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School board eyes solutions to enrollment growth

Original post made on Apr 20, 2016

As support on the school board has waned for opening a new elementary or high school given the district's long-term enrollment needs, several trustees are pointing to class-size reduction as the more worthy investment, particularly to address short-term crowding at the district's middle schools.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, April 20, 2016, 9:39 AM

Comments (29)

Posted by Why a new middle school?
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 20, 2016 at 9:56 am

Smaller class sizes are a wonderful idea and worth exploring.

However, I was astonished that neither Rita Tezlaff nor Todd Collins at the Board meeting last night bothered to disclose the fact, well supported by the EMAC research conducted over 9 months last year, that the problem is at BOTH the middle school level and at the high school level. That is, a significant percentage of classrooms have average class sizes in excess of the district's targeted staffing ratio, not ONLY at our 3 middle schools but also at our 2 high schools.

It is this selective presentation of facts to advance a particular point of view that bothers me. As an intellectually-honest community, we should be better than that for the sake of our kids.

Posted by Resident CP
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 20, 2016 at 10:25 am

Tetzlaff said at the meeting she hasn't done the high school analysis yet and didn't have the data, but she would when she got it and expected it would be the same. The EMAC stuff didn't look at class size at all as far as I could see, just school size.

Posted by Parent of two
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 20, 2016 at 10:43 am

Ms. Tetzlaff has done the community a huge service (as a few board members said) and illustrated one of our district's real weaknesses. She did the analysis and showed in black and white what almost every middle school parent has known for a while - most classes are bigger than advertised, and bigger than they should be (some way bigger). Hats off to her for getting everyone to pay attention!

This is part of a bigger issue - the district in many cases simply doesn't follow through and do what it says. The data is hard to get, and unless you dig and dig, like Tetzlaff, you can't bring it to light. This is a problem that the Board needed to address - policies and programs decisions don't mean much if we can't execute on the basics.

Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 20, 2016 at 10:53 am

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

April 20, 2016

Dear Fellow Onliners,

It's welcome news that the school board is now leaning in the direction of smaller class sizes. This is a step forward and I send up three cheers!

But the size of the proposed decrease must be much larger, or not enough will have changed in our students' experience of the high school day.

According to District records, last semester our two high schools had a total of 407 classes with 30 students or more. And they had about 750 classes with 25 students or more.

This level of overcrowding is as unhealthy as in our local jails--as slighting of individual needs and mental health problems.

The proposed increase of only 4 teachers at our high schools, or (as elsewhere reported) only $400,000 in expenditure for class size reduction, is not worthy of a very wealthy city with the highest aspirations for educating its young.

And to strengthen connectedness and belonging at our schools, we should be looking not only to shrink classes significantly, but to undo other toxic conditions in our high schools, as proposed by the community initiative Save the 2,008.

Save the 2,008 is a simple toolkit to revive the heart of high school.
Save the 2,008 is a homegrown coalition, supported by more than 400 Palo Altans, that offers hope for parents and students everywhere.

Our initiative is named for the number of students and faculty at our town’s hardest-hit school, two years back; and it offers commonsense but profound repairs to student life.

There’s a national epidemic of high-school stress; and if we can change things at Palo Alto’s “ground zero,” we can create a model for the Bay Area and beyond.

Our six proposals would ease campus stress and depression, by:

1) Shrinking class sizes (now routinely swollen to more than 30 teenagers, making school life impersonal);

2) Giving students a voice in their homework loads (which can otherwise erode morale and a good night’s sleep) via a new, confidential, teacher-friendly app;

3) Requiring guidance counseling before enrollment in multiple APs (which greatly add to stress while subtracting from family time, friendship time, sleep);

4) Ending all-day student dependence on texting and social media (by banning phone use—as we do at our middle schools—while making our campuses more friendly);

5) Curbing the relentless grade-reporting (which robs kids of the time to recover from the setbacks and hurts of adolescence);

6) Eliminating the misery-inducing cheating (committed by at least 80% of our overburdened students).

