A school district committee charged with looking at how to better manage enrollment in Palo Alto Unified is making a preliminary recommendation that the district open a new, innovative middle and high school at Cubberley Community Center.
Though not yet a final recommendation, the vision for this new secondary school is incredibly detailed and has been guided by research, survey results, focus groups, interviews and school visits conducted by a subcommittee of the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC). The subcommittee will present an update on its work to the school board on Monday night.
The new school, with about 100 to 150 students per grade, would relieve some of the enrollment strain at the existing middle and high schools, which the subcommittee says are too big right now, with more growth on the way in the next 15 years.
The school would not be structured like the existing secondary schools but rather under a choice-program model, such as project-based learning or International Baccalaureate, the subcommittee wrote in its report. It could also double as an "incubator" or "innovation hub" for the entire school district, the subcommittee wrote.
School curriculum should be innovative (with an entirely separate committee to be convened to develop it) and would reflect research that places value on experience-based, inquiry-oriented, team and cross-disciplinary learning, the subcommittee recommends.
"The EMAC committee has become increasingly aware that the Palo Alto community has been primed for a conversation, and we are at a unique moment in time to deliver innovation in our schools," the report reads.
The subcommittee's preliminary proposals suggest there is not only a need for outside-the-box thinking around a new secondary school but also improvements and innovations that can and should be made at the existing middle and high schools.
Enrollment at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools this year sits at just under 2,000 students each, with 1,979 at Paly and 1,886 at Gunn. Jordan Middle School is the largest middle school with 1,130 students this year. Jane Lathrop Stanford (JLS) Middle School is next with 1,112 students. Terman Middle School still remains small with 749 students this year, though its campus is also smaller than the other two middle schools.
The subcommittee found that Palo Alto's secondary schools are also larger than national averages and other local, comparable schools.
Palo Alto's middle schools enroll an average of 879 students, compared to a national average of 576, according to the subcommittee. The high schools enroll an average of 1,870 students, far above the national average of 847, according to the subcommittee.
And next to comparable schools in local districts with similar socio-economics and demographics, Palo Alto middle schools have 7 to 20 percent more students and the two high schools, 11 percent more, according to the subcommittee.
The subcommittee found a relationship between school size and things like learning effectiveness and economic efficiency that, if graphed, would form an "inverted U." Economic efficiency and learning effectiveness began to decrease at enrollments above 700 students for elementary schools, 900 for middle schools and 1,700 for high schools, according to a school size report prepared for the Maryland State Department of Education. The group's report also cites connections between school size and student engagement, teacher and parent satisfaction, school climate and support for low-income families.
The subcommittee found in a survey that parental satisfaction with school size in Palo Alto drops off "precipitously" as they move through the district. While 62 percent of elementary parents said they were strongly satisfied or satisfied with the overall size of their schools today, only 30 percent of middle school parents and 24 percent of high school parents said the same.
"I'm terrified about the size of the middle schools; they are going to be overwhelming. I can't imagine. Schools seem to be bursting at the seams," one elementary parent told the subcommittee. "I think they are too large to really be a good learning environment."
"We feel very impacted. Space is at a premium," a Paly administrator told the subcommittee. "There is too little parking, office space; meeting space is impacted. Teachers do not have enough collaboration space. (It) was 1,600 in 2007. Now ... the school feels too big."
Gunn students told the subcommittee that, in some large classes, teachers didn't know all of their students' names and relied on lecturing rather than interacting with students.
Parental survey scores for "connectedness" and "social well-being" which research indicates are often correlated with total school size also show poor to middling levels of satisfaction, the report notes. In the most recent California Health Kids Survey (CHKS), students report high feelings of connectedness in fifth grade (74 percent), which drops to 67 percent in seventh grade, 66 percent in ninth and 65 percent in eleventh (the grade levels at which this survey is administered).
Parents also expressed "significant appetite" for more personalized learning and more choice programs (with project-based being the most popular model) like Mandarin and Spanish immersion or Connections at JLS. Students also reported high satisfaction with programs like Paly's Social Justice Pathway, through which a cohort of students move through three grades together, with the same teachers and learning about a particular subject of interest.
Another preliminary recommendation from the subcommittee is to form small learning communities like cohorts or schools within schools within the existing secondary schools to increase connection between students and teachers.
The Institute of Design at Stanford, also known as the d.school, and its K-12 Education Lab have expressed interest in helping the district to develop a new school. One full-time fellow and 1 1/2 staff members started in September working on "applying design thinking, interviewing and facilitation as inputs to a PAUSD-led design process," the subcommittee's report reads.
The EMAC subcommittee also hopes Cubberley Community Center, a sprawling, somewhat dilapidated campus on Middlefield Road, would be redeveloped to serve as the new school site. The school district, which owns 27 acres of Cubberley, is currently in talks with the City of Palo Alto, which owns 8 acres, to jointly develop a master plan for the entire site. The district in December approved a new lease for the site, setting aside some funds to "repair, renovate and/or improve" the facilities.
The subcommittee suggests that any redevelopment of Cubberley happen with an eye toward "innovative physical design" with classroom and outside spaces "designed for adaptability" and to "inspire creativity."
The EMAC subcommittee's report notes increasing educational competition in Palo Alto with many private schools and new innovative options coming to town, from a school where all students learn in one-on-one classes to an alternative K-8 school founded by a former Google executive.
The subcommittee does offer several other secondary options for the district -- opening a new yet traditionally structured secondary school, creating more choice programs and investing resources into existing secondary schools rather than spending funding on a new school -- but notes that these ideas might not be "ambitious" enough to satisfy the enrollment committee's charge.
"We sense restlessness among our community that the status quo is not good enough. We hear the community is ready to engage in making our schools good ⇒ great. We see innovation already bubbling in pockets throughout our secondary schools, which could benefit from a concerted, catalyzing push," the report states. "We feel that remedies to better student-teacher connectedness aren't necessarily difficult nor expensive to implement. We're not advocating a referendum on the existing secondary schools. Rather, we recommend enhancing the good programs already in-flight.
"The creation of a new secondary school is necessary but not sufficient," the report adds. "We recommend a 'both/and' approach."
The entire enrollment committee is expected to bring a set of final recommendations to the board in December. It will likely propose that a new advisory committee be convened in January to continue further work, such as designing a new school. Staff will also be convening at least one public forum for community feedback.
Earlier this month, a subcommittee focused on the elementary schools presented its recommendations to the school board.
The Monday, Oct. 26, meeting will run from 6 to 9 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave., Palo Alto. Read the full agenda here.