We arrived in Palo Alto from Hamburg, Germany, on Aug. 6, 2015, with a 5-year old daughter who was proud to master writing her first name — MALINA — in somehow clumsy capital letters but could barely speak a sentence English. We will be leaving Palo Alto on June 28 with a 6-year-old who corrects me when I make mistakes in English, has written her first books, knows the difference between a hexagon and an octagon, and who wants to invent something “really cool” when she grows up.
What happened in between? My daughter went to an elementary school in Palo Alto!
You can meet with startup founders, talk to Stanford professors and have coffee with venture capitalists to try and understand Silicon Valley. Yet, if you want to really grasp what makes this special place thrive, sending your kid to a nearby public school is the shortest path into the heart of the valley’s culture. Thinking big, being wholeheartedly techie and always aspiring to change the world — it all starts in kindergarten. Now, that I have to prepare for my family’s return to Germany, I started wondering: “How might I bring the best parts of what I saw here back to my home country?”
The full valley experience starts for us every morning on our short walk to school. On the way, Malina meets and greets a lot of her new friends. And while my daughter kisses me goodbye to begin her day in Room 2, saying “Tschüss” – German for “bye” — you can hear her classmates parting from their parents with “au revoir”, “zai jian” or “adios.” Every morning I feel like my daughter is about to head off to a miniature United Nations assembly.
That’s because Malina’s classmate’s parents resemble Silicon Valley’s overall population mix. A new study finds that 74 percent of all Silicon Valley tech workers age 25 to 44, such as many of the parents in Classroom 2, are foreign born. And 51 percent of the valley’s population over age five speaks a language other than exclusively English at home. This was according to a local newspaper report. The families at our school come from countries such as France, Israel, China, India, Spain, Russia and Korea to Palo Alto. And it is really impressive for me to see what an outstanding job the school has done to integrate everyone into the community.
Integration is in the system
For kids such as my daughter, who start the school year with poor command of the English language, our school brought in a special English teacher in the first months to support Malina. The school district even made an extra effort to find a native German-speaking teacher for this purpose.
The school staff is exceptional, too: Malina’s classroom teacher, Lisa, will go down in our family history forever as the one who sustained Malina through rocky times at the beginning. Thanks to Lisa, she has now grown into a curious and happy learner.
Malina is now even encouraging others in her class by shouting out “Good strategy,” when a friend is coping with a new assignment in class.
It’s in the system. Trying hard to integrate new arrivals — just as our school does with the youngest — pays off for the whole area. Another new study shows that 51 percent of the most valuable new companies were started by immigrants.
While schools in California are among the worse in the country, most public schools in Palo Alto score top levels. Just check www.greatschools.org. Ours gets the maximum — 10 points.
Let me explain how: Techies are liberals for the most part. As such, they prefer to send their kids to public rather than private schools. To overcome the shortages in California’s decaying public school system, everyone has agreed to a kind of a silent pact — to donate money. And in the valley this often enough means a lot of money. “This is the craziest fundraising environment I have experienced in my whole life,” a new mum at our school who just had moved here from Chicago told me one day.
Wealth and the ‘change the world’ spirit
Our school even has an anonymous donor who recently agreed to give $17 million for school renovations. The incredible flow of private money into the public school system means great teaching assistants, such as Anita, one of my daughter’s best friends on campus and whom she greets in very loud voice even from afar. And it means iPads, books and libraries as abundant as chalk stumps in German classrooms.
Of course, Malina has started to learn how to code here. Her teacher has provided parents with a password for an app that teaches kindergartners the basic principles of Java using a game. Malina loves this app. She plays it at home in the afternoon. The after-school program offers — for a fee — training in coding, design thinking and 3D printing. While I don’t think all of this is necessary for elementary school kids, I get that tech savvy belongs here, just as Waldorf schools and clay pottery belong in Germany.
Yet, outstanding teachers, a welcoming atmosphere, money and a lot of tech do not separate Palo Alto schools from other school systems I have experienced in my life. The most important ingredient, the one with all the valley flavor to it, is the part money cannot necessarily buy: It’s the spirit.
Every Monday Malina’s teacher sends a blue note home with her, explaining what the class did last week and what the plans are for the coming one. The other day it said they would focus on persuasive writing, composing letters “to fix problems and change the world.” Had I read this when we first arrived here, I would have probably laughed and thought it to be a sign of your typical valley grandezza. Eight months later I wholeheartedly appreciate this attitude. My daughter is learning how to read and write and do her first additions and subtractions. But much more important to me, she has developed a self-assurance and stronger sense of her capabilities than any other school would have probably ever taught her back in Europe.
A new vision for Malina — and me
Back home Malina always wanted to be a singer when she grew up. Now, she wants to invent something. Malina’s year at a Palo Alto school has taught our whole family that Silicon Valley is less a spot on a map than a mindset.
There is always an opportunity to start something new and hopefully better! Anyone can aspire to change the world! Innovation is about psychology. This mindset is taught in kindergarten. If Europe doesn’t start adopting this attitude in our own educational systems, there’s really no point in Germany sending over whole troops of CEOs, politicians or other delegations to learn how to become more innovative, more like Silicon Valley. We have to start with our youngest.
It might surprise you, but I do not really care what profession my daughter pursues once she grows up. As long as she is a happy person — as a singer, an inventor or whatever the future might bring. But I will try everything I can once we get back to help her — and other children in the German education system — to be as self-confident, daring and tech savvy as the kids in Palo Alto.
To figure out how might I achieve this task could even become the most important learning that I will bring back from my life as a JSK Fellow. As a first step, I plan to advocate that German kids learn how to code in elementary school. Now, it’s not on any curriculum at all in my home country. Not only did Malina change a lot in Palo Alto. I did, too.