Lifting this cloud of six, toxic stressors will open up breathing room for student-to-teacher connections—those healthy ties that sometimes become lifelines—and for a fresh campus sense of belonging and trust.
Please visit and join in this cause.

You can sign our Open Letter to the school board and superintendent—who have so far rejected this plan and the wishes of 436 parents, students and alums, doctors and engineers, authors, professors, LMFTs, rabbis and ministers, venture capitalists and grandparents and uncles and aunts.


Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Campaign Coordinator
Save the 2,008

Posted by Erin Mershon
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 20, 2016 at 11:02 am

The Secondary Sub-Committee of the EMAC did a class-size analysis with the intent to show that the capacity of the middle schools and high schools cannot tolerate class-size reduction. This effort was led by Diane Reklis, who spent hours and hours crunching data and submitting it to the school board.

Posted by Be Positive
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 20, 2016 at 11:05 am

Be Positive is a registered user.

Per the EMAC report -

58% of High School English classes are 25 or greater (page 121)
78% of High School Math classes are 25 or greater

54% of Middle School English classes are 25 or greater (page 124)
57% of High School Math classes are 25 or greater

Web Link

What the students and teachers overwhelmingly agreed on was the need for smaller class size. Actual not average...

Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 20, 2016 at 11:05 am

Marc, you list some good ideas there. But I feel that a huge source of student stress is that most classes are graded on a curve. If there is a class of 28, and 20 students are performing well enough to merit an "A", why not offer 20 A's?

Currently that isn't the case at all. Students compete against each other so that only a fraction get A's. I feel this causes unnecessary stress.

One of the Board members said that grading is controlled by the individual teachers, as per union contract. Do you and everyone else agree this is worth looking into? Shouldn't there be objective standards rather than grading on a curve?

Posted by Jordan mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 20, 2016 at 12:03 pm

From that link, it looks EMAC class size analysis was a single question on a survey (not even actual enrollment data?), buried on page 120-something of a report? No wonder nobody noticed. They spent their time beating the drum for McGee on a Super School at Cubberley and just skipped over the real issue. Oh well - thank you Rita!

Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 20, 2016 at 12:26 pm

"25 is huge class size". Through all my school years in Europe classes were 30-35 pupils. I got excellent education. You should be obsessing with the quality of education not the size of the classes. Quality comes from teachers hard work and comprehensive curriculum for all students.
All extras, like honor (advanced studies) should be done after regular school hours. This way one has more teachers to devote their time to all.

Posted by teacher
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 20, 2016 at 12:44 pm


Your information is false:
"Most classes are graded on a curve."
This is a legacy concept from decades ago, and is largely unheard of in modern schools, including our PAUSD secondary schools.

Posted by How teachers grade matters.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 20, 2016 at 12:47 pm

How teachers grade matters. is a registered user.

My daughter scored 98th percentile in Math on the ACT and PSAT (with no test prep, I might add). She consistently gets Bs in high school math in Palo Alto. Hmmmm. She thinks, after years of Bs, that she's not so great at math. What is wrong with this picture? Does grading on a curve make sense in this district?

Posted by Kids Matter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 20, 2016 at 1:50 pm

Your daughter may not have been graded on a curve in school. We found the grading was really just unforgiving. A student could really know that material but have a bad day and make a few careless mistakes or forget to turn something, and there is no room for error.

We left for a program that allows much more flexibility. What we find is that when we got away from that treadmill - where children have 6 or 7 different adults telling them what to do with their time during and after school every day and there is little autonomy - the ability to handle more challenging work and to do it well improved. When kids can have control of their time and work and how they achieve it, a lot of really cool things happen. When the grade is based on ultimate competency and not the artifacts of the classroom, many kids could do so much better. Mine did. And everyone is so, so much happier. Especially creative kids have a lot of trouble with the grind and their grade being so dependant in a neverending stream of short-term deadlines.

