School enrollment rides the roller coaster
With bumper crops of kindergartners, school district chugs uphill
With Palo Alto elementary classrooms filled to overflowing this fall, old timers wince at the memory of having closed 11 of the city's 22 elementary schools a quarter century ago.
Back in the 1980s, campus after campus was shuttered as enrollment fell and post-Proposition 13 school budgets had planners terrified of going broke.
One fateful night in February 1987, the Board of Education voted to convert Gunn into the district's sole middle school — with a plan to leave Paly as the community's single high school.
Oh baby, how times have changed.
After what seemed like an enrollment free fall when Baby Boomers graduated, Palo Alto classrooms are crowded again.
This year, at 12,024, enrollment is aiming toward the district's all-time high of 15,575 at the crest of the Baby Boom — and shows no sign of slowing down.
"One of our biggest challenges we have is providing enough capacity for all of our students," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said.
"We keep riding this (enrollment) roller coaster and it's going up. We're chugging up this hill and the hill seems to be getting steeper, not less steep."
Palo Alto voters historically have offered enthusiastic support to their high-performing, nationally ranked public schools. Two years ago, residents overwhelmingly backed a $378 million facilities bond to add classrooms and other spaces to the district's 17 campuses and modernize them for the coming decades.
Many of those millions have been committed. Students at Gunn, Paly and Ohlone are co-existing with major construction on their campuses this fall. Renovations at the three middle schools and other elementary campuses are in the planning stages.
But the full allocation of bond funds is not yet decided, and plans are subject to change. Even as existing campuses are built out, planners are scouting elsewhere for more classroom space.
Of the 344 additional K-12 students this fall, more than two-thirds come at the elementary level — shattering upper-end growth projections for that group.
That bumper crop is bound to keep cohorts large as they work their way through the system.
School trend-watchers recently have noticed a new phenomenon that could add to those already high numbers — an increasing rate of families moving into town who already have school-age children.
And once-reliable patterns of the past — such as enrollment dips during economic recessions — have not held true lately, suggesting possibly steeper growth ahead.
For example, Palo Alto housing turnover in 2008 and 2009 fell substantially short of the typical 500 to 600 transactions per year, but enrollment growth proceeded apace.
Another simple harbinger — kindergarten headcount — was 457 in 1981-1982; 744 in 1996-1997; and 905 this fall.
Unlike the last enrollment boom era of the late 1960s, the Palo Alto Unified School District this time has less real estate to accommodate the growth.
Storied old elementary schools, with names like Van Auken, Ortega, Ross Road and Crescent Park, are long shuttered and demolished and, in many cases, paved over with housing.
The aging Cubberley campus, which served as a comprehensive high school from 1956 until closing in 1979, operates as a community center under a lease agreement with the City of Palo Alto.
To meet the fastest-growing demand for space in the younger grades, the school district is erecting or planning to build once unheard of two-story classroom buildings at Ohlone, Fairmeadow and JLS.
Gunn and Paly campuses are being renovated to accommodate up to 2,300 students apiece.
Demographic projections are, at best, an imprecise art and science.
As they closed schools in the 1970s and 1980s, community leaders were analyzing real estate turnover and local birth records, among other data.
One of their dominant conclusions — that Palo Alto's steep housing prices posed an insurmountable barrier for any significant number of couples with young children to settle here — turned out to be just about 100 percent wrong.
That assumption failed to anticipate a technology boom that would mint 25-year-old millionaires and continue to push prices upward.
The ill-fated vote to close Gunn as a high school sparked a November 1987 school board election remembered as one of the most fiercely fought in city history.
The advocates of keeping Gunn as it was won big — and turned the conventional wisdom of the city's power structure on its head.
On the very night they took office the newly elected insurgents, Stanford University Professor Henry Levin and parent volunteer Diane Reklis, pushed through a reversal of the Gunn decision.
Within three years, enrollment began the steady increase that continues today — though not as steeply as in the Baby Boom era.
As the enrollment roller coaster clatters upward, leaders year by year must make incremental calls about where to put new classrooms.
A case in point — a recent mini-drama over whether to re-open Garland Elementary School, at 870 N. California Ave. — illustrates how agonizing those choices can be.
In 2008 and 2009, architects hired by the school district worked up a blueprint for a $15.5 million renovation of Garland, with a plan to re-open it as the district's 13th elementary school in 2012.
But in August 2009 — barely six weeks after giving the thumbs up to the architect's "schematic designs" — the school board got cold feet.
Members were staring down projected multi-year, multi-million dollar "structural deficits," a scary state budget outlook, and anecdotal evidence that Palo Alto enrollment was in a recession-induced stall.
In a rare split vote on the consensus-minded board, four of the five members opted for the fiscally conservative decision to scratch the Garland re-opening and extend a $750,000 lease with the private Stratford School, committing the district at least through 2013.
The lone dissenter, then-board president Barb Mitchell, vowed she would "shave (her) head" if the district managed to comfortably accommodate the growth she foresaw in the next three years without re-opening Garland.
To date, Mitchell still has her full head of hair — but she is nervous.
"The bottom line is to look at all the indicators we can — even though none of them provide certainty — and make decisions incrementally, based on the most current information. And hopefully stay one step ahead of the children coming in," Mitchell said.
