There was a mixed bag of reactions Tuesday night to Palo Alto Superintendent Max McGee's and his Enrollment Management Advisory Committee's (EMAC) final report and recommendations, with at least one board member expressing enthusiastic support but others caution.
School board members were mostly supportive of passing the baton from EMAC to a new task force that would take a closer look at whether the district truly needs to open a new elementary, middle or high school. They disagreed, however, on what the role of that new group should be.
McGee's recommendation is that this group of teachers, administrators, students and parents start work next month to "develop a comprehensive plan and proposed model" for a PK-12 campus that encompasses three neighboring district sites -- Cubberley Community Center, 525 San Antonio Road and Greendell School on Middlefield Road -- with the goal of issuing a report to the board by October.
Despite the recommendation that this task force take a comprehensive look at the district, from pre-kindergarten through high school, debate over the secondary schools in particular not only in size and capacity but also connectedness, pedagogy and ability to innovate took center stage in both board and community comments on Tuesday night.
For some, the EMAC's and McGee's recommendations offer a reinvigorating moonshot the district has been waiting for.
"I think that in the sense of John F. Kennedy, this is a shoot to the moon," said board member Camille Townsend of McGee's recommendations. "It's about time. I've been on the board almost 13 years there are very few times in life we get this opportunity."
Townsend said she feels a "drumbeat" in the community to explore a different kind of educational model in Palo Alto.
McGee, for his part, characterized the committee's work over the last 10 months as a much-needed spark for "big thinking" in the district.
"I think this task force can be a catalyst for thinking bigger about current practices, and it already has been. The opportunities and access of student-driven project based learning are evident, not just through AAR (Advanced Authentic Research, a new independent research program for high school students) but in our classrooms," he said.
"Opportunities for community engagement, for expanding the school day, school year and campus beyond our borders those conversations are occurring perhaps unlike they have in recent memory," he continued.
Several district parents and community members repeatedly urged the board to be "bold" and not shy away from decisions that might feel risky. Palo Alto resident Helen Waters, speaking at her first-ever school board meeting, told the board: If "it feels risky, you're probably on the right path because that is what innovation and disruption feels like."
Others, both on the board and in the community, were not as convinced by the enrollment committee's case for a new secondary school.
New board Vice President Terry Godfrey, Ken Dauber and Melissa Baten Caswell all questioned whether Palo Alto's high schools are, in fact, too big, and if their true capacities merit the opening of a third site.
"I've said it before: 'We can do a lot of things; we can't do everything,'" Baten Caswell said. "So we have to pick and choose what we're going to do. I would love a fresh, brand-new start and go invent a school. I think that would be really fun. But is that the best use of our resources?
"I'm not talking about the money we can get from the VC community. I'm talking about the bandwidth that we have to get things done. I would really like to take a look and say, 'What are the most impactful things we can do for our schools?' I'd like that to be our task force because I don't think we had (in the enrollment committee) the people on the ground that are closest to the problem respond to that," Baten Caswell continued.
Dauber pointed to new student survey data, collected in November by EMAC's secondary subcommittee and released Tuesday, that indicates students themselves are satisfied with the current size of their schools. Only 7 percent of high school respondents said they are dissatisfied or strongly dissatisfied with the overall size of their schools today, and only 6 percent say their schools feel very crowded or tight. Students also ranked more elective classes, choice options and alternative learning pathways as the most important elements that a new middle and/or high school could have.
About half of high school teachers who responded to the survey also said they are satisfied with their school's overall size, compared to 15 percent who are dissatisfied or strongly dissatisfied. About 18 percent of high school teachers said their schools feel very crowded.
As the enrollment committee presented its preliminary analysis, findings and recommendations to the board at three meetings throughout the fall, the question of how to best manage enrollment in the district became intertwined with questions of pedagogy, school culture, student connectedness and well-being, particularly at the high school level. To address these questions, it is not school size the district should look to, Dauber said, but rather issues like excessive homework, test and project stacking and sleep deprivation.
"We have great resources in our current secondary schools of professionals who are doing now the work of understanding what kind of progress we need to make and that the best support that we can give them and the students in those high schools is to enable them to continue to do that work," Dauber said. "I don't think we need a task force to surface for them that work. I think we need to do better at supporting those teachers and members in those school communities who are doing it."
