org chart to map out the accountability loop. Here it is: Web Link

The principals report either to the directors of elementary or secondary services at the district level, who in turn reports to the associate superintendent of educational services, who in turn reports to the superintendent, who in turn reports to the school board. So we need to be asking our public officials to address this and report to the public on a principal-by-principal basis.

Another thought is that teachers could be required when they assign homework to indicate the expected time to be spent on the assignment, e.g., 15 min, 30 min, 1 hour. This would enable staff to plan cumulative levels of daily/weekly homework together, and create a feedback loop with students in terms of how much time is actually being spent on the assignments.

With respect to the comments made by m2grs, it is not possible in the context of a 1000 word piece to provide supporting analysis and arguments. Also, it seems that your premise is that we only should solve for suicides but otherwise emulate high-stress environments at other schools. I disagree with this entirely and instead believe the objective should be to create learning environments where kids don't just survive (i.e., don't commit suicide), they thrive, socially, emotionally and intellectually. Think of a college campus where the intellectual life of the place is engaging and stimulating.

Also I don't agree that the academic culture is the result of immigrant parents, or at least, the point proves nothing: our country is a nation of immigrants. Paly was stressful and had suicides when I went there, so this is not a new thing, it has just been put on steroids.

Again, Rogue Trader, while I appreciate your comments, I think your analogy lacks nuance, as we all understand the concept of different levels of courses, but we are discussing this in the context of publicly governed schools in the State of California, so I think your arguments would be more persuasive if you discussed this in the context of our schools and curriculum. In any event, thanks for sharing and adding to the discussion.

Posted by TallTree
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2014 at 9:25 am

While it is refreshing that everyone is open in sharing our own views, an effective solution of any sort for the entire community involves thorough analysis of root causes and collectively coming up with targeted action items, respecting different input.

Determination and resolution are highly admirable, brushing off different opinions will only invite stronger voices later on. Rational solutions make a change to solve problems, instead of merely making a change for the purposes of doing something different from current practice.

So, exactly what issues are we trying to resolve? What root causes are these issues?

PAUSD had this laning curriculum for a long time. Students do not have to all get onto the highest lane and get stressed out, like some of the parents have already pointed out. Everyone picks a lane that fits one's needs best. If parents/students are less informed about these options, we could all get educated on this front. The schools are pretty good at recommending course selections.

We could all agree that the no home work night policy was not strictly followed. Not sure how much this contributes to overall stress level for our students in the district for the entire school year. Keep in mind that in order for our kids to graduate with a high school diploma, they do need to meet the State of California graduation requirements. College aside, our kids do need to study, complete homework, and sweat a bit, in order to get that darn degree.

How much freedom we give the PAUSD teachers in terms of when to complete which homework pieces, in order to for the students to actually learn, to meet curriculum requirement, is not that much of a big deal. We got to let the teachers do their work, and we ought not to pretend that we as parents know better than the teachers about running a classroom or a school.

Not sure if anyone has ever worked in a classroom. I worked extensively for the last fifteen years in various PAUSD classrooms. I have to admit that it is not an easy job running a classroom filled with students of different personalities. These are not production lines that every student matches with the same pace. The same job does not take everyone the same time to finish, this should be common sense. The PAUSD parents are not micromanagers, are we?

With regard to stress level for students, thank you Mrs, Kirkman for the web links in response to my earlier post. Everyone is stressed here and there in daily life. Key word search of "stress" from student newspapers do not help as to understand patterns of issues, nor prompt pathway to solutions.

In fact, I am impressed by the students from Gunn and PALY, in their individual articles about stresses. These are a generation of mature, analytical and calm young people. I admire their courage in facing their problems, owning them and trying to solve them.

The Gunn students pointed out, in the Dec 5 article you linked to, that the source of stress is academic pressure from peers. The PALY Voices had a similar article in 2013 about stresses in college admission, also from peers. The latter article even came up with solutions for each of the scenarios described in the article.

The issue, from the articles Mrs. Kirkman provided, is more like how to build a more supportive school environment, than anything else. This takes every student and every family to be more open, embrace difference and be more understanding of individual differences.

One of the earlier parents on this tread told another parent, who mentioned cities like cupertino and saratoga, to move to the other towns. I am not sure how supportive or inclusive that comment was. Nobody on this thread seem to notice this. It is not anybody's Palo Alto, it is everyone's. We are all in this together for a better community: be it that one lived here for 20 years, 50 years, 5 years, everyone counts.

So let's respect each other's viewpoints, reach out trying to understand each other, and come up with effective solutions for a better community.

Shall we?

Posted by Parent
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 8, 2014 at 10:05 am

One thing to distill from the discussion is clear.

There is too much homework.

As a whole, it's provably extremely inefficient in it's aid to learning. It's effective at culling, and at persuading families to provide external education such as tutoring, outside programs, or direct help with the homework itself.

True, there's no proof that homework causes too much stress; there aren't good measurements of stress in other comparable districts or our own, nor any way to verify what too much stress is, nor scientific evidence that homework causes stress.

Families know it does.

Still, even against this lack of scientific evidence, to assert that "students do need to meet the State of California graduation requirements, and that our kids do need to study, complete homework and sweat a bit, in order to get their darn degrees" is just not enough justification to defend the current practice of too much homework.

I would argue that even the most basic time analysis of how long the homework actually takes vs. time that needs to be spent on eating, exercise, sleeping, and outside interests would show that the first thing homework does is teach how to cut corners, rush through learning opportunities, or downright cheat.

Note that all of our teachers are college educated and should be quite familiar with the high school curricula. How long would it take a randomly chosen teacher to do these assignments? That might give the assigning teachers some sense of what they are asking for. College graduates have typically internalized and integrated material that high school students are just learning.

The technology has been readily available for about a decade now to combine expected assignment completion times to compute a total assignment time workload by day and week, customized for every student based on their courses. It only needs input of expected completion times by teachers. And teachers should know the expected completion times of their assignments. They should know what they are assigning, and they should know their students.

Too. Much. Homework.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 8, 2014 at 10:45 am

These are all wonderful comments. I agree with you TallTree that we must define and study issues before we attempt to solve them, and the purpose of the piece was to generate this discussion as well as share some of my views as a former student and experienced parent in the district. But it's a two-sided coin, we have to be willing to take on the hard issues and explore them, not just pronounce that we need to defer to the sites or the teachers or whoever, as this leads nowhere. The schools belong to all of us, so we all have a role in shaping them.

With respect to homework, I think this is a terrific example where we have a policy in place, but it's not clear that the policy has been implemented or tracked in any manner, or that we have any accountability within our system regarding same. If we merely had an effective accountability loop for full implementation at each site for all of our public laws and district policies and practices, that in itself would be a tremendous improvement and raise all ships.

With respect to lanes, it doesn't address the root causes of the issues we are discussing to merely say that students should pick the appropriate lane. This begs the question of what the lanes should be, and how they are defined and implemented, etc. So that is why the project will be taking a close look at curriculum, so families can select the current lane that is right for them for any course, but also so we as a community can better understand what is actually going on with the structure of our course system. Right now we deal with anecdotal information, let's strive for perfect information.

Posted by 37 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 8, 2014 at 10:53 am

Rogue Traders tennis analogy is spot on.

Posted by concerned parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 8, 2014 at 10:54 am

I can feel the emotion in this article and I love it. I don't know what the answers are but these ideas seem like a great start for discussion. There is a focus on the top tier of our students and the bottom tier. What about the student with a few a's mainly b's and some c's? The student that maybe takes one AP? These are bright kids. THESE kids are getting LOST in the shuffle. They need support and they would benefit from "special programs" that are provided to the ultra-high achieving 10 AP kids. What about them? I feel this town is placing SUCH focus on these top achievers that the population I mentioned above is really getting the short end of the stick. If these kids were at a nice public school in an affluent suburb of say, Denver, they'd be the starts of their class. Here in Palo Alto they feel marginalized by their peers and our community. By the way, those kids in the top echelon in Palo Alto are amazing, don't get me wrong. But these kids I'm talking about will go on to mid-tier colleges and can have equally interesting and meaningful lives. Why isn't there a focus on this large group of kids? Is PAUSD so star struck by the kids who are developing cures for cancer at age 16 (yes, AMAZING, but certainly not normal and not what my kids will be thinking about at age 16). Lets shore up the support and resources for this middle tier that is currently getting the short end of these stick just because they live in this town.

Posted by 37 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 8, 2014 at 10:55 am

Forgot one point....easing up on grading isn't the right way to go.

Posted by Just Say No
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 8, 2014 at 11:05 am

I think the teachers unions are huge part of the problem. We can't seem to get rid of incompetent teachers, or teachers/administrators exhibiting inappropriate behavior (like the recent Paly principal issue). They aren't following the Gunn principal's leadership.

In a private setting, these people would be fired.

Even Steve Jobs had recommended that we start classifying teachers as exempt and holding them accountable.

While some teachers are outstanding, and some are good, some are are just plain horrible.

Posted by Mixed Race Mom
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Dec 8, 2014 at 11:09 am

Racism, mostly in the form of foreign-born students against Americans of color ( even against very blonde Caucasian Americans) is a HUGE problem at the middle school level.

Two weeks ago, just before Thanksgiving, I picked my daughter up at school--and overheard a boy from another country SCREAM at her that the only people who came to America and did not become successful were blacks and Mexicans. (BTW, we are neither black nor Mexican in our mixture, but Dutch, Indonesian, German, and Chippewa. However, some foreign nationals assume we have Hispanic blood). To her eternal credit, she shouted. Ack that black people did not "choose" to co e here of their own free will.

Apparently this argument started during a class earlier in the day, and the boy actually stalked her the rest of the day over it, convinced she was Mexican.

I shudder to think of what this boy's parents ( I have been told they are from Shanghai) have been teaching him.

Shocked and hurt, I marched to the principal's office, but was told the principal was not in--nor the vice principal.

This has happened to my daughter on a regular basis since sixth grade ( she is in eighth). I have had it, and am in the process of putting her in a Catholic school starting in January. I don't know what to do about high school just yet, but I have heard stories about the racism at Paly, Gunn, and Monta Vista being so bad it is difficult to have a culture of learning there. I have heard stories of foreign students calling mixed race, white, and black students learning disabled and stupid.

Why are students who are citizens of the U.S. not being protected from this, regardless of their heritage? Does this have something to do with Amy Chua's ( aka, the Tiger Mother) two books? Do people in Palo Alto take that stuff seriously?? her daughters, after all, are mixed race!

Posted by Bonita
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 8, 2014 at 11:14 am

What the students as well as the teachers need to create is a stress-free environment .
Here are few of my takes which I have seen implemented in some schools:
It can be created by changing the tardy policies (making attendance an accountability point, not an over kill) and the reduction in HW and grading assignments but engage in more interactive -productive class discussions where the idea is to do more team work and enjoy camaraderie rather than constantly compete for grades. The counselors should be out in the hallways as well on the quad in a pro active fashion every day rather than meeting students when there is a problem. Classes can be made 5 minutes shorter and students given more time to enjoy fresh air rather than running constantly to be on time for the next class. Make up work should be encouraged and not balked upon by the teachers and staff alike.
At least 1 cold or warm healthy drink should be allowed free to all students as they move between classes.
And the transition from sophomore year to junior year should be more gradual-start the changes in the 2nd semester of the 10th grade rather than jumping on an 11th grader all at once in August

Posted by Mixed Race Mom
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Dec 8, 2014 at 11:14 am

Another point: not everyone can afford two hours of tutoring after school five days a week for each child. That amounts to $500 per week per child! Yet, I am told that this is what you must do to succeed in the local high schools.

Fortunately, we have only one child, but two hours of tutors each week is still $100/week. Catholic schools look more and more like a bargain!

