The chair of a school district subcommittee on elementary enrollment urged the school board and community members at a board study session Monday night to consider changing the narrative around enrollment in Palo Alto from one of urgent, continuous growth to flat, and even declining, enrollment.
This is a marked shift for a community that for years has eyed the opening of a 13th elementary school as a necessary next step, albeit one that has never happened despite a previous district committee recommending it.
The opening of a new elementary school also emerged as a top topic during the 2014 school board campaign, with the board's two newest members, Ken Dauber and Terry Godfrey, expressing support for doing so.
"Our proposal is that we really need to change our narrative," Todd Collins, a district parent and member of the superintendent's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC), told the board Monday. "We're no longer the district that always grows. Continuous growth is not the mantra or the framework for thinking about enrollment in Palo Alto. It's really, at least for the time being, flat or declining growth."
In a 61-slide presentation, Collins presented the work that the EMAC's elementary subcommittee has completed during the past few months, including a look at the district's historical enrollment dips and rises, research on ideal school size, their own survey of district parents, the most pressing enrollment-related issues in the district and the top three factors that drive enrollment growth in Palo Alto (birth count, housing developments and the economy).
The overall enrollment management committee first convened in April with the charge to evaluate Palo Alto's enrollment and come up with creative recommendations for how to manage it, both in the short and long terms.
Part of its charge was to specifically work to depart from a historically limited scope that some board members and the superintendent have said prevented the district from taking action on the issue in the past.
Monday's study session was a preliminary update to the board and community on the elementary subcommittee's work and draft proposals. The proposals are not final and the board took no action on Monday night.
The elementary subcommittee has sought to answer many challenging questions, from "How many elementary students should the district expect in the coming years?" to "What is the ideal school size?" and "Do we need a new elementary school now?"
Preliminarily, the subcommittee with two members who disagree is not recommending that the district open a new elementary school. Collins pointed to the fact that K-5 enrollment in Palo Alto has been down for the past three years, primarily because of a new state law requiring that children entering kindergarten must be 5 years old by Sept. 1 instead of Dec. 2, meaning for the past three years, instead of enrolling 12 months of kindergarteners, the district enrolled 11 months. Kindergarten enrollment was lower this year than in every year since 2010, according to the subcommittee.
And though overall district growth has been consistent during the past 25 years the district has actually grown every year except one since 1989 Collins cautioned that there have been "major discontinuities" in past enrollment before, and questioned if more could be on the horizon.
"Is this a blip and temporary slowdown in enrollment ... or is this a new trend and something that will be with us for awhile and that we have to adjust to?" Collins asked. "This is probably the most fundamental question to answer as we think about the question that has really dogged the community for the past few years," which is whether or not to open a 13th elementary school.
Collins offered as a cautionary tale five new classrooms the district recently built at Duveneck Elementary School in anticipation of continued growth and overcrowded. These five classrooms, Collins said, are now used as "spare" rather than established classrooms. The district spent $9 million to build them, he noted.
"That's what's at risk," Collins said. "If we don't think clearly about how student growth is going to happen, where it might happen, whether it's going to happen, we run the risk of building capacity in places where we may or may not need it and we may end up sinking money into the ground in a way that doesn't contribute to the education of students in Palo Alto."
Collins also noted that birth rates are down across the state (2013 was the lowest since 1933), there are fewer housing projects coming down the pipeline in Palo Alto and the economy has rebounded, meaning "it seems likely that our K-5 student counts will continue to shrink, at least for the next several years," the subcommittee's presentation reads. "Our narrative needs to change continuous growth is no longer the driver of our enrollment strategy."
Through research, survey results and comparison to other school districts, the subcommittee also determined that 300 to 500 students are a "reasonable target size" for an elementary school in Palo Alto.
Most research literature, board member Heidi Emberling noted as she has before in enrollment discussions, however, puts the ideal elementary school size at 300 to 400 students. Dauber said after Monday's meeting that research does show that "the smaller the school, the better the outcomes" in academic achievement, social-emotional health and teacher satisfaction.
