The classroom sat in captivated silence in late November as science teacher Scott Bell explained the day's lesson, lecturing from a pristine textbook. Each of the 27 eighth-grade students at St. Elizabeth Seton School, dressed in navy and red uniforms, had his or her own copy open and followed along. Extra science textbooks were stacked neatly in rows on countertops in the back corner of the room.
Eighth-grader Ashley Magallon, who has attended the nonprofit Palo Alto school since kindergarten, received her brand-new textbook this fall. Previously, students like Ashley and Aaron Andrade, who has also been enrolled for nine years, struggled to learn from books published in 2008 that were not only worn from years of use but were also on the brink of inaccuracy. Because the textbooks no longer met Next Generation Science Standards, a set of national educational guidelines written and finalized by 26 states in 2013 and revised periodically, science teachers had to seek out or create supplemental materials to adhere to the requirements.
"We had very outdated texts before, so it was imperative that we update the series," Principal Evelyn Rosa said.
With the support of a $10,000 grant from The Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund and $5,000 from The Thomas Merton Center, St. Elizabeth Seton School was able to provide new Glencoe Series science textbooks and additional LearnSmart software for all 90 of its sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
The textbooks fulfill the requirements for sixth-grade Earth and Space, seventh-grade Life Science and eighth-grade Physical Science curricula. Bell noted, however, that the Life Science books are also a great supplemental resource for his fifth-grade students.
The new books' detailed diagrams and the accompanying interactive software are especially helpful for English-as-a-second-language learners like Ashley, Aaron and their classmates, school staff said. The interactive software provides videos, review questions calibrated to the learning needs of students and the opportunity for teachers to include their own notes for their students.
Though students arrive at the school speaking English, the majority come from low-income homes in East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park, where English is not the first spoken language. The adaptive and visual elements of the new science textbooks and software are particularly key to helping this population of students learn effectively.
"Right now we're reading about atoms, and it showed a picture of what atoms are made of," Aaron said. The diagrams, and the way the book simplifies concepts, make the material feel more accessible to him, he added.
"The old ones, they would just have an excessive amount of information and wouldn't simplify it with how it is relevant to your life," Aaron said.
Ashley agreed that the shorter sections of the new textbooks make it easier for her to study.
"Some textbooks are way too busy, but these kind of hit the sweet spot," Bell said. He's glad that the new books are largely concept-based, presenting the core concept and then breaking the matter down into smaller, more digestible components.
After familiarizing students with the structure of the new textbooks, Bell said, "The next step (will) be to integrate the software without diluting the reading process we've established."
Bell said that the vocabulary of the books is slightly above students' reading level, but he isn't concerned. He prefers to "teach up," he said.
"It's above," he said, "but it's accessible."
To help students grasp the concepts and language, teachers take the time to work with students in small groups so that each can have individualized attention when working through more difficult grammatical concepts.
The population of students at Seton School is 80 percent Hispanic, with just under 10 percent of students from the Pacific Islands, and, according to Carmel Caligaris, the school's advancement director, the majority of students will be first generation high school and college students.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that, in 2015, about 50 percent of Hispanic East Palo Alto teens graduated high school and a mere 10 percent continued to higher education. In contrast, 95 percent of students from the Seton School graduate high school and 75 percent continue on to some form of higher education. The graduation rates among school alumni are a source of pride, not just for the accomplished students, but for their parents and the whole Seton community.
"We want to prepare our students to share in the prosperity that Silicon Valley offers," Caligaris wrote in the school's application to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund earlier this year.
More information about the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be found here.