Elementary enrollment dips; work to reduce class sizes continues

Chief academic officer: Palo Alto school district is 'well positioned' to meet target class sizes

As the Palo Alto community continues to debate class size and school capacity, enrollment is sharply down at the school district’s elementary schools, slightly up at its middle schools and temporarily dipping at the high schools, according to a report the Board of Education will hear at its meeting Tuesday night.

Elementary enrollment has dropped by 259 students -- almost equivalent to the entire student population at Barron Park Elementary School -- to a total of 5,219 students. The decrease is far greater than the district's conservative projection of 152.

Enrollment is down across all elementary sites, according to the district, and kindergarten enrollment also continues to decline following the implementation of a new age cut-off several years ago. The largest elementary site is Ohlone Elementary School with 578 students and the smallest is Barron Park with 287.

And though it is the fourth consecutive year of elementary enrollment decline in Palo Alto Unified, following a decrease of 176 students last year, the district anticipates stable growth over the next five years, according to the report.

The district’s three middle schools, which board and community members often describe as overcrowded, continued to grow this year by 101 students.

JLS Middle School continues to have the largest enrollment at 1,209 students, compared to 1,169 at Jordan Middle School and 712 at Terman Middle School, which has the smallest physical school site.

The middle schools are currently at or very close to capacity, the report states. Additional growth this year and next has been accommodate with portables. The district expects middle-school enrollment to stabilize in the next two years as the current smaller fourth- and fifth-grade classes move forward.

As promised by district leadership, the enrollment report includes an update on not only average class sizes at the secondary schools, but also minimums, maximums and numbers of sections for individual courses at each school.

According to a staff report prepared by Chief Student Services Office Holly Wade, middle-school classes are "hitting most of the target class sizes" in the core subject areas of English, history/social studies, mathematics and science, as well as world language.

Under the district’s adopted student-teacher ratios, all sixth-grade core classes and all seventh- and eighth-grade math and English classes should have 24 students.

Currently, 6 percent of all middle-school sections have 30 or more students in them, according to the enrollment report.

"While some of these classes at or over 30 were unavoidable due to limited sections and strong registration rates, there are a few areas that could be balanced to decrease this percentage to even less than 6%," Wade wrote.

At Palo Alto and Gunn high schools, enrollment is down slightly, by 33 students, but is expected to grow as the large middle-school "bubble" classes arrive in the next few years. The high schools can accommodate the projected growth, a staff report states, though community members and at least one board member, Ken Dauber, have been pushing for the district to invest in hiring more teachers to ensure class sizes don’t swell.

This year, there are 1,985 students at Paly and 1,885 at Gunn.

At the two high schools, 11 percent of all class sections have 32 or more students, according to the district. The district’s official ratios require freshmen math and English classes to have 24 students; 10th-grade English, 26 students; and all other classes, 28.5 students.

"The district will continue to work to decrease the percentage of students in the secondary schools who have one or more classes above target class averages, but the schools overall are off to a strong start with class sizes being appropriate and conducive for learning," Wade wrote in her report.

She added that the district is "well positioned" to meet the "very realistic goal" of having all middle-school core classes enrolled at under 30 students per section and 32 students at the high schools "through continued review of staffing, efforts on balancing sections within the master schedule, and close discussion and study with each of the school leaders as they build the master schedule and identify areas that could be addressed while being fiscally responsible."

On Tuesday, the board will also have the fourth of several discussions on how to address a multi-million dollar budget deficit, the result of miscalculated property-tax projections the district discovered this summer.

According to a new estimate the district received in late August from the Santa Clara County Controller-Teasurer Department, estimated property-tax growth for the 2016-17 year is now at 4.61 percent, slightly below the July projection of 5.34 percent. The district had originally budgeted for 8.67 percent growth.

Though this drop means an additional $900,000 loss, bringing the district’s total budget deficit to $4.2 million, it is "typical" for the estimate to be lower in August as the Controller-Treasurer reserves money for tax refunds and estimates conservatively on unsecured tax collections, Chief Budget Officer Cathy Mak wrote in a staff report. Staff has revised previously prepared multi-year budget scenarios with this new projection.

However, "based on past experience," Mak anticipates the actual revenue growth to be higher by the end of the fiscal year.

The district will also hold a second town hall meeting on the budget shortfall to collect further community feedback on Thursday, Sept. 15, 7-8:30 p.m. It will take place at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave., and also be streamed online.

