News


Decision aims to cut East Palo Alto kids' lengthy school-bus commute

District to consolidate Tinsley students at fewer schools, following committee recommendation

Enrollment into the Palo Alto school district's Voluntary Transfer Program has fluctuated over the past five school years, with the 2018-19 year seeing the highest enrollment. Chart by Kristin Brown.

More than three years ago, the Palo Alto Unified School District started quietly acting on a committee's recommendation to concentrate Voluntary Transfer Program students from East Palo Alto at fewer elementary schools by phasing out new enrollment at certain sites.

The Minority Achievement and Talent Development Advisory (MATD) committee, which worked for more than a year to dig into the root causes of inequities faced by these students, recommended in its final report that Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) students be placed in targeted schools in each region of the district to provide them better support and connections.

New enrollment, except for younger siblings, was first phased out at Palo Verde Elementary School, then at Barron Park Elementary School in the 2016-17 school year. Juana Briones Elementary School was set to follow, but the roll-out was put on hold while Director of Academic Supports Judy Argumedo, who oversees the Voluntary Transfer Program, was out on medical leave, she said this week. Other elementary schools, including Nixon and Addison, did not receive new VTP students over the years due to a range of factors, Argumedo said: when there were a large number of siblings at one school, a large cohort placed at Escondido Elementary School's Spanish immersion program or a shift after new students dropped mid-registration. The district did not announce the enrollment changes at the time, she said, and at least two school board members said in interviews they were unaware the changes had taken place until this week.

With a new superintendent hired last summer, the district again picked up its goal of alleviating racial isolation for these students and cutting down on their long bus rides from East Palo Alto, which can last more than an hour one way.

In April, the district notified about 50 families that all new Voluntary Transfer Program enrollment would be closed starting this fall at Palo Verde, Barron Park, Juana Briones and Nixon — the elementary schools that, except for Palo Verde, are farthest from East Palo Alto — and that bus routes to those schools will end in the 2021-22 school year. A letter mailed home asked the VTP parents of children at these four schools to voluntarily move them to Duveneck, Addison, Walter Hayes, El Carmelo, Fairmeadow or Escondido elementary schools this coming fall. When the busing ends, students can either move to a school still served by the buses or parents will have to provide transportation, Argumedo wrote in the April 17 letter.

Some parents were taken aback by the decision, calling it a sudden, disruptive change that might leave them scrambling to organize their own transportation in two years if they don't want to move schools. District leadership, however, has defended it as a positive change based on several years of data and feedback from East Palo Alto students and parents.

"No change is perfect, but this one is absolutely pure in intent and will positively impact students," said Superintendent Don Austin, who rode the bus from East Palo Alto to Palo Alto last month to better understand what these students experience. "I care deeply about all students and understand these students at a very personal level."

Cutting down on commute times

There are 42 kindergarten, first- and second-grade students impacted by the change. The parents of 23 students have already decided to keep their children at their current school, while 15 have said they will transfer schools, according to the district. The parents of the remaining four students will decide before the end of the school year, Argumedo said.

Argumedo said her office for years has been considering how to concentrate larger numbers of students in the Voluntary Transfer Program, also known as the Tinsley program, to improve their experiences at school. The district enrolls 60 kindergarten through second-grade students through this program each year, spreading them out across 13 elementary schools, 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 single grade level, Argumedo said.

Following the Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee's work, 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.

In community meetings, focus groups and surveys, complaints about Tinsley students' long commutes have come up repeatedly over the years. MATD committee members often described differences in access to transportation as an obstacle to academic achievement. Several years ago, the district purchased a separate bus to serve Tinsley high schoolers who had to rely on public buses to get to Palo Alto High School. (At the time, VTP students could take school buses until ninth grade, at which point they could apply for free passes to take public transportation to school.)

Under the current bus routes, a Barron Park student who gets on the first bus stop in East Palo Alto at 6:54 a.m. gets to school at 8:08 a.m. It could take a Fairmeadow student nearly an hour and a half to get to school in the morning. (The district decided to close new enrollment at Palo Verde, despite the fact that it's closer than Fairmeadow to East Palo Alto, because JLS Middle School is adjacent to Fairmeadow, and families can pick up their children from both schools at the same time. Palo Verde also has the smallest number of Voluntary Transfer Program students, Argumedo said.)

Argumedo said her office meets with each incoming Voluntary Transfer Program family individually to register them. While families can't request a specific school, elementary schools in the district's north cluster are "overwhelming(ly) requested due to location," she said. Families whose children are slated to attend Fletcher Middle School and Gunn High School in south Palo Alto also often request to transfer to Frank S. Greene Jr. Middle School and Paly, citing transportation difficulties, Argumedo said.

