With the student body at Ellen Fletcher Middle School shrinking by over 30% since 2015, the Palo Alto Unified School District is considering offering families throughout the district the opportunity for their children to attend the school next fall.
Superintendent Don Austin presented a proposal to the district's Board of Education on Tuesday, Nov. 16, that called for creating an intra-district lottery to attend Fletcher for the 2022-2023 school year. The lottery would allow families who live within the Palo Alto district's boundaries, but who aren't zoned for Fletcher, to apply to switch their children into the school.
The district's board was receptive to the proposal, although no formal vote was taken. District staff are expected to return at a future board meeting with a more detailed plan.
Fletcher is substantially smaller than either of the district's other two middle schools, sitting at roughly half the size of Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School. According to enrollment data that the district collected last month, Fletcher has 502 students this year, compared to 820 at Frank S. Green Jr. Middle School and 979 at JLS.
Austin told the board on Tuesday night that when a middle school gets too small it becomes difficult to operate and begins to lose counselors, administrative support positions and multiple periods of elective classes.
Since 2015, Fletcher has lost roughly a third of its student body, dropping from 751 students to 502. The district overall has shrunk in recent years, but less steeply. Since 2015, Palo Alto Unified's enrollment has decreased roughly 16%.
At this point, Austin said Fletcher is approaching the size of a large elementary school.
"There's no denying that it's a problem that needs our attention," Austin said.
After speaking with school staff, he said that the district is proposing doing a "controlled" lottery next fall as a starting point, with the potential to take additional actions to shore up the school's population in future years.
"It would have little or no downside that we could come up with, except with the acknowledgement that it may not be enough for long term sustainability," Austin said.
The exact size of the lottery hasn't yet been finalized, but Austin told the board that he wants to move towards having 600 students attend Fletcher. In an interview after the meeting, Austin said that he doesn't expect to reach 600 next year, but that it's a longer term goal.
"If we were in the ballpark of 550 next year, I'd be very happy," Austin said. "I think that would be a good step in the right direction."
Board member Jennifer DiBrienza said she supports running a lottery, adding that it may appeal to parents of JLS students in particular. JLS graduates are split between Gunn and Paly for high school, while Fletcher's students are all zoned for Gunn. DiBrienza added that other parents may be interested in Fletcher because they prefer a smaller school for their children.
"I think that starting (with a lottery) is a great idea that gives families who are interested in this option the chance to pick it," DiBrienza said.
Other board members were similarly supportive of the proposal. Board member Todd Collins was absent from Tuesday's meeting.
Although Fletcher's current enrollment is already a cause for concern, Austin said that what's "more alarming" is the small size of the fifth grade classes this year at the elementary schools that feed into Fletcher. As of Nov. 9, Barron Park had 34 fifth graders, Juana Briones had 54 and Nixon had 69.
"The feeder numbers for fifth grade — they got my attention, let's say that," Austin told the board.
One "obvious approach" to increase Fletcher's size would be redrawing school district boundaries, but Austin said that isn't currently being considered. Running a lottery would not impact the boundary lines.
"Changing boundaries is a pretty big deal," he said. "It's a big enough deal that it's not on the table right now."
Board member Jesse Ladomirak said she saw no downside in trying a lottery but asked whether the district plans to take additional steps for next school year if the lottery doesn't yield enough new students.
Austin said that the district doesn't plan to take any action beyond a lottery in time for next school year because it would be too rushed, but it would instead look into possible options for future years.