"Palo Alto has great schools. They can't really be compared to other schools around the area," Misael Morales Sanchez, an 18-year-old student at West Valley College told the City Council at an Oct. 2 meeting.
But it's far from clear how prominently the topic of school displacement will feature in the debate over the park's conversion into an upscale apartment complex. The city's ordinance states that displaced residents must be compensated for moving to a "comparable" mobile home park in "a community similar to that in which the park that is being closed is located and has similar access to community amenities such as shopping, medical services, recreational facilities and transportation."
For the Jisser family, who own the property, the exclusion of schools from the legal definition of amenities is significant. But even if it were listed, they argue, other schools in the region can be considered comparable.
"The applicant submits that while the quality of education at the Palo Alto schools is high, the quality of education at the surrounding communities such as Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Redwood City is also high and thus housing in these communities which is otherwise 'comparable' under the ordinance's definition meets the criteria of the ordinance," a new report from the Jissers states. "Thus the suggestion that the only comparable housing for residents with children attending public school is in Palo Alto, is neither supported by the requirements of the ordinance, nor by empirical data nor API scores."
Amado Padilla, a professor of education at Stanford University, rejects this assessment. Padilla, a former member of the Palo Alto school board who currently works with fellow Stanford Professor Don Barr and a group of students on research in Buena Vista, told the Weekly that the other communities cited in the report are significantly different from Palo Alto. Though many boast fine school systems, they have two significant disadvantages when compared to Palo Alto: less resources and less stability.
The Palo Alto district benefits from both the city's high property values and from generous donations. The fundraising group Partners in Education presented the district with a $4.9 million check in March.
"There's just a lot of resources going into the schools in Palo Alto that most of the surrounding school districts cannot match," Padilla told the Weekly.
The stability factor is also critical, Padilla said. In Palo Alto, a student stays within the same district from kindergarten through 12th grade. In each of the other cities the Relocation Impact Report cites, students go through different school districts before graduation: Mountain View has three districts; Sunnyvale and Cupertino elementary school students attend their own districts up until high school, when they are funneled to the joint Fremont Union High School District.
The transitions, Padilla said, make it harder for other school systems to track students and their particular needs as they progress from one grade to another. It also makes it harder for students to feel like they're part of a stable community as they get older.
"That stability is very, very important in a student's life and is probably more important for kids who come from the kinds of disadvantaged circumstances we see at Buena Vista," Padilla said. "For many of the kids who live in Buena Vista, this is the only community they've ever known. A number were born in Stanford Hospital. They identify with Barron Park Elementary School or Terman Middle School or Gunn High. This is their community."
Erica Escalante, a Gunn graduate who has been living at the park for 15 years, said residents are concerned about the adjustments they'd have to make if they move from Palo Alto.
"We know our schools are safe. We know we have good relationships with staff. Shifting all that — it's going to have an impact."