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Turning Over a New Leaf



The only constant is change. In the recent months at Paly, this statement has fully applied.

The end of last school year was met with a sudden goodbye to an unprecedented number of administrative staff. The district superintendent, school principal and two assistant principals resigned, each for a different reason.

After stepping down from her role as Paly’s principal, Kim Diorio is now working to complete her dissertation. Diorio remains in the area, but is not currently working at any other school.

Also staying local is former Assistant Principal Janice Chen, now employed as assistant principal at Monta Vista Middle School. Chen decided to leave Paly to follow her aspirations of becoming a principal in the future. After attending Monte Vista as a student, Chen is reconnecting with her roots.

Former Assistant Principal Vicki Kim has sought a change in scenery. This led her to San Diego, where she is serving as assistant principal of Carmel Valley Middle School. Current Assistant Principal Katya Villalobos discussed the difficulty of last year’s departures.

“I will reiterate the [difficulty] of the last year because obviously when things happen at the district office, they will influence sites. The superintendent left, our principal resigned. There was a lot of change.”

Katya Villalobos, Assistant Principal

Some administrators attribute the dramatic shift to challenges faced collectively by Paly staff last year. Moving forward from last year’s events, Paly is now ready to welcome a new set of staff members.

Completely new to Paly are the two incoming assistant principals Tom Keating and John Christiansen. Villalobos will also be an assistant principal this year and Adam Paulson has been promoted to principal from assistant principal. Students and staff alike will have to adjust to this significant shift.

Carolyn Benefield, Paulson’s secretary, observes that the transition has gone smoothly so far.

“I think that because of the unique situation with the departure of [Diorio, Kim and Chen], the staff has been so supportive and warm and welcoming to them,” Benefield said. “I think in a normal situation, if we hadn’t sort of all been traumatized last year, it would have been tougher for them.”

According to Benefield, there was some worries around losing Diorio and who would replace her, but with Paulson as the new principal, there have not been any issues integrating.

“Everyone has always liked [Paulson], he’s a very likable guy, but he was kind of quiet and no one really knew him,” Benefield said. “It was really important to the staff that there be that continuity, because when we lost Ms. Diorio, there was this huge void.”

Paulson, having had been assistant principal for three years prior, is already familiar with the student body. Newcomers Keating and Christiansen have yet to fully introduce themselves.

Both Keating and Christiansen have expressed  a great interest in wanting to get to know the students.

“I would like to get to know some of the students, and to some extent, be a mentor of sort,” Keating said. “I think I want the students to know I am ultimately here for students, to support them and get to know them in an appropriate, best way that I can.”

The new assistant principals encourage students to engage with them.

“Palo Alto’s mission aligns with mine. High academics, celebrating diversity, friendly, kind, enthusiastic, strong athletics [and] strong arts. All of those things are what I believe in, what I was raised with and what I want to contribute to.”

Assistant Principal John Christiansen

[divider]Tom Keating[/divider]

As the early morning sunrise dawned on the Monterey Bay horizon, Keating set his gaze over the ocean horizon, leaning over the boat’s edge. Equipped with nothing but a notebook, pen and binoculars, the marine biologist observed the wildlife around him. He took note of the interactions and behaviors between sea otters and the occasional appearance of a humpback whale — a magical sight, and all that a scientist could ask for.

Little did Keating know, his eye-opening adventures from Monterey Bay to the Galapagos Islands would lead to a spectacular journey in the educational world, and, ultimately, to Paly’s doorstep.

Not long after earning his Master of Science in Marine Sciences from Moss Landing Marine Laboratory in late 1970s, Keating realized his passion for science, technology and education. Beginning his career in the Ichthyology Department at the California Academy of Sciences, Keating was fortunate enough to have the opportunities to work as a researcher in some of the most wildlife-rich places in the world, from Southeast Alaska to Monterey Bay to the Galapagos Islands off the South American west coast.

“Working for a year [in the Galapagos Islands] was life-changing and really helped my perspective on education and approaches to science,” Keating said.

Keating’s practical experiences working with marine mammals opened up a wealth of new opportunities. After serving as the Curator of the Natural History Collections of the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands, Keating was invited to be a teaching assistant and eventually a full-time teacher for science and technology courses at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels.

“I was planning on going on to have a full career as a scientist and get a Ph.D. in science, but I ended up having a family and was offered a job teaching high school in Hollister, Calif.,” Keating said.

Throughout the 1980s, Keating advanced his educational career. But after eight years of teaching in Hollister, he realized he wanted to deepen his reservoir of educational knowledge.

“You come to a point as a teacher: do you keep teaching for the rest of your career, or do you become an administrator, or do you pursue something else?”

