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Who is BETTER? PAUSD or Los Altos?

Original post made by Parent, Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on May 19, 2015

Having many friends in the surrounding districts, I am still really wondering if we aren't missing the real problem here. I mean all these negative influences are cumulative, kind of like standing in a pool of water. The higher the level of the water, the more dangerous anything that causes waves. I'm not saying we shouldn't be going for the big wave generators right now -- I am convinced by the evidence and discussion that Dr. McGee did the right thing in regards to zero period -- but I'm just wondering if there aren't better things we could be doing to empty the pool so no one gets knocked over by exactly the same waves anymore? I mean, if the pool got emptied, it seems like we could stand (literally) a few of the waves we used to think were dangerous.

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?

Comments (31)

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 19, 2015 at 11:19 am

Oh, on the negative side - Los Altos doesn't have a very enlightened block schedule, either.

Posted by If you can't stand the heat . . .
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 19, 2015 at 11:39 am

[Post removed.]

Posted by My Thoughts
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2015 at 1:16 pm

My Thoughts is a registered user.

"Who is Better?"

Really? is everything a competition?

Posted by What's the point?
a resident of Stanford
on May 19, 2015 at 1:47 pm

The "best" school is the one where your child thrives.... it could by PAUSD, Los Altos, Menlo Park, Mountain View, a local private school, a boarding school or somewhere else.

Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 19, 2015 at 2:55 pm

Ah -- I see I gave it the wrong title! Too late, I can't change it on TS unfortunately. I was hoping to get some feedback on differences, not personal attacks (as from "can't stand") or just plain useless negativity about what "best" is about, though I suppose that's to be expected based on the title I gave it.

But, if you read what I wrote, this really comes down to a discussion about what is different. People here keep going on with the meme about tiger parents, and it's giving Palo Alto an undeserved negative reputation, I think. I just had lunch with a friend whose child went through elementary in PAUSD with mine, and I asked "Did you know any tiger parents there?" The answer? "None!" Me, I knew just one and they were caucasian. The friend then went on to describe the tiger parents from Los Altos from middle school (they left PAUSD for middle).

For all the people above -- do you not think negative things, like our problematic special ed department, should be fixed or solved?

@What's the point?
The point is to consider what we might be missing in soul searching about why we have had echo clusters of suicides in Palo Alto, but Los Altos and other nearby districts which have arguably more of the things we are blaming, haven't.

@can't stand...

First of all --

You don't know me, and yet you are so hostile to me that you are telling me to leave town, based on my trying to analyze what is different about Los Altos and PAUSD, and solicit feedback to grapple honestly with our suicide and student mental health problem -- maybe even come up with some new ideas that would also help our schools. What is it about soul searching in over such an important issue that makes you so hostile?

Secondly, I have made a number of statements pro and con about each place, why would you infer that I like Los Altos better than PAUSD or that someone you don't know would prefer the one characteristic over the other?

That said, since you seem oblivious to the costs, perhaps it's very easy for you and you would like to put your money where you mouth is and pay the differential in my property taxes and housing cost for a comparable house? Not that I was looking, but if you are so interested in getting rid of a stranger trying to soul search about our districts, perhaps you would like to put up or shut up? Let's see, that will be about a million to 1.5M for the house, and about an extra $20,000/year for the taxes -- for 15 years? Don't forget the moving expenses. Let me know where you would like to deposit the money and I will start looking tomorrow.

Posted by stirring the pot?
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 19, 2015 at 5:24 pm

C'mon, what is your motivation, OP?

Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 19, 2015 at 6:26 pm

Los Altos has had its own set of problems and feuds--remember, this is the district that shut down its only school in Los Altos Hills and then ended up with a charter, then reopened the LAH school when the charter succeeded and wanted the LAH spot.

I know LA families who fought, unsuccessfully, to keep their kids from being rezoned and changing schools.

The high school's supposed to be good--it benefits, I think, from having more economic diversity (kids from MV--though as MV gets more expensive, that's changing).

I think we do get a particular gung-ho type of parent here because of the Palo Alto/Stanford association. There's kind of a weird brand-name recognition thing going on. And before anyone jumps down my throat, take a look at the difference in real-estate prices. There's definitely a PAUSD premium (it's in the real-estate ads) people pay. The part of PA that's in the Los Altos district is always a bit cheaper, even though Los Altos is an excellent school district with comparable test scores.

Which district is better? The one where your kid is happiest. There excellent opportunities in either one.

Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 19, 2015 at 10:03 pm

@stirring the pot?
"C'mon, what is your motivation, OP?"