In other business Tuesday, the board will vote on new mathematics curricula to pilot at the elementary schools this year; review a proposed schematic design for a major revamp of Addison Elementary School; and discuss putting out bids for Gunn’s Central Building Project, among other items.

The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. Read the full agenda here.


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19 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 13, 2016 at 8:29 am

Past experience may not serve this year, people are skittish about a potential interest rate hike. It's also an election year. We just gave the district a tax, now they need to show that they didn't just blow it for nothing.

18 people like this
Posted by Growth/Decline has surprises
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 13, 2016 at 11:10 am

"The District predicts stable growth over the next five years.".........I really don't think the District is able to make reliable predictions. In my neighborhood there are some lovely 3 - 4 bedroom houses for rent, but it seems that they are not renting as quickly as they used to. There are also lots of small low level apartments on Alma that have For Rent signs. Maybe the word has got out, PAUSD's image may now be tarnished based on Special Ed. problems, budget issues, high cost of housing, renters being overflowed to schools they don't want , and parents not wanting their children to live in such a highly competitive culture. On the other hand, the slowdown of the Chinese economic machine may be the elephant in the room.

18 people like this
Posted by Rachel
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 13, 2016 at 11:17 am

Between ghost houses, plenty of rental homes and a slow market it is not a surprise.

27 people like this
Posted by Sue Allen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 13, 2016 at 11:52 am

Kindergarten enrollment has not dropped due to changing of cut off date. That did affect numbers for 3 years, but only by 1/12th as the date was shifted a month earlier. Now it's stable at Sept 1, so there are still 12 months of birthdays enrolling for Kinder. The numbers are down because fewer young families are moving here. They can't afford it. I work in Ravenswood District and the numbers there are way down, too. EPA is becoming a city of young, single tech workers. They fill all the new housing being built there.

27 people like this
Posted by history
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 13, 2016 at 12:02 pm

"The numbers are down because fewer young families are moving here. They can't afford it. "

That's most likely the reason. You need to be very well established to live in Palo Alto now. Or be very lucky with a company's IPO. Even the enormous salaries around here can no longer afford Palo Alto.

18 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Sep 13, 2016 at 12:15 pm

US births peaked in 2008. With the economic slowdown, births dropped for several years, then stabilized.

Births in 2011 (those now entering kindergarten) were 8% below 2008.

So there are national trends as well as local factors.
In addition to the housing factors mentioned above, the number of houses sold in Palo Alto has been very small, so there are few opportunities for families to move into the city

18 people like this
Posted by Double speak
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 13, 2016 at 12:47 pm

If the adopted ratio is 24 in middle school why are they reporting on 30? So 6% are over 30 - what percent are over 24? Isn't that what we are talking about? This comes across as a bunch of district double speek. What is the point of adopting a target and then reporting against another number?

19 people like this
Posted by Cant Wait
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 13, 2016 at 12:53 pm

Can't wait for the PAUSD budget fiasco tragicomedy meeting to hear the head-in-the-sand solutions proposed by the illustrious, intelligent luminaries who ignored class size reduction needs and got us into this terrible mess.

We can only hope they listen to Dauber.

This time.

7 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 13, 2016 at 5:29 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

Timely reporting from The Weekly!--and at the high-school level, this appears to be some good news.

But since 32 is already a very, very large class--it never hurts to remember that we're not talking about widgets, we're talking about 32 ("or more"!) teenagers, all in one room, many of them stressed or anxious, all of them with variable daily moods, all of them with the normal adolescent worries, all of them with different obstacles to learning, each of them the child of concerned and loving parents, and now for the class period under the oversight of only one adult--it would be useful to know not only that 11% of the high-school classes exceed 32 teenagers but what percentage of the classes exceed 28.

(And even 28 is too big. At that number, a full-time teacher is teaching, overall, 140 young people.)

And I appreciate Ms. Wade's reassurances: "The district will continue to work to decrease the percentage of students in the secondary schools who have one or more classes above target class averages, but the schools overall are off to a strong start with class sizes being appropriate and conducive for learning."

Still, I would feel better if the phrase had been: "...appropriate and conducive for learning and for a sense of connectedness and well-being."

But my hat is off to everyone who's working hard on this important issue. It's the number one concern of Save the 2,008.

