Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 22, 2014

Palo Alto students return to school

Principals celebrate new construction; official enrollment count to come in two weeks

by Chris Kenrick

On the first day of school at Duveneck Elementary Tuesday morning, first-grader Lillian Zhou and fifth-grader Austin Martinez represented all of the school's 500-plus students as they shared the scissors for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting for two new classroom buildings and a new library.

"It feels almost electric, like we have new energy here, and I'm so happy to be part of that with all of you," Principal Chris Grierson told students seated on the playground pavement as parents and teachers stood surrounding them. Architect Lisa Gelfand, who designed the refurbished Duveneck campus, also looked on.

As some 12,600 Palo Alto students this week returned to school for the 2014-15 academic year, newly arrived Superintendent Max McGee made the rounds of campuses on a bicycle, amiably chatting with students, teachers and parents. And district administrators counted students and desks.

With enrollment steadily on the rise in recent years, officials have discussed opening a 13th elementary school and a fourth middle school but so far have made no firm plans.

To at least partly address the rising head count, a wave of construction and remodeling on Palo Alto's existing 17 campuses over the past four years — such as that just completed at Duveneck — has focused on adding desk capacity as well as on modernizing old buildings. The building boom is financed by a $378 million "Strong Schools" bond measure passed in 2008.

An official tally of students will be taken after things settle down in the first week or two of school. Last September, district-wide, enrollment came out at 12,483 — up 87 students from the year before.

Twice in the past two years, the Board of Education has set itself a deadline for choosing a location for a 13th elementary school. But both times members pulled back after enrollment — while increasing — was not growing as strongly as expected. For example, six Palo Alto elementary schools last fall saw their student bodies grow while six others saw declines, for a net district-wide gain of 17 students in grades K-5.

New families have been enrolling students throughout the summer, district officials said.

Second and fifth grades are likely to be especially tight, with "a handful" of classes exceeding by one student the official staffing ratios of 23-to-1 for second grade and 24-to-1 for fifth grade, Cathy Mak, the district's chief business official, wrote in an Aug. 8 memo to the school board.

Some kindergarten classes, on the other hand, may have fewer students than their official staffing ratios of 22-to-1 because of "the potential 'no shows' at the start of school," Mak said.

"Secondary enrollment has also grown," Mak said, adding that "Terman (Middle School) is currently closed with eight students overflowed to JLS."

At Palo Alto High School, office personnel said the school was preparing for about 2,000 students, up from 1,921 last fall.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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