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 8, 2014 at 11:35 am

A few quick points:

While I emphatically agree with Mixed Race Mom that we need to address issues of racial, ethnic, and other forms of bias in our schools, and that we need to ensure the identity safety and a safe learning environment for each child, l think we should be clear that we need to avoid at all costs references to other racial or ethnic groups as the source of anyone's problems. And you can make your case without this type of contextualization that can be offensive to others. Everyone is an individual and Asian children and families can be profiled, stigmatized and offended as well. Let's not do that to anyone, period.

Bonita, thanks for your simple yet concrete ideas. They are terrific, as everything is cumulative towards the total effect of a constructive, healthy learning environment.

Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 8, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Agree with Parent above - my younger kid, a senior, has had a great time at Gunn because she has set her goals where she wants them: not applying to the most competitive schools, taking APs that she likes, not taking as many courses, and fine getting B's if that's what she chooses (though we like A's better). Guess what - she is loving life and isn't stressed out or overworked. We tell her that whatever college she goes to will be a great experience, and that it matters much less where she goes than what she does when she gets there.

My older kid was more ambitious at the same age, aimed higher, and as a result worked harder and felt more stress. It wasn't all fun, but it was her choice - nobody made her do it, and she is happy with how it turned out for her.

The idea that the high school or college is "to blame" or can "solve the problem" just seems wrong. The solution is available if your family wants it. Parents have much more impact over kids' attitudes than teachers or even peers - you can help connect them with peers who will be healthy for them, if need be.

Posted by former palo altan
a resident of Woodside
on Dec 8, 2014 at 12:18 pm

All three children of mine went through Gunn. My last one finished during the cluster of suicides there. She lost several friends and has since lost a friend or two, graduates of Gunn who later used the train for their demise. We talked the other day and she concurs that an entirely different culture needs to be cultivated at Gunn. A culture of respect, value, caring, commitment to each individual -- teacher and student and community. How is difficult, but it must be done.

My second child, who found Gunn suffocating, figured out, on his own, how many independent study classes he could have and still graduate. He found wonderful teachers at Gunn willing to be his mentor so that he could take these independent study classes. This limited his time on campus, gave him the opportunity and creativity to devise his own syllabus for some classes and complete the coursework with the teacher's input necessary to pass. It was somewhat difficult to explain his transcript when he applied to college. But that same uniqueness that allowed him to be such an independent learner was valued by many colleges. One of his battle cries as a teenager when we tried locating a "private" school which would help him flourish was : Why does alternative mean unsuccessful?

I will always be grateful to the teachers at Gunn who saw his worth, nurtured his values, and helped him navigate those years so lovingly and successfully. He didn't fit the mold, but he is truly successful in life.

Posted by Rachel
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 8, 2014 at 12:20 pm

Thank you for the wonderful article and specific ideas. Something needs to change.....

Posted by advice on private school?
a resident of Nixon School
on Dec 8, 2014 at 1:28 pm

It sounds a little bit scary to think about what my kids might have to endure at the high school level in Palo Alto. Unfortunately, for many reasons, it is not practical for me to move away at this time. I was wondering...some folks have mentioned that private school would provide a better environment for their kids. Is this really true? Private school is pretty expensive, but I would work more and spend the extra money if it means my kids will be happier. I would have thought that the privileged, high-achieving kids that you might find at private schools would create a similar atmosphere as Gunn or Paly. If any of you have any experience or knowledge about it, could you please explain how the local private school experience is different from and/or better compared to Gunn/Paly?

Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2014 at 1:40 pm

To Mixed Race Mom, just wanted to say that it is a terrible thing that your daughter had to experience. No kid should have to experience that kind of bullying. As an Asian, I was similarly bullied when I grew up in the predominantly white Midwest.

Please remember that although the Asian population may appear somewhat monolithic, there is tons of diversity of thought and behavior within the Asian population, and that the vast majority of Asians would be disgusted by what that person said to your daughter.

Posted by midtown parent
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 8, 2014 at 2:06 pm

To Cathy Kirkman: my daughter, who is a senior, and about to dropout or (I hope) just leave Paly for elsewhere, found and circled your Guest Opinion piece, then asked me if I had read it! (This is not a girl who regularly reads the newspaper.)

To advice on private school: if you can afford it, this may be your best option -- at least if you have a child who doesn't fit in in some respect. It really depends on the school as to whether you will find the same atmosphere or not. Some do cater to parents who want something different. My daughter's best friend, who was also doing poorly at Paly is on the honor roll in private school -- and more importantly, enjoying school!

Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 8, 2014 at 2:14 pm

Thanks to everyone for commenting here. So refreshing to see an overwhelming majority of mature, rational, non-judgmental, non-personal and open minded conversations.

Our kids have graduated from Paly - but the conversation is important.

Perspective: One child graduated Paly with only taking 3 AP classes and the other taking 5 AP classes. First child went to one of the top art universities in the US and the other is currently a student at one of the top engineering universities in the US. The point is that students do not have to take a ton of AP courses in order to succeed at gaining entrance into top universities. In fact, I have several nieces who had (weighted) 4.2+ GPAs and all took double-digit AP courses in high school and did not get admitted to some of their first choices (e.g., UCB, UCLA, USC, Duke, etc.).

IMHO - heavy dosages of AP courses doesn't necessarily get a student into an Ivy or a top-flight UC!

But...I don't think PAUSD should set a limit on AP courses - waiver or not. It is a family decision. However, there is no reason why PAUSD should not create and then require attendance to a program for parents & kids...describing the pro's and con's of AP courses, the issues around homework/stress, the trend of universities and their attitudes towards AP courses and/or no longer accepting weighted GPAs, etc. Bring in a respected 3rd party to validate the data and recommendations.

Early in this thread, I did notice some inconsistencies. For example, there was a mention of providing access to community college or university courses to the "average" student. And also there was a comment that "average students are struggling at Paly to get a B".

What I don't understand (and perhaps I need to be re-calibrated)...the traditional measure of an "average" student meant that you were living around the 2.0-2.5 GPA range. If this still applies, then I'm wondering about the rationale of getting the average students to take CC or uni courses...that would imply these courses maybe too difficult? And I'm also wondering why a C student wouldn't struggle to get a a B is "above-average"...that would seem to be normal if that were the case. No need to provide a response if there isn't any time or bandwidth - but just curious where I'm off on this.

Posted by former gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 8, 2014 at 3:05 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 8, 2014 at 3:08 pm

A few more thoughts, and thanks again for all of the thoughtful comments.

With respect to Mixed Race Mom, I neglected to say that I suspect that if she were to email the principal to discuss the matter she would be likely to get a proper response.

With respect to Just Say No's comments about the teacher's union, this is part of the context we have in a public school. A public organization with union contracts is necessarily less nimble than a private organization. Also there is the recent Vergara case to be aware of, which I believe is currently on appeal, that gives districts more power to deal with poor teachers. Web Link

With respect to Fred's comment that it's wrong to think of the schools as being blameworthy or having a problem to solve, I think this puts it as a rather loaded question. Of course we should all navigate the schools as they exist today in the best possible way for our children, and that is why the project is working on creating more transparency and more perfect information for the community.

However the notion that the schools are some sort of timeless monoliths is incorrect. The schools are part of our government, part of our democracy. Like the city government, everyone who works for the district is a public servant, along with the school board we elect. The schools continue to evolve over time based on the elected governance and the values of the community. So the district is ours to direct, change, maintain, improve, et cetera.

With respect to Midtown Parent, thank you so much for sharing. Any feedback that comes from the students themselves is so meaningful. We will be looking to involve 2nd semester seniors in this project who have the experience and time to reflect on their time in the district.

Posted by former gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 8, 2014 at 3:24 pm

HS and MS principal will give the right response. Teachers at all levels and ES principal not so much. Very mixed based on their own self-image and perception of class in this and other countries.

Posted by former gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 8, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Weekly, remove my postings as much as you like. But the underlying root of many of our problems in this district is class, as perceived in this country by old and by new comers. Cathy, feel free to restate but we cannot turn a blind eye to something which is the essence of this discussion.

Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 8, 2014 at 4:37 pm

I would like to repeat my earlier comment about the college process. In this country it is very broken and something should be done to completely overhaul it.

A movement to start this overhaul has to start somewhere and there is no reason why it can't be Palo Alto.

A central application body with power over wait lists and multiple applications makes sense. With the top x% of our students getting acceptances from multiple schools of which they can only choose one, is very hard on the students who are not in the top x% who get no chance in the so called best colleges. Even a lottery system would be more fair than what we have at present.

With the rumors as well as the proven cheating, the professional essay writers and applications specialists, plus the parental loading of community service projects, this application is now just a game and the one with the most pull wins. This makes a mockery of a process which is not a level playing field to begin with. For the rest of us, we just sit back and watch those with the means do their utmost to turn their pawns (sorry their children) into elite college freshmen who have no ability other than the groomed college applications that have been worked on since middle school.

And it isn't just the Ivies, but the top UCs to which this game is played.

On top of that is the sad fact that UCs prefer out of state and foreign students who pay more than the homegrown CA student. This makes getting into the top UCs as much of a stretch as Stanford or any Ivy.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 8, 2014 at 6:19 pm

With respect to Crescent Park Dad, thanks for your thoughtful comments, and I don't disagree with you about what you've said about the value of taking those courses. I do think an exceptions system for APs could set a reasonable norm for families to manage around, while allowing others to exceed it. I think we need more study and visibility around the time commitments in the H and AP courses; for example, are the time commitments set forth in the course guide realistic, what does the warning in the course guide about extracurriculars and APs mean, etc.

Similarly, I think we need more study of grading standards and practices. You can review the Gunn and Paly school profiles to get a sense of our grade distributions, and in a comment above I compared us to prestigious Scarsdale, noting that their grading standard is not as tough as ours. But that's not enough, I hope we can do a more comprehensive review of this topic, especially compared to other schools in California, as grades directly impact our children's access to the state public universities. In terms of Cs being average (in a bell curve sense), that isn't reflected in any school profiles that I am aware of, that's of a time long past.

Former Gunn parent, I agree that the quality of the response may vary based on the site. My point was that a written communication based on the stated facts should elicit a response to address the situation. If not, write the superintendent, and he can address or delegate. Due to the civil rights issues we have had, I think the district is better prepared now to respond appropriately to these matters. And yes, socio-economic factors are certainly in play; our achievement gap reflects this, so thank you for raising this important point.

Paly parent, with regard to overhauling the college application process, this is a most interesting and ambitious idea. My reaction is that the way to go about this would be through NACAC and the Common Application, as many colleges use that process for their applications. If there were a limit on applications, or a disclosure requirement for private consultants, it could be made part of that process. I'm not in favor of limiting applications, because so many students are at sea in terms of where they will be accepted and hence cast a wide net. In the UC system obviously you would need to go through the Regents for any changes, as well as review applicable state law in terms of rights of access to our public universities. Regarding out-of-state applicants, I wouldn't be surprised if at some point an initiative were put on the ballot to maintain a certain level of access for our residents (but I don't know if the Regents already operate under some parameters in that regard).

Posted by Palo Alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 8, 2014 at 6:20 pm

@crescent park dad, the "average" student is Palo Alto isn't a 2.0 to 2.5 gpa student, about half of the Paly class of 2014 gpas closer to 3.5.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 8, 2014 at 7:02 pm

I think there maybe a misconception that only those who want to go to an IVY school are under pressure due to grading and excessive homework.

2014 UC Freshman Profile shows average GPAs of admitted students:

Web Link

Average GPA (based on admitted 2014 Fall Freshman) for UC Merced and UC Riverside are 3.61 and 3.77, respectively. Are these IVY schools?

Posted by Mixed Race Mom
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Dec 8, 2014 at 8:25 pm

[Portion removed.]

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 8, 2014 at 8:45 pm

Mixed Race Mom, I appreciate your sharing, but I would hope that you could understand how inflammatory it is for you to cast about statements based on race and national origin, especially in an anonymous online forum. Regardless of your background, I would respectfully ask you to refrain from making these types of statements in this forum. Please do follow up with your school and the district to have your situation addressed as I don't mean to minimize your experience.

