by Arden Pennell
The search for a solution to Palo Alto's ever-increasing high-school enrollment narrowed Tuesday, shifting away from talk of opening a third high school in favor of focusing on new "alternative" programs.
Assistant Superintendent Scott Laurence — the liaison between the district's High School Task Force and the Board of Education — said Tuesday night that task force members don't feel qualified to look at whether the district should re-open a third high school — a core reason the group was formed.
Instead, group members feel they are more qualified to look at school curriculum,
He said the task force is particularly interested in looking at the needs of the 20 to 30 percent of high-school students who aren't well served in a regular-school setting.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he is satisfied with the change in emphasis. He said discussion of a third high school may not be necessary for five to seven years.
The abrupt-seeming shift in direction occurred gradually over the summer, Laurence said, as task-force members grappled with their task.
"A third high school means talking about leases, property deals with Foothills or De Anza colleges, and all of a sudden you had a bunch of educators looking at a number of factors that were out of our area of expertise," Laurence explained.
He said a narrower focus would allow the task force to make better recommendations about dealing with the district's ever-increasing enrollment.
The task force was formed last spring to look at choices for confronting growing high-school enrollment, which could climb as high as 4,900 students by 2018, up from the present 3,600, according to Laurence.
Alternatives the group was charged with examining included opening a third school, forming smaller, more specialized schools, or expanding programming at the existing Palo Alto and Gunn high schools.
But summer meetings showed "the scope didn't match the personnel we'd put together," Laurence said. The task force's membership includes Gunn Principal Noreen Likins and Palo Alto High School Principal Jackie McEvoy, as well as teachers from both schools, Elaine Ray of the Parent Network for Students of Color, and others.
The group's new focus emphasizes developing alternative education programs for those not served by the existing high school program, Laurence said.
Board members said they supported the committee's narrower scope as long as the third-school possibility remained on the table.
"I just want to be sure this doesn't preclude looking at a third site in the future, maybe at Cubberley," Board member Gail Price said, a view echoed by fellow board member Barb Mitchell.
Skelly, who has said at other meetings that he does not believe larger schools mean lesser educational quality, attempted to nudge — or push — board members toward consensus that exploring curriculum improvement is more important than exploring a third school.
"We want to be clear that two high schools with alternative programs for kids is a better option," he told the board.
"Examining or building a third high school would diminish our ability to serve our kids," he warned. Resources for programs such as comprehensive foreign language would be spread too thin, he said.
He said consideration of a third high school may not be necessary for five to seven years.
The task forces' desired focus on alternative education also left some board members wondering what "alternative education" means.
"Let's call it additional, rather than alternative," Board President Camille Townsend suggested. "This is a case where enrollment growth leads to better educational opportunities for students."
She also said new programs should be defined based on need, not on pre-conceived ideas of problematic students, Laurence agreed.
The same program could serve everyone "from our high-performance students feeling stressed to students who are reading below grade-level," he said.
Despite the shift in focus, Laurence vowed the task force would remain true to its goal to provide a plan that responds to rising enrollment. Some measurements were already available, he said.
"If you tell me how many students you have, I could tell you how many classrooms you need, but I couldn't tell you how much it would cost to build those rooms," Laurence said.
Facilities and financial staff will advise the task force about the practicality of implementing their recommendations, Laurence said.
The task force will meet weekly to discuss "massive amounts of research" about alternative education, culled from around the country. Surveys also will be mailed to students' homes, Laurence said.
In other business:
* The board discussed the results of this year's standardized tests, which showed the district achieved not only its usual high scores but also showed improvement in lower score levels.
The district scored a stellar 912 out of 1,000 on the state's Academic Performance Index, while the percentage of students reading at merely basic or below basic levels dropped from 21 to 17 percent, Assessment Director William Garrison said.
But he cautioned against overconfidence. Although the district's 84 percent proficiency level is far above the 23 percent required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, said the act also requires minimum proficiency in subgroups, and its quotas climb by 11 percent each year. If the district cannot improve numbers for socio-economically disadvantaged students it will fall below federal requirements by 2009, he said.
* Skelly presented a timeline for a possible bond measure to raise money for facilities. His schedule emphasizes the need for public input, scheduling surveys in the fall before drafting and in winter post-drafting the measure. The deadline for finalizing a measure for the June ballot is February, Skelly said. He reiterated his goals of improved communication and drafting the district's new facilities master plan and strategic plan.
* Officials explored what to do with some extra income this year. The district has about $2.6 million more than expected, due to increased parcel and property tax revenues, Chief business Officers Cathy Mak and Bob Golton reported. Possible spending ideas include putting some money into an irrevocable early retirement fund for teachers or raising teacher salaries now, they said.
* The board voted unanimously to approve a lengthy set of protocols for behavior for the superintendent and board — discussed at the school year's first meeting on Aug. 28.
In its next meeting, on Sept. 25, the board will look at early figures on this year's attendance and staffing, and discuss budget spending.