News

Fletcher Middle School's dwindling size causes district to propose enrollment lottery

Palo Alto Unified is considering running an intra-district lottery for Fletcher next school year

Fletcher Middle School in Palo Alto, which has 502 students this academic year, has seen significant drops in its enrollment numbers. Embarcadero Media file photo by Magali Gauthier.

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.

Help sustain the local news you depend on.

Your contribution matters. Become a member today.

Join

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.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox in our Express newsletter.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox in our Express newsletter.

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 supports trying a lottery

Faced with low enrollment, Superintendent Don Austin has set a long term goal of having 600 students attend Ellen Fletcher Middle School sign in Palo Alto. Embarcadero Media file photo by Adam Pardee.

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.

A front row seat to local high school sports.

Check out our new newsletter, the Playbook.

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Get uninterrupted access to important local education news. Become a member today.

Fletcher Middle School's dwindling size causes district to propose enrollment lottery

Palo Alto Unified is considering running an intra-district lottery for Fletcher next school year

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Nov 17, 2021, 9:50 am
Updated: Wed, Nov 17, 2021, 3:35 pm

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.

Comments

Rebecca Eisenberg
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2021 at 11:17 am
Rebecca Eisenberg, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 11:17 am

This is exactly why some people's objections to building more affordable housing are misplaced (they fear, among other misperceptions, that housing would overload our schools). If multi-family housing were allowed in the Fletcher assignment area, under-enrollment would not be a problem. Palo Alto needs affordable housing urgently -- including housing for all of PAUSD's teachers.


Me 2
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2021 at 11:19 am
Me 2, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 11:19 am

No surprise given how expensive Palo Alto housing has become. Too expensive for even upper middle class parents to live here.

We've essentially become a big retirement community. We should start seeing golf carts and wheelchairs running around on our streets soon.

EDIT: And I disagree with Rebecca. We need market rate housing. Period. Below Market Rate housing is simply bad policy.


peppered
Registered user
Community Center
on Nov 17, 2021 at 12:08 pm
peppered, Community Center
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 12:08 pm

Fletcher being a smaller school is a far better experience for students compared with Green or JLS.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2021 at 12:30 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 12:30 pm

An interesting point, this is the only middle school west of the Caltrain tracks and it might suit anyone who doesn't want to cross the tracks on a daily basis.

Another interesting point is that both our high schools are west of the tracks and presumably half our high school students have to cross the tracks daily.

These factors are rarely mentioned when discussing the schools and it strikes me that it is important to think about it.


side splitting
Registered user
Midtown
on Nov 17, 2021 at 1:59 pm
side splitting, Midtown
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 1:59 pm

Fletcher has a low # of students and the other two appear to be facing declines in enrollment as well. I hope the board looks collectively at the MS enrollment and not just Fletcher. Greene and JLS are not as populated as they were in the past, which is positive, in my opinion.

With the lottery will PAUSD be robbing Peter to pay Paul?

What is the desired population per school across all three?

And let's hope Austin and the board factor in this trend when considering a 3rd HS at Cubberly.


chris
Registered user
University South
on Nov 17, 2021 at 4:56 pm
chris, University South
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 4:56 pm

When Eric Filseth, Tom DuBois, and Lydia Kou leave the City Council and RHNA takes effect, the new housing to be built in Palo Alto will help add students.

The current City Council is stuck in the 1970's when Palo Alto was still growing. Right now, the school district is facing another period of declining enrollment.

And Joe Simitian blocked the new Stanford GUP because he didn't like the fact that Stanford would not build a new school for PAUSD.

Where are the respected leaders to call out the folly of our politicians?


Mondoman
Registered user
Green Acres
on Nov 17, 2021 at 5:03 pm
Mondoman, Green Acres
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 5:03 pm

Some seem to believe that allowing more multi-family housing in Palo Alto would make housing "affordable". Because of the super-high price of housing in the area, that can't happen without someone providing even multi-family housing with a 50% or higher subsidy. People were worried about the high and rising cost of housing in Palo Alto already 40 and 20 years ago; we will have to do what they did -- just learn to live with it.


AJH
Registered user
Barron Park
on Nov 17, 2021 at 9:08 pm
AJH, Barron Park
Registered user
on Nov 17, 2021 at 9:08 pm

Did anyone ask or answer *why* Fletcher's enrollment has dropped disproportionately?


Renter
Registered user
Midtown
on Nov 18, 2021 at 1:05 pm
Renter, Midtown
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2021 at 1:05 pm

I would take this one step farther. My understanding is that 50% of people living in PA are renters. I imagine that this number is even higher for families in PAUSD (since many owners have lived in PA a long time and no longer have school aged children). Many of us renters have to move within PA as landlords decide to move back in the house, sell or jack up the rent. It would be great if we could lock our kids in 1 track (elementary school, middle school and high school) so we can have more flexibility as we move within PA and don't need to worry so much about having to move our kids to new schools.