I am troubled that this discussion is so facilities-focused with so little focus on the kids. Research shows that class size matters the most with younger kids and over all school size matters most with older kids (there are ranges of optimal sizes). The solution with high school kids could be relatively easy. If the issue is too many kids on campus, but not 20 years from now, we could save money and help kids by next year by simply innovating sooner. We could partner with the community colleges (not middle college, but classes), we could let more kids do independent study for some of their classes so that they aren't on campus as much, we could, as someone mentioned, extend the school day but not for all kids, just for certain programs, and where students prefer later classes but homework in the morning. especially given the internet, we don't really have to add classrooms. We might have to add teachers - or not. There are online classes offering A-G AP credit for example, with live teachers. Wouldn't it be cheaper to pay for some of those for awhile to bring down crowding, for students who want that? It might take more teachers to monitior but not having to add another building or administration could pay for an awful lot of online classes (that students opt to take at home). Mountain View has some hugely oversubscribed program that offers more freedom like that (is it available in older grades? Sorry if I am remembering wrong.) That's where using Churchill could serve a great many students, if they weren't using it for regular classroom space. And more freedom really takes the pressure off students who need more control of their own time, it really especially seems like the creative ones need to not be told what to do all the time (or get bad grades).

Posted by Jim H
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 20, 2016 at 3:26 pm

High schools are too big. Middle schools are too big. Class size is too big.

EMAC report also states that there's no way for high schools to achieve class size reduction with the current number of students forecasted.

Anyone who has been on the Paly campus in between classes or at lunch would know that the campus is too big.

Look at the EMAC report where approx. 33% of the students feel connected to their school or teachers. Students talk about how they don't know their classmates.

Open up Cubberley as a middle/high school combo.

Posted by Focusing on What Matters
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 20, 2016 at 3:46 pm

@Kids Matter - Bravo! I love it. Beautifully written. Please send this note to the school board or go to a meeting and read it. It's wonderful.

On a tangential note, having read a lot lately about adult learning principles, I often wonder why people don't better understand that there are children who develop the need for the same set of principles and desire for agency earlier in life than others. They buck against the "cookie cutter" nature of today's educational approach. What you've suggested would certainly go a long way to meet the needs of these kids, who have so much to offer the world, but often languish or refuse to play by the rules. One of my favorite quotes lately is "Strong-willed children become adults who can change the world as long as we can hang on for the ride and resist the tempatation to tame the spirit out of them."

Also, I want to agree with other statements - understanding our district's capacity and current class size is hugely important. But at the same time, we need some true leadership from our district regarding the experience and outcomes we're aiming for. Currently, it seems we are stuck aiming for 20th century goals that we are very good at meeting but that may not be as reflective of the future our kids are heading into.

Posted by Cecilia
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Apr 20, 2016 at 3:58 pm

As a teacher (not in PAUSD) and a parent of a Jordan 7th grader, I really appreciate all that Rita has done to bring this issue to light. My son and I were going to speak as well however the topic was discussed very late. Currently my son has 32 students in his math and english class. The guideline is 24 students for english and math.

It is not that if you have an amazing teacher they can handle 32 students. That is not the case at all especially if you want the class to be engaging and include projects and innovative activities. Beyond just classroom management (especially when you have students with learning challenges), you have an overwhelm situation with grading which then leads to teachers giving tons of worksheets and reading time.

This problem needs to be addressed now. A new school is years away and by the time it is ready, there will be fewer students as the report indicates.

I am praying that the board approves the budget to get the staffing to be actually 24 students to 1 teacher for math and english -- not an average!

Posted by Spectator
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 20, 2016 at 4:09 pm

FWIW, the SAT (and I would assume the ACT, but I couldn't say for sure) are graded on a curse, so that the middle score gets a 500.