The district has said this decision was not financially driven. The average cost of one VTP bus route is $90,000. There are currently six bus routes. These routes will continue in the 2021-22 school year, just stopping at four fewer sites than they do now.

Good intent but poorly communicated?

The letter home to families also sparked some concern among parents about transparency in decision-making at the district office. At a Juana Briones PTA meeting last Friday, parent Elaine Heal saw it as one of a handful of recent decisions that she said are "perhaps well-reasoned" but made without public awareness of or input into the process. She and other parents compared it to the recent reorganizations of the district arts department and special-education department.

Board of Education President Jennifer DiBrienza and Vice President Todd Collins said they were not aware the enrollment changes would be happening this fall until reading a weekly update from Austin on the district website in April. But they noted that concerns about racial isolation and busing have long been on the district's radar. They also were not aware until this week that new enrollment had already been phased out at Barron Park and Palo Verde, though they were not on the board at the time those changes took place. Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell said she knew the district planned to move forward with the MATD committee's recommendations, including this one, but she "didn't know the details of when and how we were doing it."

"I think this is like many things: The intent was good but we need to include people in the rollout when we do things like this," she said.

Trustee Ken Dauber didn't recall hearing about changes to enrollment at the elementary schools but said he is "supportive of the district administration acting to implement MATD recommendations. Certainly I think the district has an obligation to look for the best possible learning environment, including travel time to and from school, for our students."

Collins said he's discussed with Austin since his arrival the benefits of grouping minority and low-income students at fewer schools to increase the odds of improving teaching practices.

DiBrienza said the decision could have been communicated more clearly but that the change itself is a good one.

"I think the changes to the VTP program make total sense," she said. I think that they are well thought out (and) there's good rationale for them. But given the importance of them and the anxiety that they might produce if families either don't know why (they're happening) or are unsure, then it makes sense to make sure not only that we're doing the right thing but how we do it also becomes really important."

The district plans to review data and collect feedback from families to evaluate the change in spring 2021, Argumedo said.

In a weekly message on Friday, May 3, Austin accepted responsibility, as the superintendent, for communication that "may have fallen short."

"We have conceded to everyone that the plan and intent was solid, but the proactive communication could have been better ... There are reasons why this one may have fallen short, which can be corrected in the future," he wrote.

Busing to the schools where new enrollment is being phased out will also be reevaluated down the line, he said, could be extended if students are still in their current schools.

The Palo Alto Council of PTAs and Latino Parent Network are holding a meeting and potluck dinner for VTP families on the evening of Thursday, May 16. Argumedo will attend and the parent organizations have also invited Austin and school board trustees.

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Comments

4 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 3, 2019 at 10:54 am

Paly has had two football players from Tinsley go onto the NFL in recent years. How about if the next two NFL prospects play for Gunn?


14 people like this
Posted by Grew Up Here
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 3, 2019 at 1:26 pm

Why don't they cut all VTP bus transportation? PAUSD pays for the buses and we have budget problems. If the students want to attend PAUSD, they can attend but find their own transportation. Our own students do not have buses available to them and some of them are from South Palo Alto and have to weave through reckless drivers in the mornings, not safe. The disabled students get buses too. So the takeaway is, the healthy child who lives in Palo Alto does not get bus services. How is that fair?


6 people like this
Posted by Jim H
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 3, 2019 at 2:19 pm

Jim H is a registered user.

How is it that none of the board members were aware of the timing or the details of this change?

How concrerned are they really about these students?


25 people like this
Posted by Novelera
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2019 at 4:02 pm

Novelera is a registered user.

@Grew Up Here
These are already disadvantaged children and very likely in a home with one car at best. And you want them to find their own transportation, likely making it difficult if not impossible to attend Palo Alto Schools? Tinsley has been in place since 1985 and has afforded many low-income children a possibly better education than what they might receive in their own district.

I have had NO children in Palo Alto schools the entire time I've lived here (37 years), but I am happy for my taxes to educate children who live in Palo Alto and those who are coming here under the Tinsley program.


13 people like this
Posted by VTP Alum/ PALY c/o 2008
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 3, 2019 at 4:05 pm

PALY has a better football program and is closer to EPA which is why those two Tinsley players went to PALY and are now going to the NFL. Had they gone to Gunn they wouldn’t be in the NFL.

For someone to say PAUSD has budget problems and buses for Tinsley students is contributing to that is crazy. Do you know that additional funds are provided to PAUSD for students that qualify for free or reduced lunches AND for students that need SPED services? I’m talking thousands of dollars, so I think VTP is not the issue. The issue is overpaid superintendents, faculty and new facilities, sorry not sorry. The district needs to learn how to prioritize 85-15 isn’t the right way.

There’s a reason why students from EPA and other neighborhoods are welcomed into PAUSD. The district is definitely not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts.