1) Ensure not one more child commits suicide if it is at all preventable
2) Make school and learning a joyful and successful experience for all of our kids
3) Make our district vision real rather than a bitterly ironic statement
4) Help find and fix problems so our district can find and fix problems a lot more easily and less painfully in the future
5) Ensure we have healthy kids, healthy facilities, and supportive school environment

Please tell me what you mean by "stirring the pot" though. (speaking of irony) You have just reminded me of one of the worst drawbacks of PAUSD: The viper's nest in the district office/all the drama, double-dealing, and dishonesty. It's draining, awful, and has no place in a school district. It is the result of specific people and the culture resulting and not just par for the course in a school district-- and probably just plain paying way too many people way too much so they prioritize their positions and pay (this assessment from another PAUSD parent just tonight . I don't know the political situation in Los Altos.

I did mention the Bullis kuffafle in my list. I did not realize they reopened the Bullis campus. Interesting. That sounds like Los Altos may also suffer some of the same petty personality crap PAUSD does, but again, I can't make out what was really going on there. I attended an early Bullis meeting, and the school sounded great based on the pitch, but I later heard some disparate experiences (the unhappy ones mostly the boys). Plus those old portables were really allergenic. The school has been pretty successful, though. I would have though Los Altos could have figured that out by now.

Comparable houses are now more expensive in Los Altos, plus they have larger lots. They used to be noticeably less expensive in Los Altos. Things changed about... hmmm... starting around the turn of the century I think. Los Altos was less interesting to the '80s yuppies and then when they grew up and wanted families, Los Altos with their nice sized lots got a lot more interesting. There is definitely a greater wealth factors. I don't know about Los Altos High having diversity, I thought that was Mtn Vw High? Not sure - but friends kids definitely complain about LAH being punishingly snobby for girls.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 20, 2015 at 10:05 am

Crescent Park Dad is a registered user.

This may not be obvious to all reading or posting on this thread. But there are two different school districts involved when discussing Los Altos.

The MVLA district represents the two high schools only (Los Altos and Mountain View (formerly Awalt)). It does not represent Los Altos K-8...which means the charter school debacle (as an example) is getting mixed into the HS discussion - which is apparently the point of the original discussion.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2015 at 12:35 pm

@Crescent Park Dad,
Thanks for the clarification. I seem to recall long ago an article about pressure kids at Mtn Vw High were feeling... yet they don't seem to have the depression problems. I don't know as much about Mtn Vw High, but I have known parents who preferred to move near when the kids were younger so they could attend Mtn Vw High rather than Los Altos -- I am admitting i don't have a full impression.

Thoughts? There always seems to be an element in Palo Alto all about protecting our "brand" -- you would think they would be all over problem solving this if there are other reasons. If the problem is "in the air" so to speak, we'll just get a reputation we can't overcome as the problem continues (or even if it doesn't - fear of it will hurt for a long time), but if it turns out to be one of these overlooked reasons and we can solve it, it takes the burden off overnight.

Posted by Good Question
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 20, 2015 at 12:47 pm

I would really, really like to know WHY the PAUSD middle and high schools have made learning so painful.

It seems they have made at least two generations of kids hate school and fear college. They have created at least two generations of burn- outs who end up dropping out of college because it seems like more years of Paly or Gunn!

This is NOT what we moved here for!

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2015 at 12:55 pm


There is one issue I am particularly close to, because I have been concerned about it for years. That is the relationship between the health of our facilities and our students, something our district is really falling down on the job about. I just dug up old emails in which I shared research papers with the elementary school principal about the relationship between indoor mold and depression, this was before most of the suicides and after the school found the carpet in one of the room at the time was wet and stained and after complaining about mustiness and allergy in the room. (More than one of the children who died had that classroom -- then went on to a pretty unhealthy middle school -- doesn't prove anything, but it would be interesting to see if there is any correlation with facilities issues known to be problematic.)

The administration was really antagonistic about doing anything, in hindsight, they seem to have wanted to keep out the EPA because of the OCR mess, not realizing there are zero laws and the EPA has no regulatory authority or interest, and no interest in getting involved in any controversy. Our district simply rejected free expert help to make our schools healthier, help that is no longer available, out of petty personal reasons. There is literally no mechanism to get them to course correct on something like that, the system keeps doubling down on that error even after the instigator(s) have left.

I just attended a school event in which many of the kids mentioned rampant respiratory illness as a reason for sometimes serious setbacks. I'm sure none of them realize our district has rejected taking EPA-recommended steps that would substantially reduce that kind of thing. (I wonder if the teachers who got pneumonia realize it, probably not.)

Los Altos did a lot better with their renovation bond in terms of healthy facilities, and they seem to have a better awareness of the issue than Palo Alto. Not that I think it's great, everywhere in LA, that old school by the library (the one that isn't really a school anymore) is definitely not so great that way. Those old portables at Bullis were terrible, at least when the program began.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2015 at 1:03 pm

@Good Question,

I am in total agreement with what you just said.

