As a committee continues its work to assess and creatively address the Palo Alto school district's enrollment challenges, this year's enrollment numbers have been released, showing a decline at the elementary level and growth at the secondary level.
Total enrollment for the 2015-16 year now sits at 5,514 171 fewer students than last year, according to a staff report to be presented to the school board on Tuesday night.
There has been an overall decline in students across Palo Alto's elementary sites, with the largest decreases at Barron Park, Walter Hays, Fairmeadow and Escondido elementary schools. The average class size for K-5 is down slightly from last year (22.3 to 21.8).
Kindergarten enrollment is also down, which staff wrote is a result of the first few years of the state's new kindergarten-age law. Total kindergarten through fifth-grade growth is projected to be stable over the next five years, according to the staff report.
The phenomenon of overflows in Palo Alto students who have to attend other schools within their cluster because of a lack of space at their neighborhood school has been a topic of much discussion in the enrollment management committee, which began its work last spring and is expected to make recommendations to the board in December.
Only 1.2 percent of elementary students were overflowed this school year down from 2.4 percent in 2014-15 and 2.6 percent in 2013-14, according to staff. Out of the 64 students who were overflowed, slightly more than half were overflowed within their cluster.
The highest concentration of overflows were in second and fourth grade, and students who attend school in the city's southern cluster were more likely to be placed outside of their cluster, staff wrote.
The enrollment committee on Monday night discussed what member Todd Collins described as "chronic overflow" at Escondido, Palo Verde and El Carmelo in particular. These schools represent more than 50 percent of all overflow, and it's a problem that is "not going away," Collins said.
Palo Alto's three middle schools grew slightly this year by 61 students total, and are currently at or very near capacity, staff wrote. Jordan this year has enrolled the most students 1,130 compared to 1,112 at JLS and 749 at Terman. Class sizes have also increased at all three middle schools. Additional growth this year and next has been accommodated with relocatable classrooms, according to staff.
Staff expects growth at the middle schools to continue for one more year as the current fifth-grade class, which is larger than usual, flows into the middle schools, and then to taper off.
High school enrollment is also slightly up, by 66 students below the district's projection of 110 students. Palo Alto High is slightly larger than Gunn this year with 1,979 students compared to Gunn's 1,886.
The high schools are expected to have the most growth during the next five years, but are not at capacity and "can accommodate the projected growth," the staff report reads.
However, according to the enrollment management committee, Palo Alto's high schools are about 11 percent larger on average than comparable Bay Area high schools. ("Comparable" is defined as schools with similar socioeconomic demographics and/or similar academic reputations.)
During focus group interviews the committee conducted with students, parents, staff and administrators at the secondary level, members heard four common themes. One was the importance of social-emotional connectedness, particularly through teacher-student interaction. Another was that different students have different learning needs, and students who are not self-starters or who don't fall into the track toward a four-year college can get lost, particularly in high school
"In this big school, you basically have to be an advocate for yourself," one student said in a focus group.
The focus groups also reported a desire to produce better-prepared students and an existing culture within the district that makes it difficult to respond innovatively to new demands, like enrollment growth.
The enrollment committee is still far from issuing its final recommendations, but its members have discussed ideas including opening a new secondary school (which could either be a comprehensive, traditional school or an innovative or choice school), creating new choice programs and/or expanding existing ones that are oversubscribed and developing more "school within a school" programs like the Social Justice Pathway at Paly.
Another issue coming down the pipeline that will affect Palo Alto Unified's enrollment though not as significantly as the committee originally thought is new Stanford University housing currently under construction on upper California Avenue that is expected to bring in about 110 new students.
The enrollment committee will be discussing its elementary-specific research, survey results and proposals at a public board study session on Monday, Oct. 5, 6-9 p.m., at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. The committee hopes to schedule another board study session this fall to discuss secondary issues separately.
In other business this Tuesday, the school board will hear a report on the district's first-ever Smarter Balanced test results, which were released earlier this month.
A staff report notes that most students are "doing very well at every grade level," yet participation rates for the new assessment were low. Black and Latino students, students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students also did not meet standards, compared to white and Asian students in both English language arts and mathematics, at significantly higher percentages.
The board will also vote on its 2015-16 goals, which are to address personalized learning, consistency, data-driven instruction, closing the achievement gap, enrollment management and "safe and welcoming schools."
Other agenda items include a discussion of the reporting structure for new general counsel, proposed changes to procedures for the board's policy review committee and approval of the 2015-16 budget.
The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the full agenda here.