I think the issue with curves, though, is that a persons grades become less plausible with each A. If 20 out of 25 students are getting an A in the class, there's going to be an assumption that the class is too easy or that the teacher is doing something wrong. On a bigger level, if 50% of the school ends up with above a 3.75, what are colleges going to think--that the teachers have been teaching a college prep curriculum, or that the school is easy?

Curves, then, mitigate that by attempting to make the average score what is supposed to be the average grade--C. But with so many studious students, smart ones get C's, and we're back to square one.

I can't think of a solution other than having more diverse classes (less laning), but that's problematic too.

Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 20, 2016 at 5:33 pm

To 'teacher' above: I don't believe it is true at all that we have stopped grading on a curve, nor that it is a by-product of 50 years ago. It is happening now.

To 'spectator' who posted immediately above: Grades should be objective, and grading on a curve isn't that at all. In your example, if 20 out of 25 students are getting A's, maybe there just happens to be 20 really smart, hard-working students in that one particular class who actually DESERVE an A.

Think about the statistics from the October 2015 PAUSD Board meeting: a Palo Alto student scoring a 1750 on the SAT's is in the 25th percentile of our district, while a non-PAUSD student scoring a 1720 is in the 75th percentile for the state of California AND nationally.

We are fortunate to be in a community with some extraordinary kids -- from either nature or nurture or both -- and it is not right to pit them against each other, which grading on a curve does. It just adds unnecessary stress.

Posted by veteran teacher
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 20, 2016 at 5:35 pm

As a veteran middle school teacher, I can assure you that the difference between a class with 32 kids and a class with 24 kids is the difference between herding cats and actually teaching. For the kids, it's the difference between being lost in a crowd, and being in an environment where you can actually learn something.

If our district REALLY wanted to put its money where its mouth is, it would make this its number one priority. Of course it would mean hiring a lot more teachers. But there is some vacant space at the district office, so we probably should hire some more bureaucrats first to make sure that we've got the math right. You know, research.


Posted by Focusing on What Matters
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 20, 2016 at 6:12 pm

@veteran teacher - great points! And exactly those that seemed to be missing during the fall's discussion regarding opening a new middle/high school. Diane Reklis made it clear in some of the board meetings that smaller class sizes are contingent are more classrooms. And there's nowhere to put them at our current middle schools and tight for the next few years at our high schools. The community / board got very riled up on both sides of the "innovative" approach to a new middle/high school that it lost sight of the core issue - actual class space so we can hire more teachers to decrease class sizes. In addition, now the district is looking at a pilot program to delane Algebra I in 9th grade at Gunn. The district-solicited report from Hanover Research makes it clear that class sizes need to be at 15 pupils per class in order to support effective differentiation in mixed ability Algebra I classes; yet the district is recommending something more like 21-22 students per class. In order to deliver the instructional strategies the district wants to try, they need much smaller class sizes than the current building capacities can support. Our recent EMAC discussions are a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Posted by Kids Matter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 20, 2016 at 6:23 pm

@Focusing on What Matters,
Thanks! The situation wth the independent learning resources is getting so rich, it's really a matter of almost dreaming of what works for us and making it so. Many kids could have a less stressful schedule simply by taking a few courses at home, online, and attending school for a shorter day, without sacrificing quality.

@veteran teacher,
In a perfect world, we would have the right size class for every situation, that is true. I think the research into school size versus class size looks at what is more important in a given age group, because unfortunately, resources are finite and no one has perfect. I'm sorry, I don't really remember which is more important with middle schoolers. The research does paint a mixed picture for older kids, though. Going to really small classes and schools isn't necessarily always better. Sometimes in smaller classes, the lack of a varied social dynamic that a bigger group affords makes things worse for kids who are struggling, the opposite of what you would think (this in older kids).