Samuel L
Registered user
Meadow Park
on Nov 18, 2021 at 1:40 pm
Samuel L, Meadow Park
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2021 at 1:40 pm

If I'm not mistaken, the district has a policy for the high schools that neither one can get "x" bigger (or smaller) than the other. I forget the number, but I think they keep them within a few hundred students. If that gets out of line then new students are automatically distributed to the lower enrollment school.

I would assume the middle schools have a similar standard. If they don't, I would question why not.

If the numbers don't work for Fletcher then the district needs to look at redrawing the boundaries or closing Fletcher. Greene and JLS used to have enrollments of 1200. The Fletcher students could be absorbed by those two schools with similar enrollments.

Back in 1985 Jordan closed for lack of enrollment and reopened in 1991. Terman was closed for 20 years for similar reasons before reopening. No reason to run a school at 70%, unless the savings are the same. I doubt PAUSD is seeing 30% savings at Fletcher this year.

So, either find a way to get more students there, or redistribute the students.


RDR
Registered user
another community
on Nov 18, 2021 at 6:10 pm
RDR, another community
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2021 at 6:10 pm

PAUSD lost 1000 students over 5 years by 2020. The 2020-2021 school year saw a loss of another 1000 students. The loss is not all due to the pandemic. It's happening to every school district in the state. There's been a consistently lower birth rate for about 8 years now, with no signs of that increasing. So there you go. Yeah, they'll probably end up closing one of the middle schools, and pretty soon. The bubble of the lower birth rate is just starting to reach grade 6. It's going to get way lower over the next 3 years in the middle schools.


Citizen
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2021 at 9:52 am
Citizen, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2021 at 9:52 am

People using this to keep beating the overdevelopment drum is shameful.

In past, PAUSD schools were so good compared to neighboring schools, regional drops in enrollment didn’t affect us. But overbuilding especially in this side of town has been almost so exclusively quality-of-life-harming, many starting a family would want to get away from, not sacrifice for. Palo Alto used to be fantastic for families but the overbuilding/traffic and lack of focus on even distribution of amenities for youth—far better in the north—have hurt quality of life so much here.

First questions for PAUSD should have been: how many students transferred to private schools or other districts? How many feeder elementary students and MS students filed PSAs (private school affidavits) after Covid hit? How many filed by Fletcher families, I.e., how many decided to “homeschool” there vs. other schools because of how badly PAUSD handled pandemic education and people not wanting their kids to be abused by hours of zoom seat time every day? I.e., how many realized their kids did better with more educational control? Were there interdistrict transfers for programs offering remote independent study? It’s mostly data the district could provide.

How many families/wannabe parents moved away seeking QUALITY OF LIFE for families they could afford? (Building that destroys quality of life for families reduces school enrollment longterm.)

There are other factors, eg, Older PAUSD bldgs are horrible for people with allergies & asthma. Fletcher is probably worst. I know people whose kids didn’t go for that reason. PAUSD persistently bordered on negligent in how they’ve dealt with air quality/asthma long before the pandemic; beleaguered asthmatics aren’t going to say it. In a pandemic of respiratory illness in which air quality can’t be all fixed by filters, and air quality issues increase incidence of all infections going around, PAUSD was always going to pay for past misbehavior on this issue.


Palo Alto Res
Registered user
Downtown North
on Nov 19, 2021 at 10:49 am
Palo Alto Res, Downtown North
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2021 at 10:49 am

The District needs to redraw the boundaries so JLS students who already feed into Gunn actually attend Fletcher to begin with. This would also open up more space at JLS for the Connections program (which has a very large waitlist to begin with every year). Splitting JLS into Paly and Gunn students is ridiculous given half of JLS students eventually feeds into Gunn.


Palo Alto Res
Registered user
Downtown North
on Nov 19, 2021 at 11:09 am
Palo Alto Res, Downtown North
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2021 at 11:09 am

Would be interested in seeing this decline in enrollment was impacted by parents pulling their kids out of PAUSD and enrolling them into surrounding private schools?

The followup question would be, why were parents dissatisfied with PAUSD and why the sharp drop in enrollment? Asking Superintendent Don Austin and the Board of Trustees to shine the light on loss of enrollment to surrounding private schools is the same as asking the fox to guard the henhouse. We are not going to get a honest and transparent answer.

But we see the loss to private schools nearby. Let's get to the real issue Don & Board.


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2021 at 11:48 am
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2021 at 11:48 am

Another car-centric choice school in south Palo Alto. Thanks, PAUSD. (Please note sarcasm.)

PAUSD, please focus on improving the quality of site management in order to encourage neighborhood families to choose Fletcher instead of private schools or requesting transfer to other PAUSD middle schools. The district has an administrative problem at this site. This proposal is not a solution to the enrollment problem. It is a band-aid. People who don't know about these problems might participate in the lottery. Once they are there, they will quickly figure out what the real problem is. Fix the root cause of the problem.


Morgan
Registered user
Meadow Park
on Nov 19, 2021 at 2:57 pm
Morgan , Meadow Park
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2021 at 2:57 pm

Ha! All of the sites at the middle and high school level in PAUSD have an administrative problem. The district shuffles them around or promotes them to the district office. At PAUSD incompetence flows uphill.


