Connections Program

The Connections Program at JLS Middle School is a learning community of students, teachers, and parents where hearts and minds are inspired through challenging, innovative, and relevant curriculum. Curriculum is designed to create life-long learners prepared to meet future academic, social, and global challenges.

Connections offers a project-based learning environment where students gain and practice the higher order thinking skills needed to create, design, analyze, and problem solve in real-world contexts. Instruction is designed to provide learners with tangible experience in critical thinking and decision-making, ensuring they are well prepared for the rigors of high school and beyond.

Parent Information Night Slides


Our Philosophy

Our Methods

Our Outcomes

  • Teach the whole child: social, emotional, intellectual
  • Teach students as individuals
  • Give parents a say about the school
  • Less is more, depth over coverage
  • Teacher as a guide
  • Project-based & cooperative learning
  • Student centered & student directed learning
  • Off campus enrichment and field trips
  • Alternative assessments
  • Personal responsibility
  • Creativity & Curiosity
  • Life long learners well prepared for high school
  • Learners that meet or exceed state & district standards


Parent involvement is highly encouraged. Parents helped found the Connections program and run an active parent board. The parent board meets monthly to provide on-going support and feedback on program direction.

Connections parents support their children’s education through volunteering, accompanying students on field trips, social action, project support, and sharing their time or specific expertise in the classroom. Teachers are open and accessible to parents and see themselves as partners working collaboratively in support of students, the school, and each other. The child, teacher, and parents are all involved as active educators.

By having students stay together in Middle School, Connections aims to create a “village”, a small community of teachers, students, and parents, within the larger JLS community.  To build community, Connections hosts monthly morning coffees for parents and teachers, and many community events/social gatherings for students, parents, and teachers.


Collaboration and cooperation are an important part of the Connections Program philosophy. This extends to parent support for students and teachers, which at the program level is organized by the JLS Connections Board, a 501(c)(3) organization. The board works to raise funds to support program initiatives, organizes program-wide social events, and aids communication both within and about the Connections program.


Francisco Lacayo


Eighth Grade Connections Teacher, Social Studies,

I am a Bay Area native, born and raised in the East Bay. I earned a B.A. in Urban Studies from San Francisco State University, and later earned my social studies credential and a Masters in Education from UCLA.

I started my work in the field of education volunteering at a state pre-school in San Francisco's Sunnydale District during my junior year of college. This experience led me to spend a summer working for an academic enrichment program in Washington D.C. as a summer teacher where I taught math and social studies to seventh and eighth grade students in Columbia Heights. This unforgettable teaching experience led me to pursue a teaching credential. While finishing my last year at San Francisco State University, I worked as a teacher's aide in Special Education classrooms. The summer after earning my B.A., I worked at a day treatment program in the East Bay with sixth to eighth grade students who suffered from post-traumatic syndrome, bi-polarity, and schizophrenia. While applying to graduate school I worked as a substitute teacher in Culver City. I taught one year in Los Angeles before returning to the Bay Area and am now enjoying my new teaching position in the Connections Program at JLS.

Kim Lohse

Seventh Grade Connections Teacher, English,

I graduated from Hunter College in New York City after studying English with an emphasis in Creative Writing and Music with an emphasis in singing Early Music. Before finishing my studies in New York, I went to nine different colleges, including NYU, U. of Hawaii, SF State, and more. From Project Pipeline, a credentialing program through Sacramento which seeks to serve underprivileged communities, while also credentialing teachers, I received my secondary teaching certification for teaching English. I received my MFA from Vermont College, where I studied Creative Writing, emphasizing in poetry and French translation.

I first started teaching Special Education to adults at Easter Seals in Hawaii. I then worked with developmentally disabled children in New York State and in California at Via Center, in Berkeley. When writing poetry became more important in my personal life, my teaching choices shifted also. I have taught freshman English at Touro College, in Harlem, high school English and character education at Hyde School in Connecticut, English and just about every other humanities course (grades 6-12) at The Purple Lotus Buddhist School in California, Language Arts at East Palo Alto Charter School in California and English at Jordan, here, in Palo Alto. Beyond this list, I have briefly taught music, dance, photography, outdoor education and cooking. I continue to teach Creative Writing workshops, primarily for adults.

