Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 11, 2011

Our growing school enrollment challenge

Decisive action needed to address growth in elementary school enrollment

The excellence of Palo Alto schools is known far and wide, and now school officials have to be wondering if the district's great reputation is driving an enrollment burst that has topped 12,000 this school year and shows no sign of letting up.

Just 18 months ago, the school board reversed itself and voted against moving forward with the renovation and re-opening of the leased Garland school site, located adjacent to Jordan Middle School.

That decision, after architectural plans were developed and neighborhood meetings held, has been clearly shown to have been a mistake.

At the time, trustees were scared off by enrollment data showing less growth in students than had been projected, and by the financial uncertainties brought about by the economy and the state budget mess.

But as the district has pursued a strategy of adding classrooms to existing elementary schools rather than re-opening additional schools, we are now faced with little flexibility as enrollment trends point sharply up.

We're disappointed the board didn't move decisively this week to give the required three-year notice to the Stratford School to vacate the Garland site. But no real harm will come from the board's delaying this and other decisions on school configuration options to June.

The most important outcome is the commitment to create up to 30 new elementary school classrooms in the next five years. It was a clear indication that the board and administration acknowledge that enrollment is driven less by new housing development than it is by turnover in homes and in rental housing stock.

In speaking about the district's growth last fall, Superintendent Kevin Skelly said, "We keep riding this (enrollment) roller coaster and it's going up. We're chugging up this hill and the hill seems to be getting steeper, not less steep."

At this week's meeting, Skelly said the district must be prepared for as many as 568 new K-5 students in the next five years, a number equal to the enrollment of a good-sized elementary school with 20 or more classrooms.

In 2008, voters passed a $378 million bond issue for new school construction, which included $98 million for elementary schools. The board plans to use the $65 million remaining to refurbish or build new classrooms, which could relieve some pressure. A portion of the funds are being used now to prepare 10 more classrooms that are either under construction or in the pipeline at Ohlone, Fairmeadow and Duveneck schools.

Much has been made of whether the expected enrollment growth will come from the north or south, and how to create new school capacity where the growth is likely to occur.

Right now, the best guess is that more classrooms are needed in south Palo Alto. But we're not convinced that trying to predict geographic growth patterns when city-wide projections have been so problematic makes too much sense.

Although significant numbers of housing units have been built between Oregon and San Antonio Road, plenty of new students are also moving into older north Palo Alto neighborhoods as longtime residents sell their homes to families with young children. Others will likely come from the new homes just completed along Stanford Avenue.

At Tuesday's meeting, Superintendent Kevin Skelly and school board members acknowledged that there is no certainty where population growth will occur. Prior to 2009, enrollment growth was fairly evenly distributed around the district, but recent data shows south Palo Alto has seen the biggest increases.

Fortunately, the district has options. In addition to the leased site at Garland that can be re-claimed and opened, the district could reopen elementary schools at the former Ventura or Greendell sites, or consider moving one of the "choice" schools (Ohlone and Hoover) to another site to balance the number of classrooms with where the greatest growth is occurring.

Back in the 1980s the district was reeling from the opposite of today's problem — declining enrollment. As former board member Carolyn Tucher, who served from 1981 to 1989, said recently, estimates of future growth made then "have already been proved very wrong."

When enrollment dropped drastically, she pointed out that decisions to close schools and sell land were made by the board based on demographic projections that were backed by "engaged parents," consultants and scholars at the University of California at Berkeley. In the short term, the estimates of falling enrollment through the 1980s were correct, but long-term projections were way off, Tucher said.

"Nobody foresaw the Silicon Valley phenomenon that totally changed our (school) population growth," Tucher said. "While projections are useful, the imponderables are so great."

That is why the board's upcoming decision — to decide when, where and how much new classroom space is needed — is so important.

We hope the board will set the district on a clear path to not only address the elementary school needs, but to plan for how this growing enrollment will be handled at the middle and high schools as well.

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