Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 27, 2012

School board gets creative on enrollment

Seeking options, members hazard 'pie-in-the-sky' scenarios for growth

by Chris Kenrick

A Stanford University-affiliated "lab school" at Garland Elementary? Converting Escondido or Nixon Elementary to a two-story middle school?

Confronting a looming shortage of classrooms in Palo Alto, Board of Education members, in a study session Thursday, began to pry the lid off a Pandora's Box of options to capture more space through creating new programs or shifting the venues of existing ones.

Wary of "stirring the pot" of community emotions with bold suggestions, board members nonetheless said they were hungry for a broad discussion that would lay all options on the table.

They said they're willing to wait a year to have that discussion and make decisions, with community comment and suggestions gathered in the meantime.

"There are some real emotions about moving anything in this district," member Melissa Baten Caswell said, adding she believes significant housing growth in Palo Alto is ahead.

"Somehow we need to be able to have a conversation — to remove the emotion and just talk about what the facts are."

Board member Barbara Klausner laid out a series of what she called "pie in the sky scenarios" for the Garland campus at 870 N. California Ave., currently leased to the independent Stratford School.

Scenarios included partnering with the Stanford School of Education to create a school heavily focused on closing the achievement gap, with capacity to accommodate a "critical mass" of Tinsley Voluntary Transfer students and potentially better serve their social-emotional as well as academic needs. Currently, the 560 students in the court-ordered Tinsley program are scattered among the district's 17 campuses.

Garland also could become a stable home for special-education children, who now frequently must move from school to school depending on program availability in a given year, Klausner said.

Under both Garland scenarios, part of the campus still could be reserved as a neighborhood school, she suggested.

Klausner also suggested the possibility of using Garland to accommodate middle-school enrollment growth.

"I don't think we're going to adopt any of these scenarios, but I'd rather stir the pot now than make limited choices so we don't stir the pot," she said.

On the need for additional middle-school space, board member Dana Tom asked whether it's possible to add second stories to buildings at Terman Middle School, which has a current enrollment of 663 compared to the more than 1,000 student-enrollments at JLS and Jordan middle schools.

Board member Barb Mitchell said she'd prefer to see a fourth middle school in the area where growth is most likely, which she thinks will be related to Stanford housing now on the drawing boards.

"Currently we only have two facilities — Nixon and Escondido — in that area," Mitchell said. "I'd like to see us consider converting one of those campuses to a two-story middle school and addressing the domino effect on elementary."

Rather than making bets now on where to place a 13th elementary school and fourth middle school, board members agreed to wait a year, despite expressing worries that the school district's growth projections are too conservative.

"Rather than having controlled conversations and making incremental decisions, I'd rather have every possible option laid out and give ourselves some room to brainstorm and think outside the box of marginal changes," Klausner said.

Board members agreed to continue their study session on enrollment and facilities in May. Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he would return to the board in June with recommendations on how to facilitate a community discussion.

TALK ABOUT IT

What "outside the box" ideas do you think the Palo Alto school district should consider? Share your opinion on Town Square, the community discussion forum on Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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