Palo Alto students return to school

Principals celebrate new construction; official 2014-15 enrollment numbers to come in two weeks

About 8,600 Palo Alto K-8 students went back to school Tuesday, and school district officials said they expected most classrooms – particularly in the second and fifth grades -- to be full.

On Monday, Aug. 18, approximately 4,000 high school students returned for the 2014-15 academic year.

With headcounts steadily on the rise in recent years, district officials have discussed opening a 13th elementary school and a fourth middle school but so far have made no firm plans.

To at least partly address the rising enrollment numbers, a wave of construction and remodeling on Palo Alto's existing 17 campuses over the past four years has focused on adding desk capacity as well as on modernizing old buildings. The building boom is financed by a $378 million "Strong Schools" bond measure passed in 2008.

At Duveneck Elementary School Tuesday morning, Principal Chris Grierson welcomed more than 500 students to a refurbished campus, with a newly constructed two-story classroom building for fourth and fifth graders, a new two-room kindergarten wing and a new library carved out of space from three old classrooms.

In addition, a newly constructed, three-room first-grade wing at the school was occupied in February.

"It feels almost electric, like we have new energy here, and I'm so happy to be part of that with all of you," Grierson told students seated on the playground Tuesday morning as their parents and teachers stood surrounding them. Project architect Lisa Gelfand of San Francisco looked on.

"Last year, we had a lot of construction and people rushing around, but this year we're not going to have that noise, and we can spread out and enjoy all that new space we have," Grierson said.

"We've done a lot of work over the summer to have a new, beautiful, amazing school for us to enjoy."

Asking students to applaud custodians and construction crews, Grierson then called on first-grader Lillian Zhao, one of Duveneck's youngest students, and fifth-grader Austin Martinez, one of the oldest, to represent all students in a symbolic ribbon-cutting.

School district officials will take an official student headcount for the 2014-15 year after the first two weeks of classes. Last September, district-wide, enrollment came out at 12,483 – up 87 students from the year before.

Twice in the past two years, the Board of Education has set itself a deadline for choosing a location for a 13th elementary school. But both times members pulled back after enrollment -- while increasing -- was not growing as strongly as expected. For example, six Palo Alto elementary schools last fall saw their student bodies grow while six others saw declines, for a net district-wide gain of 17 students in grades K-5.

New families have been enrolling students throughout the summer, district officials said.

Second and fifth grades are likely to be especially tight, with "a handful" of classes exceeding the official staffing ratios of 23-to-1 for second grade and 24-to-1 for fifth grade, Cathy Mak, the district's chief business official, wrote in an Aug. 8 memo to the school board.

Instead, a few second and fifth grade classes may have one extra student.

Some kindergarten classes, on the other hand, may have fewer students than their official staffing ratios of 22-to-1 because of "the potential 'no shows' at the start of school," Mak said. "All other grade levels will have a few classes over their staffing ratios, either due to placement of siblings at the same school or space situations," she said.

"Secondary enrollment has also grown. We are confirming the numbers with schools and will report our first week enrollment numbers in a couple of weeks," Mak said, adding that "Terman (Middle School) is currently closed with eight students overflowed to JLS."

At Palo Alto High School, office personnel said the school was preparing for about 2,000 students, up from 1,921 last fall.

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Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 19, 2014 at 2:58 pm

This is a great story, but with all those on-campus pictures of students, did their parents give the Weekly permission to use their students photos?

Like this comment
Posted by Briones mom
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 20, 2014 at 12:14 pm

I our Kindergarten class at Briones we have 24 students!! The article mentions the official staffing ratio in Kindergarten of maximum 22-to-1. How could this happen, I wonder?! 24 Kindergarteners in one class is way too much!!

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Verde Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 20, 2014 at 12:44 pm

@Briones mom

Would you rather they go back to "overflowing" kids to schools that have 21 per class so all the classes are at 22? I know a lot of parents did not like to drive their kids across town to a different elementary school, so I think the decision was made to allow classes to go to 24 in order to keep kids in their neighborhood school. I don't think they can split into two classes of 12.

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