Last updateTue, 23 Jan 2018 4pm


A fresh start: School year brings new challenges, faces and projects

Photo Photos By Elliott Burr/Town Crier

Almond School student Charles Sirey, 7, above, with his mother, Kirsten, enjoys a lemonade social at the annual back-to-school meet-and-greet.

The beginning of a new school year heralds a fresh start for students, teachers and administrators. While the local high school and elementary school districts face challenges due to tightening budgets, their officials are forging ahead with new projects and programs, in addition to welcoming new people to prominent positions.

With bond money beginning to trickle into the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, administrators are planning various upgrades to prepare their campuses for a projected influx of students.

In an effort to remain competitive and offer as much as possible to its families, the Los Altos School District will implement a full-day kindergarten program.

Facing the reality that districts can no longer rely on sufficient funds from the state, the high school and elementary school district foundations have stepped-up fundraising goals to compensate for the budget cuts.

New faces

The biggest change for the Los Altos School District is at the top, where Jeff Baier embarks on his first year as superintendent. (See last week’s Town Crier for a feature on Baier.)

The district also hired a new assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Alyssa Gallagher.

Prior to her four years as Santa Rita principal, Gallagher served three years as an assistant principal in the San Diego area, after five years as a primary-grade teacher spanning all subject areas.

Gallagher, who recently gave birth to her first child, said the assistant superintendent position was too tempting to pass up.

“This position was so attractive to me because I felt it really played to my strengths and areas that I liked,” she said.

And what does the position entail?

“My job is really making sure to support and guide the instructional delivery of materials to students,” she said. “I also facilitate and guide the learning of our community as a whole.”

One of the focuses for teachers this year will be mathematics, Gallagher said. This is the second year the district will implement the Scott Foresman math curriculum for students in grades K-5.

While there are no additions to the program this year, Gallagher said she would support the teachers in their quest to implement all the features of the new math curriculum.

“I am really excited to work to support teachers and principals so that they have what they need at the school sites to be successful,” she said.

At Santa Rita School, there’s a new principal – Sandra McGonagle.

McGonagle, a former Los Altos resident, comes from the Cupertino Union School District, where she was a teacher and most recently assistant principal.

“As I was looking for opportunities, there was something about Santa Rita that really drew me toward it,” she said. “I feel like my vision matched where Los Altos is and how it is moving forward.”

One of McGonagle’s goals is to become acquainted with the Santa Rita community, which she said has been gracious in welcoming her.

“I am overwhelmed by the amount of support and kindness,” she said. “The PTA has been unbelievable in helping with back-to-school tasks.”

McGonagle said one of her strengths and a personal goal for the district is using technology in new and constructive ways. She recently started a Twitter feed for Santa Rita as another way to keep parents informed.

“I am really trying to move education into the 21st century,” she said.

Another aspect of the job that excites McGonagle is taking part in Santa Rita traditions. She is already planning her costume for the annual Witches Delight celebration in October.

“I know Santa Rita has so many traditions,” she said. “I do look forward to each and every one of them.”

Los Altos High School has a new administrator as well. Former counselor Perla Pasallo has been elevated to assistant principal.

The high school district welcomed nine new teachers when classes started last week.

The Los Altos School District, which opened the school year Tuesday, has 17 new teachers. They replace teachers who left the district for retirement or personal reasons.

New construction

Los Altos and Mountain View high schools will be abuzz with construction this fall as the district begins various Measure A bond projects.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the district’s $41.3 million June bond, intended to alleviate projected overcrowding in the schools.

One of the initial projects, according to Superintendent Barry Groves, is the installation of solar panels, scheduled to begin in November and finish in March.

Groves said solar installations are an important place to start because they will save the district money in two ways: rebates for the installation and an ongoing reduction in energy use. Groves said the district projects a savings of $1.6 million over five years through rebates.

The bulk of the bond construction will involve building new classrooms to serve the forecasted increase in students. Groves expects to have the classrooms built before the fall of 2013 when the population is expected to burgeon.

By the end of this school year, construction of a new pool at Mountain View High is scheduled to begin. Groves said it is projected to take approximately eight months to complete.

New programs

Due to slumping kindergarten enrollment in the Los Altos School District last year, district officials decided to offer a full-day kindergarten program, located at Gardner Bullis School. Although most of the district schools reported enrollments lower than projections, the largest variance was a 30 percent loss in expected kindergartners at Gardner.

Two classes will begin as half-day programs and transition into full-day programs in October.

“We want to attract and retain our neighborhood kids,” said Gardner Principal Erica Gilbert. “The demand for a full-day kindergarten was loud and clear in August last year. We just reacted to what the community wanted.”

Students living in the Gardner attendance area were given first preference for the full-day kindergarten program, followed by Los Altos Hills applicants in the Palo Altos Unified School District (to honor an agreement between the districts) and finally students in the Los Altos district who requested intradistrict transfers.

Seven remaining openings were assigned Aug. 18 by lottery.

Gardner kindergarten teachers Amy Lile and Kate Goines wrote the proposal for the full-day option based on their experiences teaching the district’s full-day kindergarten pilot program, which ended in 2008 due to budget constraints.

Earlier this month, California joined 30 states in adopting national K-12 academic standards for math and language arts. When enacted, the local elementary district will follow Santa Clara County Office of Education guidelines to implement the national curriculum standards, according to Gallagher.

Gallagher said that while it is still too early to tell how the national standards will affect the current Los Altos School District curriculum, she believes it will be a positive for education as a whole.

“California already has rigorous standards, so I don’t anticipate that big of a shift (in curriculum),” she said. “I do think there will be some tweaking of instructional models and responsibility of delivery. Overall, it is really positive to have the common standards.”

At the local high schools, Groves said the district would focus on professional development for teachers dealing with students in crisis. With a rise in student suicides locally and nationally, the district is evaluating programs to adopt one that would train teachers to recognize the signs of such depression.

New fundraising goals

In response to the schools’ needs for additional funding sources, the foundations in both districts are ramping up their efforts to raise money to compensate for budget reductions.

Last year the Los Altos Educational Foundation stepped up late in the budget planning stages and agreed to raise an additional $540,000, saving the district from implementing layoffs and increasing K-6 class sizes.

Los Altos Educational Foundation officials have set their fundraising goal at $2.35 million for the current school year.

Last year the foundation raised $1.81 million, which funded smaller K-6 class sizes, the fine-arts program, instrumental music, the art docent program, physical education, hands-on science and technology specialists.

The Mountain View Los Altos High School Foundation has set a target of $100,000 more than last year. The foundation raised $750,000 last year for programs benefiting all students.

The high school foundation funds only academic programs and those that affect all students in the district. The foundation does not pay for music, art, sports or other extracurricular activities often supported by parent groups at the individual high schools.

For more information, visit mvlafoundation.org or www.laefonline.org.

Contact Traci Newell at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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