As south Palo Alto schools swell with new students, it is time for the school district to consider redrawing school-attendance boundaries, Assistant Superintendent Scott Laurence told the school board Tuesday.
The discussions should start next fall, he said in an informational presentation requiring no board vote.
The boundaries are meant to direct students to neighborhood schools but must be disregarded when there are more students than classroom spaces.
Construction of new housing in south Palo Alto has made the situation acute, Laurence said.
Housing growth means Gunn High School has about 200 students more than the northern Palo Alto High School. Gunn later this spring will shut its doors to students enrolling for next year, he said.
Currently at 1,857 students to Paly's 1668, Gunn can't accept more than 1,920 students next year and its enrollment is 1,900 now, he said.
Extra students will go to Paly, he said.
Terman Middle School will also have to split students between Jordan and JLS middle schools next year because it is packed to capacity already, at 704 students, he said.
Nor is northern Palo Alto immune to having too many students for school boundaries, Superintendent Kevin Skelly said
Elementary schools there routinely send students farther afield as they run out of room, he said.
The boundary discussion could include all grade levels, Laurence said.
Board members agreed on the need to redraw boundaries and brought up concerns about school size and equity.
"Good for you for saying 'boundaries.' It's a tough word to say," board Vice President Barb Mitchell said to Laurence.
As boundaries get a closer look, so should the district's school-size policy, she said.
The district's habit of setting limits then exceeding them means there is no reliable policy to act as a "compass" for the redrawing of boundaries, she said.
The district should ask its long-time demographic firm Lapkoff and Gobalet to draw up school-by-school projections based on neighborhood growth, she said.
This year, 235 more students came to Palo Alto and the district should expect 420 more next fall, according to Lapkoff and Gobalet's medium-growth projections, but those numbers are not broken up by neighborhood.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell asked Laurence how size difference between the two high schools could cause disparity in academics or extracurricular programs.
While larger schools mean more candidates to fill Advanced Placement courses, the current 200-student gap means only three or four courses difference, Laurence said. The gap makes a minimal impact on activities such as sports and theater, he said.
Mitchell and Baten Caswell also said the site of the former Garland Elementary School, to be reclaimed from the private Stratford School this fall, should figure into boundary discussions.
Mitchell suggested dedicating "Gardland" classes at other schools before Garland is operated by the district again in 2010. Blocks of students could then be moved to Garland together with classmates, making overcrowding not quite as disruptive, she said.
Limits to school size are tied to classroom limits.
At the high-school level, Gunn is limited by the number of science classrooms it has, Laurence said. Additional students could learn English or social studies in portable classrooms, but science requires laboratories, he said.
With the right facilities, high schools could grow to 2,300 students and still offer a good experience, a task force on high-school size (for which Laurence acted as liaison to the board) announced last fall.
Middle schools are limited by space. Terman is smaller than Jordan and JLS.
And at the elementary level the district participates in a class-size-reduction program that receives state funding and is tied to a promise of an earlier parcel tax to keep classes small. Classes in kindergarten through third grades must average 20.4 students per year and in fourth and fifth grades must average 24.
The district will get as close as possible to meeting those maximums next year as a way to avoid hiring more teachers during a statewide education-budget crunch, Chief Business Official Cathy Mak said at the last school board meeting.
Instead of 21 teachers earlier planned for, it will hire eight, she said.
In his presentation on enrollment, Laurence said more students mean some parents may wait until late summer to hear which teacher their child will get.
There are currently 60 more kindergarten students signed up than the district has space for, he said.
The numbers will likely change as some drop out – a common occurrence in kindergarten -- yet that means families might not know their child's classroom before Labor Day, he said.
Laurence also gave an update on school lotteries held in February.
The Mandarin-immersion program to open at Ohlone Elementary School accepted 25 of 98 English-seeking applicants and 13 of 42 Mandarin-speaking applicants.
Ohlone Elementary School accepted 17 of 139 applicants and admitted 39 siblings, who are guaranteed spots.
The Spanish-immersion program at Escondido Elementary School accepted 11 of 15 Spanish-speaking applicants and 19 of 136 English-speaking applicants. It accepted two new students and 21 siblings for those groups respectively.
Hoover Elementary School accepted 29 of 72 applicants and 25 siblings.
The Young Fives program accepted 35 of 72 applicants and no siblings.
Each program also accepted between two and six voluntary-transfer students.
But these numbers mask an even greater acceptance rate, Skelly said, noting that they don't count students taken off waitlists when others decide not to attend.
In other busines, the board:
* Voted unanimously to approve the second interim report on next fiscal year's budget, which has a deficit of $3 million, up from $2.7 million at last week's discussion.
The change comes from increased unemployment insurance rates that will cost $245,000 and increased utility rates that will cost $60,000, Chief Business Official Cathy Mak said.
* Heard an informational update from Palo Alto Community Child Care, which offers after-school activities at all elementary schools but Nixon. The group's main goals in the next three years are to amp up recruiting, find funds to subsidize child care costs for less wealthy families and increase parent awareness of the group's offerings, according to Executive Director Janice Shaul.