I am thankful for receiving my education through PAUSD and being a part of the first class of Spanish Immersion, without VTP I don’t know where I’d be. I can also say that my parents weren’t able to take me to school everyday because they worked multiple jobs thanks to the systematic racism that exists in our society (from education resource to social capital). Anyways, thank you VTP!

GO VIKINGS!


16 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2019 at 4:56 pm

Tinsley students are no longer the same as they used to be, even those who graduated as recently as 08 may not recognise their counterparts in PA schools.

The number of poor, low income EPA hispanic families with two parents working multiple jobs who are entering the lottery are getting lower. The truth is that there are many families with professional parents living in gated communities that would be willing to send their children to private schools if they had not been successful in the lottery. There is no means test, nor should there be one, but the demographics of EPA are changing and the ethnic background of the families no longer give a true reflection of whether or not they are in need of this advantage.

EPA still has many lower income families who struggle to make ends meet. The question of whether and how much they value a PAUSD education is worth discussing. For many of them it is protecting their kids, and sons in particular from gangs, drugs, etc. rather than valuing the education itself. We do need to have an honest discussion about the program, and we need to be able to do so without told that we have racist motives. The truth is that houses in EPA are now being sold over $1m. There are plenty of newer housing, apartments for single professionals and smarter areas all over town. By taking some of the families out of the Ravenswood schools we must question whether that is preventing Ravenswood schools from improving.

From my family's experience, the elementary years were a good experience for our family to intermingle and form relationships with the Tinsley students. The advantages became more difficult in middle school and almost impossible in high school. The buses leaving schools at dismissal was part of the problem, but definitely not the only reason why the integration stopped happening. Family values, extra tutoring, after school activities and even things like favorite tv shows and music choices make the likelihood of the two groups mixing well more difficult.


4 people like this
Posted by Member
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 3, 2019 at 6:52 pm

To “Grew up here”, disabled students getting transportation is fair. Our son couldn’t go to our neighborhood school in north Palo Alto because they couldn’t accommodate him so he had to go to Barron Park. We also had to get two other kids to and from our neighborhood school. This is not possible with the start and end times close together and the Palo Alto traffic. Now he is in middle school and cannot wait after school unsupervised for us to be able to get our other kids and drive to his school or walk or bike home on his own like a typical kid. It’s logistically impossible and quite fair IMO that he gets transportation.


4 people like this
Posted by VTP
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 3, 2019 at 8:13 pm

@Resident It is most definitely about access to education. Not sure why a parent would bother sending their child all the way to Palo Alto, bus or not, instead of the school down the street with access to school bus if it wasn’t about access to a better education. Schools in Spanish speaking countries are more structured and provide a better education than most inner-city schools. Safety? As a Tinsley student, I was exposed to under age drinking and smoking during Middle and High School in Palo Alto schools and bomb threats. So not really sure where the drugs and safety comment is coming from.
Integration? Your points on this are so interesting to me. Like it’s soooo difficult for Tinsley and PA students to form relationships. 10 years after graduation I’ve mainted relationships with two PA friends and their families. It’s up to the parents to maintain the relationship through elementary, after that it’s up to the students to maintain it. You can’t force people to mingle, what will Be will be.


4 people like this
Posted by Activities
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 3, 2019 at 8:47 pm

Activities is a registered user.

I asked my kid who goes to JLS and his impression is that the Tinsley kids there are pretty isolated. The bus gets there very early, they hang out mostly with each other, and they "generally don't do well" (his impression). Made me wonder if they tend to be involved in activities like band or drama or sports, which is where many kids find their "tribe", or if the after-school bus makes that difficult. Maybe some kids are successful at Paly because they play sports like football and form tight bonds with other kids that way. It would be nice to emphasize this type of connectedness for all Tinsley kids, so they form friendships based on mutual interests and skills, and see if there is a way to find transportation home for them.


4 people like this
Posted by Grew Up Here
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 3, 2019 at 9:29 pm

@Member, your justification for using the bus is not convincing: "Our son couldn’t go to our neighborhood school in north Palo Alto because they couldn’t accommodate him so he had to go to Barron Park. We also had to get two other kids to and from our neighborhood school." I have three children also and had to get them to school. At one point, they were in three different schools! In addition, some take their children to immersion programs so they drive them, they don't get the bus.

@VTP: That is extremely rare that you kept the friendships alive throughout high school and beyond. My children had VTP friends in elementary but at middle school, the VTPs decided to hangout with VTPs instead. Academic values, family upbringing, finances, cultures, hobbies are different.


2 people like this
Posted by Aisha
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 4, 2019 at 10:31 pm

@ Novelera,
Thanks for your comments. I’m feeling the love in EPA.


@ VTP Alum/Paly c/o 2008
Thanks for representing and keeping it real!
The struggle is real!


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