Until 2008, the district actually had a board policy that limited elementary schools to 450 students, Dauber noted. Only five of Palo Alto's elementary schools are currently below that size.
Currently, the district's largest elementary school, Ohlone, enrolls 607 students, and its smallest, Barron Park, 288 students, according to the district's 11th day enrollment report.
"Lowering school sizes would almost certainly produce better outcomes in Palo Alto," Dauber said after the meeting. "I think our elementary schools are now too large, and I hope the committee revisits this question."
In its parent survey, the subcommittee found that satisfaction with school size in Palo Alto is high. Sixty-two percent of parents with a child currently in elementary school said they are either satisfied or strongly satisfied with their school's size. Satisfaction with elementary school size was also "meaningfully higher" than that for middle or high schools, the subcommittee said.
The subcommittee tentatively recommended that the district adopt a target school size as one of three guidelines for the consideration of adding a new school in Palo Alto.
"It seems like it would be useful to have a guardrail in place that told us when we were getting close to the edge," Collins said.
The subcommittee also sought to answer the question, "How can we support both choice programs and neighborhood schools?"
Collins said that both choice programs like Spanish and Mandarin immersion, direct instruction at Hoover and Ohlone and neighborhood schools are established values in the community but "the way they've been implemented, they conflict with each other."
Choice programs in Palo Alto are very popular, and Ohlone, in particular, is oversubscribed with 166 students applying for 74 spots in the English-only program this year. Sixty-one percent of parents the committee surveyed also indicated they would likely send their children to a choice program if it was offered.
But "choice has a cost," Collins said primarily absorbing neighborhood-school capacity and causing overflows, or students who cannot attend their neighborhood school because there is not room.
The top three schools for outbound overflows are Escondido, El Carmelo and Palo Verde, which either house or sit next to a choice program, Collins said.
These schools accounted for 61 percent of overflows in 2015 and 51 percent in 2014. Collins noted that other school districts use "neighborhood preference" setting aside a certain percentage of choice program spots for neighborhood children to control this impact.
Overflow levels did decline significantly in 2015. 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 district staff. Out of the 64 students who were overflowed, slightly more than half were overflowed within their cluster.
Several parents who live in Los Altos Hills turned out Monday night to speak to the board about one of the subcommittee's draft recommendations in particular: to re-assign the approximately 113 elementary students who live west of Foothill Boulevard in Los Altos Hills and the Palo Alto Foothills from Nixon Elementary to Barron Park or Juana Briones to accommodate up to 150 new elementary students who will be coming to the district from new Stanford University housing currently under construction in the area.
"I ask that you hear the non-numeric considerations along with the reports of the demographer because our children are not, in fact, 'elephants moving through schools of snakes,'" said Los Altos Hills resident and Nixon parent Kimberly Eng Lee, referencing a description that Collins made earlier in his presentation about large bubbles of students moving through schools.
Dauber also said that the proposal to move the "west of Foothill Boulevard" students to Juana Briones is a "non-starter" for the traffic impact it would bring to that area.
Other board members urged the subcommittee to consider and consult with the city on the effect any potential recommendations could have on traffic in the neighborhoods around schools.
Dauber and Emberling also suggested the subcommittee separate out concerns presented Monday regarding low achievement at Barron Park Elementary as being beyond the group's scope and charge.
A series of specific questions the board asked Monday night will be answered by the committee in the coming weeks.
Both Collins and board President Melissa Baten Caswell noted that the subcommittee is still at the early stages, and no decisions have been made on their proposals. Baten Caswell suggested that more public outreach town-hall style meetings, community forums and surveys be done in the meantime.
"It's really, really important that we have a process that is transparent, open to community input, allows everyone to get engaged and have their say and for you guys to be able to hear it and for the community to have a conversation," Collins said. "I think everybody realizes now ... we're at the super front end of a process here.
"This is meant to get the conversation started," he said.
The entire enrollment management committee will next meet on Monday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. Its secondary subcommittee will also be scheduling a board study session for sometime this or next month, Superintendent Max McGee said. The earliest a final report would be issued is December, he said.