I do think it's important to focus on the kids rather than buildings and programs or even employees first. I recently heard about a school district that is so strapped, the new superintendant came in with creative cost-cutting measures that included having everyone do multiple jobs. She herself does double-duty as a crossing guard. While I'm not suggesting that for PAUSD (although, McGee would probably enjoy greeting the kids every day), it would be possible to save money and change the number of kids present in classrooms simultaneously by doing more independent study or "flipped classrooms". The state requires independent study to be monitored by credentialed teachers, so it might me more teachers, or it might mean some teachers do things differently if they wish, I don't really know. Again, that approach would save the facilities cost of building or reopening a new school, retain the current rent money coming from those facilities, and would save the significant cost of staffing another school administration.

Posted by Size doesn't matter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2016 at 7:23 am

I'm laughing at the comment that 32 students are like cats being herded. I certainly wouldn't want my kid in that class with that teacher. I, too, am a veteran educator and I had more than 32 primary age students all day. The kids were no less challenging though I do remember having to confiscate POGS. It was a fad. It's sad to see teachers whining about class size because the studies for California's class size reduction 20 years ago were mixed as best, in other words, we really didn't get what we thought we would. Tired of quibbling of having 27 or 24 students in a K-5 school. Just doesn't matter.

Posted by outisder
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 21, 2016 at 7:54 am

Teachers at PALY grade on curves and base it on the kids who have taken the class already or have full time, very good, 100 dollar and hour tutors that have profiles of classes at the high schools. Teachers must put questions on tests that are out of the curriculum to "up" the curve. kids have tutors. Many do not admit this, but they do. I would say 95 percent of the kids in the top classes have tutors.

I would questions class size as a fix all. If teachers can not check for understanding and be held accountable for 25, they will not for 20. There is so little homework given in the elementary and middle schools so they can not claim that as much of a time suck. Most of it is not corrected or is smiley faced by an aid. They spend a great deal of time on trumped up newsletters and talking about how to do everything exactly the same for common core etc. rather than just teaching each kid.

This is radical, but I would love to see every parent opt of of standardized testing, as is every parent's right in CA. (opt out CA has all the forms and rules online. The school has to give the test, but kids are not required to take it. This would save teachers soooo much time that has been wasted.

I am going to bet that every teacher in Palo Alto knows what level each kid is and what they need by about the second week of school and being tied up with common core and standardized tests with such low/specific expectations is the biggest waste of time and money. This process has lowered standards and wasted time. Administration has gone the wrong direction by dictating too many specifics for the lower grades. By the time every admin decides on their exact/same rules and rubrics and then briefs thier staff on the specifics, the other kids around the world have circled ours twice. I would love to just see really good teachers given less rules so they can focus on kids. A good teacher with a few less kids would be great. I guess one could argue that lower class size with bad teachers would be great also, as less kids would be affected by bad teaching?

Either way, teaching to standards and following curriculum without curved/trick grading systems is free and and instant fix. That is not happening now and the kids stuck in the high school system are mostly ill prepared by just the common core standards. If you think your kid can just do common core standards and make it at PALY or Gunn, you will have a pretty big shock coming up. I would say that it would put you at the lowest level and almost special ed. common core is a very mean joke and I hope young families will just opt out and focus on what their kid needs only

Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 21, 2016 at 8:21 am

and I would like to add

It costs nothing for an admin. to walk into a classroom, get to know and interact with the students and be the ones that know the kids going all the way from k-5. This would take about 10 minutes a day and should not be considered evaluations of teachers, but to encourage best practices and figure out how to support teachers with new training, more money or mentor teachers. Every kid loves adults to know about their efforts and to know there is an adult that cares enough to take the effort to at least visit and watch them work. This is also free and instant. Our experience has been total hands off admin. that is so into rubrics and protocol, they are missing all the fun of running a school./ I would say, a new mindset for admin and more money into teacher support /training mentoring in their actual classrooms would be a good free fix while we all wait for lower class size... Sometimes, lower class size can not be that great for kids socially , as it is a lower pool of friends to choose from and most kids do not really want all the attention we think they do . They want more recess and play time and are probably wiser than everyone.

