The Palo Alto school district office, at 25 Churchill Ave., was imbued with excitement and enthusiasm on Monday night as both the school board and community members agreed that the moment is ripe to break with the status quo and open a new, innovative middle and high school in Palo Alto.
This proposal which community members hailed as a "bold" and "much-needed leap forward in education," among other laudatory descriptors is a preliminary recommendation from a subcommittee of the district's Elementary Management Advisory Committee (EMAC), which has been charged with coming up with ways to creatively address Palo Alto's enrollment challenges.
The secondary-schools subcommittee presented its preliminary research, findings and proposals at a special board study session Monday.
The recommendation is for the district to use Cubberley Community Center at 4000 Middlefield Road for an integrated middle and high school a school that would not only reverse growing enrollment at the district's middle and high schools, which the subcommittee repeatedly described Monday night as "too big," but would also be designed from scratch with desirable educational elements like choice programming, project-based learning, individualization and social-emotional connectedness.
Subcommittee members said Monday that the district is unusually primed to make this proposal a reality. There is broad parental and student appetite for innovative educational options in the district; the district has a willing partner in the city to redevelop Cubberley; the Institute of Design at Stanford, the d. School, has already committed a fellow and staff member to work with the district on next steps; there are major local investors who are "ready to participate in bold secondary initiatives," the subcommittee's presentation states.
"Land (is) available, (there is) enrollment that would indicate we should offload students to a new campus, (there is) an appetite for innovation, funding sources, competition it seems to us that we're at a very unique moment in time to consider this unique proposal," said subcommittee member Mark Romer, a parent in the district.
The subcommittee is also proposing changes for Palo Alto's existing secondary schools, including an expansion of "core" and "house" programs. In such programs, cohorts of students move through several years of school together with the same teachers, a model that increases feelings of connectedness and student engagement.
More than 20 community members mostly parents representing a wide range of schools, both public and private, as well as grade levels urged the board on Monday to support the subcommittee's proposals.
Many parents of elementary school students expressed trepidation about entering middle schools so large that they feel like "factories" and "community colleges," parents said. Jordan Middle School is the largest 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'.
Those with experience in the district's various choice programs particularly Connections at JLS and Ohlone Elementary School's philosophy, which emphasizes independence, personalization and social-emotional learning said the experiences were overwhelmingly positive, and they wished for more of them throughout the district and at higher levels.
Several parents talked about making the decision to leave the public school district for private schools upon facing large middle and high schools that they said can't deliver the same level of student-teacher connection or relevant, personalized instruction.
"My husband wanted our son to know his teachers well and be known by them, to have deep relationships with his teachers. ... With schools the current size of our middle schools and high schools, we realized that was going to be really difficult to achieve," parent Callie Turk said. "He's now in a private school with small class sizes where those relationships blossom naturally."
Another mother called the size of Palo Alto's middle schools probably the "strongest deterrent" for her family in attending public school. She looked at alternative options for her two children, one of whom is now attending a private middle school.
School board members, too, expressed their support, though they had limited time to ask questions. More than two hours of the three-hour meeting were taken up by the presentation and public comment.
"This is exciting. This is innovative," said board Vice President Heidi Emberling. "It's aligned with our goals for students; it increases both peer-to-peer connections and connections with trusted adults on campus; (it) promotes our focus on professional learning communities (and) on teacher professional development investing in our best resources for students, which are our teachers.
"If we want to move the needle, particularly for our under-resourced and historically underrepresented students, we can't keep doing the same thing and expect different results," she added.
Board members Terry Godfrey and Ken Dauber asked the committee to consider what resources the district might need in order to open a 13th elementary school and a new secondary school at the same time, if the board decided to do so. (Though a majority of the EMAC's elementary subcommittee has preliminarily recommended that the district does not need to open a new elementary school, three members of that group have penned a "minority report" expressing the opposing view.)
Dauber also asked to hear more about why the new school would be a choice program rather than a neighborhood school. The subcommittee said Monday that many choice programs in the district are oversubscribed, with many parents applying to more than one.
"My sense is that we in Palo Alto have sometimes missed an opportunity to do good things across all of our schools by doing those things in our choice schools," Dauber said. "I would read the interest in choice programs from middle school parents as a desire not to drive across town to a different school but to have the school where they are provide them the benefits that they are talking about."
President Melissa Baten Caswell asked that the costs for opening a new school, both capital and ongoing operating costs, be brought to a budget study session the board is holding next Tuesday, Nov. 3, at 6 p.m. She also stressed that the district not leave behind the existing middle and high schools in the excitement of a new school, which if approved would take years to open.
"What do we do in the interim? Do we just sit here and wait? I don't think so," she said.
The EMAC secondary subcommittee is also proposing that the district create a separate task force to delve into the actual design and development of a new school, with a goal to provide recommendations in June 2016. The entire enrollment committee is slated to bring a final report to the board in December. The district also plans to host at least one town hall meeting to discuss the committee's work in November.
"I believe the recommendations of the enrollment-management committee would set the district on a path to build more relevant, relationship-oriented learning communities that would serve the needs of our 21st-century students," Turk said.
Her final words to the board, which were echoed throughout the night by many other parents and community members: "Be bold."