A majority of the Palo Alto school board three members stated unequivocally Tuesday night that they don't support even the exploration of a potential new high school in the district, and would rather see resources used for reforms at the existing secondary schools.
Board members Melissa Baten Caswell, Ken Dauber and Vice President Terry Godfrey said they don't believe the district needs a third high school. But President Heidi Emberling and trustee Camille Townsend supported Superintendent Max McGee's recommendation to create a task force that, among other efforts, would look into the possibility of using Cubberley Community Center on Middlefield Road and two neighboring district sites to open a campus for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, or some subset of that.
This recommendation was one of several that came out of McGee's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC), which presented its own final report and recommendations at the prior school board meeting.
The community discussion over EMAC's proposals which began several months ago with the idea of opening an innovative, small 6-12 school at the Cubberley site and evolved into creating a task force that would evaluate the need for a new school or schools while also taking a hard look at how to improve the current secondary schools seems to have roughly split into two camps.
Some people believe the district is uniquely positioned to respond to a "drumbeat" from within the community to do something so different and innovative at the secondary-school level that it would have to be done at a new site. Others believe doing so would irreversibly take away much-needed effort and resources to change the existing high schools.
"We don't need and shouldn't pursue a new high school that is, a new high-school building," Dauber said. "What I think we do need, based on listening to our student board representative, reading the Paly Voice, listening to community members, is we need new high schools."
Palo Alto High School's student board representative, Emma Cole, told the board earlier in the evening, "Class size is important, but I still think that what's more important is improving the schools that we have right now."
Funds would better be better put to use at Paly and Gunn High School, she said. (Student news outlet the Paly Voice expressed a similar opinion in an editorial published this week.)
"I think we need to put millions of dollars behind helping ideas that are already being formed" at the existing high schools, Baten Caswell echoed.
Baten Caswell and Godfrey suggested that instead of convening a task force charged with what Baten Caswell described as "swallowing the ocean," the district should parse out the decisions in front of it. Any effort to reform Paly and Gunn should be led by the schools themselves, with help from the district or community, she said. Dauber supported this idea.
Short-term ways to reduce crowding at the middle schools and reduce class sizes throughout the district could also be done now by staff, rather than a community task force, Baten Caswell and Godfrey said. Another team could be created to do the planning work the district is obligated to with the city for the Cubberley site.
Townsend, on the other hand, said if the board doesn't respond to a "drumbeat" for a third high school, "then shame on us."
She also requested further information about capacity at the high schools are they too big right now, and can they accommodate projected enrollment coming down the pipeline?
A concrete answer to this question that everyone agrees on has remained elusive with different answers from different camps. Some have said the schools were built under the 2008 Strong Schools Bond to accommodate 2,300 students each, while others say that their current sizes, just under 2,000 students, are too large.
The answer also differs at each high school, the Paly and Gunn principals told the board earlier in the day during a separate presentation of their schools' Single Plan for Student Achievement (SPSA) reports (annual documents that outline site goals for the year).
"We do not have enough classrooms at Gunn," Principal Denise Herrmann said. She mentioned potentially converting staff office space into classrooms if need be.
The Paly campus, however, will have a total of 41 new classrooms once its facility improvement projects a new library, performing arts center, athletic facility and science addition are completed, Principal Kim Diorio wrote to the board in an email after the SPSA meeting. There's also a relatively new 27-classroom building and the two-story Media Arts Center.
Diorio wrote to the board: "Please know that for Paly, we believe we can handle the enrollment growth."
According to the district's demographer, DecisionInsite, Paly and Gunn will grow as they absorb larger middle school classes moving through the district. An argument against stalling long-term action on the high schools and instead addressing short-term crowding at the middle schools is that the current size of the middle schools will in several years simply be transferred to the high schools.
DecisionInsite estimates that total high school enrollment will peak at 4,481 in 2020 and then start to go down and stabilize.
The enrollment committee's secondary subcommittee gave similar estimates in an October report. It estimated that the middle school population will grow from the current 2,991 students to 3,094 in 2016 and then stabilize somewhere between 2,500 and 2,800. High school enrollment, the subcommittee estimated, will grow from 3,865 students today to 4,591 in 2020 and then stabilize between 3,900 and 4,200.
The committee's recommendations have roused many in the community to action. A total of 19 community members, mostly parents, spoke their piece for an hour to the board on Tuesday night.
Parent Karen Ambrose Hickey described how her son, a new ninth-grader in the district, reacted to a question on a survey distributed by enrollment group in the fall about creating different educational experiences for younger students in the district.
"This survey asked if he wanted his younger sibling to have a richer school experience," Ambrose Hickey said. "He looked at me and said, 'What about me?'"
"I'm here to say I think Palo Alto should be innovative, but I also think that there are flashes of brilliance in our schools now, and we should be capitalizing on those and really investing in our current students," she said.
Todd Collins, chair of the EMAC elementary subcommittee, quoted Teddy Roosevelt to remind the board and McGee to balance the exciting "moonshot" of a new school with the "less glamorous" work of improving the existing schools: "Let's keep our eyes on the stars, but our feet on the ground."
Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association, said the teachers she's heard from are "more interested in investing in our current schools."
"The use of Cubberley as a new school site will take away $5.5 million in rental income each year from our district's general fund," she said. "It would also cost about $3.5 million each year to operate a new school, which I actually think is a low estimate. That is a minimum of $9 million coming from the general fund each year. I'm just curious as to what programs and staffing will be affected by the loss of income to our general fund?"
Others spoke in support of McGee's and EMAC's recommendation, pointing to a task force and potential new school as a long-awaited road to much-needed improvements. For some, the district desperately needs "an independent environment where experimentation can happen without pressure and inertia from the traditional structures that exist in the current secondary schools," said Christine Rose, the parent of two children who have attended both district and private schools.
"From my perspective, there's been a longstanding need for project-oriented, teamwork-oriented, experiential learning at the secondary level that we have yet to achieve at our current structures," said Sara Woodham, parent and co-chair of Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS). "It's a departure from how we teach and how we do school in the main here in Palo Alto."
At the SPSA meetings earlier in the day, Diorio and Herrmann spoke to innovations currently being nurtured and expanded at their schools, from several Gunn teachers testing out standards-based grading to new STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) "pathways" under consideration at Paly.
The district's new Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) program, which began as a pilot program this year, has also been a resounding success for students at both schools, the principals said. Classrooms at both schools are applying design thinking, using blended learning and integrating technology in new ways.
McGee reiterated his desire to create one comprehensive task force to look at all of the issues on the table. He said he can "fine-tune" his recommendation, though, and return to the board for action at its next meeting, on Feb. 9.
The board did approve one of McGee's other enrollment-related recommendations on Tuesday night, to place new elementary students coming into the district over the next several years via new Stanford University housing at Nixon Elementary School. The recommendation also commits the district to placing up to three portables at Nixon to accommodate the influx of students, an action that Dauber said is unnecessary and "premature."
The board approved the recommendation 4-1, with Dauber dissenting.