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Students speak to experiences, good and bad, at youth forum

Original post made on Mar 2, 2015

Amidst Palo Alto's ongoing community conversation about youth health and well-being -- one that so often cries out for the youth voice -- a room full of parents, students, school administrators, city leaders and community members gathered Sunday evening to hear just that.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Sunday, March 1, 2015, 10:41 PM

Comments (30)

Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 2, 2015 at 12:31 am

Dear Palo Alto Onliners,

Ms. Luo is right that the "invisible enemy" is hard to see, and sometimes hides in our least-examined actions.

Ms. Lane's comment is indeed sad, and true for too many: "I don't love school anymore."

And Mr. Dauber's assertion that our job is to turn "ideas into action" is a clarion call.

Also seeking swift action, "Save the 2,008," a local grassroots campaign on behalf of our schools, centers upon the relationship between teachers and students—and believes that the thread of gold between them is caring.

At one end, this care is expressed by well-thought-through lessons, homework swiftly returned, glances that say, “I see you” and "I hear you," and a readiness to champion each child; at the other end, the caring is received and felt if the student feels safe and present in class—both emotionally and intellectually—and isn’t distracted or sleep-deprived or troubled by a school environment of distrust.

When teachers can express their caring, and when students can spin that caring into their own fabric of gold, the school is more than good enough.

"Save the 2,008" clears the way for teachers and kids to connect.

The campaign makes six proposals: 1) shrink classes to a friendlier size, creating stronger person-to-person ties, including lifelines between students and teachers; 2) moderate the amounts of homework via improved communication (i.e., a confidential website); 3) foster wiser decisions about AP course loads, through timely meetings between counselors, kids, and parents; 4) put to rest the all-day distraction of cellphones, so that taunts and gossip are quieted on campus; 5) slow the bombardment of grade-reports so our kids have room to ride out the ups and downs of teenage life; and 6) end the demoralizing impact of continual cheating—so that the 2,008 students and teachers of Gunn High can breathe and grow and thrive.

Join us at:

Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Co-founder, "Save the 2,008"

Posted by Fan of Teaching to the Whole Child
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 2, 2015 at 6:35 am

Our children attended Ohlone and Connections at JLS. The project based learning and teaching to the whole child was very successful in creating an engaging and challenging classroom.

This completely stopped when our children went to high school. Teachers held one-way diatribes and discouraged discussion and thinking. Memorization and passing their tests were the goals. Teachers and schools outside of Ohlone and Connections did not have an adequate structure to stop bullying or celebrate differences.

A big problem in our schools is the fundamental structure that does not encourage joy of learning. Listen, study, test is an empty world in the classroom.

We can do better.

Posted by Palo Alto Youth Forum 2015
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 2, 2015 at 7:36 am

Thanks to all the students, sponsors, and community members who made this event a great start on a dialogue with our teens. No event is perfect, and this one wasn't. In the area of teen suicide and wellness, this community unfortunately has to make the road by walking.

This is part of that journey.

The event now has a tumblr blog and I invite you to follow it for photos, quotes, essays, news, and video.

Web Link

Posted by Palo Alto Youth Forum 2015
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 2, 2015 at 7:42 am

Please support our youth by using the hashtag #supportpayouth on your facebook posts, tweets, and other social media.

Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Mar 2, 2015 at 8:36 am

Youth Forum,
I love what you have just done there in your post. The Tumblr page has several lovely photos of statements by adults saying they support our youth because... (beautiful one of our Mayor who I know deeply cares about our youth) ... And now translating to action, you have written, we can support our youth "by"...

Taking the next steps in the journey are harder, because they take work and courage. Thank you for your efforts to rally our community to focus on what we can do.

I agree. Unfortunately, our experience of Connections has not been as good as billed, possibly because of district involvement because of special needs. But the school carried water for the oroblematic from the district rather then insulating families from it/politics, and I know we're not the only ones. It's been disillusioning and painful. But also, the program is only all project-based the first year.

Posted by Ken Horowitz
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 2, 2015 at 9:06 am

PAUSD Board Members,Administrators,Faculty,and Parents:
Please visit the Living Wisdom School on College Ave just off El Camino Real to see how social and emotional health is incorporated into their curriculum in order that children grow up in a healthy community. Contact the principal there Helen Purcell for a tour. Theirs is an example of "walking the talk".
Dr. Ken Horowitz Health Professor at Foothill College

Posted by Family & Children Services of Silicon Valley
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 2, 2015 at 9:20 am

We commend the students who shared their experiences and suggestions at the forum. Thank you for speaking up. We were listening, and we look forward to taking part as planning continues.

