Paly, Gunn to welcome three new assistant principals

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Palo Alto and Gunn high schools are set to welcome three new assistant principals next year, which include Paly science teacher Erik Olah; San Jose Unified School District Assistant Principal LaDonna Butler; and Gunn Education Specialist Courtney Carlomagno.

Assistant principals at the high school level are responsible for providing leadership in curriculum, instruction guidance, facilities management and support services. The appointments were approved at a May 11 board meeting, and will become effective July 1.

Olah has worked for the district since 2008, and currently holds the positions of teacher, science instructional lead and Western Association of Schools and Colleges teacher on special assignment. Butler — a high school assistant principal at San Jose Unified and high school teacher of 13 years — will also take on the position of assistant principal at Paly. 

Gunn has appointed Carlomagno to one of its four assistant principal positions. Carlomagno’s decade-long career in the district began as an instructional aide in the school’s special education program, where she “fell in love with working with high school students” before receiving credentials to become a teacher. 

“As a teacher at Gunn, I became very involved,” Carlomagno said in an interview. “Even though I was in special ed, I was very much interested in what we could do for the whole student body to better support them.”

Carlomagno is interested in the issue of equity in Palo Alto Unified schools, and has worked on projects from helping form a student equity committee at Gunn to working with both district and city officials in creating the Palo Alto Equity Challenge. 

“What I’m hoping to do as a formal member of the admin team is I really want to bring all the lenses I have from all my experience … [and] make sure that when we are making plans and making decisions for students and staff, that we’re taking into account all the different types of experiences here and really making sure everything is accessible for every student,” Carlomagno said.

At the time of publication, the Post was unable to reach Olah and Butler for comment.

Paly junior explores cultural identity through poetry

STORY BY JONAS PAO AND MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Most students probably view the poetry unit in English class as just another midday nap opportunity. But while her classmates were dozing off, this is where Jasmine Kapadia fell in love with poetry as a first grader — and since then, her poems and slam poetry performances have attracted audiences ranging from fellow Palo Alto High School students to Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Yousafzai was one of numerous influential leaders who nominated one individual they were inspired by on an Asian American Pacific Islander Inspiration List created by “Good Morning America” — and she chose Kapadia.

The Paly junior said she feels that slam poetry, a type of poetry that is composed for live performance, has given her the creative freedom to explore her favorite themes of what it means to be Asian American and allows poets like her to be “angrier” with language.

“The very first slam poem that I wrote was about this grappling between cultures and figuring out where I landed,” Kapadia said. “Since then, I’ve become much more comfortable in my culture with directly doing very Asian cultural things, whether that’s just straight up going into Mandarin in the middle of a poem, or whether it’s more subtle.”

Coming from a mixed Indian and Chinese background, Kapadia most often incorporates her unique cultural identity into her poetic work. Considering that not all of her readers relate to these experiences, she strives to avoid exaggerating their weight.

“It can be a fine line to walk between feeling like you are playing up the diaspora experience or playing up the Asian American experience, and being true to you,” Kapadia said. “Something I’ve had to figure out is, how much do I want to portray the Asian American experience? And how can I portray it without sort of commodifying trauma?”

Kapadia’s poem, “photograph of my 奶奶 in her youth,” that won a gold medal from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, is a perfect example of how she has woven her Asian American background within her poems.

The poem was inspired by a photograph of Kapadia’s 奶奶 (grandmother) in her Taiwanese home.

“I was able to tell a beautiful experience about someone that I really, really admire, but also represent my culture,” she said.

Kapadia submitted this poem and many others to a plethora of literary magazines, but despite all her success in doing so, Kapadia said she’s careful not to give in to the competitive nature of writing submissions.

“A lot of teen writers call it ‘the teen writing industrial complex’ because it’s set up on contests and publication,” Kapadia said. “Whenever I publish, there is a sense of that feeling like, ‘Oh, I want to get the next publication. I want to get even more,’ and it’s hard to not compare yourself to other authors’ bios.”

To help her escape these feelings, Kapadia often talks with many of her friends in teen poetry communities that she is active in. Kapadia said that the community is able to “comfort” her through the hardships of being involved with poetry.

Kapadia and other poets who are part of these poetry communities often had to learn about poetry through their own personal endeavors. 

As a contemporary poet, Kapadia advocates for the “modernization” of public schools’ creative writing curriculum — she said that reading poetry written by predominantly white authors held her back from realizing her personal literary style.

“We need to be teaching literary magazines, we need to be teaching slam poets,” Kapadia said. “There are so many amazing poets out there that may not be household names, but have words that are so beautiful and really need to be taught.”

