The Palo Alto school district has decided to close new enrollment at four elementary schools for the Voluntary Transfer Program, which allows East Palo Alto students to attend Palo Alto Unified schools, in the hopes of cutting down on young students' long bus rides and alleviating isolation by grouping more minority students together.
The district sent letters in English and Spanish to about 50 affected families on April 17 informing them of the change. Starting this fall, no new Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) students will be able to enroll at Palo Verde, Barron Park, Juana Briones or Nixon — the elementary schools that, except for Palo Verde, are farthest from East Palo Alto — and bus routes to those schools will end in the 2021-22 school year. The letter asked current VTP parents to voluntarily move children at these four schools to Duveneck, Addison, Hayes, El Carmelo, Fairmeadow or Escondido elementary schools this coming fall. When the bussing ends, students can either move to a school still served by the buses or parents will have to provide transportation.
Parents said they have been surprised by the sudden announcement and are concerned about the choice they feel it presents: to either uproot their children or arrange transportation themselves, which means navigating around their work schedules. Others also criticized the district for not consulting with families before making what they see as a consequential change.
"Sad and disappointed" were Liz Hernandez's first reactions when she read the district's announcement. Her son, a Tinsley student, is in first grade at Juana Briones Elementary School, where he started this year after attending kindergarten at St. Elizabeth Seton School in Palo Alto. She's a hair stylist and doesn't get off work until 6 p.m., so her son takes the bus to and from their East Palo Alto home. Her older child, a teenager, attends school in a different district, so handling transportation for both of them would be difficult, she said.
Her first-grade son is behind in reading and is still adjusting to his new school, Hernandez said. She doesn't see moving him as a viable choice.
"Changing schools, I feel like, will just add something else to his ability of being on the same page of the other students," Hernandez said.
Director of Academic Supports Judy Argumedo, who oversees the Voluntary Transfer Program, said the district has been considering since 2014 how to improve long bus rides and the experience of racial isolation for East Palo Alto students. In that year, the district's Minority Achievement and Talent Development Advisory committee heard students and parents describe both as pressing issues. The committee recommended that the district place Voluntary Transfer Program students in targeted schools in each region of the district and provide those schools with extra funding for bus duty and professional development on "how to create identity-safe classrooms."
At the time, Argumedo said that then-superintendent Max McGee asked the San Mateo County Office of Education if the district could enroll an additional 40 Voluntary Transfer Program students. The request was denied because enrollment figures are set for the program, the result of a court-ordered settlement from the 1980s.
The 60 kindergarten through second-grade students who enroll in Palo Alto Unified through this program each year are spread out across 13 elementary school sites, including Greendell School. Some students also request to move to other district schools or leave the district, meaning that at some schools there is only one East Palo Alto student in a grade level, Argumedo said.
All of the transfer requests come from parents of students at schools in south Palo Alto, who often cite transportation challenges, she said. The bus ride can be longer than an hour for some students, according to the district.
The district also offered families of fifth-grade students who were slated to go to Fletcher Middle School in south Palo Alto the opportunity to transfer to Frank S. Greene or JLS middle schools, which are closer to East Palo Alto. Ten out of 12 families decided to transfer; the two who didn’t had older children already attending Fletcher, according to the district.
About half of the parents who have responded to the letter so far have chosen to transfer, Argumedo said. The district on Friday, April 26, called families they haven't heard from and will continue doing so on Monday, April 29.
"In some cases, our change in placement will now provide an opportunity to walk or bike to school," Superintendent Don Austin wrote in a weekly message. "We view this revision as a positive."
Special-education students who are bused separately will not be affected by the change, Argumedo said.
Juana Briones Principal Katy Bimpson said at a PTA meeting on Friday night that in spite of the district's plan to not to enroll new VTP students at her school and to encourage families to transfer their children out, "Personally, I'd like to see our community stay intact."
"I've only ever experienced education with diversity among our community. It's something I know we all value very, very deeply," Bimpson said.
She said she's been aware of the pending change for several months but that the district sent the letters home to families without telling her until three days after the fact. She urged parents Friday to "rally around all of our families to make sure they know what important members they are of this community."
There are about 20 Voluntary Transfer Program students at Juana Briones. Bimpson described the district's intent to shorten young students' bus rides to school as "well-intentioned."
Bimpson and Juana Briones staff will be hosting a meeting to answer parents' questions about the change on Monday, May 13, from 5:30-7 p.m. at Foundation for a College Education, 2160 Euclid Ave. in East Palo Alto. She's reaching out to other elementary principals to involve them as well, she said.
Other Juana Briones parents expressed outrage at the change and how it was communicated. For Elaine Heal, it raised larger questions about transparency in the district -- decisions that are "perhaps well-reasoned" but made without public awareness of or input into the process. She and other parents compared it to the recent reorganization of the district arts department, which was similarly criticized by teachers and parents.
Mayra Gonzalez, the parent of two Voluntary Transfer Program students at Juana Briones, said her children don't feel isolated at school -- but she worried they might if other East Palo Alto students leave as a result of this decision.
"The ones that depend on the bus; they're going to have to go," she said at the PTA meeting.
In an interview, Argumedo apologized for any communication breakdown with families but defended the changes to the program.
"Our intent was really to positively affect the student experience and address concerns that have risen from the VTP community for many years," Argumedo said. "I really want the families to feel welcome. If this has come out negatively, I'm truly sorry because our intent is to positively impact students."
In spring 2021, the district will collect feedback from families to evaluate the change, she said.
Argumedo urged any families with questions to contact her office at 650-329-3736 or email@example.com. Both she and her assistant speak Spanish. A FAQ page, also available in Spanish, is posted on the district's website.