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.