The Palo Unified School District plans to reopen at least one elementary school soon. Last year the board appointed the elementary school site location advisory committee to comment on the best location and program for the 13th school. They concluded that the new school should:
* be located on the adjacent sites of the former Peninsula Day Care and Greendell Elementary School, and,
* be a hybrid site serving the needs of both neighborhood children and those who choose a particular program.
The committee provided valuable insight and clarity. Their analysis should be extended to the broader topic of the best locations for all of our elementary schools. I believe their recommendations hold the key to resolving the conflicting desire for more neighborhood spaces for children who live within the current Palo Verde attendance boundaries and for more opportunities for families who desire the Ohlone program.
The ideal neighborhood school is one where most children in the neighborhood attend and where they can safely walk or ride bicycles to get there. When kids go to school near home, traffic is minimized, they can get home in an emergency, and the school becomes a natural hub for family and neighborhood activities. This increases the health and safety of us all. The district provides special education plus several alternative programs (Ohlone "open school," Hoover "back to basics," Spanish immersion and Mandarin immersion) for families who need or want a program other than the one at their neighborhood school.
We once had neighborhood schools within safe walking or biking distance from nearly every home in Palo Alto. Decisions made 30 years ago assigned some students far from home and left some schools with too many students. Reasonable school boundaries allow most students to attend school near home. We must realign our schools with our students.
All our schools are feeling enrollment pressure, but Ohlone and Palo Verde are particularly impacted. Ohlone's campus recently expanded, but this added too much traffic for its quiet neighborhood, and its waiting list is still long. Palo Verde's campus is small with little room to expand and several recent housing developments have made the problem worse. Pin maps of enrolled students indicate that Ohlone's program is especially popular in its current neighborhood and in the Greenmeadow area where it was founded.
If the district opens a 13th elementary school at the expanded Greendell site with a philosophy similar to the current Ohlone and if both of these schools become hybrids with neighborhood and alternative school components, we would solve the current enrollment crisis in south Palo Alto and also reduce traffic. All other plans being discussed increase traffic without solving our basic need for more space.
We must rebuild the community aspects of our city that made this such a wonderful place to live and to bring up families. Schools create opportunities for neighbors of all ages to know and value each other, for older children to help younger ones, for adults to work with teenagers on science fair and community projects, and for children to know and respect the increasing elder population. Strong schools with a neighborhood identity contribute to a strong city.
Data from the U.S. Census indicates that Palo Alto now has more children under 5 than we had in 1970 (when we had 12 more elementary schools) and there is pressure to increase our housing capacity — enrollment will continue to rise. We must locate all our schools and special programs where they best serve our community and plan for future flexibility and growth.
Palo Verde has not had enough space for its assigned students since the last elementary school closure in 1982 (not surprising since its current boundaries once filled the Van Auken, De Anza, Palo Verde and Ross Road schools plus part of Ortega). Students who live between Amarillo and Oregon Expressway must pass the school in their neighborhood and walk an additional mile to get to their assigned school. Every year some families face the possibility of being overflowed to a school that is miles away from their homes. Palo Verde is a wonderful school, but it cannot serve its current neighborhood.
The district currently has two hybrid schools that serve the needs of different populations of students. Escondido has both neighborhood and Spanish-immersion components while Ohlone houses both the "open school" philosophy and the Mandarin-immersion program. Schools with Special Day programs also allow children to interact with students with different needs. Shared sites generate synergy between programs.
The district should open a second school with the Ohlone core values (and a farm to share with the preschool programs on site) at the expanded Greendell site and make both the new school and the current Ohlone into hybrid schools serving students from their immediate neighborhoods plus students entering via the alternative school lottery. The Ohlone program would remain unchanged and Mandarin immersion could remain in place if desired. Families who prefer not to send their children to an "open school" could select a nearby school. Overcrowding at all schools would be relieved, traffic reduced, and our families would have more choice.
Additional hybrid schools would allow us to renew the essence of the small neighborhood schools that we enjoyed in the past while reaping the efficiencies of somewhat larger numbers of students on each campus. The law allows neighborhood schools with alternative school components, but we must build trust among diverse groups.
We need another elementary school in the south and we need to honor both the families who want to attend school in their neighborhood and those who prefer an alternative school. Hybrid schools on both edges of the south that offer a locally popular alternative program and also allow the nearest neighbors to attend would mean everyone wins. Most children could then attend the program of their choice and nearly everyone could walk or ride their bikes to school safely.