News

Palo Alto school board to discuss new programs, investments

Board convenes for special budget session this week

Full-day kindergarten, world-language instruction at the elementary schools and a new high school counseling program are just some of the many proposed programs the Palo Alto school board will discuss at a special budget session Tuesday night.

With a budget surplus of $7.6 million due to higher-than-projected property tax growth and $2.3 million from a recently passed parcel-tax measure supporting Palo Alto schools, the district has decided the time is ripe to discuss potential new expenditures. An ambitious list of programs has been developed by district staff and ranges from new curriculum to the potential opening of a new elementary, middle and/or high school.

The board discussion is intended to provide guidance so that staff can return with final budget recommendations in February.

The board will meet to discuss the 2015-16 and 2016-17 budget proposals on Tuesday, Nov. 3, at 6 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave.

Below are summaries of the new programs proposed and their estimated costs.

Full-day kindergarten

The district's Minority Achievement and Talent Development (MATD) committee recommended in the spring that the district implement full-day kindergarten as a means to help close the achievement gap. The group, which emphasized the importance of early education and intervention for historically underrepresented students, noted in its final report findings from the National Education Association around full-day kindergarten: Longitudinal data shows that children in full-day classes show greater progress in reading and math than those in half-day classes; full-day kindergarten can produce long-term educational benefits, particularly for low-income and minority students; and that "a full day of learning offers several social, emotional and intellectual benefits to kindergarteners. They have more time to focus on activities, to reflect on activities and to transition between activities."

The school district currently offers an extended day for all students two days a week as well as programs like Springboard to Kindergarten, which offers one semester of transitional kindergarten to students who have not had the pre-K experience that so many of their peers in Palo Alto have.

Estimated cost:

- Ongoing costs of approximately $300,000, based on maintaining current class sizes.

- If class sizes were to be reduced, as some research recommends, there would be additional costs, Chief Business Officer Cathy Mak notes in a staff report for Tuesday's budget session.

Other recommendations from the MATD that remain to be implemented are:

- Adding a parent liaison at every school site with an estimated cost of $80,000

- Adding more tutorial support at the secondary schools with an estimated cost of $476,000 (the cost of one full-time position at each middle school and two at each high school)

The district also approved earlier this year a new equity administrator position to coordinate and lead implementation of the MATD recommendations with a salary of $142,862. Other related funding commitments include an expansion of summer school; K-2 reading support and instruction aides; a new bus driver to provide transportation to East Palo Alto students; an intervention specialist TOSA (teacher on special assignment); English language learner/bilingual support; a new comprehensive diagnostic test administered within the first month of school and twice a year to kindergarten through second graders; and additional math intervention classes for middle school students.

Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) program

The district launched this fall a new pilot research and mentorship program for high school students. The Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) program, proposed by Superintendent Max McGee last year, has placed close to 80 students (far more than the 30 students the district had estimated) with mentors who will work with the students for a year on research projects within their fields of interest, ranging from computer science and engineering to the arts and humanities. Two faculty at each high school have been allowed to spend 20 percent of their time supporting the pilot program, but "It is clear that more staffing will be needed to scale this program to meet the needs and interests of our high school students," the staff report states. Staff estimates the program will need two to three full-time positions during the next two to three years, with a goal of eventually serving upwards of 300 students annually.

Estimated cost: $250,000 to $375,000. The school board also approved in June the hiring of a full-time director with a cost of $142,862. Other associated costs include support for the coordinator and teachers ($50,980) and program supplies ($10,000).

K-5 math program pilot

The district is in the midst of exploring potential new K-5 mathematics curriculum options, all aligned with the new Common Core State Standards. A K-5 Math Pilot Committee with representatives from each elementary school as well as teachers on special assignment (TOSAs) are working to ultimately recommend two or three curricula to pilot in the 2016-17 school year. The pilot year will "be focused and provide a highly organized, in-depth analysis and reflection of the 2-3 selected curricula," the staff report states.

Estimated cost: Though the final cost will be based on decisions made on how many pilots will be implemented, the proposed budget for the "exploration" year, prior to the pilot, is $60,000, which could come through a textbook fund in the district's General Fund budget, according to staff. The pilot-year budget could range from $100,000 to $150,000 depending on the plan developed by the committee and math leads at the schools.

High school counseling

The school board discussed last week how to approach a gap in services between the two high schools' counseling programs. McGee and staff recommended the creation of a new joint committee made up of faculty, staff, students and parents from both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools who would deliver recommendations to the board by next December (to be implemented by the fall of 2017), some board members urged McGee to look at ways to make a more immediate impact on students.

Of particular need are Gunn students, who for years have reported lower levels of satisfaction with counseling services than their peers at Paly. Paly has long had place a teacher-advisor model, through which each student is matched with teacher-advisors (TAs) who meet regularly with students around academic planning and anything else they might need support with. Guidance counselors work with TAs to identify students who might need extra academic or social-emotional support, and college and career counselors provide juniors and seniors with post-graduation guidance. Gunn has a traditional counseling model with a group of staff members providing guidance counseling, college and career advice and social-emotional support.