Posted by Serena Wang
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 2, 2015 at 9:37 am

Thank you all for this panel!

I have Tweeted with my Twitter account, hoping to have my followers to retweet it!

Posted by Paly Grad
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 2, 2015 at 12:46 pm

I loved school here until I went to middle school, but I think that was a phase most kids go through. I loved Paly--but that was in the 80's.

Both of my kids started hating Palo Alto schools around second grade--when the homework became sufficient to edge out any play time with friends after school. That is also when my son began gaining weight, due to the lack of exercise combined with lack of PE.

When my son was a sophomore at Paly, he broke his shoulder BADLY, and could not participate in PE for most of the year. He was actually required to make up a full year of PE in his junior year, even though he was still in physical therapy three times a week. He still has shoulder problems due to this. Now that he has graduated college, he must have surgery due to the re-injuring of the joint from the forced PE make ups ( yes, he had a note from his orthopedist, but PAUSD insisted that the rules are the rules--he was seeking early graduation and he could not graduate without at least two years of PE!).

Anyway, both of my kids were so burned out from PAUSD schools, that I now wish I had ponied up and sent them to private ones instead. Neither wanted to go to college out of fear that it would be just "a big Paly" experience. However, I insisted, and they are now thankful I did.......because college was a walk in the park compared to most of the classes at Paly--even the AP's

My son says that college professors treated him far, far better than any teacher at Paly and most teachers ( only two exceptions)
at Jordan. My daughter, whofought college the hardest, now wishes to go to grad school, because college is so much more stimulating, she says, and less repressive than Paly ever was.

My personal take on this is that if you want your kids to love learning and not hate school, DO NOT send them to Palo Alto schools! Save up and send them to a good private school instead--it will be money well-invested.......especially since the colleges prefer to see a private school on the application.

Posted by Douglas C. Thompson
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 2, 2015 at 3:04 pm

The difficulty of addressing these issues in the broader context is that we have become so accustomed to a very ingrained "no pain/no gain" view of what high School education looks and feels like. Or, to paraphrase a parent who visited my school some time ago, "your students can't be learning--they all seem so happy." At Mid-Peninsula we believe that only happy students really learn effectively.

Douglas C. Thompson, PhD
Head of School
Mid-Peninsula High School

Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Mar 2, 2015 at 3:51 pm

Douglas Thompson,

Thank you for your views. I wish your school were closer to where we live!

I think there is an important distinction to make here. Since this is a public school in a well-known district, there is a broader range of views on education, where a private school population will self-select.

There will always be the 'no-pain no-gain' crowd. Really, no matter what you do, in a public system, especially one with people from all over the world, there will always be people for whom that is desirable. And if we listen to the kids, there actually are some kids for whom that approach really is their bliss. I've said this many times, but it's like, Why do some people climb mountains? That's what makes them happy. It's a recipe for disaster for a lot of others, though. The only alternatives should not be the challenge of climbing the mountain, or relax and sit on the couch.

I believe all children have their gifts, and the role of the schools is to support children to find and develop them. You have really hit the nail on the head when you used the term "happy" in learning, because people are happy when they are engaged and their work has meaning
Web Link
"Engagement is the creative application of our skills to meet challenges."

Just because someone is not a good mountain climber and is even miserable trying, does not mean the alternative should be couch potato, or, a mountain climber who just accepts that she is just a mediocre one and stops trying so hard, as seems to be what our district is telling our kids. Rather than making some level of choice available at the high schools like we have in elementary for different kinds of learners, our schools seem to want to cling to the mountain climbing model, telling kids who are miserable at it that they should just accept it. This is s recipe for making a lot of kids unhappy, undereducated, and feeling undervalued.

Making learning options available at the high school level, which is eminently doable, is a better solution for a public school to have happy, engaged, successful learners across the board.

Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 3, 2015 at 12:11 am

@Paly Grad - What homework were your kids doing in second grade? I don't remember any mandatory homework for second grade. Just some reading and occasional math worksheet that was never returned.

Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Duveneck School
on Mar 3, 2015 at 12:51 am

@Paly Grad: Agree with Mr.Recycle. I graduated in the early 80s - academics much easier then, plus no technology for distractions, so we had a lot of free time. Three of my children went through elementary school in PAUSD and had almost no homework until 5th grade. They do ask the children to read for 20 minutes daily (honor system), but hardly any homework to turn in - maybe an occasional worksheet worth 10 minutes, 20 minutes at most. Re your comment, how can a private school look more impressive to colleges than a Top 100 high school? Woodside Priory?

Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Mar 3, 2015 at 2:49 am

Paly Alum,

When did your kids go through/what school? I would say the too-much-homework problem started for us in 2nd grade, too.

It wasn't the amount of homework at first, it was the turning of absolutely everything into a killjoy. Our boy used to read for hours, pulling out book after book. In early elementary, making him write down logs of the books he read, when writing was such a challenge and the activity of logging the books and regurgitating was so mentally tedious for him, he pretty much stopped reading for fun completely.

I remember a particular parent conference in which the teacher complained that he wasn't reading, judging by his log in which he had laboriously written titles of just two books. This did not jive with our experience, so I asked him right there what he had read that day - he looked at the teacher and then like he wanted to run out of the room rather than admit he had read a bunch of books because he thought someone would make him log them. He had been an early, avid reader, and school made him stop reading. He still only reads occasionally when my spouse finds a good book from the library and leaves it out after reading it first. This should concern our schools, since statistics show this same thing happening with a lot of boys in our system today, losing the interest in reading in elementary school.

I often hear the school habit of turning of everything into a killjoy excused by saying sometimes people have to do things they don't want to do. First of all, this is just an inappropriate mindset for teaching kids in elementary (and later) school. School should above all be to teach kids how to learn and keep them excited about learning, not teaching them to hate learning. Secondly, kids have plenty of things they do that they don't want to do in their lives, making school yet another one of them does not help learning. Let them learn about that kind of discipline by leaving them time to do chores, etc. Lastly, kids are much more likely to learn positive lessons about doing the boring stuff if it's part of reaching their own goals. Then you don't have to force them, they do it naturally.

Douglas Thompson above put it so well, the "no pain/no gain" school of thought. I can see it killing creativity, self-motivation, and curiosity.

Posted by Former PAUSD Parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 3, 2015 at 7:33 am

My daughter also nearly lost her love of reading due to reading logs in the primary grades. The problem was fixed when we went to speak with her teacher and asked for her to be exempted from the reading logs, since the requirement was having the opposite effect intended. Instead of encouraging reading, it was taking all the spontaneity out of it. The teacher agreed with making an exception for our daughter and seemed friendly towards us, thanking us for letting her know. But it did feel like a risk to ask for that accommodation; we were concerned we'd be labeled troublemakers, which is what we had heard would happen to those who "complain" to teachers. Also, it seemed unfair that our daughter was exempted because we had protested, while the other kids still were required to do the log. We didn't like the idea of "special favors." Still the most urgent priority at the time was to preserve our daughter's love of reading and our approach seemed like the best way given the circumstances. My first choice though would be to eliminate reading logs altogether. I think they do more harm than good.

Posted by Themes
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 3, 2015 at 7:56 am

I attended the youth forum and I heard a few themes from the student comments, although I am sure there are more:

1. Students crave connections to their teachers. All spoke about how much they wanted teachers to connect with them and ask them how they are doing. This reminded me of the stalled campaign for TA at Gunn, which is intended to create those connections. What has happened to the GAC recommendations to expand Titan 101 to the upper grades to make the school equal to Paly.

2. Improve special education. This was a surprising theme, however kudos to the organizers for having such a diverse panel, because without the voices of those students parents of students without learning differences would not know about this. There have been serious complaints about Holly Wade for years. Time for a change.

3. Severe academic pressure is part of the background noise of the lives of these kids. It is like living under an airport. They just take it for granted. They described it as ever-present, cultural, and terrible. One said it destroyed her love of learning. Another compared it to a tumor. We have to do better than this.