Posted by Concerned
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 8, 2014 at 10:31 pm

It would be interesting to do an poll from k-12 asking how many hours per week the family spends on tutors and for what subject.

At our elementary school tutors are extremely common. Our child's teacher even mentioned to me that they were surprised by the number of kids with tutors in the class. These are not kids with LD's either.

The district thinks kids are doing so great because of our teachers. The teachers are great but the tutors behind the scenes seem to be shoring things up to the level we have found ourselves in.

I hope a poll can be done. That would be very telling and also may explain some of the achievement gap.

Posted by Just a resident now
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 8, 2014 at 11:19 pm

My kids are over with k-12. My 2 cents comments of teaching method in PAUSD, even with elementary school. Some teachers do not teach in a sequential way (math), but jumping through the math book, assuming students "should" know already. This is a bad practice. My story...when my son was at Hoover, by his 1st grade, I was called in for a parent meeting because my son was below average, not doing well in math. I was kind of shocked to learn it as I think my son should at least at average level. I promise his teacher that I will pay attention to him after work (I was not before). So, every night after dinner, I sat down with my son for this math homework. What I found was that teacher skips math chapters. Since my son did not understand, eg,Chapter3, he got lost at Chapter5. I asked him why teacher skip chapters, he said when teacher tried to teach that chapter, many students said that they already know it, so the teacher skips. Then I called few of my good friends who also have kids in Hoover for help. The first question they ask me was do you teach your son at home before and after school. I said, NO, I thought that school should teach them. They said that IS your problem. Most of us teach them at home. If you don't do it, no wonder your son is below average. I was shocking to learn this. So, I set aside time daily after dinner to teach my son the skipped chapter of math for a few months. Then his teacher told me that my son is doing well now in the class .....what??? I wish I could scream at her, but I did not. I am glad, at least, I got to understand PAUSD system early enough, thanks to that 1st grade teacher. I was my son's private math tutor until his 7th grade when he did start to learn by himself well and later he got in a top college, graduated, doing well currently. I can see if I did not caught it early in his 1st grade, or not teach him at home later, he probably would be lost or failed in PAUSD. I also sympathetic of these parents who could not teach their kids at home due to their own education level and have no money to hire a private tutor. I am not surprised that these kids fall behind.

Posted by Annabel
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 8, 2014 at 11:39 pm

I'm responding to "advice on private schools"

My kids are in a private 6-12 school that is considered rigorous. They attended PAUSD k-5. They are happy in their private school because it's the right fit for them.

Here's my advice
1. You're kid will only be happy in private school if THEY want to be there, not just because YOU want them to be there.

2. If you're interested in looking at private schools, then you need to invest a lot of time visiting a range of schools and figuring out which one(s) might be a proper fit. The size, culture, expectations and environment at each school is very different. There's no substitute for spending long hours going to various events (attending a sporting event, a play, or a concert can be eye opening). The process is grueling.

3. Yes, private school is expensive (some catholic schools have lower tuition, and financial aid at all the schools is quite good). Private school doesn't mean zero challenges. It doesn't mean you can write the tuition check and figure you will never need to worry about anything again. Nor does it mean there are no issues, it just means there are different issues. Only you can decide if the upside is worth it for your family.

4. Anyone who tells you a certain school is "THE BEST" or "THE WORST" (public or private) is just full of it. There is no best. There's what's right for your kid. Period. A surprising number of uninformed people have very strong feelings about various private schools. Often the person has never been to the school, or is operating on information that's more than 10 years old. Often the most scathing comments come from people whose children were not admitted. You need to follow your own compass.

I continue to hope that the public schools can be transformed. It's in everyone's best interest to have strong public schools and I thank Ms. Kirkman for starting this important dialogue.

Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 12:34 am

@Cathy Kirkman - of course you are right that our schools are ours to change. But many (maybe you) put the onus on the school to change, when the more important tools for change are in the families' hands already. The student/family chooses the courses, the lanes, the APs, the colleges to apply to, how hard to work, how to measure success, etc., not the school.

In has been interesting to me to see how Palo Alto reacted to its suicide cluster vs. towns that we formerly lived in (east coast). Only here did a substantial number of community members seem to blame the school and demand changes along the lines proposed here to reduce "stress." Efforts to increase connectedness and screen for mental health - sure. Limit AP courses and promote grade inflation - not so much.

It is perfectly fine if some want to advocate for changes such as you and others have proposed, just as it is to choose private schools - to each his or her own. But much of what you advocate is in my mind simply window dressing - therapy dogs and yoga? - vs. things that we can already do as families to get the kind of educational experience we want. Want to limit AP courses? For your child, it is done. Want less homework or higher grades? Drop down a lane. Want more free time? Take fewer courses. Want less stress about college admissions? Apply to the many fine less selective colleges, and watch your kids thrive there (or have your kid pitch their own unique qualities and go anywhere). We don't need to structurally change our schools or limit options for others to get the choices we want.

Posted by Georgia
a resident of Monroe Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 4:49 am

@Annabel--well said, I completely agree, in this high-achieving valley there is much pressure on parents to fill in the gaps; it is a steep learning curve for us parents, with high stakes for our children.

@Cathy Kirkman--Thank you for your stimulating, soul-searching and thoughtful analysis. I know this effort will go far. You are amazing.

Your concerns and direction resonate with me except in some areas, mostly to do with your articulation of what to do with homework and grade deflation.

While I believe that Paly and Gunn are too extreme in doling out grades such that many kids don't even realize they are smart until they get to college, I think the grading and homework debate is very complicated, and we run the risk of doing more harm than good.

I don't think we can ever achieve a perfect grading system, or precision homework time stamp.

Perhaps we should try to bring some teachers back to earth with the right policies (if they can be found) and ask for some paradigm shifts in homework.

Re: homework, the best thing a teacher can do is to be explicit about what they want the student to learn from the homework and then assess if the student has met that goal.

Thus, I would argue for explicit goal-setting around homework and timely (maybe same day homework is due) very short assessments to evaluate whether objectives are achieved.

I think that asking for more careful definition of time needed for homework is not ultimately useful because kids differ wildly on this. So wildly it can be differences of 2, 3, 4 and 5-fold! It really depends on the student's knowledge base, processing speed, focus, etc.

I'll use my own two daughters as examples.

One completes homework extremely quickly. The other much more slowly (huge differential here). They both share a love of learning and aim very high academically.

It simply is the case that my daughter who works through assignments more slowly cannot take the same course load as my daughter who works much more quickly (not enough time in the day).

It's really the question of how they pace themselves and we help them through this. We teach them to persevere but that grades do not define them; to take risks to follow their passions, yet to seek balance (that less can be more).

Each one has struggled at times, but overall succeeded, continued to love learning and maintained good self-esteem.

These days, especially in this region, the schools are demanding so much from parents. We need to know when to help, but also when to disengage and let our children set the pace. More than often, they really do know what that pace will be. We need to watch for learning struggles that require accommodations. We need to support them to find passions, but we don't need to tell them how many AP classes to take to get into college.

There's really no answer for that, only a mythology absurdly propagated in this valley. There are so many choices. We want them out of high school in one piece and they will find the right fit.

Posted by GunnMom
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 5:40 am

Cathy, thank you on behalf of our kids and parents.
somebody needs to lead the community concern and finally make a change within our district. We can all do it together.

I have a question to HS parents. From the district homework policy:

9-12 7-10 hours weekly average M-F
Note 1. While many high school classes serve students across several grade levels, students in their freshman year may reasonably expect average home work loads closer to seven hours a week. Similarly, seniors can expect loads closer to ten hours per week.

My daughter, a strong student with great time management skills (no, no social media during HW), on average is taking 15-20 hours a week. We are talking about freshman with no AP classes. From 70-80 pages Shakespeare reading with annotation per night (stated as 40 minutes assignment by the teacher) to the material, not explained in class (thank you Khan academy and other online resourses).

How long does it take your student?
How realistic is our HW district policy?

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 9, 2014 at 8:30 am

Once again thank you to everyone for your thoughtful comments. Based on the disparate topics addressed in just the most recent comments, it is clear this is a many-headed hydra and there's no easy way to grok it. That doesn't mean that the community shouldn't work to define and analyze problems and propose solutions. But at least we can understand that running the district isn't an easy job, and it needs the voice of the community to help its directional navigation.

Just a Resident, thank you for sharing, and for the point you make that families without the education level and resources can be left behind. Hopefully our new achievement gap task force will be doing some thoughtful study of this matter. It doesn't make sense to me for teachers to skip over the state curriculum; I thought the point of academic differentiation was to let the more advanced students test-out and do something else while other kids worked on the grade-level curriculum.

Annabel, this is beautifully written summary of how to think about private school. Please write to [email protected] if we can post it on I think it also applies to college selection as well.

Fred, thanks for your responses. I still think you are using a blame paradigm to characterize my views, which I think paints people like myself as a negative presence, instead of focusing on an improvement paradigm. I doubt you intend this but that is my reaction, perhaps I misunderstand your tone. Also, when you characterize yoga and therapy dogs as window-dressing, it seems like you are denigrating and dismissing my proposals by focusing on a couple of fuzzy items relating to socio-emotional health. First, socio-emotional health is fuzzy, and therapy dogs do important work, having trained a therapy dog. Many elite colleges use them. Yoga is valuable, see the new PAMF class for teens. And start-ups have ping-pong tables. Second, in calling this window-dressing, you overlook or dismiss the larger points I am making about making our schools more humane learning environments and deconstructing academic rigor.

It appears your view is that things are fine the way they are, and families just need to manage within the system better. If that's the case, we will want to agree to disagree, as our schools can always stand improvement. But I would ask you, were they fine yesterday, and last year, and the year before that, etc., as schools are always changing, will they be fine tomorrow? Is there no room for improvement in your view? One of the goals of the project is perfect information so that families can do just what you're saying about navigating the system, but that doesn't mean the schools are perfect and can't be improved. Even if they're perfect today (which they're not) they won't be perfect tomorrow if we don't continue to evaluate and modernize them for the 21st century economy and our 21st century kids. But I welcome and appreciate your input, and thank you for taking the time, and I sincerely hope we're not talking past each other and I'm not mischaracterizing your views.

As an aside, having lived here all my life except a couple of years elsewhere, I find it interesting that some people (and I'm not picking on you Fred, I'm thinking in general of people I've met over the years) consider themselves the self-appointed keepers of the flame and guardian of the one-true school system, when they haven't even been through the system themselves or been in this community that long to understand it. Not to imply that those credentials are necessary, but only to state that our schools were nationally recognized long before most people got here and they will be so long after we've all moved on. We're an outstanding community so our schools are outstanding and will continue to be so; however, we have the social (and real) capital to spend to make our schools truly great places for all of our kids and be a model to the rest of the country of how to run a public district.

Georgia, thanks for your comments. In a 1000 word piece it wasn't possible for me to study, analyze and propose vetted, bona fide solutions. It's a thought piece based on my experiences and views, formed as a former student and experienced parents, and I'm happy to agree to disagree with anyone and everyone. Our schools are part of our democracy and I am just one voice, one constituent. I do think we should study these issue more fully, and strive for perfect information around grades, homework, and everything else. Then as you point out we can separate fact from mythology and everyone will be better off.

That is a good segue to respond to Concerned and Gunn Mom. We should know more about tutoring and homework practices within the community. The homework poll created by Chris Zaharias (see thread above) is a great start. Whether better information helps families navigate or drives change, or both, it's beneficial to our community, and to the district as they review and develop policies and practices.

Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 9:19 am

Chris Zaharias is a registered user.

For those interested, here are initial results from the homework hours survey. Net net = 75% of students who responded (27 36) have more hours/week homework that PAUSD guidelines:

Web Link

Posted by TallTree
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2014 at 10:09 am

Well put, Fred and Georgia.