Kapadia was lucky enough to find literary magazines and a diverse set of poets through her personal adventures through poetry and said she feels that poetry must be “for everyone,” and that everyone, including her, has a valid voice that is worth listening to. 

“I came into more of a personal style,” Kapadia said. “Just in understanding that, as an Asian American, my experiences are worth reading about and that I have value in poetry as well.”

PAUSD expands summer school opportunities

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

The Palo Alto Unified School District is expanding its summer school program to serve students facing “adverse learning and social-emotional circumstances.”

Funds for the program come from Assembly Bill 86 signed by Governor Newsom in early March, funding expanded learning opportunities grants for districts like PAUSD in serving student groups including low-income students, English learners and foster youth. 

According to the final plan presented at last night’s board meeting, PAUSD’s high school program will span six weeks of summer, throughout which credit recovery courses will allow students with insufficient credits to recover two courses per three-week session. 

Additionally, “kick-start” courses that come with credit are intended to “help students lighten the regular school year course load,” according to the plans. A variety of uncredited courses not typically offered — from public speaking to Shakespeare and acting workshops — will also be offered.

The final plan outlines around $7.2 million of planned expenditures in order to carry out this expanded program. 

The district plans to extend the program to 2022, and says decisions for that “will be determined at a later date and will reflect the needs of the students based upon the coming school year.”

PAUSD to offer vaccinations for students 12 and older this weekend, all vaccine-eligible students by fall semester

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Sunday, May 16: Assistant Superintendent Lana Conaway said that the number of clinics the district hosts moving forward will be “based on need,” and that the district’s goal is to offer vaccinations for all students who are eligible.

The Palo Alto Unified School District will offer coronavirus vaccinations this weekend for students ages 12 and up following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the 12–15 age range. 

The 1000 doses will be available this weekend by appointment at Palo Alto High School’s Peery Center. By the upcoming fall semester, all vaccine-eligible students will have the option to receive their vaccines through this district-hosted program. 

Superintendent Don Austin at yesterday’s board meeting credited Assistant Superintendent Lana Conaway for setting up the district’s partnership with Safeway in vaccinating community members.

Proposed 2021–2022 PAUSD bell schedules face criticism

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

The Palo Alto Unified School District’s proposed bell schedules for secondary schools in the 2021–2022 school year came under fire at tonight’s board meeting, with many community members voicing concerns about the late end times.

Through the pandemic, PAUSD high school classes have begun at either 9 a.m., 9:40 a.m or 10 a.m. depending on the day, with the end time at 3:05 p.m. The need for a new bell schedule comes as a result of the state’s reversion to pre-pandemic standards for instructional minutes.

While the board is not ultimately tasked with approving schedule proposals, a bell schedule committee on the job includes over 30 students, parents, district staff members and local teachers union leaders. The committee is “on schedule” to finalize 2021–2022 bell schedules in the next couple of weeks, according to a May 7 Superintendent’s Update.

In the latest community survey regarding the new schedule sent on May 5, the committee offered two models of high school schedules, with both setting the start and end times at around 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to fall in line with the state’s requirements.

Speakers in the open forum section of tonight’s board meeting included Gunn junior Athina Chen, who focused on the potential impact of the proposed later end times on athletes.

“Athletes already have to leave school early anywhere from 2:30 to 3 for matches and games,” Chen said. “Any options for the schedules mean that athletes would miss an entire class period of either fourth or seventh period, twice a week during the season. Not to mention our multi-season athletes.” 

Gunn parent and bell schedule committee member Heidi Volkmar also spoke during the open forum.

“I know all the intricacies — from being on the bell committee — that go into that schedule,” Volkmar said. “But one thing that you have in your control that you can do though, as board members and the superintendent, is you can change the start time back to 8:30 … 8:30 is enough time for students to get that extra sleep.”

Gunn Student Board Representative Thomas Li urged the board to reconvene with bell schedule committee members, citing concerns about ending at 4 p.m. like the later end time preventing students from working after school jobs or caring for younger siblings whose schools in the district end at earlier times.

“I’m absolutely positive that the teachers, the parents, the students and everyone else on the committee would be willing to reconvene if it means that they can speak freely about the concerns regarding later start times,” Li said. “If this is going to be the bell schedule for the foreseeable future, let’s get this done right.”

Global art project Breathe with Me comes to Gunn, celebrating Earth Day and unity

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

Palo Alto resident Irina Selva stood in front of a 6-foot-tall canvas on Saturday, in the outdoor space behind Gunn High School’s athletics fields. She took her time observing the two thick, vertical brush strokes she had just created with blue paint down the canvas — though in comparison to the second stroke, her first was considerably shorter in length.

