Palo Alto school board to discuss need for new schools


Long-simmering debate over whether or not the Palo Alto Unified School District needs to open a new elementary and/or middle school will continue at Tuesday's school board meeting, with staff now recommending that the district take a serious look at opening a fourth middle school and forego opening a 13th elementary school.

A new enrollment report to be presented Tuesday night shows declining enrollment at Palo Alto's elementary schools, but increasing populations at both the middle and high schools. A five-year projection says that elementary- and middle-school enrollment will go down, while the high schools will continue to grow.

Despite the fact that the projection shows middle-school enrollment decreasing by between 103 and 245 students over the next five years, the schools are now too large, according to a report prepared by Superintendent Max McGee. JLS and Jordan middle schools both have more than 1,000 students, he noted. Terman Middle School, which has a smaller physical campus, has 765 students enrolled this year.

"While not unmanageable, these schools are large," McGee wrote in his report. "Staff is recommending that we prepare a comprehensive staff report on the feasibility, costs, and benefits of opening a fourth middle school and/or a K-8 school that could balance school sizes at the elementary and middle schools."

At the elementary level, staff has "concluded that there is little interest in or need for building additional classrooms at our current elementary sites or for adding a new elementary school," McGee wrote. Staff is instead recommending that the board release $60 million in elementary reserve funds to support improvements at the existing schools.

"While we would like to have our two larger elementary schools (Ohlone and Escondido) be somewhat smaller and some of our smaller schools (Juana Briones and Barron Park) be a little larger, we do not believe that large-scale attendance boundary changes are an effective solution to balancing elementary school sizes and that the costs would far outweigh any benefits," McGee wrote.

As of April 12, total elementary enrollment, from transitional kindergarten through fifth grade, is at 5,335 — a drop of 140 students from last year, according to the enrollment report. Kindergarten enrollment is particularly low, and the district expects it to continue to drop in the next school year. The district is planning to drop one kindergarten class each at Addison, Walter Hays and El Carmelo elementary schools, but add one at Escondido, according to McGee's report. The district will also add a firs- grade class at Juana Briones and a third-grade class at Walter Hays.

Staff is also proposing hiring more full-time teachers to manage class sizes at the middle and high schools. Final staffing numbers will be presented during a budget discussion at the May 10 board meeting.

The community conversation around new schools was revived this year by McGee's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC), a group of parents that spent several months working toward a series of recommendations about how to best approach the district's short- and long-term enrollment needs. The group's elementary subcommittee, which focused on the 12 elementary schools, concluded that the district did not need to open a new elementary site. However, three subcommittee members penned a "minority report" that argues for a 13th school.

The enrollment group's secondary subcommittee initially proposed opening an alternative, "innovative" middle and high school at the Cubberley Community Center site, arguing that the district's secondary schools are too large now and will only get bigger in coming years. The group later adjusted their recommendation, suggesting the board convene a new task force made up of educators, students and other stakeholders beyond parents to take a closer look at the need for new secondary schools, as well as work to support innovation and other changes at the existing schools.

A majority of school board members said in previous discussions that they would not support opening a new high school. Some did express an interest in opening additional elementary and middle schools.

In other business Tuesday, the board will discuss a proposal to combine two algebra courses at Gunn High School and several new board policies, as well as vote on a resolution to authorize the sale of the next series of Strong Schools Bonds, among other items.

The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 19, at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the full agenda here. A teacher-tenure celebration will be held from 4:45-5:55 p.m.

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8 people like this
Posted by Heidi R. Kling
a resident of Stanford
on Apr 18, 2016 at 4:49 pm

I'm still invested in the idea an "innovative" middle-high school at Cubberley Center, as are many parents, teachers and administrators I've spoken to. Adding portables to our schools isn't a solution. Perhaps this new middle/HS can be put back on the table as many of us feel it was squelched by our board before Mr. McGee really had a chance to really explore it? We live in the most innovative part of the country, maybe even in the world right now--why wouldn't our schools reflect our city? Why can't we pave the way? There are so many big money donors willing to pitch in to build this new school, why in the world would we turn those generous offers down?

While we've made strides, a new "innovative" whole-child STEM and arts focused campus would also show the watching world that Palo Alto is taking our painful past of teen suicide clusters, and the hundreds of kids hospitalized for depression, seriously. Why wouldn't we offer a bright new alternative for our youth?

16 people like this
Posted by Why a new middle school?
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 18, 2016 at 5:09 pm

Look at this sentence from the article: "A five-year projection says that elementary- and middle-school enrollment will go down, while the high schools will continue to grow."

The EMAC report pointed out repeatedly that there is a bubble of students working its way through our system. Our middle schools will reach their peak in Fall 2016, and then gradually decline, then our high schools will peak in 2020.

So if the reason to open a 4th middle school is to deal with growing enrollment, then there is zero chance a 4th middle school will be open in time to do anything about the impending middle school enrollment peak.

And, if the reason to open a 4th middle school is for some other reason -- such as smaller schools are more attractive in some way -- there is ample evidence in the EMAC report that the same reasoning should apply to our high schools too. And yet that idea was tragically squelched by the Board even before it had a chance to be born.

