Weighing the Need for New Schools

As you may know, the district is currently considering opening new schools to relieve overcrowding -- a 13th elementary school, a fourth middle, and even a new small third high school. I am writing to share my thoughts with you on this subject and to invite you to write me or visit my office hours to share your views with me.

What is EMAC? The Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) was appointed in the spring and is charged with investigating whether the district needs more schools  -- and if so, where those schools should be located. The elementary and secondary subcommittees presented preliminary recommendations at two special school board meetings in October and November, and the board had an opportunity to ask more detailed questions and make comments last week, at a regular meeting on November 10.

In responding to these recommendations, I have three main goals. First, to ensure that we have the right schools in the right places to provide the best possible education to the students in our district, given our resources. Second, to use our district resources in a way that provides the broadest possible benefits to students across the district and in all of our schools. Those goals mean to me that the district should expand capacity in elementary and middle school. Finally, it is critical that we have an open, transparent process in which the public has all the information and everyone has an equal ability to participate.

The 13th Elementary School. When I ran for the school board last year, I advocated for a 13th elementary school because many of our elementary schools are larger than they should be, based on research. Education research indicates that between 300 and 400 students, or no more than 3 K-5 "strands" is the right size. Smaller elementary schools foster connectedness, discourage bullying, and support academic achievement particularly for struggling students. Palo Alto has a history of smaller schools. Until 2008, elementary schools in Palo Alto were limited to 450 students by board policy. In 2008 the board made what I believe was a mistake and abandoned that policy, implicitly choosing to add more students to our existing schools.

In the 1970s, Palo Alto had 22 neighborhood elementary schools. Then enrollments fell, and those schools were closed and sold off and today we have only 12 schools. Of the shuttered schools, the district still owns only Greendell and Garland. Enrollment has risen by thousands of students over the last 20 years but we have only reopened one elementary school (Barron Park). Instead, the district has responded to increased enrollments by installing portable classrooms that take up needed playground space, and increasing class sizes to put more students into the same rooms.

Now, seven of our twelve elementary schools are beyond the 450 student limit that was board policy until 2008. Some of our schools cannot reasonably accommodate the students who live in the attendance boundaries, even with some parents choosing programs like Ohlone and language immersion. In particular, the southeast quadrant of the city does not have enough elementary school capacity to reasonably accommodate the children who live there. Palo Verde, where the imbalance is the worst, has 450 seats compared to 750 children in the attendance area, and has no room to place more portables to increase capacity.

Our schools will be further impacted by expected growth from planned new housing developments in the Stanford area. The University Terrace and El Camino apartments that Stanford is constructing in College Terrace will produce well over 100 students, and the district does not currently have room for those students at Escondido or Nixon Schools. Other new housing may be built at the current Fry’s location, 3159 El Camino, 195 Page Mill Road, and other locations.

The EMAC was not able to reach a consensus on the need for a new elementary school. One part of the committee wrote a report recommending placing portables at Nixon and creating a choice program at Barron Park Elementary in the hopes of attracting students and drawing attendance from overcrowded schools. I can’t support this recommendation because of the safety issues with bringing traffic into Barron Park, which has narrow streets, no sidewalks, and many children biking and walking to school. I also want to be sure that we support the Barron Park school community, including a new principal, in their efforts to best serve their students.

A second group of EMAC members (including Diane Reklis, a former school board member) have recommended reopening Garland as a K-8 language immersion school (housing both SI and MI and adding grades 6-8 to both programs) and working to open Greendell and 525 San Antonio as a pre-K through 5th grade neighborhood school. I think this proposal makes good sense. This proposal addresses the real enrollment issues faced by the district in a responsible manner by reopening the district’s two available properties.

Middle School. Our middle schools are at or above their capacity, as set by the district. Jordan and JLS have over 1,100 students each, and Terman is straining to handle its enrollment of 750 students. Practically, that means that teachers often don't have the use of the classrooms during their prep periods, which means that it is hard for students to meet with teachers and for teachers to get ready for their next classes. Even locker space is at a premium.

jls.jpgResearch shows that larger middle schools bring a host of problems: bullying, short lunch and recess periods, larger class sizes, academic struggles, and social-emotional disconnection.

The secondary subcommittee has proposed building a combined middle/high school at Cubberley. The proposal is for a choice school, perhaps focused on project-based learning, serving between 300-450 middle schoolers and between 400 and 600 high school students.

I agree with the committee’s judgement that middle school capacity is inadequate, but I believe we should plan for a middle school that is larger than 300-450 students, in order to effectively address overcrowding at the middle schools. Assuming that the choice program drew evenly from all three middle schools, with such a small number of students, Jordan and JLS will still be at the upper limit for acceptable middle school size by the EMAC’s calculations. Based on that, at the November 10 meeting I urged the committee to investigate the possibility of a moderately-sized (around 700 student) middle school at Cubberley, with enrollment open to neighborhood students. A larger middle school will also allow more room for growth.

High School. The secondary subcommittee's recommendation for a small (400-600 students) innovative choice high school at Cubberley is certainly intriguing. However, high school is the one place that the district does not lack capacity. In 2007 the school board decided to approve then-Superintendent Skelly's decision not to pursue a third, moderately-sized high school at Cubberley. A Blue-Ribbon Task Force was specifically told not to consider the third high school option and instead to expand Paly and Gunn. The board approved expansion plans, and the district issued a bond to fund that construction.

The district is now in the final stages of a $200 million project to expand the capacity of our existing high schools to 2,311 students at Paly and 2,225 at Gunn. Both Paly and Gunn have enrollments under 2,000 students now, leaving the district with space for another 500-600 high school students. I supported building a third high school in 2007, and would have preferred that outcome. But that is not what our Board decided to do at that time. Given these facts, it is hard for me to justify spending at least $70M more building a new high school, and $2M annually in operating costs when we have sufficient capacity and room to grow at our existing high schools, absent evidence to the contrary.

The subcommittee has also said that our high schools are not working as well as they should for many of our students, and that real innovation requires a smaller school with a more focused mission. The draft report states that “innovation is very difficult to achieve in our existing high schools.” The subcommittee does recommend a “house” system for creating smaller groupings in our middle and high schools.

I believe that we can and must innovate in our current schools in the service of improving the lives of our students at school. PAUSD has excellent teachers who have many innovative ideas and strategies. The problem is not a lack of innovation -- it is the lack of a mechanism for identifying successful innovations and ensuring that they are distributed throughout the district for the benefit of all students. We need to break down silos and ensure that all students receive the best that the district has to offer.

In fact, I do see many innovations -- both established and still in progress -- in our schools that, if nourished and propagated to more schools and more students, would go a long way towards providing positive benefits to all students. These include the teacher advisory program at Paly, Connections at JLS, the Social Justice Pathway and the Journalism program at Paly, the College Pathways program at Gunn, efforts to address test and project stacking at Gunn, and more. Unless there is evidence that our current high schools are exceeding their capacity, I would prefer to spend dollars fostering innovation and reducing class sizes for every student at our existing high schools.

Looking Forward

I encourage you, and everyone, to get involved in this process. The decision about whether to build new schools, where they should be built, and whether they should be choice or neighborhood schools is one of the most important facing the school board over the next few years. A wise decision will pay dividends for our students for decades to come. The more teachers, administrators, parents and community members are voicing their opinions the better the decision will be. The next occasion to participate will be one or two "town hall" meetings. I will provided updates with exact dates as they are available. I hope to see you there.

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Contact: [email protected] or 650-906-4340

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