Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 21, 2007

Big high schools can feel personal, group says

Study group suggests longer days, online classes

by Arden Pennell

Even if they balloon in size to 25 percent larger, Palo Alto's high schools can offer students instruction with a personal feel, a district study group told the school board Tuesday night.

"What we believe is a core value is not the small size of the school, but the small, intimate learning experience for our students," Assistant Superintendent Scott Laurence told the board on Tuesday, speaking on behalf of the High School Task Force.

The task force — composed of one student, parents, school staff and district staff — was created by the board last year to study how to deal with growing high-school enrollment in the next five years.

In a series of fall meetings, the group worked around a demographic projection that the current 3,584 students could grow to 4,600 by 2013, according to Palo Alto High School parent and group member Suzanne Attenborough.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly eliminated a third comprehensive high school from the group's focus and members decided not to look at building a third specialty high school. As a result, findings presented on Tuesday focused on personalizing education while schools grow.

Building future facilities for flexible use is crucial, Gunn Principal Noreen Likins said.

A large room with moveable walls would provide enough space for students to work on individual projects or in small groups, she said. Or two classes could also combine, something no rooms at Gunn currently allow.

"I don't want a space that is divided into the same four walls we have now," she said.

Parent and student surveys led the group to conclude schools should offer students choices, Laurence said.

Adding extra periods before or after school allows pupils to choose when they learn best — and sleep more, he said.

Self-motivated students interested in very specific topics would be well-served by online courses, he said.

Flexible days and online classes are already used but could be expanded, he said.

Current alternative programs such as Middle College, which allows high-school students to take Foothill College classes, and Alta Vista — a smaller, more intimate Mountain View high school — should also be reviewed, he said.

Group members also pointed out that larger schools are not necessarily bad for students.

"My daughter feels like Gunn is getting too small for her. She's been there, done that. So I think it really does depend on the student," Gunn parent and group member Joan Jacobus said.

And bigger schools provide a larger pool from which to make friends, Gunn's Student Body President Max Keeler said.

After the group's presentation, Skelly asked for and received board consent to re-evaluate school-size policy, noting the district had a habit of setting limits, then exceeding them.

Both schools are approaching the current district limit of 1,950, with 1,871 students at Gunn and 1,686 students at Paly, according to 11th-day enrollment numbers.

The district will craft a new size policy for board approval by spring, Skelly said.

Yet board members struggled to make sense of the group's several-page-long recommendations, which Laurence summarized.

Board member Melissa Baten Caswell asked if any of the ideas were prioritized.

The suggestions were more like "a laundry list," Jacobus responded.

Under "facilities," the group listed parking and traffic mitigation last, but it was a top priority, she said.

The lengthy findings will help guide the upcoming strategic-planning process and the drafting of a bond measure slated for June, Laurence said.

And the analysis will help in the schools' upcoming accreditation process with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, according to Paly Principal Jacquie McEvoy, also a task force member.

The process requires focus groups of students, teachers and parents to evaluate schools and map out the next six years — drawing on precisely the kind of brainstorming the group completed, she said.

The group spent less than half of the $80,000 originally allocated to their task, Laurence said after the meeting.

The full list of High School Task Force findings is available online at http://pausd.org/community/board. Click on "Meetings and Materials" and select the Dec. 18 board packet.

Staff Writer Arden Pennell can be e-mailed at apennell@paweekly.com.

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