Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 24, 2010

New housing sparks enrollment bump, officials speculate

School, city leaders share data on likely impact of future housing

by Chris Kenrick

A bumper crop of kindergartners this fall has the Palo Alto school district scrambling to ensure there will be enough classrooms for even more growth in the future.

Officials speculate much of the enrollment jump is coming from new housing developments in the southern part of town, which have promoted "Palo Alto schools" as a key selling point.

Palo Verde and El Carmelo elementary schools are both completely full, and Fairmeadow Elementary soon will break ground on a new, two-story classroom building to accommodate the growth.

With the City Council about to complete its decennial long-range housing plan for the city that is required under state law, school and city officials are exchanging information on the best course of action.

Curtis Williams, the city's director of planning and community environment, said Wednesday at a meeting of the City-School Liaison Committee that officials are hoping to satisfy state mandates for new housing with smaller, senior-oriented units that would minimize impacts on school growth. Non-compliance with state housing requirements can result in loss of certain grants.

"We're going to see if we can balance or minimize the amount of family units created, which also tend to be the market-rate units, since we're trying to get affordable units as well," Williams told the city-school group, which includes council member Greg Schmid Schmid, City Council member Nancy Shepherd and school-board member Dana Tom.

"The short-term focus for the new housing element is to find some ways that focus more on smaller units and senior units and housing types less likely to produce school-age children."

Shepherd expressed concern about an additional 3,000 housing units she said Stanford University has yet to build.

"What do you expect of that in terms of school-district yield?" she asked city and school staff members.

Unofficial numbers have elementary enrollment growing by 218 students this fall, just above the high end of demographic projections. Unofficial numbers for middle school and high school came in at the low end, 36 and 17 respectively.

The official headcount is due to be released by the school district Oct. 12.

Tom noted that 73 of the 218 new elementary students are kindergartners, and "that bump will probably proceed through."

The school district has embarked on a $378 million facilities upgrade program, to modernize school buildings and accommodate expected enrollment growth.

Construction will include two-story classroom buildings not only at Fairmeadow but also at Ohlone Elementary School and at both Gunn and Palo Alto high schools.

Made possible by a facilities bond approved by 78 percent of district voters in 2008, the construction program will touch all of Palo Alto's 17 campuses.

The school board last year flirted with re-opening the Garland campus, at 870 N. California Ave., as the district's 13th elementary school but retreated from that plan amid budget concerns.

Currently, vacant elementary classrooms in the district are few and far between, with the most space available at Barron Park Elementary School, the district's co-chief business official, Bob Golton, said.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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