Selva was one of an estimated 600 participants in Palo Alto’s Breathe with Me, a local rendition of the global art initiative created by Danish artist Jeppe Hein and nonprofit ART 2030

“It didn’t even make it to the [bottom],” Selva said. “On the second one, I just tried to relax a little more, and take a deeper breath, and just be aware of my breath. … Now I feel like I want to do another one; it was really nice.”

Breathe with Me arrived in Palo Alto this week thanks to a committee of Gunn parents, teachers and students. Among student organizers were Gunn sophomores Wyatt Pedersen and Katie Rueff, leaders of the school’s YCS-Interact and Green Team clubs, respectively.

“As you inhale, you dip your brush in the blue paint, and then as you exhale, you bring the brush down the canvas in one large vertical line and stop as soon as you finish,” Rueff said. “So sometimes the lines are short, and sometimes they’re super long.”

“After a large amount of community has [painted], it just shows the large amount of community within,” said Pedersen.

Pedersen poses for a photo in front of a completed Breathe with Me panel.

After Gunn parent Svetlana Gous came across Breathe with Me months ago and decided it would be perfect for the community, she took the first steps of applying for public art grants with encouragement from artist friends. As a result, Palo Alto followed New York City, Beijing and more cities across the globe in becoming the art project’s latest destination.

While the painting was — in the most literal sense — white panels featuring ultramarine blue, vertical brush strokes hung up along a school fence, Gous had her own take on its deeper symbolism.

“I really see it as a social contract,” Gous said. “The first line, for me, is signing a contract for your own wellness and self care … and the second line is really about understanding and supporting the environment that you are in locally, and then globally.”

The committee’s planning of the activity’s timeline wasn’t a coincidence: The first day of painting fell on Earth Day, allowing Breathe with Me to also serve as a community celebration of the holiday.

“I feel like it’s great not just to celebrate [Earth Day], but to make a statement about it,” Selva said.

Beyond the blue painting, the Breathe with Me site offered participants and passersby both a “poetry tree” as well as another art installation going along with the Earth Day theme: robot statues crafted out of trash by Gunn art students.

A robot statue, made by Gunn art students out of trash, on display.

Though Hein started Breathe with Me prior to 2020, its focus on the importance of human breaths takes on an even deeper meaning now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Palo Alto resident Darren Shon’s words, witnessing the gathering felt like “being able to be a community again, not just separate houses on the street.”

With the three days of painting now over, Gous is hoping that the community’s finished painting — which combines to 400 feet long — will remain hung up along Gunn’s soccer field fence for the public to enjoy, at least through the end of the school year.

“I think that these three days of painting will [lead] to creating something that will hopefully create another life in the park,” Gous said. “Maybe there will be some spontaneous music performances, or people will just come out more into the park and do what a park is supposed to be doing.”

Gunn senior founds virtual music lessons nonprofit, instructing over 900 students

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

When Gunn High School senior Julia Segal was devastated by the sudden cancelation of her band’s first recording session due to the pandemic, she turned to another way to utilize her passion for music.

QuaranTunes, which Segal founded just weeks later, is described by the singer-songwriter and keyboardist as an online platform that “connects teen musicians and artists with children in order to provide virtual music lessons.”

Today, the student-led nonprofit has over 300 volunteer teachers instructing an estimated 900 students from across the globe. Lessons are offered on anything from specific instruments, to otherwise difficult-to-find courses like film scoring or music production. Beyond music, QuaranTunes also offers lessons in “almost anything you can think of that counts as art.”

While there’s never a mandatory fee to take a QuaranTunes lesson, the suggested donation in place is $20 per class. Thanks to these donations by parents, QuaranTunes has raised $55,000 for various charitable causes since its founding last March. 

“Our charity right now is the Save The Music Foundation,” Segal said. “It’s a nationwide foundation that has helped millions of kids in public schools get their first access to music education through public school music programs.”

Palo Alto High School sophomore Ajin Jeong is among the hundreds of QuaranTunes teachers that volunteer their time for its cause. Jeong — who in addition to teaching also serves as a board member — said there are unique aspects to teaching while being a student of music herself. 

“Since I’m younger, I can relate to my students better,” Jeong said. “One of them’s seven and one of them is twelve, so I can relate to what place they’re in right now. I think that helps me as a teacher.”

Fellow Paly sophomore Divya Mathur was introduced to the organization through Jeong. With more than enough time on her hands due to the shelter-in-place order last summer, she joined QuaranTunes as a piano teacher. Today, Mathur teaches seven students after school throughout the week.

