Palo Alto elementary schools begin new year by getting a jump-start on goals | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto elementary schools begin new year by getting a jump-start on goals

Educators practice new teaching approaches, screening for dyslexia to begin in earliest grades

Marcela Simoes de Carvalho, far right, principal at Escondido Elementary School, stops by Tara Feldmeier's second-grade class on the first day of school on Aug. 14. Photo by Veronica Weber.

In room 10 at Escondido Elementary School on Wednesday morning, a group of second-graders sat cross-legged in a circle on the floor and turned to their peers, one by one, introducing themselves on the first day of school.

In addition to letting them learn each other's names, teacher Tara Feldmeier was laying the groundwork for future learning. The morning greeting is a tool from Responsive Classroom, a teaching approach that melds academics with social-emotional learning. As the school year progresses, for example, Feldmeier might prompt students to turn to one another in the same way to discuss a new English, math or science concept — creating a predictable, comfortable setting for students, Principal Marcela Simoes de Carvalho said.

"Kids get a chance to rehearse their thinking," she said of this particular practice. "Everything that's embedded in (Responsive Classroom) is understanding that kids can't learn academics unless there's that social-emotional learning going on at the same time."

Incorporating this approach from kindergarten through fifth grade is one of Escondido's goals this school year, Simoes de Carvalho said, to create more consistency throughout the grade levels. In Escondido's Spanish immersion classes, for example, teachers will build on activities introduced on the first day of school to teach more sophisticated vocabulary.

Escondido and Palo Alto Unified's other 11 elementary schools, plus Greendell (which houses pre-kindergarten classes), returned to class on Wednesday, kicking off both new priorities and continued focus on existing goals. Two elementary schools — Duveneck and Palo Verde — also have new principals this year.

Districtwide, all kindergarteners through third-graders will be screened for dyslexia this year as part of Palo Alto Unified's effort to implement new state guidelines for the learning disability, including identifying students earlier to make sure they're receiving necessary supports. Historically, early identification of dyslexia "typically resulted from outside evaluations," according to a district presentation on the topic. Universal screening in the earliest grades is meant to shift that, school officials have said.

Now, the initial screening is being done on a computer and generates a report on the likelihood of a student having dyslexia, according to Anne Brown, assistant superintendent of elementary education. If a student is flagged as possibly having the learning disability, they are then evaluated by a trained specialist.

"We're just excited we have a tool in our hand now that we can use to identify the possibility (of dyslexia)," Brown said in an interview.

All elementary school reading and education specialists are now trained in specific strategies to support students with dyslexia, Brown said. The goal is to eventually train all general education teachers on the same approaches, she said. Elementary school teachers on special assignment, who provide targeted training and support to other teachers, will also be offering training related to dyslexia this year.

This week also saw the beginning of two new transitional kindergarten classes at Barron Park and Duveneck elementary schools. The district decided to expand its transitional-kindergarten program to make it easier for families who live far from Greendell School, particularly in East Palo Alto, to enroll their children.

Another change this year affected some elementary Voluntary Transfer Program families who live in East Palo Alto but attend Palo Alto schools through a lottery (also known as the Tinsley program). The district announced in April that it would be closing new enrollment at four elementary schools for the Voluntary Transfer Program and asked parents to voluntarily move to other sites.

A total of 42 kindergarten through second-grade students were affected by the change, according to the district. Fifteen students moved to Fairmeadow, Duveneck, Hays and Escondido while 22 students stayed at their current schools. Five students left the district due to their families moving out of the area.

The district plans to continue to support all East Palo Alto families with its Family Engagement Specialist program, which has been redesigned this year and renamed the Student and Family Engagement program. The program, which has gone through several iterations since its creation, is meant to provide close outreach and support to minority and low-income families who feel less connected to their school communities. The district hired this spring Miguel Fittoria, who was born and raised in East Palo Alto and attended Palo Alto Unified schools, to lead this effort.

At Escondido, Simoes de Carvalho said she actually didn't know how many new Voluntary Transfer Program students had enrolled this fall. Once children from East Palo Alto arrive, she said, she doesn't distinguish them from other students.

"Once they're here, that label gets expunged," she said. "If we always use the labels that keep that dividing line between whether its ethnicity, where you live, your socio-economic status, then we're not doing our job as it relates to the Promise (the districtwide plan), which is your socioeconomic status does not determine your success."

Other goals for Escondido this year include implementing a social-emotional learning and anti-bullying program and focusing on differentiation in reading and writing instruction, Simoes de Carvalho said. The districtwide plan, the PAUSD Promise, also includes as a goal increasing elementary students' reading performance.

Related content:

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

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


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5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 14, 2019 at 5:35 pm

Always seems to happen, the schools go back and then we have temps reach 100F (according to my phone).

9 people like this
Posted by Grinch
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 14, 2019 at 10:02 pm

How surprising! 100F you say? In August? Unheard of. Move the first day of school to after labor day, when it should be. Problem solved. Kids should be enjoying summer break for few more weeks, not toiling in schools in 100F temperatures. Whichever genius came up with idea to have school start this early...

1 person likes this
Posted by Equity - Unequal Access
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Aug 15, 2019 at 1:22 am

Equity - Unequal Access is a registered user.

There is big hole in the District's handling of disabled students. The District categorizes some students it sends to NPS and NPA schools as not being District students. If the NPS schools do not offer meals, the students cannot qualify for free or reduced priced lunch. This matters because it completely blocks disabled students from qualifying from other benefits that require receiving free or reduced price lunch to qualify. The District uses legal agreements to claim they are not students. They are prohibited from registering in PAUSD, and thus PAUSD does not have to submit them for free or reduced price meal benefits, or any other benefits the student may need.

A Board member said students at NPS and NPA schools should have the opportunity to participate in some of the public school services, to see if they can improve and come back to the public school. This includes District summer school, access to tutoring, and preparing for college and ensuring graduation on time.

These are some of the most disadvantaged students there are. It does not make a lot of sense to use legal agreements to say students are not students, and to block out disabled students from receiving services PAUSD already offers and the students need. The District's lawyers and their adversarial legal culture created this problem. It is unfair to the disabled. It does not have to exist.

4 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 22, 2019 at 11:37 am

Yeah, it's a bit rough to have to go to school in nearly 100 degree weather (for the few days it's that hot). The classrooms don't have A/C unless they're "permanent portables."

Thankfully, we don't have that many super hot days. But as global warming takes hold, that may change. At some point if we have more hot days, it might affect the kids' learning ability.

Other than the heat in August, it's been a good start to the school year. Many thanks to the dedicated teachers and faculty at Escondido and all of PAUSD who help our kids. It's a great community and we should always strive to improve.

It's especially important to bridge the equity gap as mentioned by another commenter. I know we are trying, but it can always get better.

But yes, what happened to starting school in September and ending in June!? Here's the silver lining though... since we end in May, you can plan summer vacations for right after school ends. It'll be cheaper and less crowded, because most kids don't get off until June :).

1 person likes this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Escondido School
on Sep 3, 2019 at 7:58 pm

I do not know, Escondido is not the same school. It does not feel as welcoming and the community does feel the same!

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