Diane Luu

Sixth Grade Connections Teacher, English & Social Studies,

I began my first year as a Connections teacher in 2014. A native of the Bay Area, I attended San Francisco State University to earn my B.A. in Liberal Studies with a History minor. As an undergrad, I interned at the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge as an Environmental Educator to promote wildlife conservation and habitat restoration. I earned my Master's in Education and teaching credential from UC Santa Cruz in 2014. My passion for project-based learning, social justice, English and Social Studies can be exuded through the Connections program at JLS. I am very honored and excited to be here!

Mikaela Mckenna


Sixth Grade Connections Teacher, Math & Science,

I couldn’t be more pleased to have joined JLS as a math and science teacher in the connections program. I was born and raised in a small suburb of LA, Whittier, where most of my 52 first cousins still reside. I come from a large, loud, and loving family so that’s the environment I am most comfortable in. I first left Whittier to attend UCSB and study Global and International Studies and History. I left knowing that I wanted to work helping others so  the Teach for America program appealed to me and luckily, I did to them. They sent me to Ravenswood where I worked for four years teaching 5th grade at Willow Oaks School. I found that my true passion is teaching math and science, so when an opportunity in Palo Alto appeared, I jumped for it. I am looking forward to another great year together.

Kari Nygaard

Eighth Grade Connections Teacher, English,

After growing up in Palo Alto and Cupertino, I ventured across the country to Vermont where I received a B.A. in International Studies from Middlebury College. I loved living and working in Boston for a few years after college, but eventually I returned to California where I received my teaching credential and M.A. In Educational Administration from Santa Clara University.

I have been teaching 7th and 8th grade English at JLS since the 2005-06 school year. I currently mentor new teachers in the district, and in past JLS roles I have served as the English Instructional Supervisor, the Student Activities Director, and the Leadership teacher. Outside of PAUSD, I have taught summer programs in civic leadership, design thinking, creative writing, Italian, music, and HIV/AIDS education in a range of locations: Palo Alto, Berkeley, San Francisco, Maine, and Malawi. My husband is an English teacher at Gunn High School and we have a toddler son, Emerson.

Tyler Parsons

Seventh Grade Connections Teacher, Social Studies,

I grew up in Minnesota and studied history at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. My girlfriend and I have lived and worked around the country as she pursued her medical education while I have worked as a teacher. I received my Master’s of Education in Secondary Social Studies from Truman State University in Missouri and have since lived and taught secondary social studies in Tempe, Arizona, San Antonio, Texas, and most recently, Santa Monica, California. We have enjoyed living in so many different places, but are excited to be near so many of our family and friends in California.

I am currently teaching 7th grade Connections social studies. I have a social studies and special education credential and this is my sixth year teaching. World History is among my favorite subjects and I previously taught it at the high school level for 3 years. I love exploring connections to today and examining how people lived in different civilizations and times. I greatly enjoy project based learning and watching students take ownership and become experts in a subject. I am also involved around JLS as a mentor, a homework habitat tutor, and knowledge bowl sponsor. In my free time, I enjoy working on and riding bicycles and outdoor activities.

Arianne Piedrahita

Sixth Grade Connections Teacher, Math & Science,

I was born and raised in Davis, California.  I went to UCDavis for my undergraduate degree in managerial economics.  In 2003, I studied at San Francisco State and earned my multiple subject teaching credential.  I taught for 7 years in Redwood City, in both 3rd and 5th grade classrooms.  In 2013, I taught English Language Development in San Jose.  I joined the connections team at JLS in 2014.  I am so excited to be a part of such  a wonderful community of teachers, students and parents.