Assistant Principal Tom Keating

Keating chose the latter. Seeking to combine his interests in science, education and technology, Keating earned a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Teacher Education, with a focus in Science and Technology, in the 1990s from Stanford University.

During this time, he served as a supervisor of teachers that were student-teaching at Paly and recognized that Paly might be the place for him down the road.

Following his graduate research work at Stanford, Keating held faculty positions for eleven years at Indiana University Bloomington, Boston College and San Jose State University, where he taught science education, science methods classes for teachers and learning in high-tech environments for graduate students.

But, more importantly, these experiences and expertise would shape Keating’s dynamic career and teaching philosophy as a high school district administrator in Portola Valley and San Carlos — where he met Paulson, a principal at San Carlos at the time — and eventually as an administrator at Paly.

It is often stated that one ought to be passionate and motivated about their work, a premise Keating strongly reflects.

“I find the high school environment to be a great community of students, and just seeing you all make that transition to college, career,” Keating said. “Thinking about that, I’m also able to work with the faculty in the STEM areas. That’s where my research interests and my professional intersect.”

As an new administrator this year, Keating plans using the beginning of the school year to better understand Paly.

“When I come into a new project, I have to be collecting data, information and stories from my colleagues, trying to understand the history, what are the constraints, [and] what are the opportunities.”

Assistant Principal Tom Keating

Keating comes into his new role with several overarching goals and challenges in mind.

The first is to further develop Paly’s standards of what is known as “deeper learning.” This philosophy stems from the ability to reason from evidence, scientific inquiry and generally asking questions of nature. On the design side, it encourages the critical thinking needed to design and develop practical solutions to human problems.

“The big challenge is how do you still cover all the material, such as for AP classes where there’s a lot of material, and work in that kind of experience with evidence and making sense of it?” Keating said. “That’s so much of the real world, what they do at the university: experience doing projects and applying what you know.”

Keating hopes to gain a strong understanding of Paly’s culture, a crucial aspect of academic life that helps facilitate learning and foster support systems.

For Keating, this means implementing systems that make it easier for students to be successful learners while making sure students are involved in any changes to Paly’s learning policies.

More broadly, Keating hopes to tap into his decades of academic and educational experience to improve online systems for teachers as well.

“I’ve headed up educational technology for districts before, so I’m excited to be a part of that,” Keating said. “The other [responsibility] is the systems, such as online support for discipline attendance for teachers to streamline our approaches so we’re not caught up so much in the paperwork. So I get to help out with projects like that.”

[divider]John Christiansen[/divider]

For Christiansen, unorthodox administrative style assumes the form of an artistic mindset, something he believes is a staple of any productive day. Christiansen aims to contribute to the Paly community with his new and unique perspective.

From time spent as a mixed martial arts fighter to a roofer to a barista, Christiansen maintains the belief that any problem should be considered from every angle. Despite receiving a traditional education and a Master of Arts in Education, it is his diverse work experience that allows him to see these angles.

“I think [my past jobs] give me a really unique perspective and a variety of experiences to draw from.” “Instead of seeing one way like ‘this is how it’s done,’ I see five ways.”

Assistant Principal John Christiansen

He also believes that his philosophy is espoused through artistic expression.

“My approach to being an educator or my approach to having conversations with people is artistic in nature,” Christiansen said. “I want it to be creative, new and fresh and different than every other interaction I could have.”

Clay molding, painting, music and improvisation are among his favorite forms of what he describes as an outlet for relaxation.

As assistant principal, he aims to improve the areas that he could not affect in past positions, such as development of the arts and improvement around discipline.

“[Discipline] is an opportunity to connect with a difficult population in a meaningful way,” Christiansen said. “Traditionally, the way pop culture views discipline is getting bad kids in trouble, [but] that’s not how I view it.”

Every school handles discipline differently, but Christiansen’s approach has remained constant. Christiansen encourages students to have a growth mindset and to use discipline as a  stepping stone to self-improvement.

“We all make mistakes and life has got its learning lessons.” “I see discipline as an opportunity to connect.”

Assistant Principal John Christiansen

In many of his past positions, Christiansen has implemented similar disciplinary philosophies. In total, he has served as an intern, teacher and administrator at seven schools.

Most recently he worked for two years as a counselor at Henry M. Gunn High School, where mental health was an issue he worked to address.

“Colorado Springs, where I also worked, [there] was a suicide cluster as well, so I have a lot of experience in working with early student death,” Christiansen said.

Christensen thinks the mental health problems Paly faces can be remedied.

As a school counselor, Christiansen’s job was to interact with members of the student body, including several at-risk students.

At Paly, Christiansen hopes that, as an administrator, he can continue some unofficial counseling, as well as refer students to other licensed professionals.

