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.