District staff has provided the estimated cost for extending the advisory model to Gunn as well as for implementing another model that's in place at New Trier High School in Illinois. At New Trier, counselors work with sophomores, juniors and seniors in group guidance settings through an advisor system, while individualized post-secondary planning and guidance begin during the second semester of the junior year and continues through graduation, according to the school's website.

Estimated cost:

- Up to $50,000 for a professional facilitator to lead the proposed joint committee

- Up to $100,000 for the professional development necessary to design and implement new social-emotional curriculum

- $1.85 million for a weekly TA model, serving approximately 2,000 students

- $4.6 million for a daily TA model like New Trier's

- Gunn's current counseling budget is $1.39 million and Paly's, $1.68 million.

Elementary world-language program

Whether to add world-language instruction at the elementary level has been a debate in the Palo Alto school district for years. Staff is proposing that if the school board desires, next year could be used as a planning year with the goal of implementing a pilot foreign-language elementary program the following year. The district also last year commissioned an independent, in-depth study of its foreign language offerings, with recommendations to better streamline and align these offerings from kindergarten through high school.

Estimated cost:

- One-time cost of less than $100,000 to align the current middle and high school world-language programs over a three-year period

- $1.3 million to implement a new world-language program in third through fifth grades, based on estimates from a 2007-08 Foreign Language in Elementary Schools committee and updated for the 2017-18 school year

Living Skills curriculum

Living Skills -- which covers topics like mental and physical health, sex education and drugs -- is typically taken as a summer course and is a graduation requirement in the district. The one-semester class is often described as more of an item to check off a list than a genuine learning experience. As such, the district is eyeing potential revisions to the curriculum.

Estimated cost: $25,000 to $50,000 for consulting and professional development support

Computer science curriculum

Reading, writing and ... computer science? The budget session staff report describes computer science as a "basic skill" for this generation of students and recommends beginning computer-science instruction starting in middle school.

Estimated cost:

- $25,000 to $50,000 for consulting and professional development support

- Potentially $625,000 for one additional full-time position per school starting in the 2017-18 school year or later

Potential new schools

Does Palo Alto need a new elementary, middle and/or high school? The district's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) is currently considering all three of those options, though preliminarily recommended that the district does not need to open a 13th elementary school but should open an innovative secondary school at Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road.

The district has identified two sites it owns for potentially building a new elementary school: Greendell School and Garland Elementary School. A development on the 5-acre Greendell site in south Palo Alto would also include the district's 2.5-acre adjoining 525 San Antonio Road site. A "likely" construction plan would be to build a new two-story building at 525 San Antonio and the renovate and redevelop the existing Greendell facilities. Garland in north Palo Alto, also 5 acres large, would involve renovation rather than all new construction, according to district staff.

Construction costs would come from the school bond fund and/or capital funds. Operating costs as well as lost rental revenues from several sites (Cubberley, Garland, 525 San Antonio) would impact the district's General Fund.

"While some of the impact may be mitigated by private funding, the impact is significant and uncertain until funds are raised," staff note.

Estimated costs:

- $35 million to $40 million in construction costs for the Greendell site, "pending a serious planning effort and decisions about the rest of the campus," the staff report notes.

- $28 million to $33 million in construction costs for the Garland site

- $1.1 million in operating costs for a new elementary school (based on a 3.5-strand school and 2015-16 costs for additional administrative staffing, support staff and utility costs)

- A "working range" of $65 million to $70 million to build a middle/high school at Cubberley. Staff writes that "planning and estimating for this (project) badly needs an Advisory Committee and some architect effort."

- Approximately $2.5 million in operating costs for a new middle school (based on 2015-16 costs and for about 1,100 students)

- Approximately $3.6 million in operating costs for a new high school (based on 2015-16 costs for about 2,000 students)

Special-education program review

The district recently began an externally conducted review of its special-education department and services, led by a longtime special-education advocate and Harvard University Graduate School of Education professor. The review will culminate in a series of recommendations that will have some sort of fiscal impact, though it's unclear at this point what that will be.

Reduced class sizes

Average class sizes are relatively large throughout the district: 21.8 students at the elementary level; 23.6 for sixth grade; 26.9 for seventh and eighth grade; and 28.5 at the high schools (save smaller ninth and tenth grade English at math classes). District staff has identified the below costs for class-size reductions. There are also a "handful" of academic classes at each high school that have more than 35 students enrolled, staff notes. For the 2016-17 school year, staff will work with the high schools to cut down on these class sizes.

Estimated cost:

- $1.5 million to reduce class size by one student across the board at the elementary schools (an addition of 12 teachers)

- $375,000 to reduce some larger middle school classes by one student (an addition of three teachers)

- $750,000 to reduce class size by one student at the high schools (an addition of six teachers)

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct inaccurate information about Palo Alto High School's counseling system, which stated that Paly had a weekly teacher-advisor (TA) model through which students were connected with one TA for all four years. Students have a different TA their freshman year compared to the higher grade levels and meet regularly with their TAs, but not weekly.

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