Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 8, 2011

On Deadline: Is Cubberley's future an insoluble dilemma or a community test?

by Jay Thorwaldson

I first got to know Cubberley High School when I learned how to touch type there one summer — when I was a freshman at Los Gatos High School with a summer job in Los Altos.

Cubberley then was a spanking new campus that shined with potential for educating future generations of Palo Alto students as well as teaching typing to out-of-towners. I'd tried to enroll in the Los Gatos High typing class but was informed by the dean of boys that "freshmen are not mature enough to take typing" — a statement I thought was pretty dumb. So I called the Palo Alto Adult School and asked if there was an age limit. No, I was told, anyone can enroll "no matter how old they are." What about "how young, like 17?" I asked. No problem.

By fall I could hit 60 words a minute, tested error-free. In the fall I went back to the dean armed with my test results and asked to be excused from the sophomore beginning-typing class. He informed me a bit crustily that it was a required class. Dumb on dumber, I thought.

So I spent a full semester blasting out "asdf jkl;"-type exercises and then sitting in class bored silly while others stumbled along. As I became editor of the student paper and went on into decades of journalism I always felt a loyalty to Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) and an affinity for Cubberley.

But times change, student populations fluctuate, buildings that were once shiny with potential have inevitable wear and tear — like us, actually — and get to a point where they need major maintenance, repair and perhaps rebuilding.

Cubberley ended its high-school phase in the 1979, when school enrollments were plummeting and the district had to cut back to two high schools, Gunn and Palo Alto.

Cubberley since has had multiple uses. Those include a "Middlefield Campus" of Foothill College, under lease from the school district and part of the area owned by the City of Palo Alto. The district owns 27 acres and the city 8 acres.

Some city offices and a variety of other "community" uses occupy much of the city's part of the campus not used by Foothill.

Among changes of time is that Palo Alto's student population has exploded in recent years, to the point that parents and others have raised the question of "re-opening Cubberley" as a third high school to alleviate crowding in the other two.

Details of the history, alternatives and possible futures can be seen in archives of Weekly stories and last week's editorial, "The Cubberley conundrum," on the Weekly's website, www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

The intensity of feeling about Cubberley is in full bloom in readers' comments, which follow the editorial.

It is important for advocates to understand the circumstances relating to how the community got into this dilemma. It has long been said that Palo Alto has its own "Law of Complexity" — that if it's possible for something to become more complicated in Palo Alto it WILL do so.

Thus it is with Cubberley.

First, one shouldn't underestimate the poor condition of the facilities. One community occupant cited several years of problems that included repeated cockroach invasions, leaking roofs, aggressive squirrels entering through unrepaired roof vents, broken bathrooms taking up to two weeks to get fixed, power outages of up to three days, old phone lines creating static and shorts in Internet connections, a heating system that is shut down during winter vacation periods, and chronic parking and traffic problems.

Second, there is a deep conviction among members of the Board of Education that the entire campus is needed for a potential third high school. That would mean rebuilding the campus sometime during the next decade or beyond — involving at least $50 million as a start plus annual staffing and operating costs.

Third, there is a strong interest by the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in buying the city's acreage for a new "Palo Alto Campus," with ultimate expansion of the approximately 4,000 students now, many from Palo Alto. The district has funding from a voter-approved bond measure to build a new campus. The district is gunshy about leasing but might consider a really long-term lease. Otherwise there are a couple of other sites in the wings, including Sunnyvale. Palo Alto is sending a letter of interest to Foothill.

There is the question of what to do about the current inhabitants of Cubberley. The artists and nonprofit organizations there have a huge base of supporters, vociferous in their advocacy of the low-rent tenants, correctly citing the good they bring to the community.

So the impending push and pull about the future of the aging campus has plenty of pushers and pullers, most defensively concerned and some really angry. At least one petition drive has already been launched.

So what next?

Given the multiple stakeholders involved and the fixed positions that have emerged in our vocal and involved community, it may be too late for the community to talk its way out of the Cubberley mess.

In a very real sense, this will be a major test of Palo Alto's collective ability to work through a perplexing problem.

Everyone could do better homework, including learning how to spell "Cubberley" (not "Cubberly"). They might explore the remarkable agreement the city reached with the school district over leasing Cubberley and other schools to provide millions of dollars of funds to keep school programs alive and well. Not all "surplus" schools were sold, as some believe.

Also, it has not been explained how the cash-strapped district would pay for a third high school, near- or long-term.

Nor has anyone looked at what a "new" high school might look like, given the vast technological changes since my 1957 summer typing class. Would we design a high school following a 1950s pattern? Would we ignore the electronic-communications revolution — in an era when classes with computer-based avatars are actually being held in some places and "Middle College" for many high school students is real?

Perhaps now is the time for a summit conference to explore what a "high school for the future" might look like, physically, technologically and educationally. This would be similar to a "design charrette," an intense session used in land-use or building planning.

Participants would include administrators and elected officials of PAUSD, Foothill-De Anza and Palo Alto, at least, with perhaps representation from existing tenants. It would be a real test of a community that some believe gets an A+ in defining problems but deserves an F on collaboration.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com. His blogs are available on www.PaloAltoOnline.com below the Town Square forum.

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