“Usually with my younger students who are six, seven or eight, it’s a very direct lesson,” Mathur said. “I’ll have my computer on top of my keyboard, and then usually they can play by ear, and I’ll kind of direct their hands and their fingers.”

Mathur said her favorite part of teaching music is seeing students grow, and that one student of hers in particular showed immense growth not long after starting their weekly piano lessons.

“I gave [Für Elise] to her, and two weeks later, she was finished with it. She had perfected it,” Mathur said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This eight year old girl — in two weeks, in free lessons, had never played before — was able to play Für Elise’ … I was so happy.”

Segal also teaches, despite her main responsibilities being to oversee QuaranTunes as a whole. Though her vocal and piano student started as a complete beginner to music, Segal chose to skip past the basics of piano — scales and learning Hot Cross Buns — to skills she felt were more relevant for a pop singer-songwriter like the student hoped to become.

“Now she can play and write and sing her own songs. I’ve seen her write songs about COVID and how lonely it’s made her …, how annoying her brother is, and she just kind of really lets her emotions out,” Segal said. “That’s what songs have been for me; they’ve always been a diary for me to express my emotions.”

Beyond one-on-one lessons, QuaranTunes offers a virtual summer camp run by volunteers as well as master classes taught by professional musicians — like world class pianist Lara Downes — both of which, similarly to lessons, are completely free, virtual and open to the public. 

“The whole mission is to spread music,” Mathur said. “That’s how Julia started it; she just found her little sister bored, she wanted to spread music to her, and she spread it to everyone else … QuaranTunes is really important to me because it spreads the opportunity for children to find what they’re passionate about.”

In preparation for Segal’s forthcoming departure to university, the leadership staff of QuaranTunes recently set out to streamline the organizational system of the student-run organization, evenly spreading out work from the Chief Executive Officer to board members like Jeong.

Now, Segal is sure that with the organization’s dedicated and passionate teachers and leaders, QuaranTunes is in great hands.

“I’m 100% sure it’s going to last for many, many, many years,” Segal said.

PAUSD to allow secondary students on campus four days a week

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Palo Alto Unified School District secondary students will have the option to attend school on campus for four days a week starting Tuesday, April 27.

The district’s in-person learning model — dubbed “Zoom in a Room” — puts students in the same classroom as teachers and peers, while still tuning into class through the same Zoom meetings as those who opt to learn remotely.

Since the optional return for grades 7–12 began, students have been split up into two groups alphabetically by last name, with each group having the choice of going to campus on two designated school days: either Tuesday and Wednesday, or Thursday and Friday.

This latest update, sent out in Friday’s Paly Community Update, follows district families indicating interest in having the option to go to campus Tuesday–Friday, in a recent survey. 

Connecting farmers with community, local nonprofit Tera Farm is ‘everyone’s farm’

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS COURTESY JACQUE RUPP AND TERA FARM

When the pandemic first hit last March, wreaking havoc on the food industry, it wasn’t just restaurants that were forced to shut down — the agriculture industry also suffered from the sudden drop in demand.

Sheena Vaidyanathan, a teacher in the Los Altos School District, first heard about this impact to farmers through the grapevine, before subsequently ordering her vegetables directly from a local farmer. This purchase was to show him support through the uncertainty of the unfolding pandemic — and also for some fresh kale.

The result was her founding of Tera Farm just weeks later, a nonprofit that aims to directly support local farmers by publicizing and marketing their produce to consumers, cutting commercial grocery stores completely out of the picture. By operating with a volunteer-run team, Tera Farm ensures that farmers receive 100% of the profits. 

“When they sell [produce] to a wholesaler, these small farmers don’t get the money right away. They get it in six weeks to eight weeks after everything has sold,” Vaidyanathan said. “They are now able to get the money right away. … We sell it in the store and the credit card payments get posted into their bank account.”

When the Tera Farm store is open between Monday afternoon and Wednesday evenings, customers can place orders from a wide selection of locally grown and fully organic vegetables, fruits and herbs.

A box of Tera Farm’s freshly grown vegetables. (courtesy Jacque Rupp and Tera Farm)

“[Customers] get to pick exactly what they want. So if they want three bunches of carrots and two pounds of onions, they can get exactly that,” Vaidyanthan said.

Picking up a “farm box” order starts on Saturday mornings at the customer’s choice out of 28 available “neighborhood sites” — houses of volunteers located throughout the Bay Area from Berkeley to Carmel. 

Vaidyanathan said she hadn’t expected to enter this type of work, but is now able to apply her expertise in education to her role in the organization.

