Classes begin again at Palo Alto's middle, high schools | News | Palo Alto Online |


Classes begin again at Palo Alto's middle, high schools

Gunn students explore new facilities, while JLS Middle School welcomes a new principal

Gunn High School English teacher and student activities director Lisa Hall greets students in her new classroom in the Central Building on Aug. 13. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Tuesday marked the first day of a new school year for thousands of middle and high school students in the Palo Alto Unified School District, with the district's younger students set to return to classes on Wednesday.

At Gunn High School, excited students poured into the much-anticipated Central Building, a massive two-story, $21-million project designed to transform the entrance to the Arastradero Road campus. The building, which was completed in the spring but wasn't in full use until this fall, houses five new classrooms, a student activities center, the wellness center, therapists' offices, the registrar and college, career and guidance counseling. Gunn's Spangenberg Theatre was also updated as part of the project, with two new band and choral classrooms (complete with acoustic wall panels) and other smaller instrument practice rooms.

"This is luxurious!" one student exclaimed as she walked into one of the new music rooms on Tuesday.

Freshmen and sophomores in Lisa Hall's advanced communications class made use of a new ground-floor classroom in the Central Building on Tuesday, getting to know each other through a typical first-day-of-school icebreaker activity. They sat at new tables with surfaces that double as whiteboards to encourage collaboration and creativity.

Upstairs, students in need of last-minute schedule changes lined up outside the new counseling office. Counselors met with students in a conference room with floor-to-ceiling windows that can open up all the way onto a second-floor terrace overlooking the school's quad.

Gunn senior Zainab Ali proclaimed the Central Building "the most colorful building on campus." Exterior accent walls are painted blue, red and yellow.

Ali said she had mixed feelings about returning to school in general: "I'm very excited to see everyone again after two months ... but I'm also sad because it's our last first day."

She and her friend, senior Sophia Dhanani, said they're both looking forward to homecoming and spirit week in the fall, but not looking forward to Advanced Placement classes and the start of the stressful college-application season. They're also excited to be starting what they believe is Gunn's first Muslim Student Association (MSA).

"In an environment where there are so many people, it's kind of hard to find people who are like you," Dhanani said. "MSA will bring Muslim students together, give them a place to express their faith and feel a sense of community."

This year's seniors are the last class that won't have experienced Gunn's teacher-advisory program, Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality, or SELF, which launched in 2017. This year, freshman, sophomores and juniors are all part of SELF cohorts paired with a teacher-mentor. The cohorts will stay together through their senior year, meeting together in a weekly advisory period.

Principal Kathie Laurence said Gunn is pursuing this year several high-level goals, including revamping assessments and getting more teachers to use evidence-based grading, or measuring students based on the progress they make toward pre-determined course objectives rather than letter grades. This kind of innovative grading, focused on demonstration of mastery and skills, is happening in pockets across Gunn, Laurence said, but she wants it to be a schoolwide practice by the fall of 2022. Shifting more teachers to evidence-based grading is also a districtwide goal for Palo Alto Unified.

"A 'B' for one student could measure something different than a 'B' for another student in the same class," Laurence said, "and that shouldn't be. It is more equitable for all kids."

At JLS Middle School, about 70% of teachers use evidence-based grading in their classrooms, Principal Chris Grierson said Tuesday. He plans to focus on growing that number this year.

"Part of the purpose (of) evidence-based grading is that it offers the students more of a growth mindset. They can self-reflect and understand their progress and how they're learning through a standard rather than just, 'I got a B+,'" he said. "It lowers stress, lowers competition, lowers ranking."

While many parents are excited about the promise of an alternative to grades, others are less receptive, he said. Teachers often spend time answering these parents' questions and explaining the benefits of a less punitive approach to evaluating students' academic performance.

"It's a complete cultural shift, especially for many of our parents who come from abroad because they are looking for that Palo Alto rigor of grades and percentage points," Grierson said.

New at all three of Palo Alto Unified's middle schools this fall is a science curriculum pilot that is aligned with the state's Next Generation Science Standards. Later this fall, the district also plans to convene a middle school literature selection advisory committee to review new state-recommended core texts for sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The group will make recommendations to the school board in the spring, according to the district.

