Palo Alto school board seeks innovation at existing schools, rather than new sites

District opts against opening new elementary, secondary schools

The Palo Alto school district has no compelling need to look into opening a new elementary, middle or K-8 school, a majority of the Board of Education decided Tuesday, given declining enrollment and an already tight budget. They expressed support, however, for repurposing district property into sites for innovative programs that can be connected to existing schools.

Most board members agreed with staff projections that show enrollment at all levels in the district eventually going down over the next five years after a large class moves through the middle and high schools.

The effects of declining enrollment at the elementary schools are already evident: 26 classrooms across the district are no longer used for primary academic purposes, and schools that used to have three or four kindergarten classes now have two, staff said.

Only board President Heidi Emberling supported the staff's idea to bring in a consultant to look at the feasibility of opening a combined elementary and middle school. She said she was not as confident as staff or some of her colleagues that the district will continue to see a "steep" decline in enrollment, particularly at the elementary schools.

"(I) don't want to stuff as many elementary school students as possible onto a site because we can technically do so," Emberling said.

Pointing to a minority report penned by three members of last year's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee that supported opening a 13th elementary school, she asked: "We have accommodated all of these students in our current schools, but at what cost?"

Forty portable classrooms are in use across Palo Alto's campuses, she said, and kindergarten classes have more than 20 students.

"I understand when you look at the new school solely from perspective of budget, it doesn't seem an obvious choice, but we make budget priority decisions all the time," Emberling said. "I am very confident that we could figure this out if we wanted to."

When the enrollment-committee was meeting, the board was "exhorted by our community to be bold, to innovate, to be a lighthouse district," she added.

Trustee Ken Dauber, too, said there is still room for conversations about the benefits of smaller elementary schools, and expressed interest in another proposal from the district’s enrollment committee to open a K-8 language-focused school that would bring the district’s language-immersion programs under one roof. There is, however, no money in the budget for any new school given the district’s current $4.2 million deficit, he said.

There was more support on the board for directing any available funds to support innovation at the district’s existing schools. Superintendent Max McGee offered a preliminary proposal to move the district office, at 25 Churchill Ave., to Cubberley Community Center, and repurpose the Churchill Avenue space into some sort of innovative program.

Early staff ideas for this program range from an expansion of the district’s early-childhood education services and an independent, alternative program like Mountain View-Los Altos High School District’s Freestyle Academy to growing the high schools’ freshman cohort programs or specialized pathways.

Trustee Camille Townsend said doing something at the high school level would be a way for the district to respond to what she described as a "drumbeat for a different way," as well as to help mitigate expected enrollment growth at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools.

Gunn’s student board representative, senior Ankit Ranjan, cautioned board members and asked them to consider how putting a new program in place at Churchill Avenue, next door to Paly, would affect equity between the two high schools.

"I know that many people at Gunn do feel like our community is seen as kind of reflexive and responding to changes that are happening on this side of town. ... This might be just a logistic problem where space is, but it’s important to take into consideration where the center of gravity is around innovation and about changing this district," Ranjan said.

"I think that there’s legitimate merit to trying to start innovation programs at Gunn simply for the fact to equalize that playing field and bring the center closer to that side of town."

Vice President Terry Godfrey and Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell also suggested that the district tackle a recurring, and often controversial, proposal to look at redrawing enrollment boundaries given uneven growth in some areas of the city.

Dauber said he hopes the district will work to address a problem particularly in the Palo Verde neighborhood, where a significant number of students cannot attend their neighborhood school.

McGee said he will work with staff to further refine their ideas for repurposing existing school properties. He is also currently leading a team of teachers, the "High School Learning Design Team," charged at the board’s direction with proliferating innovation at the existing schools.

"The board actually gave you direction a number of months ago that we’d like to see some further investments in our existing high schools," Baten Caswell told McGee. "I don’t want to drop that because I think there are a lot of good ideas there, but we haven’t invested in them."


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25 people like this
Posted by Dumb and Dumber
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 28, 2016 at 10:04 pm

Melissa Caswell does not understand how money works. She wants to spend "millions" on innovation at the current high schools, but then she gave all of those millions to Terry Baldwin, PAEA, and Scott Bowers for giant raises for the admins and unions. Even in spite of having provoked a huge budgetary crisis with her failure to understand the fundamentals of how money and budgets work, she now won't even vote to eliminate the position of PR officer. So the district has no money for innovative programs because Melissa Caswell would not even vote to eliminate one position that is totally useless and unnecessary.

[Portion removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by For seniors
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 29, 2016 at 8:46 am

I don't see why some school board officials are talking about opening another school. Kindergarten enrollments have been declining for five years, and they declined especially quickly this year. We shouldn't be wasting money pursuing more programs for a shrinking school population. The oldest "millennials" are turning 35 and having kids, but they aren't going to be having them here. They will be in cities with more room to grow, like San Carlos and Santa Cruz.