Christiansen has received a Master of Arts in Counseling and Human Services from the University of Colorado, and plans to utilize his education and experience in addressing Paly’s mental health issues.

“Gunn, Paly and my schools in Colorado [are] very different demographics and different schools, but the roots [of the mental health problems] are all the same,” Christiansen said.

At the heart of Silicon Valley, it is often said that Palo Alto’s abundance of CEOs, innovation and money creates an atmosphere more conducive to student stress and mental health concerns.

However, Christiansen believes the availability of therapists and facilities present at Paly are positive indicators of the school’s ability to address the problem.

Christiansen feels that he can help increase students willingness to access these valuable resources by forming connections with the community.

“I want to form relationships with parents, students, the community, the school and staff members here, because I want to be here a very long time,” Christiansen said. “I love it and I want to stay.”

[divider]Adam Paulson[/divider]

After several years as a Paly assistant principal, Paulson aspires to use his new position to build on the successes of his predecessors and to create thoughtful, positive change for the Paly community.

“I will focus on three areas this year: high quality teaching and learning, equity and access and wellness and safety.”

Principal Adam Paulson

With a new leadership team, Paulson plans to build on initiatives from previous years.

“We will continue to host a monthly theme,” Paulson said. “[For example], September is suicide prevention. We will also take wellness outside the walls, engaging students in the Quad with various activities.”

These activities aim to communicate messages about mental health in a way that works for the student body. In addition to organizing regular activities, Paulson plans to directly interact with both students and faculty.

“I love to be in classrooms watching the amazing work our teachers and students do on a daily basis,” Paulson said. “My area of expertise is with curriculum and instruction, and I am passionate about providing teachers with the resources and skills they need to be innovative and engaging.”

According to Benfield, a returning administrator like Paulson has the potential to bring positive change to Paly faster than an administrator new to Paly because he does not have to spend time orienting to the school culture.

“Having that one familiar person in the role of the leader has made a big difference,” Benfield said. “If that was a new person, they would probably have a tougher time.”

As a result, reception of Paulson by other administrative staff has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People were really happy that he was selected to be the principal.”

Principal’s Secretary Carolyn Benfield

Paulson envisions a cooperative working atmosphere that will foster generations of students to come.

“One of the things I appreciate about our school culture is the ability to connect and have fun,” Paulson said. “I am making sure our admin team is spending a lot of time together to learn about our systems, learn about our school culture and also have fun as we get to know one another.”


Since the departure of several administrators at the school and District levels last spring, many have wondered what may have caused Paly’s leaders to leave.

Luckily, Katya Villalobos, a returning administrator who has held numerous positions in PAUSD, was able to offer some insights on what she thinks may have characterized last year from an administrator’s point of view.

“I’m not going to lie to you, [last year] was hard, very hard,” Villalobos said.

“It was hard because of all the things that were happening from the outside and trying to support the staff, trying to support the students…It was hard because it was so much change, and we knew we were going to have more change.”

Villalobos believes the difficulty of the past year may have caused the changes in leadership.

“If people feel that the difficulty is not going to change, they want a change of scene.”

Assistant Principal Katya Villalobos

“Like for [Kim], who is probably the biggest example. She’s wanted to become a principal for a while and this was a big opportunity for her, and she took it, and I’m glad she took it. For [Chen], she’d wanted to be at Monta Vista for a while and that maybe she saw some difficulty here and she was like, ‘Oh man, great. Monta Vista is open, I’m going to try there.’ And [Diorio] has that opportunity doing that dissertation which she normally wouldn’t do [as] a high school principal because it just consumed your life.”

Regardless of the specific reasons behind an individual’s departure, Villalobos said keeping up positivity was a significant challenge for administrators.

Villalobos said, “Because by nature, we have got to be positive.”


Change runs rampant through Paly. Though most large, visible alterations will not be apparent to the student eye, a period of transition will still occur.

After some prior administration recieved backlash from the community, Benefield made it clear why that was unlikely to occur again.

“There was a lot of sadness here over the departure of the admins who left and I think that people just feel grateful and ready to welcome [the new staff] in so that if there [are] things out in the world or out in the community that are hurtful, that they have a warm and safe place here,” Benefield said.

How the community as a whole will receive these adjustments is unforeseen. The student body may soon see what the future of Paly looks like.

The start of the 2018-19 school year marks a new era for Paly. There is a definite anticipation for what that may entail, but the new administration encourages a positive outlook.  Necessary for progression is change and necessary for change is discomfort.

Mixed feelings were expressed about the administration turnover, but Paly brands itself as a school of acceptance. With the peak of recent events now behind, there is more room for growing forward.

“I laugh because you laugh or you do something else. In my opinion, there is so much tough stuff in the world that why are you going to add to it.”

Assistant Principal Katya Villalobos

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