Grierson is starting his first year as principal at JLS, where he was once an assistant principal and teacher before spending eight years as principal of Duveneck Elementary School. He replaced Lisa Hickey, who is now working in human resources at the district office.

Several JLS parents said in interviews on Tuesday that they hope Grierson focuses primarily on academics and safety at a large school. (The district office is also evaluating and improving safety procedures this year, Superintendent Don Austin said in an interview, including adding cameras on all campuses and hiring a person devoted to emergency preparedness.)

Several JLS parents welcomed the fact that their new sixth-graders could adjust to school through Connections, a small, project-based learning choice program. The sheer size of JLS — 1,100 students and 150 staff members — is also an adjustment for Grierson, who is used to the smaller elementary-school environment.

Grierson's two main goals this year are to learn all student and staff names by December (he's been studying the school yearbook, he said) and to ensure every student enjoys coming to school (a partly personal goal given his daughter is starting sixth grade in Half Moon Bay this year). He invited a group of mothers peppering him with questions on Tuesday morning to reach out to him if their children were not having a positive experience at JLS.

"A principal is only as effective as well as they know what's going on at their school site. If they don't know what's happening, if they don't know how people are feeling, then they can't make any type of changes," he told the Weekly.

Related content:

Palo Alto elementary schools begin new year by jump-starting on goals

Watch Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin discuss the PAUSD Promise initiative, the differing timelines to redevelop Cubberley Community Center and more on "Behind the Headlines," now available on YouTube or listen to the podcast version at


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2019 at 6:22 pm

I'm interested in hearing how the "improvements" to Arastradero have affected both commutes to both secondary schools.

Would anyone who drives, bikes, walks or lives on Arastradero like to comment.

15 people like this
Posted by Alvin
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 13, 2019 at 6:36 pm

Alvin is a registered user.

Can somebody explain why the school year begins earlier each year? I remember when school started the day after labor day and ended in mid-June. We had longer summers back then, but we also started school when the weather was a little cooler and ended before it got too hot. Besides, August is prime vacation month. Now that's gone.

And why is the school day so long? Are we so naive to think that students attention spans - let alone adult attention spans - can last for 7+ hours in a day sitting in a classroom listening to lectures? I'd like to see any parent or school board member try to last one week with the typical student's schedule and see if they make it without dying of boredom or exhaustion. Or are we just training our kids for their future industrial era lives of 8-5 jobs Mon-Fri...or is school a place to warehouse kids while the parents work and/or a jobs program for the union workers?

4 people like this
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 13, 2019 at 10:05 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.


"Would anyone who drives, bikes, walks or lives on Arastradero like to comment."

I plan to be out on Arastradero tomorrow morning. For the past several months I've either walked or biked Arastradero west of ECR several times a week to check out the progress. I live two blocks off Arastradero but don't drive it often , so others will need to fill you in on that. Biking and walking, though, are much improved. Two of the four sections of the Charleston/Arastradero Corridor have yet to be reworked. They contrast with the newly-done sections that are smooth, well-designed and clearly (though, on first sight, confusingly at times, ) marked sections.

If you drive from Foothill to 101 (or the reverse) you'll notice many differences. Others won't be visible but contribute greatly towards making this infrastructure investment worthwhile. I'm glad to live in a city that can get this done, even if it takes fifteen years.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 14, 2019 at 2:33 am

^ Yes, I believe reconstruction of the grade crossing will take at least 15 years.

13 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 14, 2019 at 6:32 am

mauricio is a registered user.

Starting the school year on August13-14 is utterly ridiculous. School should start after Labor Day. I'm unaware of any country in the northern hemisphere where school starts in August, let alone in the first half of the month.

4 people like this
Posted by Local family
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 14, 2019 at 9:14 am

What I'm not seeing in the new grading system, is a system that facilitates student learning, improvement, and mastery, rather than existing still to sort and label the students for the benefit of the system.