Other board members and several members of the community voiced similar concerns that investing resources both in terms of dollars and personnel in an effort to evaluate the need for new schools will inevitably mean less focus and energy on needed reforms at the existing schools.
Well aware of this concern, EMAC's secondary subcommittee has over the last few months repeatedly urged the district to take a "both/and" approach moving forward: work to make changes at the existing middle and high schools while simultaneously evaluating the need for a new school or schools.
McGee, too, is recommending not only the creation of the task force but also that the district "encourage, empower and incentivize the secondary schools principals, leadership teams, faculty and staff to design, develop, implement, and evaluate innovative programs, services, and supports that will increase student connectedness and authentic engagement, provide additional student choice, and enhance and deepen student learning."
Marc Vincenti, a former Gunn High School teacher and campaign coordinator of grassroots school-reform campaign Save the 2,008, questioned the value of a "both/and" approach.
"Instead of working on a grand scale, let's target our efforts," he told the board. "Let's spend less money and re-stitch our schools' social fabrics, instead of spending millions to create a new school out of a whole cloth. I'm concerned that this Cubberley project will preoccupy us with design disagreements, conflicts about a lottery, construction issues, staff relocations and building delays."
"I think that we can be bold and forward-thinking within our own two existing high schools," said parent Mary Vincent. "My concern is that the most precious asset of the board and the administration of the district is their time and attention. My concern is that this proposal would be too much of a dilution of the time and attention and I know that administrators can multitask. I just think that there are a lot of things that we are on the road to improving in our two existing high schools and I would prefer to see our attention still directed there."
For the elementary-level recommendations, most board members agreed with McGee's recommendation to place at Nixon Elementary School an influx of about 150 new elementary students set to enter the district in 2017 from new Stanford University housing currently under construction, with plans to add portables to accommodate them.
Board President Heidi Emberling, however, said, "In the long run, this does feel a bit like a Band-Aid approach to growth." She also said that she's supportive of opening a new elementary school at the 525 San Antonio Road/Greendell site "within the context of a larger Cubberley plan."
Dauber, too, said there is a demonstrated need for a new elementary school and suggested pursuing an assessment of which district properties would make the most sense for a new site rather than adding portables at Nixon.
Dauber, Godfrey and Baten Caswell also asked for McGee to look into potential solutions to address what they said are overcrowded middle schools. About 63 percent of middle-school students reported in EMAC's survey, however, that they are satisfied or strongly satisfied with their school sizes. About 7 percent said they are dissatisfied or strongly dissatisfied and the same percentage reported their school feels very crowded or tight in terms of physical space.
Middle-school teachers reported lower levels of satisfaction with school size (though only 69 teachers participated in the survey compared to 729 middle-school students). About 26 percent of teachers said they are satisfied or strongly satisfied with school size compared to 32 percent who are dissatisfied or strongly dissatisfied. Thirty-three precent of teacher-respondents said their school feels very crowded or tight.
Joe Lee, chair of the EMAC secondary subcommittee, said his team has seen an "appetite" in the community and on the board for a fourth middle school, but cautioned against focusing on which schools feel crowded today the middle schools versus those that will become more so in several years the high schools.
Lee said while middle school enrollment will peak this fall with about 100 to 200 additional students, high school enrollment will peak in fall 2020 with 700 more students than there are today.
"Therefore, our high schools will be in the exact same position five years from now as our middle schools are today," he said. "It seems inconsistent and illogical to ignore the high school size, capacity and enrollment problem when there appears to be consensus today to tackle middle-school size, capacity and enroll problem especially when it takes (several) years to bring a new school online."
Dauber also raised the issue of financing for a potential new school, voicing concern about references in the EMAC secondary subcommittee's final report to private funding sources -- which would be inappropriate to use to support operating expenses, he said. McGee responded that any determination on funding is "the work of that task force," though his "assumption" is any venture capital or private funding would be used for capital rather than operating expenses.
The enrollment committee's and McGee's recommendations will return for action at the board's next meeting on Jan. 26. If the recommendations are approved, McGee aims to develop a charge and budget for the new task force, which the board will be expected to act upon in February.
The district will also host a town hall on the committee's recommendations on Jan. 20, 7-8:30 p.m. The meeting will also be streamed online.