Marc Vincenti
Campaign Coordinator
Save the 2,008 -- creating hope for our high-schoolers

10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 13, 2016 at 5:36 pm

I am very wary of the dip in elementary enrollments. If we are going to be inundated with lots more housing, this is going to be just a blip. If we are going to get lots of "cheaper" pack and stack housing with microunits, we are going to get those rented by out of towners as a cheaper option than private school just to get into Gunn and Paly, even if they allow the teens to live there by themselves during the week.

Things are changing in Palo Alto, but a smaller school enrollment is not likely to be an ongoing trend, in my opinion.

6 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 14, 2016 at 11:49 am

[Portion removed.]

Along with the economic factors stated above, the Echo Boom / Millennials have moved through the grade school system. There are fewer Gen-Xers than Boomers. Could be the new normal.

11 people like this
Posted by Judy
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 14, 2016 at 12:15 pm

If you look at the history of enrollment in the PA schools; since 1945, enrollment went down for 22 years, then up for 22 years, then down for 22 years, then up again for 22 years, now we're on another slight down swing. At one point school enrollment was half what it had been at it's height that's when so many elementary schools were closed and sold off. I hope in the future these gyrations will flatten out so the PAUSD can get a better handle on future enrollment figures.

17 people like this
Posted by Unbelievable
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 14, 2016 at 2:17 pm

Unbelievable is a registered user.

There is also the issue of frustrated and angry parents leaving the district, as well as the siren song of private schools.

7 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 14, 2016 at 4:09 pm

Good. The elementary schools have been adversely affected by the overcrowding with vulnerable kids falling through the cracks. We're a small city that's good at being a small city, but doesn't have a lot of talent for being a larger city.

9 people like this
Posted by Menlo Park resident now
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 16, 2016 at 6:57 pm

"The numbers are down because fewer young families are moving here. They can't afford it."

Yep. I was a Palo Alto resident when I enrolled my son in preschool four years ago. So were all the other young families - that's why we all enrolled in preschool in PA. Then my rent doubled and I realized it was just unrealistic to afford a condo or house in Palo Alto. So I moved to Menlo Park.

As far as I can tell, everyone in my son's preschool class did something similar. Many people left a year or two later than I did, and they moved further - San Carlos, Redwood City, San Mateo, Union City.

Now my son is going to graduate from preschool next year and enroll at Laurel. As far as I know, none of the kids in his class will be going to Palo Alto elementary schools.

But, seriously, Menlo Park is great. There's lots of young families and kids here, especially in the starter-home Willows neighborhood, and in the apartment complexes nearby. It's nice to see the other young parents near the house and my kids can go play and always see someone they know. I was sad when I left Palo Alto, but now I'm glad I did.

If anything, spare a thought for the young families who are still in Palo Alto. They bought super-expensive houses and now their kids have no one to play with.

5 people like this
Posted by Menlo Park resident now
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 16, 2016 at 6:59 pm

Also, there's no sign that Palo Alto is going to be "inundated with housing". Remember Maybell and the residentialist majority? I think Palo Alto will remain a very exclusive community for some time to come.

8 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2016 at 9:00 am

@Menlo resident,
The numbers of condos and townhouses bought and sold in Palo Alto and Menlo hardly supports your bitterness. Menlo has always had the patch of affordability as long as I have lived here, and renting has never been a path to affordability and permanence in Silicon Valley. Your growing up and realizing it hardly condemns children in Palo Alto to empty schools. The minute Palo Alto schools get leadership capable of a collaborative, honest, and dynamic relationship with the parent community, especially to solve problems, families will continue to do whatever it takes to live here.

Contrary to all the bluster, this area has always been unaffordable, and booms have always brought surges in prices. Smart residents know to watch for when tech employees can sell their stock options because prices bump then, too. Interest rates are at historic lows, if anything, it's easier to buy than ever. That doesn't mean easy, especially with the ghost house problem.

The current City Council is not a residentialist majority. Pat Burt is not a residentialist. Cory Wohlbach is the polar opposite of a residentialist, despite the misleading way he and Greg Scharff portrayed themselves to get elected/re-elected, respectively.

Palo Alto has allowed overbuilding of office capacity, and we are in a drought. The town population triples during the day, but our safety infrastructure, that residents paid for, is not anywhere near prepared to deal with that reality. We do not need to be adding housing until those problems are solved, period.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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