The Not-So-Big High School: Palo Alto’s High Schools Seem Smaller Thanks to PiE-Funded Programs

The Slice – November 2012: In Our High Schools | In Our Middle Schools | In Our Elementary Schools

Palo Alto’s two public high schools continue to excel in national merit scholar count, test scores, sports championships and science competitions. And they continue to attract new families to the school district.

With this year’s 14th-day enrollment standing at 1891 students at Gunn and 1949 students at Paly –– how does a 14-year-old freshman stand a chance of figuring out how to manage his or her high school experience for success?

Thanks to funding from Partners in Education (PiE), Paly and Gunn have developed unique approaches to help their 500-plus freshmen feel at home and build meaningful connections with their new peers and school staff.

Gunn High School Principal Katya Villalobos said that this year PiE is newly-funding additional staff in the guidance office and paying the stipends for 21 teacher-coaches to deliver Titans 101, a freshman transition program now in its second year.

“Titan 101 helps 9th graders get familiar with the ins and outs of high school life while informing them about Gunn’s unique resources and culture, like our world class librarian who can help them find that singular piece of research for their paper or how to best use tutorial time,” Villalobos said. “We’ve learned that it’s important to get to know freshman even before they start classes at Gunn and make those vital connections between students and the school.”

Titan 101 and PiE Strengthen Gunn’s Guidance Program

Gunn Assistant Principal for Student Services Trinity Klein spent 14 years at Paly before transferring to Gunn two years ago and said both schools freshman benefit from Link Crew, a peer-mentorship program funded by PiE in which upperclassmen mentor incoming students throughout the year. Titan 101, however, has enhanced the connection to LinkCrew, Klein said, by involving both mentors and freshman in all Titan 101 lessons and activities. “Since Paly has freshman advisory scheduled regularly with an assigned teacher-advisor to acculturate freshman, they don’t have the same need for a program like this,” she said.

Gunn schedules half of the nine Titan 101 sessions during Tuesday tutorial and the other half during Thursday early release time,” Klein said. Titan 101 breaks out freshmen by their assigned guidance counselor (Gunn has 7 guidance counselors) into 21 groups of approximately 25 students. They get to know their assigned counselor during the first half of freshman year, which “helps personalize Gunn’s traditional guidance counselor model,” Klein adds. Principal Villalobos says that PiE funding of Titan 101 and the guidance program has allowed her to make an “immediate response to parental concerns about the guidance program at Gunn.”

Titan 101 groups are each headed by a Gunn teacher-coach, who has volunteered for the opportunity and who writes the content for their session within a general theme. “Session topics range from ‘Freshman Survival Skills’ to ‘Homecoming Boot Camp,’ which is a big deal at Gunn, to character-building topics like ‘Making Informed Decisions’ and ‘How Gunn Does Diversity.’ We also scheduled more of them before January when students really need them and included counselors helping students write a 4-year plan, including course selection,” Klein said.

PiE Funds Help Paly Staff Keep Close to Students

Palo Alto High School (Paly) Principal Phil Winston said that PiE gives his staff the flexibility to innovate, which is “often forgotten in the quest for managing the continuous growth in demands of running a large public high school. We can use our core school funding directly in support of curriculum and teaching in the classroom and use PiE funds to keep close to students,” he said.

At Paly this year, Principal Winston said that PiE is newly funding an expansion of “our stellar career education program that brings in professional workers in a vast range of occupations to meet with students, which encourages them to explore finding their passion in the working world.” Winston said that enhancing Paly’s career technical education is a primary goal in the years ahead.

Also new at Paly is a PiE-funded staff position to implement and manage “Schoology”, a new online homework database replacing “InClass” software. Winston is also expanding Link Crew to include 100 upper classmen mentors for 505 freshmen and a “Welcome to Paly” goodie bag, consisting of a Paly string back pack stuffed with a Paly t-shirt, lanyard and binder reminder, all in support of forging a connection to the school, while the PTSA funds a freshman orientation pizza dinner for 650.

“We’re very excited about our new PiE-funded elective Sports Nutrition, which caters to the interests not only of our huge number of athletes but also the students interested in a career in the food industry,” Winston said. PiE funds are also newly helping Paly seniors with a beefed-up array of college-essay and college application workshops and more hours for the college and career center.
Paly Principal Phil Winston said that his recent work on a college-admissions advisory panel with other high school principals from around the country has made him appreciate PiE even more. “Wow, when I see the rich array of programs that PiE funds to support our students, I realize that PiE is what sets us apart. Other communities don’t have a parent-community-school partnership like Palo Alto does.”