What is growing in Palo Alto is the senior population. We should be looking at repurposing some of this school space into areas for seniors, just like we are doing with Cubberley. Lytton Gardens is where the elementary school for downtown north used to be. In ten or fifteen years, we are going to need more community spaces for seniors - that one building in downtown isn't going to be enough.

We don't need to open a whole new school when we can't even fill the ones we have. Let's take the space we aren't using and adapt it to what we are actually going to need.

8 people like this
Posted by Live Your Values
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 29, 2016 at 12:13 pm

Live Your Values is a registered user.

Conform with PAUSD Value to support cohesive neighborhood schools. Give kids who live in the natural attendance area of a lottery school first option to choose that school before you open the lottery (and their neighborhood community)to the rest of the district. Then the impacted neighborhoods will have a neighborhood school and REAL choice. That will solve a some of the massive overflow problem.

I like the idea of bringing innovation to all schools. All of our children deserve to benefit from best practices.

8 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 29, 2016 at 5:28 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

I'd like to spread some peace of mind around town--by letting folks know that, when it comes to "innovation," there's already a lot of it underway in our high schools, with much to be proud of.

My fellow teachers and I were continually engaged in innovation at Gunn (I was there from 1995-2010), every workday, as we tried out new activities and approaches in our classes and then spread the word on what worked. We had regular department get-togethers--teaching one another our latest-greatest curricular innovations.

An "innovative academic curriculum" is often defined as "emphasizing experience-based, inquiry-oriented, team, and cross-disciplinary learning."

Luckily, this has been going on in our high-school classrooms for years. The community just doesn't happen to know--because we're all so busy who can go observe at school everyday anyway!?

For years, English teachers have had teams of students inquire into the best courtroom strategy for George (in make-believe, cross-disciplinary trials to conclude"Of Mice and Men"). For years, physics instructors--teaching in "Mythbusters" mode--have had teams of kids experience dropping raw eggs from on high after inquiring into what cushioning might work best.

French teachers assign readings in sociology and current politics, conversations about everyday experience, and invite kids to access (cross-disciplinarily!) their inner Julia Child. A teacher of Environmental Science sends kids to inquire, via virtual time-travel, how seismic waves point to epicenters and how their own families could experientially be better prepared for earthquakes.

A history teacher poses inquiries concerning the Weimar Republic then puts students into teams to make films that teach their classmates about pre-Nazi Germany. In Communications, I had students go on a cellphone "scavenger hunt" in class to inquire, for example, about the cost of engaging the Hoover Tower carillon to serenade an outdoor wedding (which would be experience-based for them someday, I could only hope).

So anyway: I just wanted to reassure folks out there! Innovation is great, is a wheel we're already inventing, and is in a lot of good hands.

Coordinator, Save the 2,008 (creating hope for our high-schoolers)

1 person likes this
Posted by Me
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 3, 2016 at 10:51 am

"What is growing in Palo Alto is the senior population. We should be looking at repurposing some of this school space into areas for seniors, just like we are doing with Cubberley. Lytton Gardens is where the elementary school for downtown north used to be. In ten or fifteen years, we are going to need more community spaces for seniors - that one building in downtown isn't going to be enough."

My comment about Palo Alto becoming a retirement community seems prescient, eh? That's why we need to focus on installing wheelchair lanes instead of bike lanes. Take that, Bolinas!

4 people like this
Posted by Yeah right
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2016 at 12:38 am

If you seek innovation, Grasshopper, try to do less squashing and alienating of the ones most likely to innovate...

"Innovating" isn't like picking a textbook curriculum. For one, you have to develop a liking for working outside the echo chamber, i.e., honesty. Good luck with that!

1 person likes this
Posted by Yeah Right
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2016 at 3:25 pm

Went to visit a friend at a retirement community in Walnut Creek recently. All I can say us, Wow. Very beautiful, open, quiet, village feel for the amenities, but homes have lots of open space, views. I forgot how good it is to have a break from constant airplane noise, traffic.

As a longtime resident, I would really love to see us think about developing community retirement homes within striking distance of but not in Palo Alto. A daily shuttle could meet the needs of people who want to visit, but I'd really like to live somewhere where I can afford something decent, and where there is space, quiet, community feel like we used to have here,. I'd probably get downtown again more than living here since the traffic got bad and Council allowed all the overbuilding. Retiring in the shadow of Palantirville office park is not my idea of a great retirement. I wonder if I can sue Kniss for screwing up my equity by making Palo Alto so much less desirable than Los Altos?

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