Changes start from the family, pick your own course load and pursue your own interests inside and outside school. And time taken for each child to complete a certain piece of homework is drastically different, thus can not be benchmarked precisely.

What I am concerned about is that if we hold the schools and teachers responsible for coming up with accurate prediction of homework time, first of all we get the teachers hands' tied in how they assign homework they, as experts in teaching, deem necessary for students to learn. And secondly this accurate homework time prediction task itself becomes a science project---every student is simply different and there are thousands of students involved from PAUSD.

Any additional results about predicting homework time besides what is already known will be statistics, and we all know that statistical results do not apply to every single sample in the study pool. Some students will bound to be left as outliers. There simply isn't one-size-fits-all. Then we are right back to where we start.

I also heard from past parents that kids multitask, or spend time online, on the smart phone, before they start homework. Some other students did not do well in earlier chapters and struggle with later ones. All these contribute to homework time.

What might be helpful would be for parents and students to educate ourselves about course selection, talk to peers and counselors, get realistic estimate of time commitment for each person, and sign up classes based on individual situations. I was surprised one time to hear a parent admitting that she did not know there was a course catalog. I guess she probably did not know about the laning options either, which was stated in the catalog.

In addition, inflating grades and limiting Honors/AP course offerings at school are only going to hurt our students and the district, instead of helping.

In Dr. Seligman's book, he specifically called out that "doing well" comes before "feeling good" in one's self-esteem. "feeling good" is only a by-product of "doing well". People needs to achieve realistic goals, conquer something, before they feel that they are capable/worthy, and that they believe in themselves in having the grit and determination to do so. In addition, he pointed out that "feeling good" without "doing well" is directly related to depression, with all those emptiness one feels behind the false, rosy picture.

The United States ranks poorly by some international education benchmarks, behind Europe and Asia. Look at how many foreign high tech workers coming to silicon valley annually, and how executives like Zuckerberg embrace Obama's most recent immigration policy. State of California ranks like the second or third from bottom in the nation. We are NOT that great in our public education. Why do we need to further dumb down our course offerings, to deprive interested students the option to learn? The exception system of H/AP course selection will be strongly objected by some parents.

Europe and Asia have different education systems compared to PAUSD. A lot of the parents in PAUSD are high tech professionals from those countries. They themselves went through the foreign educational systems, benefited from their childhood education and became successful professionals.

It is only natural that they believe in a more rigorous curriculum compared to some other proposals. There is nothing evil or dangerous about it, just different childhood experiences. The thoughts could very much be like: it was done, it was very much doable as common practice, the result was good and it should be doable for a better school system and our community at PAUSD.

Some Palo Alto families who have lived in Europe would be eager to testify to that as well, based on their kids' academic experiences.

Further, just because my child is not good at sports, it does not mean that s/he should feel pressured in front of a tennis star from school varsity team. Nor does it mean that I should recommend PAUSD to get rid of the school tennis team.

Instead, I have to teach my child to first admit the differences among individuals, including admitting little Timmy's shortcomings among his peers at such a tender age. He should learn to live with the fact that the other kid is more popular at school, and that my child would have to deal with the social pressure coming with it. I consider it a blessing learning to address one's pressure this way this early.

In fact, in her book "lean in", Sandberg also admitted that when she first went to Harvard, she did not do as well. She found out that she was not admitted to Harvard for academics, and would have to struggle, and work harder, in order to earn better grades. Being a determined person, she delivered eventually and the rest became history.

We can not shield our kids from stress or pressure. We could not short change our kids to give them the false impression that all is good and that almighty little Timmy is in great shape in all aspects. We need to help them learn to be resilient. This will get them strong footing in the future of their lives, in good times and bad ones.

There are reasons the schools and courses are structured the way they are. There are also reasons the teachers are teaching the way they do right now. We are not deferring; it is their job that they are trained to do.

I am sure the school community would love to hear from us parents if we provided constructive insights from our side of the fence. Structural changes directed by parents to the school system is like having a passenger pilot an airplane. We gain much more respect and credibility by doing our homework first, before we make recommendations for changes.

Posted by advice on private schools
a resident of Nixon School
on Dec 9, 2014 at 10:58 am

Hi annabel,
Thanks for the time you spent to write you opinion on private schools. I appreciate your effort. However, I was hoping for a few more specifics, since you already have personal experience.

Of course, we all know that every child is different, and every private school is different. We need to find the right fit. That is why I'm trying to find out some information about personal experiences that people, like yourself, have had. I would be very curious about your decisions/reasons about:
1. Why not attend the public schools? Were there issues you didn't like about those schools? They must be important enough to have to invest that kind of expense.
2. At the private school your kids went to, how was it different or better? e.g. this whole thread has been about the workloads/APs/attitudes related the Gunn/Paly. How was it different or better at your schools?
3. You mentioned that there are a different set of problems at private school. I would love to hear about your experience about these different set of problems.

Of course, this whole research into private schools is for the sake of my kids. I want to get information about many different places/experiences from many different people in the area, so at a later date, we can make an informed decision together about where to go, if not public school. Like you said, it is rigorous to find out the details. I would love to start by getting some of yours. Thanks.

Posted by real choice
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 9, 2014 at 10:59 am

Changes start when there is real choice. At present there is only one game in town even with two high-schools.

The way to effect change is to add competition. Since the board isn't interested in a 3rd high-school, it's time for a charter school. One that gives a choice to parents. Provides an alternative by, for example, following IB instead of the AP path.

A charter school would also reduce overcrowding and provide a better environment parental involvement - for parents that want to be involved that is. There's a reason Ohlone's oversubscribed.

This could also be a 6-12 grade school to start with since a lot of parents are also dissatisfied with the middle schools and the IB has middle school program curriculum.

The other schools aren't going to change on their own. The board can't change them. Everything else is too little and, unfortunately, too late. We need a more dramatic approach to get the schools to take notice.

Posted by advice
a resident of Nixon School
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:23 am

Agree with above comment. Considering the huge amount of debate and variability of opinions, and the extremely long period of time this kind of discussion has been going, with very little change over the years, the possibility for change in the public school system seems discouraging. Competition is the only way. Look at the DMV to see what happens without competition.

Among my group of friends, there really isn't one person who says that their kid enjoyed going to Paly or Gunn High School. Generally, it is something that they "survived." Some of them did well, and ended up going to top schools. Still... You always hope that your kid will experience a school like "Dead Poet's Society," as opposed to "Lord of the Flies."

Posted by Palo Verde Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:50 am

When we talk about "Homework" time, I hope we also consider the time it takes for a student to study for a test or a quiz. Most High School students have at least one test or quiz per week and often have multiple tests and quizzes per week. I know that my high school junior spends on average 12-15 hours on Homework, essays, projects per week, but then also spends 2 - 6 hours per week studying for tests or quizzes. Tests would be 3 hours per subject of studying. He is taking no AP or honors classes just the normal junior year classes.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 9, 2014 at 12:45 pm

TallTree, thanks for your comprehensive comments, I do appreciate your voice in this conversation. I think we are likely to need to agree to disagree on a few things however, but that's fine and it would be odd if we all agreed about everything.

First, if we have a homework policy, then we need to ensure that it is implemented properly. Your argument seems to suggest that we should have no homework policy, or that staff should have absolute discretion and no accountability in terms of implementation. So I disagree with that. Even if different kids take different amounts of time to complete homework, it would be helpful for staff to externalize their expectations by indicating an "average" amount of time they expect kids to work on an assignment; it could be useful in pulling kids in who need extra help, e.g., after 45 minutes on the problem set, see the teacher in advisory for some help.

Also, I don't agree with characterizing my proposal as grade inflation. That, I fear, will never be a problem in our community. I am advocating review and analysis of our grading practices, and correcting the grade deflation that exists, at least as understood anecdotally among families and in review of our school profiles in relation to other schools. This topic needs more objective data for productive discussion.

Finally, my narrative is about school improvement, and an argument that "things are fine the way they are" begs the question at what moment in time you are making that assertion. Our schools are constantly changing and evolving, and I hope improving: witness our school board's on-going agenda. I believe that it is fair to ask our leadership to humanize or schools, deconstruct rigor, and make alternative pathways available to our students. The "fixed in time" narrative would suggest that we should never add new courses, etc. So I think that narrative fails, unless change is fine as long as it's change that you like. Let's focus on an improvement narrative, and we can agree or not on how to get there. Suggesting that any organization has no charge to seek continuous improvement seems like a flawed position logically.

Again, the purpose of the project is merely to make transparent where we are today, so that families can navigate better within the status quo. That alone may help accomplish the ends of those who suggest families just take the right path for them. With more perfect information, maybe they will find it. Many families don't know and the four years go by so fast they don't have the time to experiment with their options. And, if the project inspires community discussion, review and potential improvements, then great, let it be so; I don't have an end game per se and am aware that change is glacial in a public organization with union contracts.

With respect to real choice's comments, yes charters potentially are on the table in any district; I recall that before Mandarin Immersion there was some talk by those proponents of doing a charter, if my memory serves me. That is not something that I am advocating, but anyone is free to propose any structure or pathway to the district that they find desirable.

My piece proposes, among other things, an alternative academy school-within-a-school that for philosophical reasons does not use AP or honors designations, but still reflects a prestigious Palo Alto education experience. Many prestigious schools have this philosophical approach, and if we had an alternate pathway that was focused on projects, mastery and nascent scholarship it could be interesting. The new social justice pathway at Paly shows how we can think outside the box: kudos to the Paly staff for taking the initiative and making that happen. However those who are against any change (TallTree, I'm talking to you, in an ironic, friendly tone) would have been against the social justice pathway? Just wondering.

Posted by former gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 9, 2014 at 12:58 pm

@ just a resident now
Right On!!!
Your post is so important because it illustrates a phenomenon we are all dancing around. We can admit that many types of kids are not served in our high schools. The thing we are not admitting in earnest is that the problem starts in elementary schools and becomes exacerbated in middle schools. Teachers are not following the law and teaching the required material.

I have asked about it many times through the years. Answers varied from: it is a disservice to see all of those honor students bored to classroom management of the kids that are ahead is a problem to teaching fundamentals is so boring. None of those answers serves children and the practice is making our high schools look pretty bad when in fact they try pretty hard to accommodate.

I have witnessed a decision-making process in PAUSD classrooms that goes something like this: the teacher asks kids to raise their hands if they already know the upcoming material. Talk about humiliation and peer pressure! It is an unusually brave / honest / unselfconscious student who can keep his or her hand down when put on that spot.

Posted by Misha
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 9, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Dear Ms Kirkman ~

A few commenters have mentioned the challenge of getting teachers to change, especially difficult when a union is involved. Plenty of good ideas have been offered by you and many others over the years - but how to implement when key stakeholders like teachers and staff are not aligned?

I would be interested in your thoughts about this.

Thank you.

Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 1:44 pm

@talltree and Fred and others who say everything is fine:

The most convincing voices that you are wrong are the students themselves. Many high school students are speaking out about extremely high levels of stress. There's an article in this week's weekly about one student who says:

"I ended up falling into severe depression my senior year [at Gunn High],..." The varsity athlete and straight A student said her classmates thought she was missing school to celebrate getting into Stanford early, when really, she was lying on the floor incapacitated." pg. 14

Too many students are speaking up about the stress at the high schools, and many of these are the top students. But students at all levels can be affected by teachers who don't teach the materials, excessive homework, and esoteric tests.

This is not about dumbing down the curriculum. To tell students just drop down a lane isn't right when they are fully capable of completing an AP and getting the top score of 5 on it. In another high school, copious amounts of homework are not piled on. The AP curriculum and tests are standardized across the nation. Why should our students be penalized by being told only a limited number can get A's or B's. What if most of the class is deserving of an A and they master the material as required? And if the homework and tests are reasonable, maybe the extra time would allow them to be teenagers and develop good coping skills.