Palo Alto Resident
Registered user
Downtown North
on Nov 20, 2021 at 1:42 pm
Palo Alto Resident, Downtown North
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2021 at 1:42 pm

@Consider your options - wow, so the middle school principal is the reason for declining enrollment at the feeder elementary schools? That's quite an impact! It reminds me of the line from the old movie Diner: "I'll hit you so hard, I'll kill your whole family!"

The obvious choice here is to either move the existing Connections program from JLS to Fletcher or start another version it, since it is oversubscribed. Having two sites might even reduce traffic, since some kids from the Fletcher area are going to JLS Connections today.


Citizen
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 25, 2021 at 4:00 pm
Citizen, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Nov 25, 2021 at 4:00 pm

@Palo Alto resident,
The Connections program is unfortunately oversold. The philosophy is wonderful but students only get a couple of classes in the program by 7th or 8th and there's nothing like it at the high school level. It's like they're trying to gently transition Ohlone kids away from the Ohlone philosophy, there is absolutely no commitment to the philosophy even for the entirely of middle school. You are right that it's oversubscribed, which indicates the interest in that philosophy. But the district does not share that commitment. If parents want it to expand, you'll have to get way more involved.

Your idea won't work because Fletcher has a kind of "competing" direct instruction philosophy that comes from the Hoover kids who tend to go to Fletcher.

The obvious choice is to create schools within the schools at the Gunn level so that students who choose Ohlone and Fletcher have a path from start to finish within that educational philosophy. Then you could move a chunk of kids from JLS to Fletcher and have a Connections program at both.

It's pretty clear from the other article about increasing applications at private schools that they did not absorb all the students our district lost by a long shot. The district would have data on who filed transfers and "private school affidavits" (meaning, they formed their own microschool or homeschooled. If people did that well during the pandemic, I think a lot would be loathe to return to our district, maybe move. Once you can see what your kids can do when they have more agency and independence, it's hard to go back to such a controlling educational model.)

Fletcher is the worst site of the 3 for asthma conditions (with Greene coming in a close second -- they all have problems but Greene and JLS have some new buildings). If I realized because of the pandemic that my kid didn't have to get sick for 2 weeks every fall because it was the school site, it would weigh in my decision not to go back too.


Palo Alto Resident
Registered user
Downtown North
on Nov 25, 2021 at 6:13 pm
Palo Alto Resident, Downtown North
Registered user
on Nov 25, 2021 at 6:13 pm

Just to correct misinformation, there hasn't been a DI program at Fletcher for maybe 10 years. It was never a school "philosophy" - it was a discrete program that was ended. There isn't even DI at Hoover anymore - DI isn't really consistent with the Common Core or PAUSD's adopted programs (eg, Readers and Writers Workshop).

As for the "district sharing the commitment" to Connections - huh? It's a popular program that has been in place for many years. It used to be less popular, now it is more so. The biggest barrier to expansion is whether there are teachers interested in teaching it (it was home-grown at JLS). The other option is simply to move the existing program to Fletcher.

I've never seen any evidence about indoor air quality issues at any of the schools. The idea that you can rank middle schools on air quality seems pretty far fetched.


Citizen
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 28, 2021 at 11:15 pm
Citizen, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Nov 28, 2021 at 11:15 pm

Connections phases out over the course of middle school and there is no HS equivalent. Hardly a strong commitment from PAUSD despite demand.

School buildings of PAUSDs MS vintage/build have indoor air quality problems unless districts adopt strong frameworks for indoor air quality mgmt, which ours has not.

Using complaints from bldg users is an essential part of scientifically evidence-based indoor AQ mgmt plans; our district has no framework for this. PAUSD history is to belittle and ignore such input.

In a global pandemic in which indoor air quality increases (or decreases) airborne diseases going around, people most affected, like teachers & students whose asthma worsens on-site (and who noticed improvements from staying away), would make their own decisions about returning with their experiences and how they were treated in mind; PAUSD would have no inkling of why they left.

A few of other red flags:
JLS has a long history of leaks/flooding/abysmal drainage prior to recent renovations but didn’t remediate by evidence-based best practices. According to CDPH, & CA DoE, water=>indoor AQ problems. Fletcher had groundwater problems before AND after renovations.

As I recall, some Fletcher/Terman kids did a science project after getting sick from AQ probs in 2015. PAUSD tried to bar them but a well-connected Dad read them the riot act. Some poor kid at JLS with less-connected parents whose project was teacher-approved was forbidden from doing the same that year.

“Three students from Terman Middle School in Palo Alto planned to present their findings of poor air quality in classrooms—which they say affects students’ health and academic performance …[begun] because a lot of their classmates were feeling tired and suffering from ailments such as asthma.”

People don't see what they don't want to see. These problems are hiding in plain sight, and would be one factor affecting some people's decisions to return during a pandemic like this.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

In order to encourage respectful and thoughtful discussion, commenting on stories is available to those who are registered users. If you are already a registered user and the commenting form is not below, you need to log in. If you are not registered, you can do so here.

Please make sure your comments are truthful, on-topic and do not disrespect another poster. Don't be snarky or belittling. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

See our announcement about requiring registration for commenting.