The school district's new enrollment management committee took a deep data dive on Monday night in order to better guide its members toward the charge they have been given: Come up with a series of innovative recommendations for how to address growing enrollment in Palo Alto Unified.
The committee, made up of parents, community members and district staff, discussed at its meeting the potential effect of several strands of data and enrollment trends, from overflow percentages and kindergarten enrollment over the last 20 years to the number of students the district will absorb when families move into a new Stanford University housing development currently under construction on upper California Avenue.
The data is somewhat inconclusive, one committee member noted, both identifying clear problems to be solved but also indicating that in some areas, the enrollment picture is less urgent than has been perceived in the past.
While Palo Alto Unified's actual enrollment has grown by 20 percent since 2006, capacity has also grown by 25 percent, a subgroup of the committee that focused on elementary enrollment found. At the same time, average class size has steadily risen: from 20.7 to 23.5 since 2006. A total of 725 seats a number equal to the size of nearly two full elementary schools in Palo Alto, committee member Todd Collins noted have been added over the last decade.
Yet district capacity is higher today than at any time in the last decade, with 18 available elementary classrooms and 642 total available seats (also more than the size of one elementary school).
"That really colored my thinking about it because as you think about should we add more capacity there, do we need it there we have an entire elementary school's worth of capacity available," Collins said. "We ought to look to use what we have if we can before saying ... 'we should add more capacity just because we need it in a certain place.'"
Elementary school enrollment today is also higher than it has been historically, but is "still acceptable," the subcommittee said. Those with the most significant growth compared to their size in 2005 and 2010 are Escondido, Juana Briones, Fairmeadow and Ohlone elementary schools.
However, Palo Alto's elementary schools remain smaller than most of their counterparts in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Palo Alto Unified has only one elementary school with more than 600 students (Ohlone reached 610 students for the 2015-16 school year), compared to a 19 percent average in both Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, the subcommittee found, and its median elementary size (470) is below the counties' average (501).
The subcommittee also compared Palo Alto's elementary schools to those within Santa Clara and San Mateo counties that rank in the top 100 for Academic Performance Index (API) scores. Palo Alto enrollment still remains lower than the average of these top-ranked Bay Area schools.
The subcommittee found that K-5 overflow levels, though higher than in the last three years, are actually on the decline. The district overflowed 2.1 percent of students in 2015, compared to 2.4 percent the previous year and 2.6 percent in 2013. The district's highest overflow percentage (3.4 percent) was in 2008, according to the subcommittee.
Broken down by city clusters north, south and west the subcommittee said the overflow issue becomes heightened in the city's south cluster (which contains El Carmelo, Fairmeadow and Palo Verde), 68 percent of students are sent out of their cluster to attend school. Palo Verde alone overflowed 100 students out of its cluster, the subcommittee found. In the north and west clusters, only 28 percent of students are overflowed out of their cluster.
The committee also previously discussed a potential need for streamlining the overflow process. Members have said that many parents whose children are overflowed out of their cluster in elementary school are unaware and not told by the district that their child will return to their neighborhood school in middle school. The district also gives parents only 24 hours to decide where to go when a student has been overflowed. The committee plans to survey overflowed families in particular to explore such issues.
As the committee considers questions like whether or not to expand some of the district's choice programs or whether there is a demand in Palo Alto for new alternative, non-traditional programs or schools, the data offers one answer. Ohlone's English-only choice program, which emphasizes project-based learning, personalized instruction and collaboration, is the most consistently oversubscribed choice program, with 52 applicants not getting a space through the program's lottery system in 2015. In comparison, almost all applicants to Ohlone's Mandarin-immersion program and Escondido's Spanish-immersion program were accepted.
Collins noted that of those 52 "lottery losers," some were families who valued going to a local school close to their homes more than the choice program itself.
"They're people at Palo Verde and El Carmelo and Fairmeadow who are very scared about getting overflowed to Walter Hays or Barron Park or Nixon," Collins said. "Whatever they think about the Ohlone program, they know it's nearby."
Only offering the Ohlone-philosophy program at one campus also has "spillover effects that are unintended," he added.
The committee has felt some urgency due to impending enrollment growth anticipated from University Terrace, the new 180-unit Stanford development currently under construction. The district will have an estimated 110 children to place from families that move into that housing development a lower and more manageable number than the committee initially thought.
This is not the district's first attempt to address its enrollment. Several committees have been convened before (this is the third in the last two years) but they had a singular focus on opening a 13th elementary school and there was a lack of follow-up on their final reports or recommendations.
Superintendent Max McGee has said he hopes this group will take a more creative tack on the issue. He has also repeatedly stressed the importance of addressing Palo Alto's three growing middle schools, the enrollment for two of which this year topped 1,100 students.
Palo Alto's two high schools are slightly larger this year than last, with a total of 1,915 enrolled at Gunn High and 2,038 at Palo Alto High as of July 5. Last year, 1,874 students were enrolled at Gunn and 1,933 at Paly, according to 14th-day enrollment numbers compiled by the district.
The enrollment committee's meetings, which began in April, have ranged from discussions about how to take advantage of the district's new five-year lease of the Cubberley Community Center to conversations with Stanford University's Institute of Design, or d. school, on creating an innovative, alternative high school.
The committee's recommendations, due either as in interim or final form to the board in October, made it onto the school board's draft list of five focused goals for the 2015-16 school year.
"Based on the recommendations from the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee
(EMAC), design, develop and begin implementing a strategic enrollment management plan which includes expanding or enhancing choice programming, reorganizing schools and spaces within them aligned with community values (in BP 7110), and developing Cubberley and/or other district owned facilities in an innovative manner aligned with the district's vision and strategic plan goals," the draft goal reads.
Over the next few weeks, the committee will be fine-tuning a survey for parents and organizing focus groups. Their next meeting is Monday, Aug. 31, at 7 p.m. at district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave., Room A.