Having enough classroom space is one thing. Having the space in the right part of town — where the growth is — is something else entirely.
In days gone by, families generally could count on sending their kids to the nearest elementary school.
But with elementary schools increasingly maxing out and "overflowing" their neighborhood kids to other campuses, that's no longer much of guarantee.
A new family in town may find the neighborhood school has room for their third-grader, but not for their fourth-grader or their kindergartner — but that a campus across the city can accommodate all three.
Those "overflow" conditions have ripple effects on family logistics, neighborhood health and citywide traffic that are worrisome to Mitchell and others.
"Schools are important for the neighborhood character we all value — getting to know your neighbors, playing with your neighbors, walking to school with your neighbors," Mitchell said.
It is tricky, she said, to "plan classrooms without spending money in the wrong places, or locking ourselves in, should trends change."
Notwithstanding the sell-off of school property in the 1970s and 1980s, the district retains two elementary sites, Garland, and Fremont Hills at 26800 Fremont Road in Los Altos Hills (currently leased to Pinewood School), which in time could be taken back.
A third elementary campus — Greendell, at 4120 Middlefield Road — is occupied by the district-run preschool programs Pre-School Family, Young Fives and Springboard to Kindergarten.
In addition, the school district retains a right of first refusal on a fourth elementary campus, the now city-owned Ventura site at 3990 Ventura Court. It currently serves as a community center.
"In an ideal planning scenario we want to build classrooms where the kids live so they're not commuting all across town," Mitchell said.
In theory, Cubberley remains available as a third high school, and Garland and Fremont Hills as additional elementary campuses. But there is no such space on tap for another middle school.
"At the middle school level, we're heading up to 1,000 kids at Jordan and JLS — and that's about the number we hit when we decided we needed a third middle school," Mitchell said.
"The third middle school (Terman, re-opened in 2001) has gobbled up all the growth since then and we're back to where we were. We've got the same dynamic, a higher growth projection and a huge challenge of considering alternatives there.
"Where would we put a fourth middle school, and what would the trade-offs be? It's the identical dilemma we have at the high school level, except we have Cubberley."
Until recently, the school board's Policy on School Size and Enrollment dictated that the "desired range" for elementary school headcount is 340 to 450 students; for middle schools, 600 to 950 students and for high schools, 1,200 to 1,950 students.
Two years ago, as some campuses began to exceed those ranges, the board replaced the old policy with less specific language.
The new policy contains no numbers.
It "places a high priority on having students attend their neighborhood schools," while acknowledging practical difficulties in consistently achieving that goal.
It encourages principals to "develop methods to promote student connections within the larger school context."
Board members agree the district must stay nimble and be ready to handle the growth, wherever it occurs.
"Our biggest problem right now is elementary school space, and it's pretty hard to match where the growth is to where our space actually resides," Board Vice-President Melissa Baten Caswell said.
"We really need to figure out how to accommodate growth in the southeast area, where the new town homes are. If you look at the schools over there (Fairmeadow, Palo Verde, El Carmelo, they're all impacted (by overflow)."
Elementary enrollment growth in the past four or five years alone "could fill an elementary school," she noted.
"We grew 200-something kids this year at the elementary level. The elementary schools are usually under 500, so it doesn't take long to fill one, and that's our biggest issue.
"Of course, that's going to roll into middle school and high school in the long term."
As for Garland, Caswell said: "Would it give us more space? Yes. But it wouldn't give us more space where the kids are.
"We could redraw boundaries, but having kids cross Oregon Expressway is a tough decision. I'm not saying we wouldn't make it, but it's a tough decision to make."
With a nervous eye on the roller coaster — and the haunting memory of past land sales — the school district has been hanging tough with any extra space under its control, and reaching for more.
To date it has rebuffed bids from the Foothill-De Anza Community College District to purchase and redevelop 8 acres of the 35-acre Cubberley site into a state-of-the-art satellite campus to serve the Palo Alto community.
The district recently asserted an interest in acquiring a 3-acre parcel adjacent to the Greendell campus — currently under contract with a housing developer.
The parcel, at 525 San Antonio Road, has for decades been occupied by the Peninsula Day Care Center. The center's owner told families earlier this year he'll close the day care operation in June 2011 in order to retire.
Developer SummerHill Homes has unveiled preliminary plans to build 26 single-family, 3- and 4-bedroom homes on the property.
School Superintendent Skelly, without indicating specific plans, said the Peninsula Day Care parcel is of interest to the school district because of its size and location.
"We don't know what will happen with enrollment — all of us who have to plan for classroom space certainly wish we did," he said.
"If you look at the last 20 years, it seems that our enrollment is impervious to some factors. Whether the economy is good or bad, enrollment continues to increase.
"If you look at school districts across the country, there seems to be a growing premium on quality education.
"Families are more willing to make sacrifices in order to move their students to quality schools. We look at the future, and we believe our growth is going to continue."
School board member Mitchell notes that the "squeaky wheels" on the roller coaster aren't making any noise because they are families who haven't even moved to Palo Alto yet.
"It's up to the rest of us who care about how our schools have been — either for altruistic purposes, sentimental purposes, or property-value purposes — to figure this out," she said.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.