Katie Schramm

Sixth Grade Connections Teacher, English & Social Studies,

I have been a connections teacher since 2004. Born and raised in the Bay Area, I graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a B.A. in psychology, then earned my teaching credential from San Francisco State's middle level program. Currently I'm in the administrative master's program at Santa Clara University, but I don't plan to leave Connections any time soon!! I can't imagine not being a Connections teacher. I love going to work.


The Program focuses on project-based learning, emphasizing choice and responsibility. Through challenging, innovative, relevant teaching practices, and curriculum aligned with state and district guidelines, students become life-long learners who are well prepared for future academic, social and global challenges. The Connections Program aims to create a “village” – a small community of teachers, students, and parents, within the larger JLS community. We Believe In:

Teaching for Thinking: Connecting Hearts & Minds

Through project-based learning, students gain and practice the higher order and critical thinking skills necessary for analyzing, creating, and problem-solving. Experience in critical thinking and decision-making through tackling real life problems contributes to more thoughtful behavior, which makes students more capable of handling challenges. Each child gains self-confidence and becomes a self-directed, thoughtful lifetime learner.

Meaningful, Challenging, Relevant Curriculum: Connecting the Curriculum

Students and teachers solve problems using real-world applications. Differentiated curriculum follows state and district guidlelines and is supplemented with field trips, guest speakers, and current events that are relevant to the topic of study. In-depth, project-based learning is stressed using simulations and experiential learning--learning through hands-on experiences. Curriculum is taught across subjects, incorporating multiple subjects and resources into each lesson to create a more rigorous, in-depth study and understanding of the material. Homework is relevant to class assignments. Long-term projects frequently need to be worked on at home.

Teachers as Mentors/Coaches: Connecting Students & Teachers

Experienced teachers act as coaches or facilitators, creating the opportunity for students to participate in decision-making, goal-setting, and problem-solving. Students learn to take responsibility for their own work and progress by setting goals and using self-assessment, gaining self-confidence, their work, and their process as learners. Teachers provide meaningful, personalized feedback and written evaluations rather than letter grades. Teachers and students work together to create rubrics--a set of criteria and standards linked to a project's learning objectives.

Collaboration and Cooperation: Connecting the Learning Community

Students work individually and in self-directed groups to develop leadership skills, honesty, integrity, respect for themselves and others, and pride in their work and themselves, which empowers them as leaders, facilitators, and team players. Working in groups fosters collaborative learning and positive social interactions.

Parent/Teacher/Child Community: Connecting Home & School

Parents are encouraged to participate in the classroom community. Teachers are open and accessible to parents to form a collaborative partnership working in support of students, the school, and each other. The child, teacher, and parents are all involved as active educators.

Connecting Curriculum & Community

Students participate in community and environmental service projects. Examples include the Ecumenical Hunger Project, Habitat for Humanity, and Adopt-a-Creek. Eighth-grade students have the opportunity to pursue special interests on a “quest” with mentors and experts in the community. At all levels, parents and other community members are invited to come to the classroom to share their expertise and offer mini-courses.



Project-based Learning

Teaching for Thinking

In project-based learning, students work in teams to explore real-world problems and create presentations to share what they have learned. A growing body of academic research supports project-based learning as a way to foster deep knowledge of subject matter, increase student self-direction and motivation, and improve student research and problem-solving skills.

Why is Project-based Learning Important?

Children learn best by doing rather than memorizing. PBL is content based and student driven. Projects are large-scale assignments that take time to complete, involve multiple activities and subjects, and require complex thinking and integration of ideas. Projects involve using all aspects of "thinking operations" “ observing, comparing, interpreting, analyzing, decision-making, critiquing, summarizing, and synthesizing. Children become critical thinkers. They gather information and learn how to apply that information to problem solve, and find solutions to complex real-world problems. Projects are both relevant and student driven, so students are inspired to work harder for longer time periods. Students are well prepared for high school because they have had experience applying their knowledge to problem solving.

