School district opens doors on new year

New principals, ongoing construction and enrollment growth face Palo Alto students

Palo Alto's 17 public school campuses opened Tuesday with new principals at five campuses and what appears to be a bumper crop of young students.

A new classroom was added at Fairmeadow Elementary School after registration data suggested the school will grow by 10 percent this fall, with 50 more students than last year.

"Of all the elementary schools, that's the one that looks like it's experienced the most growth," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said.

Enrollment numbers don't become official until September, as officials wait for the inevitable shakeout in the first weeks.

There are always students who don't show up after their parents moved the family out of town or switched to private schools, Skelly said.

The shuffling and uncertainty is tough on new and late-arriving families, some of whom still aren't sure where their kids will end up.

"There's always this frantic time where families who are registering now don't know whether there's going to be room (in their neighborhood school), and that's really hard," Skelly said.

"It's a very stressful time for these families. Some are still waiting, or we've placed them somewhere but it's not where they want to be.

"There's a possibility that in the first couple of days someone doesn't show up and a slot opens up. ... You call them a week into the school year and say, 'Hey, we have a spot,' and they've already made friends in the other school."

Palo Alto schools have experienced enrollment growth in recent years, particularly in the early grades.

The district is in the midst of a construction boom to accommodate the growth and "expand, upgrade and improve" campuses to extend their useful lives, using funds from a $378 million facilities bond approved by voters in 2008.

Gunn and Palo Alto high schools are being prepared for capacities of 2,350 each (last year's enrollment was 1,879 at Gunn and 1,860 at Paly).

JLS and Jordan middle schools are adding space to accommodate 1,100 students each (last year's headcount at JLS was 1,007 and at Jordan 983). Terman is slated to remain stable at 675.

At the fast-growing elementary level, up to 40 classrooms are being added citywide, including eventual reclamation of the old Garland School, to make room for a possible 900 additional students in the next five years.

And district officials recently said that if present trends continue, they will need the old Cubberley High School site -- currently leased by the city and used as a community center -- for use as a fourth middle school as early as 2015 and possibly for a third high school around 2021.

High school students encountered construction zones this week as Paly breaks ground to add a new, two-story classroom building and a new media arts center and Gunn adds two new classroom buildings and a new gym.

At Ohlone Elementary School, a new, two-story building with 12 classrooms -- under construction since last fall -- will be ready for occupancy by winter break.

Groundbreakings are also likely in the coming year for construction or improvements at Fairmeadow as well as Jordan, Jane Lathrop Stanford and Terman middle schools.

New faces will occupy the principals' offices on five of the 17 campuses.

Jordan's new principal, Greg Barnes, joins the Palo Alto district from Bowditch Middle School in Foster City, where he had been vice principal since 2009. Prior to that Barnes worked for a decade at Burlingame Intermediate School, seven years as a life-sciences teacher and three years as vice principal.

Other new principals have held previous positions in Palo Alto.

Gary Prehn, at Fairmeadow, has been principal at Escondido Elementary School for the past 15 years.

Escondido's new principal, Danae Reynolds, has been in Palo Alto for 11 years as a reading specialist, coach for new teachers and, since 2009, the district's coordinator for academic success, with responsibility for the English Language Development Program and the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program.

Barron Park Elementary School's new principal, Magdalena Fittoria, joined the district in 1996 as a teacher in the Spanish Immersion Program. Since 2007 she has been an elementary math resource teacher for the district and briefly served as acting principal at Barron Park in 2010 when the principal was on medical leave.

Duveneck Elementary School's new principal, Christopher Grierson, came to Palo Alto in 2002 as a teacher at Walter Hays Elementary School, where he taught for six years. After a year as a sixth-grade core teacher at Jordan, Grierson became assistant principal at JLS. He has also worked as a summer school principal and technology lead for the school district.

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Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 26, 2011 at 10:04 am

No surprise that Fairmeadow is expecting 50 new students or 10% increase. They are getting the students from the new housing, especially since Palo Verde can't grow and is already bursting at the seams.

New housing = more students in our schools.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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