A second school board discussion of the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee's (EMAC) preliminary proposals on Tuesday night brought to light divisions between the committee members themselves on the state of enrollment growth in the Palo Alto school district and how to best address it.
The committee has broken into two subcommittees focused on the elementary and secondary schools, each of which presented research, findings and early recommendations for the board last month, and again Tuesday night. The elementary committee preliminarily recommended that the district does not need to do what has long been discussed open a 13th elementary school and instead made other proposals to work with what some of its members said is stable, not growing K-5 enrollment.
The secondary subcommittee has made a two-pronged recommendation: to open a new, innovative middle and high school at Cubberley Community Center while simultaneously implementing various reforms at the existing secondary schools.
The new-school proposal has garnered significant community support and excitement from parents and others (including Sal Khan, founder of online-education platform Khan Academy, and David Kelley, founder of Palo Alto design firm Ideo, whose comments on the topic were read on their behalf).
Yet at both the elementary and secondary level, several members disagree on the path forward. Three committee members, including former Palo Alto school board member Diane Reklis, have penned a "minority report" that suggests the district does, in fact, need an additional elementary school.
"We disagree with the fundamental assumption of not needing another elementary school at this point," the report reads. "While overall enrollment is not directly forcing our hand, our elementary schools are not adequate for the 21st century education our students deserve and our teachers are prepared to deliver."
Another minority-report author, committee member Erin Mershon, told the board Tuesday that while each of the elementary subcommittee's preliminary recommendations looked good on its own, as a whole they amounted to "putting Band-Aids on the problem."
She said they didn't tackle the problems the elementary subcommittee was charged with solving, including: keep overflowed students within their intended cluster; determine where children moving into a new Stanford University housing project, University Terrace, would go to school and how that impacts other students in the area; manage the impact of choice programs on students and schools; and downsize schools with large enrollment.
"If we open another elementary school, we could solve almost all of these problems," Mershon said. "We could remove portables. We could make room for class-size reduction. We could have the ability for flex space on each of the campuses.
"We can provide space for preschool or transitional kindergarten coming up. We'll reduce traffic. We'll increase choice options if we decide to open a partial choice school."
Currently, the district's largest elementary school, Ohlone, enrolls 607 students, and its smallest, Barron Park, 288 students, according to the district's 11th-day enrollment report. Most of the other schools hover between 400 and 600 students. There is an overall decrease in elementary enrollment in Palo Alto, however, across all sites and a continued decrease in kindergarten enrollment, according to the district.
While board member Heidi Emberling noted at a previous meeting that much research literature puts the ideal elementary school size at 300 to 400 students, the elementary subcommittee determined through its analysis and research that 300 to 500 students is a "reasonable target size" for an elementary school in Palo Alto. The subcommittee's report cites a review of 57 school-size studies that found schools "serving economically and socially heterogeneous or relatively advantaged students should be limited in size to about 500 students," compared to elementary schools with historically underrepresented populations, who benefit from a smaller size of about 300.
The minority report makes four main recommendations:
To open a 13th elementary school, possibly a K-8 immersion school that could be built at a district-owned site at Garland Elementary; move the district's Spanish immersion program there to make room for the new Stanford housing students at Escondido Elementary School.
Begin planning for a new neighborhood school to be built at the district's combined sites at 525 San Antonio Road and Greendell School on Middlefield Road.
Maintain Barron Park and Juana Briones elementary schools as neighborhood schools but encourage each school to take on a particular theme or interest, such as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics), to focus program and staff development and to become a model for similar programs at other schools.
Efforts to mitigate any continuing overflows, including having enough capacity to provide a buffer for new students who arrive after registration date putting in place a stricter protocol for intra-district transfers. (Mershon said the latter is already underway this year.)
Board member Ken Dauber said Palo Alto's elementary schools are too big and the minority report offers a "powerful vision" for addressing that.
"I think that we have schools that are too large by virtue of the fact that we've had such an increase in student enrollment over the last 20 years and have opened up only one elementary school during that period," Dauber said.
Board member Terry Godfrey said one sentence in particular in the minority report resonated with her: "As of now, we have 12 elementary schools, and whereas some look very similar to others, there are others that due to campus size or facilities constraints cannot offer a comparable education to their supposed counterparts."
"I think we need a new building to house students and have an innovative program," Godfrey said, "it's just not clear to me that we can afford more than one and where it should be and what level it should be and all of that sort of thing."
Board member Camille Townsend, too said, there aren't enough dollars to do both a new elementary and secondary school, and her priority is where the current enrollment crunch is at the middle and high schools. She has expressed strong support for the new 6-12 school proposal. At the elementary level, she's looking for proposals with the "least disruption" and "would prefer to handle the adjustment on current schools," she said.