Posted by Annabel
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 9, 2014 at 3:40 pm

this is to answer @private school advice.

I will try to very briefly answer your questions - but this thread is currently a thoughtful discussion on public school issues, so I don't want to derail that conversation further. This will be my last post on private schools. I admire the thoughtful comments on the public schools and I am so pleased to see this discussion. I have added my own experience with the public elementary schools at the bottom.

Just start asking around and you will find lots of families in private school (better to ask outside of your school community so as to not start a frenzy of private vs. public. Lots of private school families have stickers on their cars - I had no problem asking someone who happened to park next to me at the market how they liked the school. Start looking at the school websites.

A few issues to consider:
1. Private school has 160 days of school - Public as 180. Private school kids have more down time and time to catch up from illness or just catch up on work. I doubt it's true, but it feels like private school kids are not sick as often - maybe because they have more down time naturally built into the school year.

2. I can't speak to the High School work load because my kids are still in middle - but so far - because the private schools are smaller, there is an opportunity for more coordination between teachers and homework load. Big science test on Thursday? Then no English homework on Wednesday night.

3. There's a slow movement among the very top private schools nation wide to drop APs - a few schools around here are part of that.

4. The small private schools don't offer as many AP/honors class choices as the large public schools. I don't think they offer as many language options, either. Fewer kids = fewer class options

5. If you're planning to send your kid to a UC, then you need to look carefully at college placement from the private schools. My kids' school places well over 80% out of state and a huge number of those are small liberal arts colleges. The school caters to that sort of placement. Apples and oranges. You need to know which one you are and how that fits in with the educational goals of the school.

6. Our experience in PAUSD elementary - This happens to A LOT OF KIDS - my kids are quiet - as defined by Susan Cain's best-selling book of the same name. In PAUSD elementary schools, quiet kids are routinely placed next to kids who either can not, or will not listen - and often they have serious behavioral issues. I don't mean sitting next to these kids once in a while - I mean everyday, year in and year out. My kids were learning that their own educational needs were not important. They were being praised for putting up with bad behavior and diminishing themselves in the process. It erodes self esteem. It's a form of educational abuse to expect quiet children to stoically be placeholders for gutted and inappropriately staffed elementary schools. It was a veteran PAUSD teacher - a true jewel of PAUSD - who pulled me aside and told me to look at private.

Under the Skelly years the elementary schools were destroyed, and to cover their behinds, the District opened the floodgates for parents to "volunteer" non stop in the class room and they packaged it as "community" It's not community. It creates a weird inner circle of parent power and often pits the non-working parents against the working parents which often translates to the haves vs. the have nots. It's divisive, inappropriate and doesn't serve the children. I don't care how sweet or energetic a parent is - it doesn't mean they're qualified to be in the classroom all day (or on the playground).

PAUSD should be ashamed to have elementary schools with 560+ kids, no assistant principal, one half time reading specialist and no nurse on site ( A good nurse is often the first line of help for a child with all sorts of issue).

The well-meaning parents who spend all day at the school would better serve all kids if they spent all that energy demanding properly staffed and supported elementary schools. Take a close look at what goes on at the elementary schools in surrounding areas (Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Woodside) and you will be shocked to find the amount of resources, programatic opportunities and support the elementary schools receive compared to PAUSD. Did you know there are schools sports teams and full musicals and true choirs and a full week away of outdoor education at these schools?

I believe some of the horrible problems surfacing at the high school could have been avoided if the elementary schools were given the resources they deserve.

Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 5:05 pm

@tall tree - What you may not realize about "course selection" in the high schools is that the exact same class can have a HUGELY different homework load based on the teacher. And at least at Paly, getting a particular teacher is NOT a reason to be allowed to change a class. So two students can both be taken English 9A and one has 2 hours of reading/homework a night and another has 30 minutes, not based on the students ability, but based on the teacher's whims.

As far as the homework policy - it is up to the teachers to adhere to the "guidelines" and for the most part, they ignore them.

Posted by napkin calculations
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2014 at 5:32 pm


This might explain the disparity in elementary school resources:

Woodside Elementary per student funding: $20,070

Portola Valley: $19,237

Palo Alto: $14,506

$5k more per student in a school of 300 students - $1.5 million - buys lots more staff and stuff.

Posted by New era
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 9, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Ken is getting sworn in in less than an hour! A new era of PAUSD good government begins. I feel giddy. As if McGovern had won!

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 9, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Thanks for more terrific comments.

I appreciate the comments on elementary school from former gunn parent and Annabel. In my experience the elementary sites are under constant pressure from those seeking high-end differentiation, who are often the most powerful parents on the scene. It is not clear to me why differentiation does not mean everybody gets taught what they need, and as a baseline we make sure everyone is proficient to the curriculum of the State of California. I was not aware of the parent volunteer issue, but I am not surprised by it. I am interested in doing due diligence on what other districts have for their elementary schools, as Annabel suggests. This could lead to a PiE wish list.

Also pamom and palo alto resident both said most persuasively what I have been trying to say. Many kids should be able to take APs, or get a fair grade in a class, so that is why the project intends to look closely at curriculum and grading practices. The "if you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen" argument somehow assumes the stove is set to the right temperature, and so on. Most people I know are not so sure of that.

Finally, Misha raises an excellent question about how to effect change in a bureaucratic, union, public context. I can only say it's not easy and I don't have answers, except to participate in our democracy in the manner you feel is best. That is why the project is designed to operate outside that structure, and work towards perfect information, and to the extent that is disruptive and serves as a change agent where change is needed, then good. Otherwise, with respect to the many, many things that work really well in our district, we can celebrate them and make sure everyone knows about them and has access to those opportunities.

But to suggest an answer to Misha's question at a high-level, the public needs to pay attention to the union contract, and get a better understanding of what it says and how it compares to other districts. Also, with more focus on district-wide standards, it might be possible to implement more uniformity of excellence across the sites, and transfer excellent practices from one site to the next. When you have a site-based model of governance, but that site is unaccountable, except to the insiders at the site and the site councils (which in my experience rarely function with awareness of their statutory role or otherwise in an effective, impactful manner), then you are going to have the many-headed hydra that we are dealing with. We are a unified school district for a reason, and we have to support the superintendent in his role of running the district, and ensure accountability up and down the chain of command. We have an org chart, and reports need to be accountable as in any other organization.

However, in sum, we don't really know where the teachers and staff are on any given matter, because the district is so de-centralized that everyone is kind of doing their own thing, and departments operate unto themselves. So in that environment, wouldn't you just do your own thing to the best of your professional ability and judgment, or else end up demoralized about the lack of unifying vision and leadership? I value our teachers: they are our greatest asset, after our students. As professionals they seek out and strive towards best practices as educators, but in a laissez-faire environment are we really giving them the context and support for that?

Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 9, 2014 at 6:08 pm

I would like to echo all that Annabel wrote about PAUSD elementary schools. It is obviously several years since we were at that stage, but during the time we were there from kindergarten onwards, it changed dramatically.

I am not trying to diminish the work done by the PTAs or the parents who volunteer as I they have the best motives and put in lots of effort and good work. But there is the underlying clique of families who do getting the best end in all sorts of ways.

I also think that the elementary schools need more office staff and an assistant principal. With schools this size, a nurse should be at least shared in each cluster of elementary schools spending time at each and being able to drive from one to another at any time there is a sickness or special need for nursing care. It worries me that office staff are the ones who have to keep medications for students who need to have medication during school hours and they are the ones who have to look after anyone who has any type of illness or deal with any type of playground injury or make a call on how serious these incidents are.

Our elementary campuses were originally designed for 300 - 350 students who lived in walking distance of the school. They are now much bigger and there is not enough space for playing, there is no place for assembling the whole school or even parents of each grade level indoors, for staff parking offroad.

On top of this at all schools there is no emergency text messaging system to all students and parents. If there was a fire at 7.00 am, there is no way of contacting every family and staff member telling them not to set out for school. If there was a terrible emergency during school time, there is no system of alerting parents of accurate information without the parent having to check email or check into infinite campus. This is not good enough.

We all deserve better service from our schools outside the classroom as well as the academic issues already being discussed.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 9, 2014 at 7:51 pm

@ Annabel:

re your first posting - I like comment #3...private school is not the solution but will present other problems.

re comments about parents volunteering in schools and the Skelly connection. Our kids started at PAUSD in 1998...long before Skelly and we were all asked to volunteer way back then.

re athletics at other school districts. I checked both Las Lomitas and Menlo Park. As I suspected - the after school sports programs are run by outside organizations, not the school districts. And there is a fee if you want to participate - no scholarships to those who cannot afford it. At PAUSD middle schools there are after school sports - but also a fee to participate.

re choirs/music. I can only speak about Duveneck, but after one year of learning music basics and playing the recorder, the kids had a choice of playing an instrument or singing in a choir...the middle schools have choirs and bands and the kids have to do one or the other. I'm not sure what you think might be missing?

I agree about your nurse comment. One of our kids broke his arm during recess. I was called to the school - the first aid given was pathetic and probably caused more pain than relief. Complete fail.

re science camp - I know that both our kids went away to science/nature camp while enrolled at Duveneck...this doesn't happen any more?

Posted by Union protection
a resident of Juana Briones School
on Dec 9, 2014 at 8:25 pm

Kevin Skelly is not to blame for any negative outcome of volunteering, I'm not sure where that criticism is coming from. Kevin Skelly is to blame for placating PAEA while ensuring his survival for seven years, probably receiving more than $2 million during that time. He had years left on his contract and the Weekly has never reported if he received a payout or deal, as is often the case with departing superintendents. And don't expect Max McGee to tackle the unions, he's a Skelly with experience, not a reformer of anything, and this district needs reforming.

Posted by real choice
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 9, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Cathy, if you are going to quote the MI episode, you should complete it before you repeat it.

MI took nearly 4 years to get past the board. For 3 of those years, they did everything that the board asked. They jumped through all the hoops, all the surveys, all the data and showed it to be viable only for the board to turn around and say "no".
This is exactly the course you are proposing.

It was only after the MI proponents decided to bypass the board and go for a Charter that the board sat up and took notice. With interesting comments about trying to block it even to the point of asking the super if the Charter could be called a "Palo Alto" school.

Also, your suggestion of a "school within a school" doesn't deal with the overcrowding on the high-schools. That is part of the problem and can only be resolved with a 3rd high school.

If you want to achieve something, you should learn from history and start with what works.

Posted by TallTree
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:02 pm

@Mrs. Kirkman---

I am all for changes to make the district better; I commented in an earlier post that I dislike certain aspects of PAUSD with a passion (hey btw, can you get rid of that awful Jordan science teacher for us, if it takes too long to get rid of teacher tenure? :-) .

What I am opposed to is change for the purpose of change. We agreed that we need to analyze the issues before coming up with practical solutions, which is good. Base suggestions on anecdotal evidences will weaken our proposals; hasten changes only hurt our school and students.

For example, the current course catalog does provide guidelines as to how many hours per week homework takes for each course, and the counselors would emphasize this data point during course selection. Not sure what else we need on this front from the teachers.

If we demand certain grade distribution from a teacher, one likely scenario is that bars are lowered and kids are happy with their high grades until they go take the standard tests administrated by others than the school.

I tried my best to provide information in this discussion thread, in the hope that at least people would better understand each other's view points and where they came from. However, I feel that our arguments went right past each other, without a real exchange.

I almost feel that there is a pre-determined agenda here instead of an open discussion. Some inconsistencies in the earlier part of the discussions also make me wonder whether this is a single person's view point, or is it a combination of neighbors, fellow parents or former high school friends mixed together under one user name.