4. The culture among students is very judgmental based on academic ability as a regular part of life. Only at Camp Everytown is it better. Camp Everytown is a selective opportunity for a small number of handpicked students once per year. They want to be free of the competition in which students who drop down a lane in math are judged by their peers. Several mentioned judgmentalism based on math and science lane. That was appalling and reminds us of the damage that is being done by a structure based on excessive laning in which the top comes to be necessarily associated with "good" and the bottom with "dumb." A Paly student said that "the bottom math lane is called the dummy lane and everyone knows it." That made me very sad to hear.

5. They want to be heard and respected. They want to be consulted about major changes. They don't want to have things happening around them that they can't even weigh in on.

6. The Gunn students made it clear that the suicides are not being correctly handled in post-vention. There was tremendous confusion about how to even talk about it. They all called it "the event." They couldn't even name it and it was clear that they were not sure how or if they are even allowed to talk about it and they are afraid it could happen again. They seemed tramatized by the suicides of their classmates. They need more help than they are getting to process so much death.

7. We need more school based mental health services to give students support groups, mindfulness, and better access to therapy and medical care.

Posted by Thank you students
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2015 at 8:12 am

Thank you to the students who spoke, you are awesome.

Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Mar 3, 2015 at 12:12 pm

Thank you so much for your summary, every point hit home with our experience. The one thing I would add is that our district has a serious internal conflict, and that is that the very people charged with providing student services (point #7) are also charged with being like "hitmen" for taking away services (point #2).

It's impossible for school employees to serve both roles, it utterly destroys trust and makes employees do things and interpret parental and student behavior in destructive and unhelpful ways. It would be like our court system having the public prosecutor also serve the dual role of being the public defender, for the same cases. Pretty soon, no one would trust the justice system.

Posted by Paly Grad
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 4, 2015 at 8:19 am

When and why did PAUSD decide that education has to be painful? I know of some kindergarteners who already hate school because it has become so academic and assigns an hour of homework per night. What five-year-old has the attention span for that?

Why murder the innate love of learning that children start out with?

FYI: My kids went to Walter Hayes, Jordan, and Paly, graduating in 2010 and 2013, respectively.

Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Duveneck School
on Mar 4, 2015 at 9:24 am

@Parent, JLS, My kids went to Palo Verde for two years and Duveneck for the remainder, finishing elementary in 2009-2013. Palo Verde had more homework. Duveneck had some teachers who pushed them hard during the day but no homework. Others gave them homework, but 10 min. or less. And there is always the 15-20 minute daily reading expectation, but it's not something necessary to turn-in the next day, so it's low stress unless the parents makes a big deal out of it. My kids only read about half the days.

@Paly Grad: I thought Walter Hays has a "no homework" policy. They also don't allow overnight field trips.

Palo Verde has only one overnight field trip - Coloma.

Duveneck offers two stayover field trips: Coloma in 4th grade for 3 days in May (not actually school-sponsored) and Science Camp for 5 days in 5th (school sponsored).

Posted by Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Mar 4, 2015 at 9:50 am

Paly Alum,
I hesitate to bring up anything about differences lest those who have it better lose out. We had an escalating amount of homework in elementary from 2nd to 5th. But overnight trips both in 4th and 5th that were school sponsored and wonderful. I think the kids went to different places depending on the teacher but all classes had 4th and 5th school trips. We did not have science camp at all in elementary.

I think your experience of having little to no homework and your kids doing just fine later should be reassurance to the administration in reducing homework in all elementary schools. I think even the researchers on whose work homework was justified don't even show a benefit to homework at that age.

I personally don't feel even a small amount of homework per class is a good thing for many younger kids, because of the focus issue. Many need to be able to leave school at school, especially at that age. I am wistful to know that this was the case for some students in our district that recently.

Posted by hays mom
a resident of Walter Hays School
on Mar 4, 2015 at 12:47 pm

My youngest kid finished Walter Hays in 2013. No overnights. by the time my younger one finished there wasn't anything at all for the 5th grade that was special - they used to do leadership things and a ropes course one year, then they just cut everything. Teachers were happy to show full length movies rather than teach the last month of school.

Hays doesn't look anything like it did when my older one started. Funds for elementary have been slashed. 560+ kids and no assistant principal. Its ridiculous.

Compared to Menlo Park, which has a full week of overnight wilderness camp + an overnight on the Balcutha, PAUSD elementary is not even close to what it should be - or used to be. The bathrooms were beyond filthy - a good number of kids (mine included) would "hold it" all day rather deal with the clogged toilets and pee on the floor.

