Palo Alto High School journalism teacher Esther Wojcicki and Paly Principal Phil Winston shared their personal stories of humble beginnings recently as Wojcicki handed out brand-new Chromebook laptops to 40 Paly students in need.
The laptops were provided by the Brin-Wojcicki Foundation, established by Wojcicki's daughter, health care entrepreneur Anne Wojcicki, and her husband, Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
"We both grew up in situations that were not like Palo Alto — probably very much similar to many of our minority students," Winston said of himself and Wojcicki, the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants who came to New York City in the 1930s and later moved to Southern California.
Wojcicki recalled her childhood as "very poor."
"My father was an artist, so we had zero money," she said. "I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with four people, and I almost never had a single piece of new clothing until I went to college."
Winston grew up in Milpitas, where he worked as a gardener and custodian through a city program. With a four-year college financially out of reach, he attended Mission College and later California State University East Bay before becoming a special-education teacher.
Knowing nothing of the surprise they were about to receive, 40 Paly students were sent call slips the Friday before winter break to come to a meeting in Wojcicki's classroom. Students in need were identified through the federal free-and-reduced-price lunch program and other special programs.
"They had no idea why they were being called in there," Wojcicki said. "It was holiday time, so they thought they were getting pizza or something.
"We said, 'We have a surprise for you,' and we held up a box that looked kind of like a pizza box."
One of the students — correctly — said, "No, it looks like a computer."
"Some of the kids were crying — I didn't expect that. It was incredibly moving," Wojcicki said.
"I can identify with these kids.
"I used education as my way out, and I said to them I wanted them to also use education as a way to improve their lives and lead a really good life. They all seemed to relate to it. It was very inspirational for me.
"Now they can do their work at home, just like everybody else."
Though the vast majority of Palo Alto students have computers at home, all campuses supply computer banks for use by students who do not.
A computer-lending program run by the school district, iConnect, currently has 143 computers on loan — serving an estimated 400 to 450 students. Households may keep them for as long as they have a child enrolled in the Palo Alto Unified School District.
"The district policy is to provide a long-term loan of a computer to every family in the district with a financial need," Chief Technology Officer Ann Dunkin said.
"Financial need is defined as students on free-or-reduced lunch without a computer at home. Families fund Internet access; Comcast has a program that will provide access to these families for $9.99 per month."
The Brin-Wojcicki computers come with free Web access for two years through Verizon — and the laptops are for keeps, Winston said.
"It's really nice to go up to those students now and say, 'Do you have your homework done?' because now there's no excuse," the principal said.