The thing is -- the very good points you have just made/the problems are not really solved in the surrounding communities, either, in fact, in some ways, it's worse because many of the parents are less able to speak up in those districts. I have a friend who was involved in bringing millions of dollars of funding to their district (will remain nameless) and yet the child (who is very smart and engaged) is getting physically ill from the stress of school.

So, while we have to fix these things, are we at the same time missing something when it comes to why we have had so much depression and suicide and the other districts around us haven't?

Posted by The "Best"?!?!!?
a resident of Mountain View
on May 20, 2015 at 1:54 pm

We moved from PA to Mountain View mainly because of the school issues, but we also found it to be a nicer town for us on other levels. WRT schools, there is no best, KNOW THAT, there-is-no-best. It is a case by case, kid by kid evaluation to come up with the best for your kid and family. MV was without a doubt the right choice for us. Our kids are happy and thriving with a healthy mix of work and play. It was like a giant breath of fresh air coming from the PA/LA area. It's hard to explain, but it is very nice.

Posted by Good question
a resident of Escondido School
on May 20, 2015 at 3:03 pm

I think this is a good question. I have kids who are very happy in the elementary system in Palo Alto. The experience has been awesome. However, I am concerned about the stress I keep hearing about in middle school and high school. And since I work in the area, I don't have a lot of options for where to live. So it's nice to find out if there are any nearby school districts where students might be a little happier. Any input would be appreciated.

Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 20, 2015 at 5:32 pm

@Good Question - I think our elementary schools do a great job of supporting learning and collaboration. THEN we send our kids to middle and high school! And learning (and sports, and extracurriculars, etc.) becomes a competition instead. Although I have heard good things about Jordan lately, much improved atmosphere.

If your child "does school" well, PAUSD high school is fine. If not, I'd move to Menlo Park or Mountain View (or send my kid to Pinewood).

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 20, 2015 at 9:52 pm

@Good question,

We thought Palo Alto elementary was as good as private school. I now wish we'd tried to unschool for middle school.

Help us improve PA. I hear of stressed kids in Mvw too. What can we bring from our own elementaries so MS is healthier?

Posted by High school mother
a resident of Atherton
on May 21, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Please don't move to our community thinking that our local high school, Menlo-Atherton, will somehow be a dumbed-down version of PA schools. Our school is more diverse, hence not ranked nationally, but one of my children graduated from Paly and the overall experience -- academics, extracurriculars, social -- was vastly inferior to my other kids' M-A experience

Posted by Other opinion
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 21, 2015 at 2:31 pm

To read all the threads on TS, one would think that Palo Alto schools (particularly Middle and High Schools) are absolutely horrible. So, I would like to bring a different take.

My children, the youngest one of whom graduated last spring, had a very good experience in Palo Alto schools. They really liked their teachers and their courses, as well as their extracurricular lives, and felt very well prepared for college. Granted, they resisted the competitive pressure and decided to march to their own drums. It worked very well for them.

I will not dispute that if you are intent on being admitted to the Ivy Leagues or to Stanford at all costs, then you may suffer. If you decide to go your own course, and that the Ivy League or Stanford are not required, especially at the undergrad level, to be successful in life, you can actually thrive in this school district. (I might argue that the problem would be the same in other "competitive" school districts). That was our take on things, our children liked PAUSD and did very well both while here and thereafter.

Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 21, 2015 at 6:55 pm

@High School Mother - I actually meant my comment as a compliment, I should have said that a student can get just as good an education with less stress at Menlo Atherton or Pinewood, than at Paly or Gunn.

Posted by Logical
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 19, 2016 at 6:18 am

This is why I homeschool my gifted son and artist daughter. They are involved in their community in the way they want to be. They are strong, smart, independent, healthy and happy. The homeschool community on the peninsula is vibrant and you can pick and choose from many activities and events as wel as classes, according to your child. There are thousands of successful homeschoolers in Santa Clara county. There is no reason to have all these worries. Good luck!

Posted by Resident
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 19, 2016 at 7:13 am

Gunn High School is an extrememly negative and constricting environment that attempts to squeeze all independent thought and spirit of Palo Alto's youth.

If it were up to me -- cut all public funding for schools and make them all function as private enterprises.
Abolish the Department of Education and Common Core -- this is the root of the problem, it is the faceless "machine" that students have to contend with, a grinder that we carelessly throw our kids into... because we have this naive belief that Gunn is a "great" school due to some bogus ranking system.

Posted by Problematic
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 19, 2016 at 7:51 am

Problematic is a registered user.

One of the problems PAUSD has is that the administrators defer to wealthy foreigners who threaten to discontinue "donations" if the curriculum is "dumbed down" in the least. They aren't citizens, they aren't even a majority, but they are a large and wealthy minority. Their threats of withholding money to get what they want evidently work.

