Like many in our community, I am excited by the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) proposal presented at the Palo Alto Unified School District board meeting on Oct. 26. We welcome focus not only on the academic excellence of our schools, but also on the social-emotional well-being of our students. We know our students need to connect with teachers and fellow students, and that attending overcrowded schools hampers these relationships. The work the committee did is amazing, but nonetheless, I am conflicted because the proposal makes only a slight dent in our secondary school over-enrollment, which is the problem the EMAC was asked to address.
I wholeheartedly support project-based learning. With parent support, Stanford support and philanthropic capital, PAUSD is well-positioned to develop a project-based learning program. The EMAC report favors opening a small innovative school for grades 6-12 at Cubberley rather than a comprehensive neighborhood middle school.
But with only 700 to 1,050 students, this new combined middle and high school would not substantially mitigate the over-enrollment at the other secondary schools, and is not consistent with the wishes of our community. The committee's research shows that 75 percent of our community prefers choice programs in our current neighborhood secondary schools over opening a new choice school. If our community is energized by project-based learning, then with the support of Stanford and philanthropists dedicated to funding such programs, tracks or smaller learning communities could be established in each of the secondary schools.
The committee discusses the "competition" with private schools, suggesting that a new innovative school might lessen the "leakage" of the 240 secondary school-age students in the district who attend private schools, but the committee neglects to add these additional students into their enrollment projections. Even without counting these students, the committee admits that the proposed new middle school and high school do not succeed in lowering the population of the other secondary schools to the target capacity range.
Complicating matters, the real capacity at our current middle schools is much lower than the stated capacity. The EMAC indicates the stated capacity figures may or may not be possible or advisable, and are not representative of actual capacity or potential capacity at each school. As an example, Jordan, with 19 acres, cannot possibly have the same capacity as JLS, with 26 acres, yet both have the same stated capacities. And equally concerning, the proposed new middle school and high school are themselves well below the suggested target range in size.
Schools lower than that range have much higher operational costs per student, due to the disproportionate staffing. It is suggested in the report that private funding sources be identified to offset the ongoing operational costs, which would mean that the 700 to 1,050 students at these two schools would benefit from private funding not available to the other students in the district. Is the intention to replace the district's current, highly valued central fundraising model to allow individual school sites to raise private funds for operational costs? I hope not.
While all our middle and high schools currently exceed the target range, both high schools have recently benefited by extensive building projects that have increased their capacities. The middle schools have not. A fourth full-sized, comprehensive middle school is needed at Cubberley to alleviate crowding at the middle schools.
The problems of over-enrollment go beyond exceeding a school's reasonable physical capacity. The EMAC findings also indicate that over-enrollment leads to the creeping up of class size, the lack of open space, limitations on courses and pathways, and the limitation on student-teacher interaction. The EMAC recommends a set of standards be created, including setting maximum classroom sizes and creating capacity models, such as a square-feet-per-student formula.
The "School Size Study Report: Impact of Smaller Schools," prepared for the Maryland State Department of Education, which much of the EMAC findings are based upon, indicate that more than half of their schools use "target utilization rates" or a square-feet-per-student standard and maximum class sizes to evaluate optimal school size. Yet these recommendations, which directly impact secondary school over-enrollment, are omitted in the final proposal.
In the meantime, for both the middle schools and high schools, there are many strategies that can be implemented as early as next fall to address over-enrollment and promote connectedness. The middle schools currently all group students into "teams" that share core teachers. Teaming could be continued into grades 9 and 10.
Students at all the secondary schools would benefit from enforced maximum class sizes to facilitate teacher and student interaction, and additional counseling staff at numbers proportionate to school population would improve student well-being.
The establishment of "houses," where several classes of students would be grouped together throughout the grades, has been a successful strategy for high schools to create a sense of belonging in larger schools, provide continuity and soften transitions, as have academic interest tracks or "schools within a school."
The board has stated that the school district is flush with money and has told the EMAC that now is the time to spend it, but these funds should be used in a way that actually addresses overcrowding and gives the most benefit now to all the district's secondary school students rather than creating "haves" and "have nots."
The new task force should be charged with implementing the many strategies recommended for reducing over-enrollment, increasing connectedness and social-emotional welfare of our students, establishing project-based learning tracks in all our secondary schools, and redeveloping Cubberley as a neighborhood middle school.
Rita Tetzlaff, the mother of twin girls who attend Jordan Middle School, has held positions as director of product marketing, division controller, and business manager for software and services security companies.