"Even if you feel a little nervous," Ohlone Elementary School teacher Julie Bagniefski told a class of second- and third-graders sitting quietly in a circle on a classroom floor Tuesday morning, "I guarantee you're going to feel different by the end of the day."
She and other teachers across the Palo Alto school district's elementary and middle schools greeted students and parents — many excited, many nervous and some a combination of both — on the first day of school Tuesday.
At Ohlone, students began the morning in their classrooms, which are all mixed-grade. And with no traditional bell system at Ohlone, students simply entered their classrooms when the doors opened.
Bagniefski instructed the third-graders in her class, referred to as "olders," to look out for their "youngers" throughout the day. The mixed-age classrooms allow older students to take on mentorship roles and to build stronger connections between students and teachers, since students have the same teacher two years in a row, Assistant Principal Annora Lee said.
It was also the first day of school for new principal Dawn Yoshinaga, who replaced Nicki Smith after her retirement at the end of the last school year. Yoshinaga was previously the principal of Palo Alto Unified's early-education campus, Greendell School, for a year.
At Ohlone, parents hovered in the background until 8:30 a.m., when all second- through fifth-grade classes gathered in the school's farm for a first-day-of-school "opening ceremony."
The annual ceremony, led by Yoshinaga, reinforces the school's whole-child philosophy, referred to as the "Ohlone way." After reading the Pledge of Allegiance, the large crowd of students and staff, as well as parents, recited in unison the "Pledge to the Earth," which ends: "one planet, indivisible with safe air, water, soil and economic justice, equal rights and peace for all."
At the event, all teachers and staff stood on a stage and introduced themselves by their first names — another marker of the Ohlone way — and Yoshinaga discussed how to be clean, kind, friendly and bounce back from mistakes.
A notable change this year at Ohlone and the district's other 11 elementary schools this week is a new mathematics curriculum. Teachers started instruction this week from Bridges in Mathematics, a new textbook the district approved in order to align its elementary math content with the Common Core State Standards.
Inside Sylvia Sanders' fourth grade classroom at Barron Park Elementary School, she started the first day of school with a lesson on "what a math classroom should look and sound like" — a more specific version of the classroom norms she would usually go over at the beginning of the school year.
"Kids said, 'it should be quiet; people should be whispering,'" Sanders said in an interview. "I said, 'Actually, I would like to hear people asking questions; people laughing; people saying things like, 'Can you tell me more about that? Can you solve that another way? Would you like some help?'"
The new curriculum is not a major departure from what Sanders and others have been teaching in their elementary math classes, but instead of teachers having to cobble together supplementary material to make up for where the district's previous curriculum, Everyday Math, failed to meet the state standards, it's now packaged in one textbook.
Sanders said Bridges in Mathematics incorporates best practices in elementary math, from "true problem solving where the answer is not immediately apparent" to ample practice and games.
The district brought Bridges in Mathematics staff in this summer to train teachers, and they'll return for another professional development day in October. The district also plans to offer training workshops for elementary-school aides. Math-specific teachers on special assignment (TOSAs) are serving as coaches and support for teachers throughout this first year of full implementation.
The district plans to evaluate the first year of Bridges through collecting feedback from teachers and parents and analyzing student assessment data.
At Jordan Middle School on Tuesday morning, another new principal was familiarizing herself with a new school community and campus. Valerie Royaltey-Quandt is a Campbell Union High School District administrator who replaced outgoing principal Katie Kinnaman at Jordan. She is the school's fourth principal in as many years.
She said she acknowledged the impact of such turnover off the bat with both staff and parents after arriving in the district.
"It's the elephant in the room," she said on Tuesday. "Just saying, 'Yeah, this is is hard.' Transition is hard. Even good change is change."
Royaltey-Quandt, who was previously Campbell school district's director of student services, assessment and accountability since 2015, has also been an elementary and middle school principal, assistant principal and high school Spanish teacher. She said in her first five years as a teacher, she had four different principals.
She has no illusions about the effect that can have on teachers. It was "completely disruptive," she said, and led to a mindset of "you handle that up there and I'm going to do my job."
Her goals for the first weeks and months at Jordan is to combat that and "build community," she said. She invited staff to come in to talk with her one-on-one this summer and is holding a "principal's coffee" event to meet with parents next Friday, Aug. 25, at 2:30 p.m.
Royaltey-Quandt was spending the first day of school wandering the halls with new sixth-graders participating in the school's two-day orientation program, Jaguar Journey. To familiarize students with the school, they participate in a range of activities, from "locker Olympics" (learn where your locker is and how to open it) to a scavenger hunt that teaches them where different buildings and services are located.
Older students convened in their regular classes, from science and mathematics to art.
In a welcome message to parents last week, Royaltey-Quandt wrote about the "skills and attitudes" she thinks are essential to develop and support in middle schoolers, from "embrace struggle" to "ask thoughtful questions" and "build intellectual stamina."
"For middle school students, academic work can become more rigorous and the social environment may become larger and more complex," she wrote. "Students may form new identities as secondary students."
Royaltey-Quandt also told parents that she has kept a photograph of her eighth-grade self on her desk as long as she's been an administrator.
"In addition to being quite humbling, it reminds me every day that the middle school experience can be both exciting and perplexing at the same time, and that caring, knowledgeable and engaged school staff can partner with parents, guardians and community to help guide the way," she wrote.
Royaltey-Quandt and Yoshinaga are among five new principals in the district this year.