Next Steps on New School Proposals

cubberley.jpgPAUSD is at a critical moment in deciding whether to open new elementary, middle, and high schools. The Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) delivered its final report to the school board at the January 12 school board meeting, and Superintendent McGee provided his own recommendations to the board. The most important of his recommendations is that the board authorize a task force to design a PreK-12 complex of choice schools (with a neighborhood preference) at Cubberley.

I appreciate the hard work of the EMAC members and the Superintendent. I agree that the district needs at least one new elementary school, and perhaps a new middle school as well. However, I doubt the wisdom of moving directly to planning for a new high school -- an expensive and time consuming endeavor. Instead, I believe we should invest in improving teaching and learning in our current high schools, for all of our high school students.

High School Size

District demographic projections show that Paly and Gunn will need to accommodate about 2300 students each by 2020, when enrollment will peak and then decline again. Accordingly, the district is currently in the process of completing a $200 million building campaign intended to expand the capacity of the high schools to meet those projections. The EMAC report casts doubt on whether the high schools will be able to meet the peak demand, but I feel confident based on the planning process and staff analyses that the schools will be able to manage that number of students. In any case, it’s not possible to build and open a new high school in time for the 2020 enrollment peak.

The EMAC report also suggests that even if Paly and Gunn have sufficient physical capacity, they are already too big to provide healthy learning environments for students. However, the surveys conducted in fall 2015 for the EMAC process indicate that the vast majority of high school students and teachers are satisfied with the size of their school. Only 7% of high school students are strongly dissatisfied or dissatisfied with the size of their schools, and only 6% say their school is too crowded. Similarly, only 15% of high school teachers feel the schools are too large, and only 18% of high school teachers say their school is too crowded -- and it is likely that these perceptions will decline once the classroom construction and renovation is completed.

Nor is there compelling evidence that school size is a cause of the excessive academic stress experienced by many students in our high schools. Academic research and surveys of our own students consistently show that these issues are caused by excessive homework, test and project stacking, and sleep deprivation. For example, in the Challenge Success surveys administered this fall at Gunn and Paly, over half of high school students said they are assigned too much homework. 60% of our high school students said that homework “always or often” prevented them from getting enough sleep. Juniors and seniors average less than 7 hours of sleep per night, compared to the 9 hours that is recommended.  Almost a third of our high school students “experienced exhaustion, headaches, and difficulty sleeping in the past month.”

Equity in Funding and Service to Students

Because of findings like these, the most compelling part of the EMAC secondary school recommendation is the recognition that many parents, students, and teachers are looking for more innovation in instruction, more support for social and emotional health, and more opportunities for alternatives like project-based learning. I agree. However, I don’t agree that we need to build a new small high school in order to achieve them. In fact, I agree with the point made by my fellow trustee Melissa Caswell on January 12: we owe it to our high school students to focus on making these improvements at Paly and Gunn.

Moreover, I don’t believe that the school proposed by the EMAC can be operated at the same cost per student as in our current high schools. The EMAC proposal envisions a small school of 400 to 600 students with a very high level of personalization and individual attention. Accomplishing those goals while providing sufficient variety in course offerings, electives, and opportunities will necessarily cost more per student than is currently expended at Paly and Gunn..

That is likely why the EMAC reports and presentations have frequently called for significant infusions of private donations for the desired new school (variously called “net-new revenues,”  “venture funds,” or “major local funders”). The school board has been told that these private donations are “waiting in the wings” to fill the gap between district funds and what this new school would cost to run. A proposal to the XQ contest for $10 million in operating funds over 5 years submitted by proponents of the new school is one such example. Supporters have lobbied board members and community leaders to allow school-based fundraising for operating expenses for this new school, and at the January 12 board meeting Dr. McGee declined to rule out the use of private fundraising to allow higher per-student expenditures at this school, deferring the question instead to the proposed task force.

This should be concerning for proponents of equity among students and schools. Until 2002 there were no limits to fundraising for individual schools, which resulted in clear differences across schools in services such as aides in classrooms. Then-superintendent Don Phillips and a wise school board and community responded by committing to equal resources for all district children. The result was Board Policy 1260.01, which bans fundraising to pay for K-12 personnel costs at an individual school, instead requiring districtwide fundraising for operating costs through an entity like PiE. Several other board policies require equal per-student expenditures across schools, including BP 6000, BP 6171, and BP 6192.4. There is simply no way under existing district policies to expend more per student at one district high school than another, and I would not support a proposal to change those policies.

Fortunately, we don’t need to. Rather than opening a new school, we can focus on ways to create an innovative, choice-based “school within a school” at both Paly and Gunn. This approach would create smaller communities for students and enable easier experimentation in teaching techniques. We should also fund our own “Race to the Top” in order to support innovative teaching ideas with release time for planning. This approach is also consistent with parent preferences: When asked in an EMAC survey whether parents preferred a new innovative choice program to be offered at a new school or in the existing schools, an overwhelming 75% of high school parents said they preferred to add new options at existing high schools rather than in a new school.

I don’t agree with the view that it would be too difficult to improve Paly and Gunn. On the contrary, we have many examples of innovative project-based efforts at both schools that we can build on, including the Social Justice Pathway at Paly and the Robotics Team at Gunn, and we have many talented teachers at Paly and Gunn who will be excited to engage in the work of improving our schools for every student.

Elementary and Middle Schools

The Superintendent recommends portable classrooms at Nixon School to accommodate the influx of new students in College Terrace due to the Stanford University Terrace and El Camino projects. He also recommends opening a choice elementary school at Cubberley with neighborhood preference.

I support reopening an elementary school, as a choice school with a neighborhood preference. I do not however believe that putting portables on needed playground and open space at Nixon is necessary or desirable. I would prefer instead to consider moving Spanish Immersion from Escondido to the new school in order to open up space. A new elementary school could be located either at Cubberley or at Garland. This has been the subject of several task forces and committees over the past 10 years, and I doubt another committee could shed much light on this subject beyond what is already known. I would prefer therefore to simply have a staff report summarizing the pros and cons of each of these two potential locations, and then to move deliberately toward opening a new school in the fall of 2017.

The EMAC also recommends a new middle school at Cubberley, also as a choice school with neighborhood preference. Our middle schools are all at or above their rated capacity. On the other hand, our demographers predict that our middle school enrollment will decline before we could even get a new middle school open. I support putting into place immediate measures to mitigate our middle school crowding, along with a more focused analysis of our medium and longer term middle school needs. As with the elementary schools, I do not believe that we need a committee process and would prefer that this analysis be performed by staff so that the board can take action as soon as this spring.

Final Thoughts

As today is Martin Luther King Day, it’s appropriate for me to reflect on one of Dr. King’s great insights: that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Palo Alto’s longstanding commitment to equity embodies these values. We can be proud of the way our community invests in all students and embraces our collective responsibility for their common fate. As I look ahead to voting on these proposals I will be keeping in mind a commitment to that ideal.

The next steps in this process are a “Town Hall” and webinar on Wednesday, January 20 at 7:00pm, at 25 Churchill Avenue in Palo Alto, led by Superintendent McGee, and the January 26 school board meeting, at which action is scheduled for this recommendation. I encourage you to attend either or both of these and contribute your views.

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