Dauber disagreed that there aren't sufficient funds to both an elementary and a secondary school. The estimated $1.1 million operating cost of new elementary school is less than half a percent of the district budget, he noted.
District staff have pegged operating costs for a new middle school at $2.5 million and a new high school at $3.6 million. Construction costs range, however, depending on the site, from an estimated $28 million to $33 million at Garland and $65 million to $70 million at Cubberley.
As the board discussion moved to the secondary subcommittee's proposals, the conversation turned, again, to a clear desire in the community for the district to innovate at the middle and high school levels.
More parents expressed their support for an alternative secondary school that would bring new instructional and philosophical approaches to break with the status-quo in Palo Alto. As one parent put it, "If we can't re-imagine how we teach here, I don't know where else we can."
Yet some board members pointed to a gradual drifting form the question at hand: Are the secondary schools too big?
"I would like to disentangle questions of program from questions of capacity because the real question that we're facing is, do we have enough space for the students that we have and if not, where should that space be?" Dauber said.
Enrollment at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools this year sits at just under 2,000 students each, with 1,979 at Paly and 1,886 at Gunn. (The high schools have not yet reached the capacity they were built for, which is 2,300 students.)
Jordan Middle School is the largest middle school with 1,130 students this year. Jane Lathrop Stanford (JLS) Middle School is next with 1,112 students. Terman Middle School still remains small with 749 students this year, though its campus is also smaller than the other two middle schools.
Parent Todd Collins, also an EMAC elementary subcommittee member, spoke during the public comment as an individual to challenge the secondary group's conclusion that the middle and high schools are too large. He said key evidence had been overlooked, omitted or misrepresented in their report.
"But so what, right? There's a school of thought that even if their recommendation is completely wrong, what's the worst thing that can happen?" Collins said. "We build a new school. Capital costs are viewed by many people as practically free. We're told that there are donors waiting in the wings to fund part or all of a new school. So why would anybody be against building a new, innovative school?
"I actually think a lot is at stake," he continued. "We are not a district that's light on its feet. We spent three years debating the school calendar. The decision to open a new secondary school, the bond to fund it, the design of the building, choice versus neighborhood enrollment, the impact of traffic not to mention, that's even before you get to the new educational program that would be there.
"This program would consume our complete attention for the entire next five to seven years, plus in turn, our entire current budget surplus for every year thereafter."
Collins said in an interview with the Weekly Wednesday that the crux of the problem that deserves the district's focus and dollars in the coming years is the existing schools, not a new "super school."
"The answer is that it (building a new school) is a bad thing not just because it costs lots of money but also because it will keep us from doing the real work that we should be doing: improving the schools we already have. That's really the main point. We should be spending all this time and effort not building the super school but improving the schools that we already have because they're not too big. They're a perfectly reasonable size and we just don't manage them right."
Collins told the Weekly he took issue with several data points in the secondary group's report that supported their conclusion that the secondary schools are too big, including that district schools are bigger than they've ever been before and comparing Palo Alto's school sizes to national averages and to Bay Area school districts that are not truly comparable. (He said this kind of comparison, which includes urban and rural schools across the country, is irrelevant.)
The report, Collins said, reflected a predisposition within the committee toward wanting to open a new school "and not necessarily the underlying data."
The secondary subcommittee did recommend the district take a "both, and" approach by forming small-learning communities within its three middle and two high schools by extending existing pathway programs and rolling out "core teams" or "house systems" systemically.
Within core teams or "houses," cohorts of students move together through school with the same teachers, which would improve connectedness, enable more teacher-student engagement, and "make our large schools feel more personal and accessible," the subcommittee's report reads.
Dauber and Godfrey also urged the committee to come back to the board with a proposal focused on opening a new middle school, which parents and board members have repeatedly said are too large. Many parents spoke Tuesday night and at a previous board meeting on the secondary proposals about leaving the public school district for smaller, more nurturing and connected private schools in the area once their children reached middle school.
Gunn High School's student board member, Grace Park, also suggested that the subcommittee survey more high school students to get a better grasp on how they feel about the size of their schools. The group surveyed parents, but not students, and held two focus groups with 32 Gunn and Paly students. Park also said that many of her peers are affected more by being in large classes than feeling their overall school is too big or overcrowded.
The entire enrollment management committee is expected to issue a final report with recommendations to the board in December. There will also be a public town hall meeting to discuss their proposals before then, likely the week of Nov. 30, Superintendent Max McGee said Tuesday night.