Yes, homework. Depended on the teacher. Some teachers gave homework and never graded it or gave any type of feedback, and then there were a handful of outstanding teachers slogging it day in and day out against all odds.

Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Duveneck School
on Mar 4, 2015 at 1:04 pm

@Parent,JLS: You must be at either Palo Verde, Fairmeadow, or El Carmelo. Is it possible the parents are expecting more homework based on how they were raised? We had more homework at Palo Verde. Why don't you approach the principal and PTA since it's school-specific? Or just don't have your son complete the homework assigned. Or check out Ohlone, the liberal school that has no homework. I didn't say my kids did just fine without homework. They did some sort of homework from me, usually an easy worksheet of calculations because the Everyday Math program is unfortunate.

I think a small amount of homework (10-30 minutes) is okay for children; they need to learn some discipline early so they don't sink in high school.

Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Duveneck School
on Mar 4, 2015 at 1:15 pm

@Hays mom: Jordan had bathrooms with no soap for months. And the picnic tables at all the schools are always filthy. Our Duveneck stayover trips are not free so it has nothing to do with funding. It's more of an issue of organizing. The 4th grade teachers got tired of the Coloma trip so parents took it over. The 5th grade teachers are okay with being on the school Science Camp trip. Jordan's Washington, D.C. trip is now during Spring Break so it is not school-affiliated because when it was, there were complaints that not everyone could afford to attend so it shouldn't be a public school trip, plus, there is always the liability issue.

Posted by Stop complaining so much
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 4, 2015 at 1:55 pm

I have a fifth grader and first grader at Fairmeadow, and I'm not sure what the people here are talking about regarding heavy homework burdens. Homework has almost never been more than half an hour and has, if anything, been on the easy side--certainly easier than what I had growing up on the east coast when there was much more tracking of students and separation by aptitude.

I know it's inevitable that people get negative on these internet message boards, but so much of the complaining found here bears little resemblance to reality. All the thinly veiled derogatory references to Asian immigrants (eg "no pain no gain", "people who grew up this way", etc.) are also tiresome and offensive.

I have no idea what high school is like in Palo Alto since my kids haven't gotten there yet. But the descriptions here of PAUSD elementary schools as destroyers of children's spirits rings totally false. My children have had a great time in elementary school. Anyone who visits Fairmeadow during drop-off or pickup time can see the obvious energy and enthusiasm of the students there. The teachers and administrators are engaged and clearly care about the children.

Posted by At least this much is true
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 4, 2015 at 2:42 pm

"I have no idea what high school is like in Palo Alto."

Posted by parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 8, 2015 at 9:29 am

Thank you to those who organized the youth forum and to the wonderful, articulate participants. A thank you to those who attended, but one suggestion: I noticed from the video of the event how many people--even the man in the front row-- were staring at their cell phones or even had their laptops open while the students were speaking. Come on, folks--this is an event entitled "Listen to Youth." Put down those devices and LISTEN! I was dismayed to see this rude behavior on the part of adults. This is a huge part of the problem in this community. These students took time to communicate their thoughts. At least have the courtesy to give them your full attention.

Posted by Me Too
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 8, 2015 at 3:49 pm

March 3 JLS Parent:


Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2015 at 4:12 pm

Parent of Palo Verde

Don't be too hard on the people with laptops, they may have just been taking notes. This seems to be common practice now at public meetings.

Posted by _Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Mar 9, 2015 at 7:27 pm

_Parent is a registered user.

I think you should reread what I wrote. We had a wonderful elementary experience, though I think no homework would have been better, and we had more than you describe. A little math would have been fine, but it would have been better if they had given math at school (we suffered from EDM, too, and I am not someone who is inclined to tutor).

Middle school has been just horrible for us, though, but for many reasons, including homework.

I do want to address head on the idea that you need homework early to prepare for later. I just don't think that's true. Kids can learn good study habits IN school. In fact, a great many of the men I know were terrible students in k-12 but stellar students in college. They were good students when they could pursue a passion and they were ready to focus. How well they did in high school was not a measure of later success, and the ingredients of the success of most of the men I know came from things they did outside of school, not from doing more homework. (Read The Trouble With Boys)

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