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August 10, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Editorial: Successes, challenges greet back-to-schoolers Editorial: Successes, challenges greet back-to-schoolers (August 10, 2005)

Palo Alto schools had some big successes last year, from better lunches to stable funding, but still face serious challenges as school starts again next week

It seems like a short summer, but it's almost back-to-school time again in Palo Alto and neighboring districts.

Each district and many private schools will be starting up again in the next few weeks, and prospects and challenges vary widely between them.

For Palo Alto students, parents, teachers and administrators, the district's financial situation is as bright as it's been for many years. The passage June 8 of Measure A, the $521 per year parcel tax, will stabilize and rebuild programs decimated by cutbacks in recent years.

The greatest success was the more than 73 percent approval of Measure A, after a similar measure was suffered a hairline defeat last November. Seldom has there been such a broad coming together of effort and vision in the community.

Especially heartening was the emergence of many new faces in the campaign, younger parents as well as some newly activated older parents. Expect future school board candidates and PTA and community leaders to emerge from the ranks of those involved.

Strong property-tax-revenue projections this summer triggered some we-told-you-so criticisms of Measure A. But it was crystal clear the parcel tax will not cover all the needs of the schools or even restore all recent cuts, so we should hope for continued strong revenues.

The deeper benefit of Measure A is stability in district budgeting over the next six years, to help the district get off the annual roller-coaster of up or down tax revenues.

In another success, students will be greeted by a new school-lunch menu, under a new contractor. The East Coast-based Chartwells last spring won out over Sydexho, which provided food services for nearly 15 years. Chartwells is strong in the Northeast, but Palo Alto is one of its first significant West Coast contracts. Expect it to try extra hard to make a great first impression.

The change is a huge success for a parents on the Healthy Lunch Committee, who have high hopes that future lunches will be tastier, more healthful and better accepted by students. But to eliminate a $200,000 lunch-program deficit last year -- only 13 percent of older students chose school lunches -- more students will need to buy lunch at school. This means the food must compete with other choices on taste, variety, price and the "cool" factor in addition to meeting increased district standards for healthfulness.

Achieving the right balance between healthful and tasty is a daunting challenge, and students should give the new setup a try.

The healthy lunch bunch who have fought -- some for many years -- to improve school food standards deserve strong commendations. While some say they will now move on to other school or community issues, they'll be watching.

A third great success last year was the strengthening of the single fundraising effort for the district, which is raising several million dollars annually for district programs. Completing the merger of two separate district-wide fundraising organizations into the new Partners in Education (PiE) group -- a truly great name choice for this parenthood-and-apple-pie organization -- caps more than a decade of dialogue, debate, politics and sometimes angry controversy.

It is a great example of where a strong vision and willingness to listen respectfully to the views of others won out over concerns and fears. There may yet be some equity issues about fundraising between Gunn and Palo Alto high schools, which still raise funds independently for special projects or programs. But we think those can be resolved by building on the goodwill and vision stemming from the success of fundraising for elementary and middle schools.

The single biggest challenge facing everyone related to the schools, and the community as a whole, is how to bring some sanity back to the level of expectations we are putting on this generation of high school students -- mostly relating to getting into one of the "best colleges."

Despite warnings from school officials and experts in the field, and students themselves, too many parents and students are driving too hard toward hyperperformance on tests and building unrealistically high resumes of extracurricular activities, advanced-placement classes, electives and even community service.

Community dialogue about over-testing, over-stressing, over-enriching and over-achieving must continue until we dampen down the often fear-based fervor that threatens to burn out our kids and rob them of the richness and fun of their own childhoods.

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