Students and staff from Palo Alto Unified School District's two high schools returned to school on Monday, getting oriented to classes, some new programs and significant campus construction.
Palo Alto and Gunn high schools started on Monday, with the district's elementary and middle schools to follow on Tuesday.
At Paly, students congregated in groups on the quad before school began on Monday morning. Standing with two friends, sophomore Alexandra Perez said she was most excited about being with friends and "not being a freshman anymore."
She and other students were, unsurprisingly, least looking forward to an expected onslaught of homework, tests and projects. Sophomore Sophia Harner said she was feeling slightly overwhelmed on the first day, but is excited to be taking a new yoga class being offered this year.
Freshmen and sophomores started the day with their advisory classes, set groups of students paired together with one teacher-adviser through senior year. In Paul Kandell's advisory class, he gave students his cellphone number and urged them to come to him for help with any issues throughout the next three years, academic or otherwise.
"If you need to change classes, I'm the person to come to. If you have a problem with a teacher, you can come talk to me about it … If you have some kind of a crisis, you can come to me and maybe I can help, maybe I can find somebody to solve it," he said. "I'm here for all of those things."
At advisory classes throughout campus on Monday, Paly teachers tested out a new social-emotional learning curriculum that the district is piloting this year, primarily at the high schools. Over the next several years, it will be rolled out to all 17 schools in the district as a unified, K-12 program.
Kandell described social-emotional learning to his class as "skills that go beyond the school … that will be good for life, about how you interact with people."
He led the class in an activity designed to help students meet new people — pairing them with random students and asking them to share with each other things like their favorite book, favorite activity and a valuable life lesson they've learned from a teacher, coach or parent.
Their homework assignment? To meet at least one new student before Thursday and record the same information about them.
Principal Kim Diorio had no set meetings or plans for the day; her role on the first day back, she said, is simply "a lot of problem-solving" and trouble-shooting.
The Paly administration is also in the midst of planning a daylong "safe and welcoming schools" program for Aug. 25, a minimum day during which academic instruction is replaced with lessons on topics like social-emotional learning and digital citizenship. (Gunn will be doing the same on Sept. 1.)
In the wake of community concern over the district's handling of sexual assault, sparked this spring by a case at Paly, Aug. 25 will also be devoted to instructing high schoolers what to do if they experience or want to report an incident of sexual assault, harassment or discrimination.
Staff at both high schools received additional training this summer on sexual-harassment prevention, required legal and policy compliance and "handling incidents that occur both during and outside the regular school day," Superintendent Max McGee wrote in a back-to-school message last week.
Staff from both high schools' wellness centers are also working with the district to develop what Diorio called a "strategic plan" to address concerns over sexual violence, which will be an "ongoing theme" throughout the coming school year. They're considering external partnerships, workshops, assemblies and parent education, she said.
This year, Paly students and staff gained a brand-new facility but lost access to another one. The new state-of-the-art Peery Family Center is open after years of construction, with a grand opening scheduled for Oct. 21. Fall sports teams are already putting the facilities to good use, and physical education classes will as well. A small gym, dance studio and weight room are also open to all students during lunch and an open "flex" period.
With that project in the rearview, the district has moved onto the next one: a renovation of the Paly library. Most of the library's staff and services have been temporarily relocated to the student center, where textbooks, a collection of frequently checked out fiction books, computers and a printer are available for use, said teacher-librarian Sima Thomas. Other books are being housed in portables behind the student center, and Thomas said she's hoping that parent volunteers will help staff the portables for students who want to check out those books.
Other occupants of the library — Paly's testing center, academic resource center and student activities office — have been moved elsewhere on campus.
Paly's Media Art Center is also doubling as a space for students to go to study this year, with the addition of a full-time supervisor and a silent study room on the second floor. (As a result, teachers will no longer be able to reserve the building's atrium for special events or guest speakers during the day; they will instead use the Haymarket Theatre.)
Thomas said they hope to move into the new library in early 2019.
At Gunn on Monday, students were also greeted by a large construction site. A significant portion of the campus has been fenced off for the Central Building project, a new two-story building that will revamp the center of campus. The school's music building and old library were demolished this summer, and there is no access to the Spangenberg Theatre. The "push," new Gunn Principal Kathie Laurence said, is to finish the theater and music building first.
In the meantime, Gunn's music and theater classes have been relocated to portables. The project is slated to be finished in January 2019.
There are seven new portables on campus this year, added this summer to address enrollment growth over the next several years. This year's freshman class at both Gunn and Paly is an unusually large "bubble" class moving through the district.
Gunn senior Julia Makarov said the construction is "inconvenient," but she was paying more attention to her spot in a long, winding line of students waiting to get into the counseling office to make schedule changes. She was waiting to drop a class.
On the first day of her senior year, Makarov said she was most excited to be at the beginning of the end of her high school career. She said she's looking forward to "finishing the required school, college (and) the beginnings of a new life."
Makarov and other seniors donned beach-related garb, an annual first-day-of-school tradition for each graduating class at Gunn. They chose a beach theme this year.
"It's cool because all the seniors are all coming together, joining together to show pride," she said, with goggles around her neck and a beach towel on her shoulders. "That's the best part of the first day."
Senior Alex Gao, also waiting in line to drop a class, said he was already feeling "stressed" about impending college applications this fall. He also has a heavy academic load for first semester — five Advanced Placement (AP) classes and multivariable calculus — but said he's anticipating AP economics to be an interesting course.
Staff in Gunn's one-year-old wellness center said the first week of school is typically "mellow," mostly spent helping new students navigate the campus and their schedules. Snacks, tea, comfortable seating, stress-relieving toys, coloring books and the schools' mental-health services are housed inside in the wellness center. The school made sure incoming freshmen were informed at orientation last week about the the center and its services.
Monday was also the first full school day on the job for Laurence, a Gunn alumna who has worked as a teacher and administrator at Paly for many years. Laurence said in an interview that she plans to have open-office hours for students to solicit feedback about the school -- what's working and what isn't in their eyes and ideas for potential solutions. She's also holding a "principal's coffee" this Friday, Aug. 18, from 8:30-10:30 a.m. in the staff lounge.
Four other campuses — Greendell School, Ohlone Elementary School, Jordan Middle School and Terman Middle School — are starting the year with new principals. Former Terman principal Pier Angeli la Place is now a Gunn assistant principal overseeing equity work, and former Gunn principal Katya Villalobos (who left the position in 2014) is at Paly this year as an administrator on special assignment.
The high schools are hosting back-to-school nights for parents in the coming weeks. Paly's is on Aug. 24 at 6:30 p.m. and Gunn's on Aug. 31 at 6 p.m.