12 people like this
Posted by Jim H
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 18, 2016 at 6:07 pm

@Why a new Middle School - Because half of the board is clueless as to what is going on in the high schools. Look at the EMAC report and it looks like a horrible time to be a high school student, or even a teacher in PAUSD. Most high school students feel disconnected to their classmates and teachers.

The board wants to decrease class sizes, somehow. The EMAC even states that there is no way to fit 2300-2400 kids in the high schools AND reduce class sizes. Their suggestions all fall on the side of opening a new middle/high school combo, or a new high school.

EMAC shows studies where learning effectiveness decreases at around 1700 students in high school. Paly and Gunn are forecasted to be at least 2100 for the next 15+ years.

Teachers won't support a new high school because it will cost money and that might cut into their pockets. All the while the high school campuses cram students in like sardines and say they're doing what's best for the students.

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2016 at 7:00 pm

In case you haven't noticed we are continuing to build more homes in Palo Alto. More homes equals more students. Demographers don't take into account this fact. That is why we need another school at each level.

12 people like this
Posted by Ohlone Parent
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Apr 18, 2016 at 7:48 pm

Innovative programs are great. But if enrollment is declining, why do we need to spend 5+ years passing bonds and building new buildings? Innovation should happen inside the schools we already have. Use 25 Churchill if more space is needed.

Am I the only one it strikes as odd that we've spent the last year talking about building new buildings instead of what kind of programs we want?

2 people like this
Posted by Middle Schools Too Big Now
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 19, 2016 at 10:28 am

In my opinion it doesn't matter if the population is growing or not because the middle schools are already too big and the staff knows it. According to Jordan they are "at capacity" next year with 400 students at 6th graders. No one thinks this is an ideal size. Create a new middle school so kids can thrive not "get by". As a parent of a 5th grader I saw the majority of 5th grade parents looking into private schools for middle school. Unfortunately it is is hard to get into and most kids are ending up at the public option and they parents aren't thrilled. Why? It is too big. Kids get lost in that environment as much as the admins try. By they time they decide to open a school I'm sure my kid will be 18 so it won't matter for me but I do think these schools are too large and the middle schools have be ignored for awhile.

4 people like this
Posted by revdreileen
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 19, 2016 at 1:04 pm

revdreileen is a registered user.

It seems that a possible "quick" solution to the current middle school enrollment bubble is to re-purpose the old Garland Elementary site next to Jordan as a school within a school. It could use the sports facilities and other middle school resources (library, etc.) of Jordan, while providing additional classroom space and the possibility of some sort of specialty middle school program.

Using the Garland site in this way doesn't preclude building another facility elsewhere down the road, but any project like that will take several years. Re-purposing the Garland site could provide facility space to relieve the pressure on all of the middle schools within a year or two. I'm sure that some re-modeling would be needed, but that can happen more quickly than building a new facility.

3 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 19, 2016 at 1:59 pm

@ Heidi Kling
What is the purpose of a STEM and ARTS focused campus and how will it help lower stress. I should think it would be more stressful. Plus the high school curriculum is such that science, math and art are already half of the courses the kids take anyway. And the others presumably social studies and english are required by law and by universities. It would seem like what you are looking for is a special project for some specially chosen students a la the immersion programs which leave all the rest of the district students in the dust as far as language is concerned. Doesn't solve the problem and might create more since it will intensify competition.

3 people like this
Posted by curious
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 19, 2016 at 5:33 pm

What new board policies, and why is it necessary? The board policies aren't really enforceable and are only honored when it suits the purposes of those in power.

4 people like this
Posted by curious
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 20, 2016 at 7:58 am

Whoa - I looked on the school site and the recorrds request changes are a little chilling. In one place, it looks like an entire process for parents to appeal problems is removed and the only recourse is to go to the superintendant. Well, that's very convenient for the superintendant who is the one who has to tell the board at meetings whether there are outstanding problems or not. In another section, I can't remember exactly now, but who was a student for records was defined as students past and present but then whose records were considered student records specifically excluded children who were enrolled elsewhere - such as children transferred because of special needs battles? Or maybe it was any records the district kept about the student were no longer subject to requests, meaning, the district didn't want to have to disclose records they keep about a particular conflict if the family prevails and transfers out. Maybe it was both.

Given that the Weekly supposedly has a lawsuit about records, I wish they would have offered some analysis instead of cursory "board policies" will be discussed. When will the district make it more possible for the community to attend board meetings remotely? To McGee I would say, do you like it here? Remember that openness and trust and solving problems are integral to your job. If anyone is persuading you to do less, get rid of them and get out of the Churchill bubble as much as you can, your predecessors tripped themselves and blamed people and events that they themselves created or even they themselves imagined but weren't really true. Do not make the same mistake, the community wants you to succeed for the sake of our kids - but do not think the chickens will not come home to roost if you gloss problems over or even try to hide them. Kevin Skelly thought he was covering things up pretty well, and all along, people knew what was going on and waited for him to do the right thing. Having rules that help transparency will only help you.

Like this comment
Posted by i dont have a mouse
a resident of Triple El
on Apr 20, 2016 at 1:29 pm


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