Posted by Be Positive
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 21, 2016 at 11:08 am

Be Positive is a registered user.

@outsider - your comment "every teacher in Palo Alto knows what level each kid is and what they need by about the second week of school" is true for elementary teachers, but FAR from true for middle and high school where teachers can have 125 or 150 students. My son's advisor at Paly didn't even remember that he was his advisor much less have any idea what level he was - and that was his senior year after having him for two years as an English teacher and 3 years as an advisor!

Smaller class sizes would allow the students and teachers to build more personal relationships.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2016 at 1:56 pm

It amazes me that nobody is looking at the future of projected homes being built and that they will produce students at all levels.

It amazes me that for the last 10 years at least PAUSD has been dragging their feet about opening more schools and instead just continued to build more buildings at our limited size school sites. Remember, they called the lease at Garland and then changed their minds because they wanted the income from the lease as much as anything else.

One of the biggest problems with growing all these schools bigger is access. Not one of them can handle the parking and traffic problems. At all the elementary schools, there isn't enough parking space for the teachers to park off road, let alone any visitors! We have no school buses bringing kids to school and with all the choice programs, it is inevitable that they are causing traffic to begin with.

As for the secondary schools, not one of them ideally can handle traffic situations outside the schools as it is. Getting 2,000 students to the high schools let alone the staff all within a 30 minute window is very dangerous. Churchill crossing is an accident waiting to happen as the throng of students crossing Alma at each green light is enormous and when the train gates suddenly start to drop while all these students are in mid crossing mode, there is nowhere for them all to wait safely while the Alma traffic speeds pass.

And yet this is Silicon Valley where all the high tech solutions are invented. Why don't we start using some innovation here? With all the talk of the recent zero period debate, there must be at least some students and teachers who might like the option of an 8th period instead of all arriving for a 1st period. This must suit some of those who feel they need more sleep or need time before school for various things. Staggering the school start would definitely help traffic. We could also start online classes and video classes so that at least some classes could be shared by both Gunn and Paly students simultaneously. We could even have some AP classes after school or evenings, if we thought about it. I am sure that there would be some pros and cons, but at least let's start a conversation about some of these alternatives.

Education is changing. PAUSD is always looking at other similar districts to see how they cope with the problems. Why on earth can't PAUSD start becoming leaders and be the district that has the good ideas that other districts copy rather than continuing on the sheep mentality of never changing the established modes and copying everyone else.

Posted by Research Matters
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 21, 2016 at 2:18 pm

Several decades of research have shown, time and again, that when class size exceeds twenty students, a teachers effectiveness begins to plummet exponentially. This was demonstrated in the 60s, 70s. 80s. 90s, 2000s, and currently.

With the continual increase in the amount of material that kids have to learn, with no increase in the amount of time to learn it ( cruel, actually), I would expect that a teacher's effectiveness probably starts to fall when the class size exceeds fifteen kids!

Posted by outsider
a resident of Monroe Park
on Apr 21, 2016 at 2:56 pm

Well, maybe it is time to consider k-6 schools and then 7-12 schools so the kids can have some better cohesive relationships with their teachers. By the time parents figure out how bad it sucks for their own kid, they are off to high school. 6th graders are not always ready for all the social pressures and many need to have just a few teachers to monitor them instead of so many.

Posted by BP
a resident of Barron Park

on Apr 26, 2016 at 10:17 pm

Due to violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are only visible to registered users who are logged in. Use the links at the top of the page to Register or Login.

Posted by C
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 26, 2016 at 10:59 pm

In my 4 years of high school at Paly, I never once experienced a test or homework assignment being "curved" downwards (only upwards). Even when a test's average was above 90% (this happened several times) it wasn't curved downwards. Given this, if 20/25 students repeatedly scored 90+ on all tests and assignments, 20/25 students would be rewarded with A's.

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