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December 16, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 16, 2005

More students or more schools? More students or more schools? (December 16, 2005)

School board unsure if statistics adequately reflect future enrollment

by Alexandria Rocha

Although the Palo Alto school district has seen an influx of families with young children the past three years, it's unlikely that growth will continue beyond the next year or two, according to an enrollment report released this week.

The news is a source of contention among district officials, who are struggling with a proposal to increase the population limits at all 17 schools. Do they pack more students into the current campuses, or look at options to open another facility?

The report, produced by Lapkoff and Gobalet Demographic Research, Inc., clearly states that with "careful planning and management of resources" the district should be able to operate without opening another school in the next five years. But board members are wary.

"I'm uncomfortable about modifying the (population) policy for elementary schools in terms of moving it up," Boardmember Gail Price said at the Tuesday night meeting. "What are the trade offs?"

This fall, the school district launched a year-long review of its attendance boundaries because of severely unbalanced school populations. The complex study will encompass various reports, including the new enrollment data, which a committee of parents, school staff and students will analyze beginning next year. The district first wants to see how many students can actually fit in each site.

Jerry Matranga, the district's business manager, visited each site, interviewed principals, measured square footage and decided each elementary and middle school can hold 50 more students and each high school 150 more teens. Board members, however, have not been so easily convinced.

"It's not a big change to add one classroom. But is it pushing the limits of what a single principal can effectively manage?" Board Member Dana Tom asked.

The enrollment report shed some light on how many students the district can expect in the next five years, but didn't help board members decide whether the schools can hold more kids or if they should plan for a new site.

In the next five years, the report's medium projection estimated an additional 680 students over the next five years, or 136 students a year. That's drastically different than the 1990s, when the district was growing by about 230 students a year. The last three years of volatile enrollment figures further concern some board members.

From 2002-2004, the district grew by about 400 students, but this year only 162 came in. Board members worry about another spike. Demographer Shelly Lapkoff, however, said it's highly unlikely.

"I think you could have another year of high progression, but I'm surprised it lasted this long. It's just not sustainable," she said.

Lapkoff said a large number of people from the dot-com bust sold their homes in the last few years and young families with children moved in, boosting the district's enrollment from '02-'04. But, that trend has slowed and she doesn't think it will gain any more momentum.

Even still, talk about opening another facility is circling among the board.

"We have at our disposal portions of Cubberley," Price said, regarding the Middlefield Road campus that the district rents to the City of Palo Alto. "The whole issue of opening a portion of Cubberley has cost implications, as well, but since we have that in our back pocket, that is an option for capacities."

Administrators also say another site isn't needed in the next few years. In his review of capacities, Matranga determined the schools can hold more students and recommended the board increase the enrollment caps set in 1999.

Matranga has expressed concerns over the cost of opening another site.

"We have a lot of capabilities in this school district to be creative in providing a quality education to our students with the facilities we have. It sounds like I'm biased, but..." he said.

Board members want more information from the schools' faculty about how larger schools would affect their instruction and the students' well-being.

"It does not mitigate against students' social, emotional comfort, as long as we're proactive," Ruth Malen, principal of Duveneck Elementary School, said. But, "My capacity to be an effective leader is diminished the more classrooms that are added to a site."

The Board of Education is set to discuss the issue of school size at its meeting Jan. 10. For more information, visit www.pausd.org.


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