There were several times mentioning of "agree to disagree". If it is destined to be so, then we will for sure hear from each other elsewhere. Proven leadership unites the community instead of creating rifts. I guess this one simply isn't.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 10, 2014 at 8:04 am


"For example, the current course catalog does provide guidelines as to how many hours per week homework takes for each course, and the counselors would emphasize this data point during course selection. Not sure what else we need on this front from the teachers. "

Answer is simple, we can ask for adherence to published guidelines. If the course catalog says the homework expectation for a particular course is 1-2 hours per week, it should not turn out to be 8 hours per week. And, yes these are regular lanes! Above average students! Teachers need to see that excessive homework (beyond published guidelines) is punitive, and makes students suffer.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 10, 2014 at 8:15 am

Thanks again for these comments. I think a problem with a forum like this is that it's not where the full study and analysis of problems and potential solutions can be done; we can only hope for a free and civil exchange of ideas. We have to remember that in a democracy we can have this exchange of ideas for the sake of advancing the larger discussion within the community. I urge anyone who is passionate about any point of view to contact the school board, attend school board meetings, get involved.

With respect to Mandarin Immersion, I was only mentioning this in the context of the comment about charters. I was not taking on telling the backstory, and I don't have a view about how this was advanced. But it is true that charters are an option for anyone wanting to go that route, and certainly when charters are mentioned, as in the case of Mandarin Immersion, it gets the school district's attention.

With respect to a third high school, I haven't had the opportunity to consider that issue, and I don't have a view at this time. I don't think an academy option within the existing high schools has anything to do with whether we need to create a third high school, because the enrollment at the current high schools is what it is, regardless of how we define the curriculum.

And TallTree, I agree we must be talking past each other, and I hope you will come for coffee on Thursday. I'm not in favor of change for the sake of change, once again I emphasis that my narrative is about improvement: keep what works, improve what needs improvement. We can certainly agree to disagree on what constitutes improvement.

I understand that the course catalog states the hours of work for each course, but that doesn't address the question of is it accurate, is it appropriate, does it comply with district homework policy, etc. I'm only suggesting that we should review these matters, and that the district homework policy have an effective accountability loop.

With respect to grade deflation, I believe this matter merits more study. I think to pre-judge the the effects of evaluating and improving our grading policies is speculation, but that doesn't mean I have a problem with your sharing your ideas about various scenarios.

Finally, I have to say that I agree that we do seem to be talking past each other, as I previously suggested, and which I regret. It is difficult to communicate in these forums. But to talk about "creating rifts" and "pre-determined agendas" doesn't feel very neighborly to me. This is just me, Cathy Kirkman, writing, not some conspiratorial league. We're a small town; you know who I am, come and have coffee, who are you?

Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 10, 2014 at 8:41 am

According to my student and from what I have seen, the OK homework load has escalated since Thanksgiving weekend, including homework over that weekend. We have had many tests, study packets and just regular homework. One class is still teaching new material with heavy homework. We are told that dead week starts Thursday ahead of finals next week, but since this is a busy time of year outside of school for all of us, there seems to be no consideration. We have also had rainy commutes (and will be again on Thursday) and there is no give and take about being a minute or two tardy in first period classes.

Posted by PAmoderate
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 10, 2014 at 9:20 am

PAmoderate is a registered user.

The competition in high school is a partially a result of a number of problems with colleges and their funding. Our population is growing, yet the number of "elite" colleges has barely moved in the last 30 years. Furthermore, good colleges are increasingly opening up admissions globally.

All these factors, plus government-sponsored loans have dramatically increased the number of students applying for the same number of spots in good colleges.

The competitive environment in academically-focused high schools schools is a result of the issues down the line, not the core problem.

As long as one parent seeks to place their kid in a good college, then everyone feels to need to do so.

Posted by Annabel
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 10, 2014 at 12:22 pm

First, I want to say that the vast majority of elementary teachers and the skeleton administrations are amazing, dedicated people. My post has nothing to do with the countless hours these wonderful professionals put in for our kids. My post is about the lack of support they receive to do their jobs properly.

I don't think the parents who have kids in 9th and older understand the magnitude of the changes at the elementary level over the last few years. Yes, parents have always been asked to volunteer, but one of the kinder teachers at my kids school was asking for 4 parents in the classroom AT ALL TIMES to help her handle the number of kids who needed "extra attention" Parents in the older grades were being asked to teach math rotations, reading rotations and to monitor the playground. Parents were asked to come in at lunch to help have some sort of programs for the kids because there were no options.

For those interested in programs offered by other public elementary schools in near by communities (not PAUSD ) - there is a short list below that I compiled from school websites and the media. I'm sure there are a lot more - I just spent about 15 minutes. I know, for instance, that Oak Knoll has it's own TV studio, but I couldn't find the right link.

Whether or not you like a certain program is irrelevant, my point is that the other area schools are investing heavily in elementary education and PAUSD is not.

One problem with assessing the elementary school experiences in PAUSD is the HUGE discrepancy
in programatic opportunities. Some schools have a math night, some don't, some have a science fair, some don't. Our school had neither.

I appreciate "napkin calculations" post showing dollar amounts for some other cities.. Those of you with kids in High School probably do'nt understand the magnitude of changes in the elementary schools.

By the easy - lice checks were eliminated last year for all elementary schools.

My children at our PAUSD elementary school had NOT ONE of these opportunities:

here's debate:
Web Link

Web Link

design thinking
Web Link

Web Link

Web Link

Posted by Annabel
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 10, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Here are more links to opportunities for elementary students in other districts - the online forum would not allow me to post them all at once:

Web Link

Science Olympiad
Web Link

Spelling Bee:
Web Link

Week Long outdoor education camping trip for 5th graders Menlo Park:
(you have to scroll down)
Web Link

Menlo Park 5th grade overnight:
Web Link

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 10, 2014 at 12:49 pm

News flash, I just read that the district's PR person, Tabitha Kappeler-Hurley, has rated my guest opinion a "tie" based on the district's new grading metrics for news coverage.

Web Link

I think it's sad that we are paying someone six figures to read and compile a spreadsheet about PAUSD news stories. This money could be used to hire a nurse or other needed professionals at the site level. My advice to the district is: use your platform to highlight the stories you like to serve your own purposes, and ignore the press that you don't like it. Myself, I look at the PAUSD News Blog, keep up the good work getting your message out there.

According to the metric that I read in the Weekly's article today, only "positive" stories will get a "win" rating, and anything with any criticism will be a "negative" or a "tie". I am heartened to read that my piece, because it doesn't merely praise the status quo, managed to eke out a "tie" and not a "negative".

According to the Weekly's article: "Kappeler-Hurley told the Weekly Tuesday that a story categorized as a win successfully shared the "good work that the district is doing," and particularly might have been the result of a press release she shared. What's designated a tie is more subjective."

"Even if it's something that you could say is a negative story or a story that highlights a problem or an issue, it's still very much be possible for it to be a 'tie,'" she explained. "Is it fair reporting? Is it balanced and give good information? It may still highlight a problem and that's fine. That's the role of media, to share information."

Web Link

So if I get this right, a story that highlights a problem or an issue will be a negative, unless she deems it worthy of a tie. So for example, if we write about the achievement gap, that's a negative, unless it pleases her, and could only be a win if we praise the task force that is working on it.

Why waste public money on this exercise? Instead, why not just identify and respond to inaccuracies in the press?

I would actually like to petition for a "win" rating for my piece, for sharing thoughts on how we might improve our district in a constructive manner and for attempting to hold a civilized community discussion in this anonymous, open forum. However, maybe "tie" or "negative" will be the new "win". I'm not a reporter, but if journalists are getting graded on whether they parrot positive press releases, not report the facts, that's bad for all of us in a free society.

But uh-oh, I think I may be down-graded to a "negative" after this post. What a downright Orwellian and ridiculous undertaking this is.

Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2014 at 12:51 pm

Annabel- were your kids at Ohlone? It's the only Palo Alto school I know which has 560 kids. Yes, it has suffered from it's own popularity, and smaller elementary schools would serve the district better. However, Ohlone's philosophy includes parent participation, so that is what you sign up for when send your kids there. It sounds like the complaints on this thread are about the choice schools - Hoover and Ohlone. Our neighborhood school was fantastic, and we did have spelling bee, overnight 5th grade trips, sports, science fair, etc. (Oak Knoll also has well over 700 kids, so it's not surprising they have more events to go with their overcrowded school).

That said, maybe you should start your own thread about the elementary schools since this one is really about the high schools.

Posted by Ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 10, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Homework Policy:AR6154: There is no data collection/metric attached to it, so site admin has no idea whether the policy is being honored. The homework estimates for a course may be accurate, but if you total up a regular lane schedule it will exceed the 7-10 hours range listed in the AR6154. The range is inaccurate.

Homework loads: Unfortunately, the homework loads and lanes aren't necessarily linked. There are students taking all regular lanes who have large amounts of homework and some APs with little.

Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Yes, Kevin Skelly's PR person should go. That's one concrete change I think most of us can agree on to improve our district. Thank you Cathy, for trying to point out things like this while recognizing the positive things in the district.

Posted by midtown parent
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 10, 2014 at 2:50 pm

I'd like to bring back up one problem that several others mentioned (including 'former Gunn parent', 'just a resident now', and 'Concerned'), in the hope that someone has some helpful ideas.

My daughter confirmed to me her personal experience with what Concerned posted, that she had teachers who asked the class if they already knew the material in a new chapter, and when most raised their hands (who wouldn't?), skipped ahead. (There was always a rush to get more covered faster.)

This shouldn't happen. All required material should be covered in class.

Teachers, and others, appear to be assuming that those who raised their hands are bright, self-motivated students who skipped ahead themselves, and learned the material so quickly they have no need for more teaching. In the few cases where that is true, those kids should be laned forward. But this isn't a problem only in the highest lanes.

And, based on what I've learned from numerous other parents over the years, no one should assume these self-motivated kids are even close to the majority. Much more common are kids who are pre-taught or even have parents who are actually doing the work.

Parents are using their personal resources to make sure their kids get, and stay, "ahead" of whatever lane they are in. Some hire tutors for bright kids who have no learning issues, others tutor their kids ahead of the chapter themselves, still others do their kids' homework for them.

Yes, starting in elementary school, there are parents who do their kids' homework. One mom even admitted to me that her parents had done this for her when she was a kid, so we are not the first generation. (She was quite shocked when she got to a first-rate college and had to do her own work!) As the mom of a kid in special ed, I've had more than one parent of a special ed kid tell me that this was the only way they managed to get their kids through high school and suggested I do the same. I haven't. As mentioned in an earlier post, my daughter is on the verge of dropping out.

To spell it out: if others are doing it, your child is behind if you don't. And the more people do the same, the more it takes for anyone's child to "get ahead" of the rest. It becomes a vicious cycle.

No, I'm not suggesting parents stop helping their kids with homework or even stop hiring (unnecessary) tutors. However...

One solution could be for the teachers to understand that none of the kids know the material by magic. Teachers also should not assume the kids really know the material just because they say they do (possibly out of embarrassment.) Students should have to take a quiz and prove it. Then those who were "pre-taught" could be assigned to something interesting but non-required and non-essential, while teachers actually teach the rest of the class the material in the chapter!

Any other ideas?

Posted by Annabel
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 10, 2014 at 3:27 pm

My kids went to Walter Hays. They were overflowed from our neighborhood.

FYI Escondido, Walter Hays and Ohlone are all over 550. (at least they were in 2011-2012. At one point Walter Hays took a ton of overflow families Walter Hays (at the time) was looking at some grades with 5 strands - 125 kids in one grade. I love many of the people there - but at some point it's just crowd control.

I volunteered a lot, by the way, but I have no teaching credential and there were occasions when I thought, "what the heck, I have no idea what I'm doing" If I were a parent I wouldn't want me teaching a kid how to read - it's not that easy to do it correctly. I did my best.

