Palo Alto High School and Gunn High School have consistently been ranked in the top 200 schools nationwide by US News and World Report, a considerable achievement. As of 2011, Paly was ranked 178th and Gunn 71st. Evidently, Palo Alto Unified School District is a successful school district, but what makes it such?
Herb Bocksnick, a teacher new to PAUSD this year, attributes the differing levels of success across school districts to the level of parental involvement. He stresses that students here are no different than students in his original district in Hollister. “What’s different here is parent involvement and support,” Bocksnick says. “Here, it [effort in school] is kind of an expectation.”
PAUSD Supt. Kevin Skelly agrees with Bocksnick on this point.
“Parents are super-interested in what goes on in the school,” Skelly says. “They care about it.”
Bocksnick feels his role in the classroom has changed since coming to the district as a result of heightened student drive.
“I haven’t had to be the motivator here that I’ve had to be before,” Bocksnick says.
Students who have attended other districts suggest that a motivated student body is one of the leading factors in PAUSD’s success.
Loren Perkowski, a Paly senior who has also attended school in two Stockton districts, supports such an idea.
“I think the students here are more motivated to learn and succeed compared to my [old] schools,” Perkowski says. “The environment [at Paly] is a lot more welcoming for those who want to do well in school and take tougher courses.”
Skelly agrees the student body itself may be the reason for PAUSD’s high reputation. According to Skelly, students in PAUSD are genuinely interested in learning.
“I realize that a lot of the kids want to go to good schools, and that’s a great goal,” Skelly says. “But, they are also interested in learning, and intellectually curious to the extent that I can’t remember seeing in other communities.”
This belief is generally agreed upon by Paly students.
“Students out here seem more determined for success in and out of the classroom,” says junior Scott Powell, who attended Magruder High School in Washington, D.C., until this school year.
Anish Haris, a junior, also thinks the student body contributes to PAUSD’s success.
“[Paly] has a really great community that creates a positive environment where everyone can learn,” Haris says.
Palo Alto is located in the heart of Silicon Valley, an affluent part of the nation, which generates a considerable amount of wealth.
According to Japanese teacher and Student Activities Director, Matt Hall, money is the biggest contributor to success of PAUSD.
“Ultimately, funding is inextricably linked to performance,” Hall says.
Hall understands that work on the part of the students and teachers can make a big difference, but at the end of the day, there is only so much one can do without the proper resources.
“You can work as hard as you want, but…there’s a limit,” Hall says.
Hall speaks from experience. At his old school in San Jose, Silver Creek High School, the teachers had to organize paper drives because the school could not afford to buy enough paper.
On average, according to the PAUSD website, PAUSD spends about $11,431 per student per year. This is in no way an extreme amount. According to the United States Census, schools in the District of Columbia spend about $18,677 per student. According to Hall, at Silver Creek, roughly $4,000 was spent per student. Paly sits directly in the middle of those numbers. Hall says that funding offers more opportunities for students. Conversely, limited funding can prohibit a student from reaching his or her full potential.
Besides the direct work of the district, the surrounding community also has a big impact on school’s performance, according to our sources.
Langley High School, ranked 98th in the nation, is located in McLean, VA, just minutes from the nation’s capital an it directly feels the effects of Washington. Many government employees live in McLean and send their children to public schools within McLean.
Ben Cross, a sophomore at Langley High School, believes the high-wired area of Washington, DC, effects Langley’s performance.
“I think that the numerous amounts of government officials with kids in this school district creates a sort of hostile environment to do well in school,” Cross says.
Kathleen Welch, a junior at Langley, agrees that pressures from the greater Washington area have positively affected the academic success of Langley.
“Everyone is scrambling to be the most successful, because we’ve grown up in an area full of successful, hardworking people,” Welch says.
In the case of Palo Alto, Stanford University and the city of Palo Alto’s focus on education increases the district’s success, according to Skelly.
“That fact that we live in a community where there is a major high quality university makes a difference, it shapes the community,” Skelly says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a community that is so focused on young people. Other places care about the schools, but not with the same kind of passion that they do here.”
As discussed, there are several different factors that contribute to a district’s success. While certain advantages may help a district’s performance, it should be noted that they are not a deciding factor in its success. With assets come expansion and development, and the people of Palo Alto are fortunate to have such an amazing learning environment.