Teachers as Mentors and Coaches

Connections teachers act as coaches and facilitators who create structured opportunities for students to participate in decision-making, problem solving, and goal setting. Students learn to take responsibility for their own work and progress. In doing so, they gain confidence in themselves, their product, and their process as learners. While working on a project, teachers provide students with on-going, meaningful, and personalized feedback. Final products are evaluated according to a rubric: a set of criteria and standards linked to project learning objectives.

Meaningful, Challenging, Relevant Curriculum

Students and teachers solve problems using real world applications. Differentiated curriculum follows the state and district guidelines and is supplemented with field trips, guest speakers, and current events relevant to the topic of study. Curriculum incorporates multiple subjects and resources to create a rigorous, in-depth study and understanding of the material.

What is Differentiated Instruction?

Differentiated instruction is key to the Connections program. Teachers modify the curriculum to best accommodate the needs of the individual and the class as a whole, embracing the different learning styles, readiness, and intelligences that comprise the learning community. Because teachers meet students where they are developmentally and intellectually, the academic and social growth of each child is maximized.

Social Emotional Learning 

Rubrics are used at each grade level to provide structure for the detailed feedback that teachers give to the students.

A Typical Day

The school day begins at 8:15 a.m. and ends 3:05 (1:45 on Wednesdays). As Connections is project-based, a wide assortment of activities can make up a typical day and no day is exactly like the next. Sample activities include hands on labs and reading based lessons in science, social studies and history simulations, targeted writing instruction for the class newspaper, differentiated math groups (after a unit pretest, students place themselves in groups that match their abilities), as well as community service projects, art and science exhibits, field trips, and class meetings.

Sixth Grade

Sixth grade Connections students have math, science, language arts, and social studies classes within the Connections Program. Other classes, PE and “wheel” electives, are taken with the entire school body. The sixth-grade students have the opportunity to participate in a four-day science camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Both the science teacher and social studies Connections teachers accompany the students.

Seventh and Eighth Grade

Seventh and Eighth grade Connections students take language arts and social studies classes within the Connections program. Math, science, PE and electives are taken with the entire school body.


Learn about choice programs at PAUSD

Is Connections Right for Your Child?

Students who thrive in the program are interested in approaching learning in non-traditional ways, furthering their inquisitive nature, learning to evaluate their work, working independently and collaboratively, and developing leadership potential. Students should be willing to reflect on their academic growth, their personal growth and receive feedback from their peers. They should also be willing to present their learning to the community.

What do former students think?

“Connections motivated me to do my work thoroughly and prepared me for High School.”
“By being accountable to my peers, Connections taught me to be responsible for my own work.”
“I felt accepted as an incoming sixth grader, and it allowed me to find my own identity. I felt there was always someone there for me.”

Connections Application Process

6th grade enrollment process

Parents will receive information from the district describing the Choice Programs.

Feb 5, 2018 7:00 pm Choice Program Info Night at JLS for parents and students.

Feb 20, 2018 Middle School Choice applications due. Applications are turned in via Infinite Campus.

Feb 28, 2018 1:00 pm MS Choice random selection lotteries in 25 Churchill Avenue, Conf. Room A (Open to the public). Results are emailed to parents.

Mar 7, 2018 Acceptance decision & Connections agreement form due to Lizbeth Angel in main office (by email or phone:, 856-5177.

7th/8th grade applications are due to Lizbeth Angel by April 16, 2018.


How to Donate

JLS Connections is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Donations go directly to the JLS Connections nonprofit and are not part of the Palo Alto Unified School District. 

Your donation may be tax deductible and may also be submitted to your employer for a matching grant. Our Federal Identification # is 770576047. If you choose to pay using Paypal, we kindly ask that you add the amount to cover the non-profit fees (2.2% + $.30 per transaction). All donors will receive a receipt for donations by the end of the calendar year. If you need a receipt earlier, please contact