A longtime friend from Los Altos and I were talking about this recently. The word between "elephant" moms over the years has always been that Los Altos is more traditionally strict/stressful academically and stressful socially. In addition, there is a lot of affluenza you don't get in Palo Alto, at least on the south side. That's the word on the ground. But now with the tragedies, there's this assumption (and the assumptions comes out of the tragedies, recasting all the other input) that Palo Alto must be worse. The friend now has started saying that, yes, Los Altos is still more traditional academically and judgmental socially, but.... Los Altos is way less stressful, Palo Alto MUST be more stressful. However based on talking with kids in both places, it seems like Palo Alto is now getting a reputation based on assumptions about the outcome, not necessarily what is actually happening.
People keep bringing this up in the online discussions, but WHY Palo Alto and not so much our neighboring communities which have similar parents, demographics, etc, and at least before all this, were considered even to be more stressful in some ways?
So, with apologies to my friends in Los Altos (and the wonderful schools in both LA and PA), are we better or worse than Los Altos? Please thoughtful reflections and not chauvinistic generalizations based on one data point!
Here are some relevant ways (to the tragedies) we considered that LA is/might be better:
* The word is that Los Altos has way better special ed/special needs program that is far more responsive to families. It's not just about accommodations, it's about relationships. At a recent cross-district meeting, the word was the Palo Alto USED TO be great and then a few years ago, that changed. This is important to mental health because the same personnel involved in counseling and mental health for everyone are the ones handling all the special needs and accommodation stuff -- if they destroy trust in that process, including just in how they conduct themselves or perceive the most vulnerable students/families, right there they've destroyed the effectiveness and soul of the counseling staff. Trust isn't an on/off switch depending on the situation, and no family is an island.
* Los Altos has newer facilities across the board and because of it, fewer of the kinds of environmental health problems that relate to attention, depression, absenteeism, and other mental health related issues. My own experience is that Palo Alto is really missing the boat on this one, when they should be making us as good or better than Los Altos since such improvements are promised in the specifications of our facilities bond measure but for the most part not yet acted on. (If we made the improvements and took the kind of data the EPA says demonstrates we are doing things properly, like preventive asthma inhaler usage and absenteeism rates, which will drop, and some kinds of student performance which will improve, then we could see also how much overall mental health measures are influenced or correlate.)
* Los Altos still has a GATE program, and apparently still an understanding of what GATE even means. Web Link
Palo Alto discontinued their GATE program, which may not be so bad given all the gifted kids, but didn't bring an understanding of giftedness into the educational system. Rather, we seem to have left in place narrow and wrong beliefs about how to serve gifted children, i.e., believing having AP courses is the answer, which (read the link) is wrong. Literature on giftedness shows the gifted can be especially negatively affected by certain externalities that come from being in a system that utterly misunderstands them. LA seems currently to have got this one right, at least if the article is an indication.
*MVLA has the Freestyle Academy "offering hands-on, project based, and personalized learning through writing, digital photography + graphic design, digital film production, and web production + audio engineering" - it also happens to be collaborative and way less traditionally structured.
* Los Altos uses Khan Academy for math grades 5-8. Since KA is self-paced and individualized, it probably makes the learning more individually focused and less about competition.
Interestingly, it's not like Los Altos doesn't have things we consider on the negative side in Palo Alto:
* Los Altos High has an earlier bell schedule. They have a zero period (don't know if it's academic, probably not), and the regular day seems to start at 8:10am.
* Los Altos district has been embroiled for years in a bitter battle over Bullis Charter School, something I still don't understand even though I have had friends on both sides ever since it opened. This has opened huge rifts in the parent community (again, I STILL can't understand, even though I've sat through numerous emotion-soaked explanations from friends on both sides).
* Sorry to those who want to gloss this over, despite Los Altos schools (IMO) comparing favorably with social environments nationally, friends' kids report more bullying, social pressure, and general snobbiness and affluenza in Los Altos. (I cannot compare with the north of PA because I'm in the south.)
Comments? Again, please reflections and even opinions but not sweeping generalizations from a single example! How is Los Altos getting it right and we aren't, and vice versa?