Posted by Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 19, 2016 at 8:45 am

@Problematic: What?! Where is your source? PiE names are diverse.

I think the original poster should go to Los Altos. The explanation is extremely biased towards their district. I heard the elementary schools are better than PAUSD. Los Altos high schools are less competitive, thus, less stressful than PAUSD. And the ethnic breakdown is different, but that is changing rapidly and the competition will soon rise.

Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of Los Altos
on Jul 19, 2016 at 10:46 am

Sarah1000 is a registered user.

My kids both went to LASD and MVLA schools. I'd like to add that both districts have been successful at very long-term teacher and administrative retention. Wynne Satterwhite has been the principal of LAHS forever and does a great job. I once had an issue with the way something had been handled in a classroom. She phoned me to apologize and said that the handling had not been according to "plan" and there had already been a group meeting to discuss what happened. My kids (including one in special-ed) had many amazing teachers who went above and beyond. Real, personal involvement. One teacher offered to come to my house (for free) to teach my daughter when she was ill for an extended period of time, another (high school teacher) called a couple times just to tell me that my son was doing well, etc.

Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Portola Valley
on Jul 19, 2016 at 7:12 pm

The best? Los Altos hands down. The neighborhoods are much nicer and quiet. And you get more for less. Palo Alto has been overpriced and overrated for 10 years or more.

Posted by Lasd experience
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 19, 2016 at 7:31 pm

LASD is much better! Their middle schools are far superior than any of PAUSD middle schools. Bullying issues are not as bad as Pausd! For being so much smaller than Pausd, LASD offers many more unique elective choices than the traditional Pausd schools. Students and parents also feel much more welcome at the schools. The hot lunch program is completely parent volunteer run and that goes a long way in helping school communities develop deeper connections!

Posted by What Happens?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 20, 2016 at 8:36 am

What happens that that causes the PAUSD educational system to be so wonderful in grades K-5, but turns it so mean and overbearing in grades 6-12? The meanness, the stinginess with A's, the overbearing homework loads in crease annually from grade 6 on.

It does cause a lot of kids to just burn out and give up!

Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 20, 2016 at 9:25 am

The entire focus especially in AP classes is on "getting into college". This takes precedence over learning anything.

So students are taught to pander to a system instead of thinking for themselves.

The emphasis on "getting into college" seems stronger at Gunn than anywhere else.

Posted by Ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 20, 2016 at 11:49 am

There is some truth to all of the posts, but I have to largely agree with this poster:

Other opinion…"If you decide to go your own course, and that the Ivy League or Stanford are not required, especially at the undergrad level, to be successful in life, you can actually thrive in this school district."

Our kids [all school levels] are largely having a good time, doing well, and appreciate the hard work of their teachers. Would I appreciate a tailored environment that speaks personally to each of our kids' talents and loves? Sure, but that does randomly happen here and there, and part of our kids' paths are to seek out and make things happen for themselves.

Here is what I would like to see change:

1. More parents embracing and supporting what their students love to learn, while maintaining a good enough set of skills in those subjects they don't care as much about [ie, let the GPA slip in some subjects!]

2. More focus on improving relationships/connections between us parents and our kids, and if necessary, between home and school--there are problems that need our attention, but having more compassion for teachers and a greater sense of humor about their flaws will go a long way.

3. Move some of the focus away from school and onto other joys in life--making/enjoying music, sharing meals with good friends, making the world a better place in some small way, and being a good neighbor. Your family is its own little bailiwick and it can be a force of goodness that spreads.

4. Let go of the idea of "BEST"--there is no best school, no best parent, no best child, etc. By trying to control/force things into this mold we probably eliminate that which we are all after: enjoyment, true education, and connection. Trying to control too much results in our students and our teachers feeling like objects without freedoms.

5. Fewer people moving to PAUSD just for the schools rather than making it your home. Everyone wants a safe, engaging school but if you think of it as only a vehicle for success then your expectations will ultimately lead to disappointment and perhaps anger?

Posted by It's a Draw
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 22, 2016 at 1:08 pm

It's a Draw is a registered user.

The problems each district faces are different. Los Altos has fewer immigrant parents, and less pressure and far fewer suicides. Los Altos has better, less expensive housing on larger lots, as well as less crime.

But the district has pulled a few shenanigans, like the charter school fiasco, the re-drawing of district boundaries, etc.

Then again, Los Altos has nicer, kinder teachers and smaller class sizes, due to more schools. They also treat their teachers better, pay them better and have fewer overpaid administrators who do nothing to earn their keep.

Palo Alto burns out its students to the point of many refusing to go on to college for fear it will be more of same. Yet, in spite of crowded classrooms, it's students tend to excel.

Palo Alto has more parent participation than a most any district. It also has more PTSA members.

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