With top-performing students, two state athletic championships and money in the bank, the Palo Alto Unified School District has a lot to celebrate at the dawn of a new year.
But a persistent racial achievement gap, a scary state budget and a community still on edge about the mental health -- and stress load -- of its teens signal ample challenge ahead.
New on the horizon for 2011 is a district plan to convene parent and student focus groups -- with "randomly invited" members -- to gain a better sense of what's on peoples' mind.
Focus group results will be reported in June.
"There are lots of parents we don't really hear from," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said this week, adding that focus groups helped in his last job in Southern California to highlight "issues parents are aware of and how they feel about things."
With a bumper crop of elementary students and K-12 headcount this fall shooting past 12,000, the district is scrambling to add desks and playgrounds in the right parts of town.
The school board will ponder enrollment projections early in 2011, and members say they hope to forge consensus on an action plan.
"We look at the future, and we believe our growth is going to continue," Skelly said. "Families are more willing to make sacrifices in order to move their students to quality schools."
Though on a steady upward trajectory for 20 years, enrollment could be stalled -- temporarily -- by a new law, effective in 2012, which moves the kindergarten birthday cut-off date from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1 and will phase in over three years.
As many in town call for the opening of new schools, the district is in the midst of major renovations and expansions on its 17 existing campuses -- financed by a $378 million facilities bond backed by more than 77 percent of voters in 2008.
Palo Alto schools also got a huge vote of confidence in May 2010 when more than 79 percent of voters backed a $589 annual school parcel tax, expected to generate an annual $11.2 million, about 7 percent of the district's operating budget.
The approval percentage was the highest ever for a parcel tax in Palo Alto -- especially heartening to educators in a year when other districts were laying off teachers and cutting back calendars.
The election result was "really energizing -- a big 'yes' to our children and our community," Skelly said.
Yet he expects the budget outlook to turn ugly in January, when Jerry Brown begins his second round as governor and tackles the state's massive budget crisis.
"Governor Brown seems very keen on making some tough choices, and it's probably going to involve major cuts to education," Skelly said.
Watchful of the ongoing Sacramento crisis, Palo Alto has shaved spending by easing caps on class size and cutting principals' discretionary funds.
The maximum class size in K-3 this fall went to 22 children and to 24 for grades 4 and 5.
Teachers have not received raises beyond their seniority-based "step and column" increases since 2008-09, when they got a 2.5 percent raise plus a one-time payment of 2.5 percent of their previous year's salary.
In 2009 the district completely ended retiree health benefits for employees hired after June 1, 2009.
When it comes to student achievement, Palo Alto in 2010 again counted its schools among the highest-ranked in California, as measured by SAT scores and success on advanced-placement tests.
With 83 percent of the Class of 2010 taking the SAT, the average score was 635 in critical reading; 672 in math and 640 in writing -- far exceeding state averages of 501 in critical reading, 516 in math and 500 in writing. National average scores are almost identical to California's.
But the district reported a persistent racial achievement gap when it issued numbers in June to comply with state orders to address racial "disproportionality" in its special-education programs.
The district reported at 41 percent of Palo Alto's African-American students and nearly 25 percent of the district's Hispanic students are enrolled in special education, compared to a district-wide average of about 10 percent.
And though many Gunn and Paly grads get admitted to top universities across the country, Palo Alto lags wealthy communities such as San Marino and Piedmont -- as well as the competitive Lowell High School in San Francisco -- in the percentage of students graduating with a rigorous college-prep curriculum under their belts.
The percentage of Gunn graduates completing entry requirements for the University of California and California State University systems went from 79 percent in 2008 to 87 percent in 2009. Paly went from 70 percent in 2008 and 83 percent in 2009. The district has made it a priority to boost those numbers, particularly among minority students.
One of the most contentious school board issues of 2010, still not fully resolved, concerns whether to shift first-semester final exams from late January to before the December break.
Advocates of the shift view it as a way to reduce stress by giving students an assignment-free winter break, noting that nearly all other high schools in the area already have done so.
But a proposal for Palo Alto to change beginning in 2011-12 met with passionate resistance from some parents, resulting in a 2011-12 calendar that retains January finals. The school board will take up the 2012-13 calendar early in 2011.
"At some point we have to make a decision (about the calendar) and move on," Skelly said. "People care passionately about this, but it's not a good use of our time to continue staying until midnight at board meetings.
"Whether finals are before or after the holidays, kids around this country are managing just fine."
Student mental health and well-being remains a top district priority -- both for 2010 and 2011 -- as the community continues to respond to five devastating student suicides at the Caltrain tracks between May 2009 and January 2010.
A "safety net" of programs -- some pre-existing and many others new -- has been assembled under the banner of Project Safety Net, a broad community coalition focused on youth well-being. Activities range from crisis intervention, to education on how to spot at-risk teens, to promotion of "positive assets" in students as they grow.
In October, students took a "developmental assets survey," answering questions about their attitudes toward things such as family and school. Results, due in February, will score Palo Alto students as a whole on "thriving indicators," "risk behaviors," "assets" and "deficits."
"Our district's first 'focus goal' is student connectedness, and our work with Project Safety Net is going well," Skelly said.
"Our community really responded in terms of giving us permission to survey the kids, and we're looking forward to seeing those results."