Palo Alto bubble reinforces privilege, causes disconnect to societal issues

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto is a center of innovation, wealth and quality education. It headquarters prestigious companies, such as Tesla and Hewlett Packard, and houses idyllic neighborhoods and highly ranked public schools. Palo Alto residents, the majority of whom are Asian or white, are wealthy: Their median household income of $194,782, according to the 2021 U.S. Census, is almost triple the median household income of $70,784 nationwide. Palo Alto is also a well- funded district, as one of a few cities in California with an AAA bond rating, meaning it is easily able to meet its financial commitments and has very low financial risks.

The city’s abundant wealth and resources create a Palo Alto “bubble,” which often causes residents to be unaware of hardships that people from other areas experience: lack of resources, funding and a clean living environment.

Educational privileges

Palo Alto is known for its excellent public school system. According to Niche, all three Palo Alto Unified School District middle schools are among the 15 highest- ranked middle schools in California; Palo Alto High School is among the top 10 public high schools in California; and PAUSD is the best school district in America. Gunn itself is ranked first in California and 35th nationally among public schools, according to Niche. In addition, Gunn has high standardized-testing scores and a graduation rate of 94%, higher than the public school national average of 85%.

Gunn is able to provide its students with exceptional education largely through PAUSD funding. PAUSD is a basic-aid district, meaning that it receives funding from local property taxes in addition to basic-aid funding from the state of California. Partners in Education also works to raise money specifically for teacher salaries across the district. Altogether, PAUSD receives nearly $300 million each year to support students’ education, almost 90% of which come from local taxes.

Using these funds, Palo Alto provides educational resources such as Gizmos, Naviance and other applications, available in each student’s Rapid Identity portal. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, PAUSD spends approximately $25,000 to $26,000 per student every year, exceeding the national average of about $15,000 to $16,000.

These readily available funds give Gunn students access to a variety of resources and extracurricular activities. Junior Solyana Biadglegne, a transfer student from Leipzig, Germany, who moved to Palo Alto in November 2022, explained the disparity in resources between Gunn and her old school. “This place is just incredible — I think it’s obvious because it’s Palo Alto and Palo Alto is a rich city, but also there’s so many resources and opportunities for you,” she said. “At my old school, we had great teachers and a few clubs, but that was basically it.”

Gunn alumna Shauntel Lim, a freshman at Northwestern University, explained that the educational preparation and support that Gunn provided her made her college experience easier. “Within Palo Alto, we have access to good teachers, classes and extracurriculars, whereas I come here and I hear about (other) people’s high school experiences, and it definitely sounds harder where they’re living, where their schools are underfunded,” she said. “They definitely have to work harder on their own to reach the same amount of achievement (at Northwestern).”

Most of the resources PAUSD provides, such as Individualized Education Programs that ensure specialized instruction for students with disabilities, are state-mandated. However, history teacher Benjamin Beresford finds that Palo Alto often offers more than the minimum required by state mandates, such as co-teaching and the Academic Center, which has student tutors available to aid their peers. “At my previous school, which was very small, we didn’t really have all of these resources,” he said. “I had students who would have really benefited from the resources you could get at a public school like Gunn.”

Gunn students are instructed by a supportive and qualified teaching staff: Many teachers have pursued higher education, such as masters and doctorate degrees, further improving the quality of education in Palo Alto. PAUSD guidelines also require teachers to meet certain standards of accommodation and attention to students.

Environmental factors

Palo Alto, as a major center of technological innovation, is home to many of today’s most prominent, industry-leading corporations. Hundreds of startups have begun in Palo Alto, many started by alumni from nearby Stanford University, including Google and HP. According to data from Pitchbook, a venture-capital database, Stanford graduates have founded more startups and raised more venture-capital funding than graduates of any other university in the country over the past decade.

Many have moved to the city because of its reputation for technological excellence: Biadglegne’s parents relocated her family to Palo Alto for those very reasons. “Palo Alto and Silicon Valley are known for innovation and good schools, so education and jobs are the main reasons we came here,” she said. “We found everything we needed and wanted.”

Palo Alto also has shopping centers, restaurants and recreational spaces both in and around it. However, rising property values create high prices for foods and goods compared to other areas — one of the pitfalls of shopping in the city.

Since 2021, Palo Alto has been designated as a Gold-Level Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicycles, and has plentiful communal amenities such as parks, playgrounds, libraries, and walking and biking trails. In 2021, only 15% of cities and towns in the U.S. received a Gold or Platinum designation. Although many take these facilities for granted, they greatly improve residents’ daily lives. For example, research from the Journal of Transport and Health found that people in more walkable environments had lower rates of obesity and chronic diseases. According to KRON4, Palo Alto residents have a 22% obesity rate, 11% lower than the national average of 33%.

Furthermore, Palo Alto’s natural environment is well maintained and healthy thanks to environmental services provided by the city. These services include Zero Waste, a waste-management system that seeks to decrease landfill waste and encourage composting; Watershed Protection, which reduces the amount of waste entering local waterways; and the Sustainability and Climate Action Plan, an extensive strategy to reduce citywide carbon emissions in coming years. To receive funding for these services, Palo Alto has several community partners that provide financial support to the city, including Stanford University, Friends of the Junior Museum and Zoo, Palo Alto Arts Foundation and Neighbors Abroad.


Living in a wealthy city replete with resources, Palo Alto residents, including students, can be isolated from the challenges that less wealthy communities face. However, mental burdens still exist. While — or perhaps because — Palo Alto is a center of technological innovation and excellence, students often feel pressure to succeed and surpass their peers academically. Biadglegne said the environment at Gunn is more competitive than that of her previous school. “At my old school, it was competitive, but it was also a small school,” she said. “Even if one had an accomplishment or internship, they would tell their friends to apply, and if someone has a big accomplishment, everyone celebrates it. But here, they (often) say, ‘Don’t tell that person I got an internship at this place.’”

This competition and pressure manifests itself most conspicuously during the college admissions process. Beresford noted that Gunn students often have high expectations to attend prestigious universities after high school. “There’s a culture that you’re expected to apply and go to some kind of elite (university) like the Ivy Leagues, or at least Berkeley, Stanford, University of Chicago,” he said.

As a result of this culture, students often become hyper-focused on their grades and test scores. “A student’s motivation to complete work is around getting a certain grade, not necessarily around completing an activity or understanding,” Beresford said. “As a teacher, it can feel like my intent for why I’m teaching you something feels different from (a student’s) reason for wanting to learn something.”

Additionally, with the abundance of engineering, computer science and science-based companies and opportunities present, students often face pressure to pursue and succeed in STEM-related fields. Gunn alumnus Michael Wang, a freshman at Brown University, said that if somebody mentioned that they were from Silicon Valley or the Bay Area at Brown, people would automatically assume that they planned to work in technology or computer science.

Palo Alto has established Wellness Centers and mental health resources to support students. Gunn has mental health professionals working on-site, as well as an established SELF program to aid students in social-emotional learning. The ability to create such resources is, in a way, yet another example of Palo Alto privilege: According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, during the 2021-22 school year, around half of public schools in the U.S. received funding for mental health services, and less than 41% of schools hired staff to focus on students’ mental health.

Ultimately, Lim believes many Gunn students are unaware of, or do not acknowledge, the privileges they possess. “It’s important to acknowledge problems (outside of our bubble),” she said. “(This includes) socioeconomic and racial problems. Living within the Palo Alto bubble, we don’t see a lot of that firsthand.”