“As a teacher and educator, I want people to understand where food comes from, so on Wednesdays, I send a newsletter,” Vaidyanathan said. “What does it mean when you grow organic? What happens to the weeds? What are they allowed to put on [organic produce]?”

Through involvement with the nonprofit Kitchen Table Advisors and prior experience gardening as a hobby, Vaidyanathan had “always had a passion” for learning about farming and produce.

“We, living in California, are so fortunate,” Vaidyanathan said. “We have all this amazing produce that can grow right here … but we personally don’t have a connection to it. … We think we just walk into a grocery store, and there is the food.”

For Vaidyanathan, the opportunity to take action on this followed 24 bunches of kale arriving on her doorstep last March — the initial order from a local farmer. When she assessed them to be far too much for just her household, Vaidyanathan decided to reach out to friends offering to share. They soon couldn’t get enough. 

“Because of the pandemic, people didn’t want to go to the grocery store,” Vaidyanathan said. “And here was something that was literally grown one hour away from them. [My friends] had never seen something that fresh.”

After a couple weeks of acting as the middleman — ordering from the farmer and distributing a steadily increasing quantity of their produce to friends — Vaidyanathan simply “couldn’t stop.”

“Thankfully it was spring break, so I used my spring break to make the ecommerce website and I got it all going,” Vaidyanathan said.

Thanks to the exposure she credits to almost exclusively word-of-mouth advertising within the community, Tera Farm has made a heartwarming, positive impact on farmers and community members alike since it was founded close to one year ago. 

The nonprofit collaborates with two main farmers, Maria and Bertha; as a result of the cash flow Tera Farm made possible, the latter was able to complete her long term project of building a greenhouse, allowing her to “move forward in her farming career.”

Farmer Maria in her completed greenhouse. (courtesy Jacque Rupp and Tera Farm)

Vaidyanathan described another story in which neighbors of several years spoke for the very first time upon one inquiring where “all those boxes” — Tera Farm’s weekly farm boxes — had come from.

“Neighbors are talking to neighbors, neighbors are talking to farmers, farmers are also talking to other farmers now because they are trying to help each other with this,” Vaidyanathan said. “I think [Tera Farm] is a really wonderful community.” 

After all, this nonprofit’s mission is right there in its name. “Tera” is a Hindi word that translates to “your.”

“The hope is that each one of us will consider that this is your farm,” Vaidyanathan said. “You are involved and invested in where your food comes from.”

PAUSD drafts plans to offer optional remote instruction in fall 2021

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

The Palo Alto Unified School District has plans in progress to offer remote instruction programs for its K–12 students in the 2021–2022 school year, as discussed at tonight’s board meeting.

District documents clarify that though PAUSD remains “optimistic for a full return to school” in the fall, district personnel drafted the plans in response to 7.6% of PAUSD families who, in a mid-March survey, indicated their continued interest in full distance learning for the next school year.

Superintendent Don Austin also noted that the state of California could continue its requirement of schools offering a distanced learning option. 

These latest plans come as grades 7–12 in PAUSD first returned to campus just two weeks ago for optional in-person instruction under the district’s “Zoom in a room” model.

PLANS

As an expansion of the district’s existing program, students with medical exemptions deeming them unable to attend physical school in the fall will be able to enter the Home Hospital Instruction program. These online courses “may not mirror the breadth of courses offered during in-person instruction,” according to district documents.

Home Hospital Instruction students would not be under the responsibility of PAUSD teachers, and the possibility of adding a third-party vendor to the equation could be explored depending on the number of students to accommodate, according to Associate Superintendent Sharon Ofek. 

The district’s second virtual learning option would rely on using a third-party platform like Edgenuity. Unlike Home Hospital Instruction, students under this schooling format would receive additional oversight from PAUSD teachers. 

Ofek acknowledged that the third and final option — a new virtual learning program developed by the district — would be the most complex on PAUSD’s part, though it would likely offer more customization.

Grades K–5 and 6–12 under this program are currently planned in two separate prototypes, details of which — including specifics about social-emotional learning and support programs — can be found on the meeting agenda along with a preliminary FAQ document.

The document specifies anticipated points of confusion, including the clarification that virtual students will not participate in their in-person school’s activities — and, they’d need to commit to a full year in the distance program upon enrollment. 

While core classes for grades 6–12 would be carried out similarly to PAUSD’s current distance learning model for secondary schools, Ofek also floated the possibility of elective courses utilizing online platforms as well as dual enrollment programs at Foothill and DeAnza colleges. 

At the moment, it is unclear when the Board of Trustees will approve, amend or reject the plans.