School enrollment, space to be discussed Tuesday
With booming elementary enrollment, Palo Alto school board ponders where to expand
With Palo Alto's elementary school classrooms bursting with children, school officials will meet Tuesday (March 8) to discuss how to handle what they expect to be continued strong growth in the younger grades.
Residents will have a chance to comment as school board members analyze demographic projections, identify available classroom space and consider sites for possible new building.
City officials said they would provide meeting attendees with a map identifying all Palo Alto property currently zoned for "public facilities."
The session will focus particularly on elementary space, where enrollment last fall exceeded "high end" projections. Middle-school and high-school enrollment came in between low- and medium-range predictions.
With the demands on elementary space, increasing numbers of children have been "overflowed" from their neighborhood schools, forcing parents to drive them to campuses farther afield.
Tuesday's gathering "will be a way for us to talk through how we want to handle the growth at the elementary school level going forward," Board Chairwoman Melissa Baten Caswell said.
"We need to talk through where the enrollment is and where we want classrooms as a result of that enrollment.
"We're not going to talk about boundary changes but about how to accommodate elementary school enrollment."
Regarding the old Garland Elementary School campus at 870 N. California Ave. — currently leased to the private Stratford School — Caswell said, "Do we want to talk about taking that facility back, or do additional classrooms need to be in another part of town?"
Board member Barb Mitchell noted that $50 million for elementary facilities remains from a $378 million, K-12 bond measure approved by voters in 2008.
"In short, we want to meet the changing needs of residents and neighborhoods in allocating the remaining $50 million in elementary facilities funds," she said.
Mitchell, who serves along with Barbara Klausner on the board's property committee, said Tuesday's meeting will "help us prepare a series of recommendations for subsequent public discussion and action, and we also would like to address attendance and questions and comments from community members."
Demographers for the district have said last fall's kindergarten and first-grade enrollment numbers were "surprisingly high," far exceeding previously reliable predictors such as data on local births and housing turnover.
"The predictive power (of local birth data) really broke down this year," demographer Shelly Lapkoff said.
An increasing number of students come from rental housing, Lapkoff said, explaining why enrollment continues to grow even with low home-sale rates over the past three years.
Another possible source of the added students, though harder to pin down, is that more families are living with grandparents, Lapkoff said.
New housing developments in Palo Alto also have contributed to enrollment growth. As of last fall, 606 Palo Alto students came from housing constructed in the past decade.
That will increase sharply when new housing still in the pipeline is completed, Lapkoff said, estimating that 1,051 students will be coming from new housing by 2014 and 1,452 by 2020.
One factor expected to slow enrollment growth — at least temporarily — is the "kindergarten readiness" legislation, to be phased in starting fall of 2012. The new law — requiring that children turn 5 by Sept. 1 rather than Dec. 2 of the year they start kindergarten — will reduce the size of incoming kindergarten classes for three years. The reductions will be felt as those smaller cohorts make their way through the system for the next 13 years.
Palo Alto's district-wide enrollment, at 12,024 last fall, has been on a steady upward trajectory since a post-Baby Boom low in 1989.
At its historic high in 1968 — when Palo Alto had three high schools and more than 20 elementary schools — enrollment reached 15,575. Currently, there are two high schools, three middle schools and 12 elementary campuses.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at email@example.com.