Sal Kahn gives a great talk about teaching to mastery rather than grades or test scores
Web Link

There's really nothing wrong with A's B's and C's, as long as they are used to help each student find and correct their own foundations (per Khan), rather than as a way to indelibly label and sort them and then move on.

The problem with the local schools is the idea that learning has to be painful is still too ingrained. And the idea that student learning independence is too difficult for a public school.

15 people like this
Posted by Alum
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 14, 2019 at 10:08 am

Alum is a registered user.

Starting school earlier allows high schoolers to finish the first semester before winter break. It takes away a lot of the stress that would be there if students had to study for finals over break. It also makes traveling at the start of summer nice because it is a week or two before everyone else gets out.

14 people like this
Posted by Cover-up Culture
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 14, 2019 at 11:56 am

"Evidence based grading?" Since there is a "name" attached to this "grading," that must mean it is 'different' than the traditional grading that has been used by schools, such as tests testing knowledge and subject mastery, homework to practice, and so forth?

What are the objective measures associated be "evidence based grading?" To whom will it apply?

7 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 14, 2019 at 12:04 pm

Who is Grierson referring to in his quote below and what is he saying about the rigor of "evidence based grading?"

"It's a complete cultural shift, especially for many of our parents who come from abroad because they are looking for that Palo Alto rigor of grades and percentage points," Grierson said.

Like this comment
Posted by Pastor Paul Bains
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 14, 2019 at 12:17 pm

Project WeHope Dignity on Wheels Mobile Hygiene Trailer Unveiling and Ribbon Cutting in Partnership with Whole Foods Market

What: A media event and ribbon cutting ceremony with Project WeHope and Whole Foods Market Northern California to unveil and celebrate the new Dignity on Wheels mobile hygiene trailer for the city of Oakland.

Dignity on Wheels is an initiative of Project WeHope that helps people become healthier, employed and housed by providing mobile hygiene trailers.

Why: In July 2018, Whole Foods Market stores in Northern California raised $179,000 for Dignity on Wheels through a quarterly Community Giving Day initiative. Dignity on Wheels used these funds to purchase a brand new mobile hygiene trailer for those in Oakland experiencing homelessness.

“We are grateful to Whole Foods Market stores in the Northern California region for donating $179,000 to Project WeHope during Community Giving Day last year, allowing us to purchase a brand new hygiene trailer and make a difference in the Oakland community,” said Pastor Paul Bains, Project WeHope.

“Our partnership with Whole Foods Market helps Project WeHope to continue providing essential services to our unhoused Oakland neighbors,” said Alicia Garcia, Project WeHope Associate Director. “We believe that Project WeHope can help many people get back on the road to self-sufficiency thanks to the very generous donation by Whole Foods Market.”

"We are proud to support Project WeHOPE," said Omar Gaye, Whole Foods Market Northern California Regional President. “The funds raised from a region-wide Community Giving Day will allow Project WeHOPE to expand their Dignity on Wheels Program to Oakland, making an even greater impact in the lives of our community members experiencing homelessness."

Who: Project WeHope • Pastor Paul Bains, Co-Founder Whole Foods Market • Juliette Tiger, Community Relations Manager • Julie Atkins, Community Engagement and Events Marketing Manager Local vendors providing snacks and samples, including: • ReGrained • Rubicon Bakery

When: Thursday, August 15th at 2:00 p.m.

Where: CityTeam Oakland 722 Washington Street Oakland, CA 94607

3 people like this
Posted by Old Fart
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 14, 2019 at 9:22 pm

S***w high schoolers. It sucks for everybody else. Just give them finals few weeks early if you don't want to "stress" them. Starting school in early August is insane. Whoever's great idea this change was.

8 people like this
Posted by Downfall
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 14, 2019 at 11:51 pm

Wow, from what I can tell not a single Paly picture or pictures of middle schools other than JLS. Such balanced coverage!

Evidence based grading sounds like complete BS to me. Just another way to try an achieve some unnatural forced equity of achievement in the classroom. In classroom of students with different abilities a bell curve distribution of grades is expected and normal.

Finally I understand the high achievement environment at Gunn and the history of suicides but if you are to the point of having therapist offices on campus maybe it is time to step back and do something about the culture of the school.

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