Posted by Fire Tabitha Hurley
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 10, 2014 at 3:55 pm

thanks for posting about the ridiculous media tracker and what it is tracking that came to light when Trustee Ken Dauber raised it at the meeting last night. While I feel for you about your excellent op-ed being only a "tie" I take real umbrage at the classification of a student's suicide on the train tracks as a "tie."

I am going to take a position here that Tabitha should be terminated. I understand that McGee asked her to do this and that he defended the practice last night when Dauber politely asked him a few different ways to compromise on this issue. But Tabitha Hurley has the moral responsibility for Tabitha Hurley and following instructions is not a valid excuse for engaging in an immoral activity.

I think (and am happy to have a discussion about it) that whatever the dubious value of the entire exercise and whether or not the whole thing was dumb from the word go, when she got to the task of "checking a box" of win lose or tie regarding the suicide of one of our young people, that should have set off alarm bells in Tabitha's head. She should have realized not only that this was unethical and immoral and insensitive but also that it would be perceived by the community as unethical, immoral and insensitive. The latter alone should have been enough to stop her if the former wasn't. In either case, the decision to do it anyway is disqualifying.

Fire Tabitha.

Posted by Ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 10, 2014 at 4:08 pm

To Midtown parent: Such a sad situation for your daughter. Just like it can be a disadvantage to be at a high achieving high school, it can also be a disadvantage to be at one of the more elite Palo Alto elementary schools. Fairmeadow, Barron Park, and Juana Briones may be the best schools for more balance, not perfect but pretty good. There is no excuse for a teacher using these sorts of methods at the expense of any student. There are many high school students gaming the system for grades at any cost. Sometimes they are encouraged by their families and sometime it is peer competition. It seems in all cases it is driven by fear of college admissions/success.

FYI, Paly High math department does give students an anonymous survey requesting their use of tutors. It would be a great practice to implement at all schools for all subjects so the schools understands what the issues are. Also, Cathy's Q survey [a system used at Harvard for many years] seems very valuable. There is not enough student feedback to teachers/admin. I'm not sure which high school your daughter is attending, but our new Gunn principal is truly on our side. How much she can impact the teaching staff and system remains to be seen, but it is hopeful. Will you be coming to the coffee tomorrow? I'd like to speak with you further. If you haven't already, don't hesitate to inform your principal of the issues and the consequences for your daughter. She needs an advocate at school. These days it seems every student needs one!

Posted by Elem. Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 10, 2014 at 6:08 pm

I'd like to comment on what Annabel wrote:

6. Our experience in PAUSD elementary - This happens to A LOT OF KIDS - my kids are quiet - as defined by Susan Cain's best-selling book of the same name. In PAUSD elementary schools, quiet kids are routinely placed next to kids who either can not, or will not listen - and often they have serious behavioral issues. I don't mean sitting next to these kids once in a while - I mean everyday, year in and year out. My kids were learning that their own educational needs were not important. They were being praised for putting up with bad behavior and diminishing themselves in the process. It erodes self esteem. It's a form of educational abuse to expect quiet children to stoically be placeholders for gutted and inappropriately staffed elementary schools. It was a veteran PAUSD teacher - a true jewel of PAUSD - who pulled me aside and told me to look at private.

As Annabel says, "This happens to A LOT OF KIDS." This happened to my daughter last year. I also sensed it happening to her other well-behaved, studious, and well-meaning classmates--most of whom were girls. Some girls and their parents don't quite recognize it happening to them, or they don't feel comfortable speaking up about it; or English is their second language, and they don't feel comfortable speaking up due to language or cultural issues.

My daughter didn't feel comfortable speaking up about her seating arrangement on her own--although she's not a shy student overall--so she asked me to bring it up for her. I did, and her teacher flatly refused to move her (at first). But, as Annabel indicates, the kids that well-behaved kids are placed next to can have "serious behavioral issues." So, I persisted in having my daughter moved, because 1) she asked to be moved, and the voices of girls should be heard and not ignored (especially by teachers who claim to care about female empowerment), and 2) because my daughter was experiencing anxiety symptoms as a result of being next to a boy who had bullied her early in the school year and whom she did not trust. I volunteered at the school, and I know I was not the only parent volunteer who recognized this boy's concerning behaviors.

When I wrote to the teacher, I didn't want to become the voice just for my daughter but for all the girls who seemed to be used as "placeholders," to quote Annabel. (I was not treated well for doing so.) My main difference from what Annabel says is in terms of gender--again, I felt girls were more likely to be used as "placeholders" than boys. So, to kind of quote and rephrase what Annabel has written, I would say that "[Girls] were learning that their own educational needs [and voices and self-determination] were not important. They were being praised for putting up with bad [male] behavior and diminishing themselves in the process. It erodes self esteem. It's a form of educational abuse to expect [young girls] to stoically be placeholders for gutted and inappropriately staffed elementary schools."

What are we truly teaching girls, or expecting them to learn, about themselves as females in school and in society? I hope the answer is not just to become quiet, complacent "placeholders."

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 10, 2014 at 8:12 pm

Cathy Kirkman is a registered user.

Thank you for all of these caring and thoughtful comments.

If anyone is going to brave the storm tomorrow and come for coffee at Peet's Town & Country, I will be there at 10am with my red dog.

If you're looking for a movement or an organization, that's not what I'm about, but feel free to find someone who is. I would suggest the new Save the 2008 group at Gunn, or Parent Advocates for Student Success, or go ahead and start something new. I don't go to board meetings; I'm just interested in working with kids and families to try to help.

So the purpose of coffee is just to put faces with online names, say hello, and chat. We're all neighbors here in Palo Alto, a few blocks give and take. If anyone has needs, hopefully we can suggest help or advice. If anyone has topics to discuss, let's explore them. I will be asking if anyone wants to contribute content to, other than that it's unscripted.

So if that's your cup of tea, or coffee, hope to see you there!

Posted by Parent
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 11, 2014 at 10:03 am

Is it Town and Country Peets?

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 11, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Thanks to everyone who braved the storm and joined us at Peets for coffee today. I had to give my dog her raincoat and a steak bone just to convince her to leave the house this morning!

What a lovely conversation we had about how to help parents better navigate our school system. I appreciate all of the advice received on the project, and hope to stay in touch with everyone, and to hear from anyone who is interested but couldn't make it. Email to [email protected]

All the best, Cathy

Posted by Too Nordic for PA
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Dec 11, 2014 at 5:18 pm

A problem that many of us with fair-haired daughters have: sexual harassment of them starting in fifth or sixth grade. [Portion removed.] We will take our daughter elsewhere if she is just going to be so uncomfortable in school that her education suffers. As it is, she is begging to be home-schooled, especially after being publicly slapped by the "jealous girlfriend" of one of the offenders--in the sixth grade for heaven sake!

Posted by CC
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 11, 2014 at 5:56 pm

I'm genuinely curious about the best way to do seating arrangements - I'm aware this is a heated topic, so I apologize if I offend anyone with my writing. I do not intend to.
One user notes "the kids that well-behaved kids are placed next to can have "serious behavioral issues."" This implies this shouldn't be the case - but how else is seating to be assigned? Entirely randomly, even though it may result in 2 students sitting next to each other who are chatty and distract other students? All the students with "serious behavioral issues" together, so that all the better-behaved children are isolated from? How will the worse-behaved students ever improve? A mix of the two, in hopes that the worse better behaved children will learn to act appropriately, even at the cost of the normal children's learning? There are benefits and costs to all of these scenarios. I am curious - what seating arrangement would you suggest instead?

Posted by MidtownMom
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 11, 2014 at 6:10 pm

There will be many more discussions like these .. attempting to figure out if the school system is at fault. There are some posts here which are basically implying that the grades should be easy to get (less difficult As and Bs)

Isn't it upto the parents to decide how much pressure to put on their own children? Parents have to figure out the aptitude of the children, their capacity and what they really do want for their own children. In a family, each child is an unique individual (one child may be the most academically oriented person, the other may not even want to hold a book to read).

The challenges offered by the school district are suitable for some kids; they thrive with the high academic standard. These challenges are not suitable for other kids - the district has lower lanes and more appropriate academic structure.

Work towards making the kids good humans, teach them how to handle the stresses and curve balls that life may throw. Graduating from an IVY league vs the city college may help you get the first job. After the first job, all bets are off .. it is the person, as an individual that makes it bigger on his/her own merit.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 11, 2014 at 6:35 pm

Thanks for these comments.

With respect to Too Nordic mom, everyone has the right to be free from harassment. I hope you consider communicating most fully and clearly with the site and the district about what you are experiencing, so they can make it right for you.

With respect to the seating chart issue, I don't have an answer; however, in my experience, teachers often change seating arrangements to keep it fluid and move kids around as needed in a way that doesn't single anyone out, and often in response to parent concerns about any given situation. Or for example, if you feel your kid needs to sit in front to learn without all these distractions, it is helpful to communicate that.

Midtown Mom, I agree with you that fundamentally the buck stops with the parents. This was the key point in my piece in the call to action: that we need to navigate the system for our kids in a manner that reflects our values and is best for our kids. However that doesn't exclude evaluating and improving our schools at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive, which takes me back to the prior posts in the thread, in terms of is the homework and course level right, etc. But my assumption and experience is that change, even if needed, occurs slowly. So job #1 is navigating the status quo for your family.

With more transparency, hopefully more families can find the right path for them, instead of having to reinvent the wheel or learn by trial and error. I was looking at the high school course guides, and they don't really share that much about homework expectations for example. That would be an easy fix to improve things. So even if nothing needed to change, more transparency would be beneficial so families can have the information they need to make the right choices for their kids.

Posted by Need Teacher Consistency
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 11, 2014 at 7:18 pm

@Paly Parent: There is no teacher consistency, and our Super, Max McGee is going to work on that through teacher evaluations completed by students (I wish us parents could fill them out). Tardies are also teacher-dependent and those who are rigid with it are most likely the same teachers who are unreasonable with workloads, at least in our experience.

@Kathy Kirkman: The catalog descriptions are often incorrect - it's another teacher-dependent issue. Sometimes a higher-lane class has an easier teacher than a regular lane class - not in math, but we have found this to be true in English.

Why are people talking about elementary school seating assignments here when the topic is high school? Start a new thread, sheesh.

Posted by BrokenSysten
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 11, 2014 at 10:37 pm

@MidtownMom writes:"Isn't it upto the parents to decide how much pressure to put on their own children?"

That just it though - when the system is broken, you find that there isn't lower stress in the lower lanes. There isn't less homework either.

And because of inconsistent teaching you may find a worse situation with a more stringent teacher making their own class more difficult.

This is ignored by the dozen or so parent blaming threads here; '... Just pull your kid out of 5 APs...'

Well that is a problem if you aren't in an AP and the workload is ridiculous, the teachers are demotivating and the principal doesn't care.

MidtownMom may think that as a parent that options are available which are lower stress or more suited to less academically inclined.

But that is a myth.

Just lower expectations, with every bit as much stress and work.

Posted by Gunn dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 11, 2014 at 10:44 pm

One very simple thing to reduce student and parent stress is teacher consistency. How can one math teacher allow his students who fail a test to re-take the exam, but another math teacher for the same subject not allow retests for her failing students. How on earth is this fair??

In what situation outside of Gunn would this ever be tolerated? I can't even get the Gunn guidance counselors to explain how this is allowed, they just shrug their shoulders.

Posted by Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 12, 2014 at 6:35 am

Children at school are being tested on facts more than ever, and we’re in danger of becoming obsessed with SATs, and test results. Yet if there’s one thing we all learn on leaving school, it’s that life isn’t just finals. What matters in the long run is your ability to persist, learn from your mistakes, act so as to earn the trust of others, to be loyal, and honest and do what you say you’re going to do.

Are P.A. high schools teaching these values?

Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 12, 2014 at 7:17 am

More important, are parents teaching those values? Social, moral and ethical values should be taught by parents long before a child enters high school.

Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Dec 12, 2014 at 7:36 am

@Joe -

"Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school." -
Albert Einstein

not disconnected from:
"You must be the change you wish to see in the world." - Mahatma Gandhi

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 12, 2014 at 8:23 am

Thanks for the continuing conversation.

With respect to teacher consistency, I think this is an important issue, because it's only fair to our children that the courses are consistent across sections, because their transcript grades will reflect the same course name. As parents, when we ask our kids to try their best and work their hardest at a course, it is unfair and demoralizing to them to find out that another section has entirely different, harder practices. And for those who would say life isn't fair, and we learn life lessons from this, I would disagree: these are our children in a public school, not the school of hard knocks, and we are entitled to ensure their education as constituents of a public school district in a manner that demonstrates fundamental fairness.

With respect to stress, I've previously said that the "if you can't take the heat get out of the kitchen" argument fails, because it's our own kitchen, here in the public schools, and we have the right to evaluate it and confirm that the recipe and temperatures are appropriate. And I agree that the lower lane fix does not per se alleviate the problem, as the other side of the coin is the known saw that all of our courses are quasi-honors because of the nature of our school system.

With respect to teaching values, I agree that starts in the home. But we can expect our schools to model appropriate values and reflect our community values in how our school system operates, for example in terms of modeling fundamental fairness.

I take from Joe's point the comment about teaching facts; in the Internet era, let's make sure we reflect modern pedagogy in terms of learning outcomes, such as persuasive writing and critical thinking skills, etc. That said, I'm not suggesting you can learn chemistry without memorization, so please don't take it that way.

But even the College Board is reevaluating how fact-intensive some of its APs like AP Us History are, and how this doesn't reflect what a historian's wheel house should be focused on. Stanford Magazine had an interesting article a while back about an approach to teaching history that focuses on primary textual analysis. I wish we had more of that approach here. It's called History Detected, and the précis is:

"Give kids original source material, teach them how to weigh evidence and defend their conclusions, and they'll shine in class—and as citizens."

Web Link

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 12, 2014 at 8:37 am

I think it's self-evident that I meant to say "easier" grading practices above, but let me correct that, and add one more thought:

We have the prestigious Stanford Graduate School of Education sitting across the street from us. If only we would partner with them for the purpose of defining and executing upon a continuous agenda of study and improvement of our schools. Wouldn't it be amazing if our district had a formal MoU with Stanford to pursue best practices in education? Let's not rest on our laurels or persist in a DIY mentality; imagine if we had a culture of continuous innovation, a maker spirit: we could truly be exceptional among public school districts in the nation and the world.

Posted by Question
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 12, 2014 at 9:47 am

Hi Cathy,

Invigorating work here and thank you for taking efforts to promote civil dialogue. I'm curious what outreach is being done to include the faculty and staff in this discussion? I notice that we're visibly absent from the invitation to participate in your website in the welcome blog post which specifically invites "students, alums, and experienced parents." I wonder if this harmonizes with the efforts you've made so clearly in this thread to promote inclusive dialogue even through disagreements? I would bet we'd have information regarding Common Core/ed code/etc. that could be helpful in generating the kind of change in which you're interested. Plus, we're perfectly situated to champion your cause amongst colleagues. I suppose you could take it to us after the fact, but why wait? Including us now could really help break down some of barriers--team-building rather than the "us vs. them" narrative we've had going for so long in this community. As a teacher, I thought about joining your coffee yesterday, but wasn't sure I was welcome. Just some thoughts...good luck!

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 12, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Hi Question, thanks so much for your comment: it would be *outstanding* if our educators were involved in this effort! We will update the site to make this clear, as the welcome invitation didn't mean to exclude anyone, including without limitation staff, administrators, retirees, new parents, scholars, experts, college students, mental health professionals, non-profit stakeholders, people from neighboring communities, or anyone else who wants to get involved.

Thank you SO much for pointing that out. Also of course this thread is wide-open to anyone, and while I think you're the first person who has self-identified as an educator (thank you!), it would be absolutely wonderful if we could have an open, constructive conversation with all stakeholders about these matters, and thereby serve to model how we might have productive community conversations in these forums in the future. Also, I must say that I completely understand that teachers often feel like we parents are a lot to deal with, and I hope this thread and can be viewed as a constructive, welcoming forum for everyone.

Furthermore, I'm hoping that by off-loading a lot of information to (from info that experienced parents and professionals in the district take for granted to more sophisticated material) we can avoid a lot of misunderstandings and help parents navigate better. Avoid problems that are avoidable, use known workarounds, etc. As a community we can try to help with transparency to improve everyone's experience.

Posted by former gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 12, 2014 at 1:26 pm

i beg to differ on collaboration with academic departments. profs have their own agendas and do studies on small numbers of specially selected kids. they are marketing themselves to survive the tenure process. i think any more collaboration than we already have would be a mistake.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 12, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Also Question, I failed to mention that we have meetings scheduled for the new year with Paly, Gunn and district leadership to share what we're doing and get informal help and cooperation. All of your ideas welcome and appreciated!

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 12, 2014 at 1:37 pm

Thanks former gunn parent for your thoughts. I think in any situation you have to evaluate the quality of the information, but in my view more information is better in the marketplace of ideas. Because is not Wikipedia, we can maintain editorial standards so that the content can't be co-opted. But to treat stakeholders as potentially suspect would only promote a culture of suspicion and mistrust, and I don't think that can help move the community conversation forward. In my experience, our teachers are consummate professionals and they are open to a professional dialog about educational best practices and what we are doing as a district. While we can't expect everyone to agree on everything, at least we can find common ground and have a constructive exchange of ideas.

Posted by Overlooked
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 12, 2014 at 5:26 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 12, 2014 at 5:57 pm

Hi Overlooked, thanks for sharing, however I refer you to my comments above to Midtown Mom, that these types of posts that make accusations based on race, ethnicity, national origin and the like are inflammatory. Please refrain from making them in this forum. Thank you. I hope you will contact the site and the district to address your issues. I agree that everyone should be treated fairly.

Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 14, 2014 at 9:43 am

Kathy--are you meeting again?

Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 14, 2014 at 9:50 am

Chris Zaharias is a registered user.

I've now collected 50 student responses to the Paly/Gunn homework survey, results can be reviewed here: Web Link

- 74% of students have more homework than PAUSD policy recommends
- 14% have less than policy recommends
- only 12% report having the amount of homework PAUSD mandates
- 75%+ say teachers neither ask them about homework load nor work together to manage it as a group

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 14, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Thanks for these comments.

We've posted about Chris' homework survey on, and hope more students will take the survey. This data can be helpful feedback to the high school principals in their role administering the district homework policy at their sites.

Web Link

Paly Parent, we haven't made a plan yet for the new year, but I would enjoy continuing the in-person conversation with anyone who is interested, so I will throw out the same time for January: the second Thursday morning of the month at Peet's T&C, which would be January 8th at 10am. I will have my red dog and will probably still be reading the same Faulkner.

Posted by Chris M
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 14, 2014 at 1:46 pm

[Portion removed.] Blaming the administration or the teachers is like blaming gas stations when gas prices go up. I appreciate your attempts to start a dialogue, but try looking at yourself and your friends before you start blaming the schools and its policies.

Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 14, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Chris Zaharias is a registered user.

Chris M - some PA parents share your opinion, ergo this thread. Cathy's trying to make a positive contribution, as are others. Sounds like you're ready to find the exit - Hwy 280 has less traffic. . .

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 14, 2014 at 5:31 pm

Thanks for sharing Chris M, but I have to reject your characterization of my piece as a blame narrative, please see the thread above. It is an improvement narrative. If you take the time to re-read, you will see it is structured with a discussion of humanizing our schools and deconstructing rigor, and then with a call to action to parents to take responsibility. So perhaps you missed this.

I'm sorry you feel that Palo Alto is "rotten to the core," and hopefully you are just venting a bit. I love Palo Alto, that's why I'm still here raising my kids and trying to do something positive. It's Advent season so I do try to engage in self-reflection this time of year, but I have to draw the line at ad hominem attacks in this forum, and certainly directed at any of my friends, whomever you mean by that. Why not come for coffee in January and finish venting and then maybe we can find some common ground. Either way, happy holidays!

Posted by Whoville
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 14, 2014 at 5:32 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by teacher
a resident of another community
on Dec 14, 2014 at 8:58 pm

I just checked out your website. As a teacher in the district I am impressed at how it speaks to students from all walks of life. Finally! When is your next meeting?

Posted by Need Teacher Consistency
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 14, 2014 at 9:09 pm

From his posting, obviously, Chris M. has never sent children through one of the PAUSD high schools, nor has the knowledge of what colleges are seeking. Not all parents want their children attending elite colleges, especially after seeing what it takes to be admitted. While there are many reasonable teachers in high school, the unreasonable ones can wreak havoc on an entire family. Any student who is diligent should not have to fight to stay out of "C" range, yet, some teachers are so rigorous, that it is a fight.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 15, 2014 at 7:27 am

Thanks teacher, that means a lot coming from one of our educators. Next coffee is 10am at Peets T&C, Thursday January 8th. Or email to [email protected]

And thanks Need Teacher Consistency, I agree this theme of consistency and fairness is an important one for all of our kids, wherever their aspirations lie.

Stay dry today Palo Alto!

Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Nixon School
on Dec 15, 2014 at 9:19 am

Just want to say thanks to Cathy for the effort. There are a lot of diverse opinions here, and she has been pretty good about addressing each of them diplomatically. Most people agree that improvements can and should be made. Even the most successful corporations have to examine themselves from time to time, and strive to improve, even when things seem to be going well. We need to skate to where the puck will be, as a skilled hockey player once said. Certainly, many PA parents feel the same as Cathy, but some of us are low on time or patience, or perhaps too high on emotion or frustration to always be constructive. Others may feel overwhelmed and give up the effort. Certainly, it feels good to know that someone motivated with a level head is on the mission. The recipe for change is probably a small part ideas, and a large part perseverance. Please keep up the effort.

Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Dec 15, 2014 at 2:36 pm

I do not see enough focus on the Parents in this discussion - yes the schools can make changes and that may help but the Parents are the driving force behind many forms of pressure - "get top grades", "don't be Gay", "avoid certain groups of people" while doing very little to make certain their children are accepting of others. Many Parents are oblivious to the harm they are causing. I can identify several of people who have made comments on this tread and they are not being honest with themselves - they are the problem and their children will suffer in the long run. For example, if you tell your child to look for bad in everyone and try to isolate the child from all of the "bad" kids you end up with a child who finds fault in everyone and that results in zero friends. Imagine the pressure caused by having no friends.

Posted by Cathy Kirkman
a resident of Southgate
on Dec 15, 2014 at 3:29 pm

Thank you Concerned Parents for the kind words and encouragement.

Thank you Alphonso for noting the role of parents, although I don't think it's constructive to criticize other parents. The piece has a call to action for parents, including the Stay Inspired Pledge, designed as a family tool to discuss values and provide support. I emphatically agree that we parents need to do everything we can to support our kids.

Web Link

Posted by former former gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 16, 2014 at 12:51 pm

Fyi, there are two people posting as "former gunn parent". I was the initial poster. I think that only the most recent post was done by someone else but this thread is getting pretty long and there are only so many hours in the day. So I will change to a third name before posting again.

Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 23, 2014 at 5:02 pm

"Save the 2,008"

Right now, a grassroots initiative called "Save the 2,008" is before the Palo Alto public—offering a clear and sensible path toward a healthier, happier life at Gunn High.

Announced last month to the School Board and in the "Weekly," led by Gunn sophomore Martha Cabot and former Gunn English teacher Marc Vincenti, "Save the 2,008" sets forth six common-sense, concrete steps—things that can be done almost immediately—that would ease the pressures of nightly homework, course loads, cheating, sleep-deprivation, distraction and bullying, class sizes, and relentless grading.

Details are on our website:

Don't just talk or write. TAKE ACTION.

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