Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 25, 2010

Guest Opinion: The greatest opportunity of our time is lying at our feet

by Ray Bacchetti

Members of the Palo Alto Board of Education, the Foothill-De Anza Community College board, and the Palo Alto City Council, working together, have an opportunity that is increasingly rare these days: to lay the groundwork for a set of leading-edge educational possibilities for Palo Alto.

The Cubberley Community Center site, if master-planned with imagination and foresight, is large enough to house a distinctive educational and community resource. But it's a lot to ask of the two boards and the council to converge on options in a largely abstract conversation based on content-free what-ifs and seen only from the normal perspective of each body.

Under such circumstances, each of these governing bodies will be sorely tempted to stand back and play it safe.

But playing it safe isn't likely to serve these three populations well: (1) kids with all their kaleidoscopic potential; (2) adults working, building skills and/or raising families; and (3) "baby boomers" and seniors, many of whom are exploring new nonprofit options through which to return to the community some of the knowledge and judgment they have acquired over their careers.

The Cubberley site can do much for each, I am convinced from having once served on the boards of both the Palo Alto and the Foothill-De Anza districts.

Kids are a growing population, numerically as well as physically and intellectually. Three decades ago PAUSD's enrollment was at its ebb of 7,500 students, a number that has grown back to 11,600 now and is still climbing — at about 2 percent per year in recent years.

If such growth continues, projections show that our high schools, even after their bond-financed expansion, will be maxed out toward the end of this decade. If one assumes that the PAUSD will deal with expansion in the years to come as it has in the past — more schools very like our current ones — then we'll have shut a window of opportunity on our fingers.

Two and a half years ago, in 2007, the district's High School Task Force made four recommendations, three of which were about exploring new alternatives, such as creating "learning spaces that lend themselves to diverse curricula and instructional systems."

The district's response to growing enrollment could provide a chance here to look in new directions. It might envision a relationship with Foothill (and perhaps Stanford) that brings college courses into high school for everyone, not to a limited number of Middle College students; or a specialized learning center in, say, science and technology, the arts and humanities, or international studies, where students immerse themselves for a quarter or semester; or a place where courses from leading universities are delivered on demand in multi-media formats in a tutored setting.

Besides connecting to high school, Foothill could be a more significant player than it already is in the education of middle-aged and older adults. After leaving the Palo Alto school board in 1983, I served two terms on the Foothill-De Anza Board of Trustees.

There I had a window into the flexibility and potential of community colleges. Their multi-generational character has special appeal to Palo Alto.

As the 2006 "boomer population" study commissioned by the city's Community Services Department projected, our 55 and older population would grow from roughly 25,000 to 36,000 over the next 20 years. Among the surveyed priorities of a sample of that population, education and libraries were the top choices. A modernized Foothill satellite at the Cubberley site could respond splendidly in many ways to this important, seasoned part of our community.

Education has been my career. Toward the end of it, starting in 1993, I spent roughly 15 years in philanthropy and research in education that made me aware of how much change is on the ground and in the wind regarding teaching, learning and organizing schools and colleges.

We are crossing a threshold into a rich array of innovations in instructional technology, understanding cognitive development across the life span, entrepreneurial approaches to education, training and careers, and new profiles of how a young person's life will play out.

These all point to breaking out of the boxes in which we have packaged teaching, learning, educational structures and age expectations.

Doing so should be a deliberate, experimental and collaborative effort — an evolution, not a swerve.

For all these reasons, and others, we need to ask our governing bodies to spend time together exploring the possibilities of the Cubberley site. That conversation should not get sidetracked by the details — significant though they are — about current financial arrangements, the arguments for preserving everything now housed there, or the risks inherent in any visionary change. Dealing effectively with important details is best done in the service of a larger goal.

The three governing bodies share a common constituency — us. It's not as if each is responsive to some of us, or some part of each of us. They each color the community, that is, all of us.

Accordingly, the Cubberley site should be treated as a once-in-a-generation chance to take a huge step in building our community's social and human capital. In turn, we owe our elected officials the support to think creatively and reason carefully about this complex and striking opportunity.

As a loyal Palo Altan and a life-long educator, when I imagine our community's future I keep coming back to the Cubberley site and what a rich array of possibilities lie prepotent on those acres.

I hope the members of our two boards and our council will roll up their sleeves, stretch their imaginations and not prematurely settle on a disposition of the site that may be politically safe but ultimately buries what might have been.

Ray Bacchetti has served on both the Palo Alto Board of Education and Foothill-De Anza Board of Trustees as part of a long career in education and education-related research. He can be e-mailed at raybac@earthlink.net.

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