Enrollment committee proposals garner mixed responses | News | Palo Alto Online |


Enrollment committee proposals garner mixed responses

Committee members divided on need -- or not -- to open new schools

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.

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7 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 11, 2015 at 11:39 am

My present senior was in 2nd grade when the AAAG met and recommended opening a 13th elementary school and also was very concerned about the size of the middle and high schools.

I hope that there will be changes made before the present 2nd graders become seniors.

5 people like this
Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 11, 2015 at 1:55 pm

@Paly Parent - the good news seems to be that enrollment is shrinking, so by the time 2nd graders are seniors (10 years), schools will be smaller than they are today. Kindergarten enrollment is down 16% from its peak in 2010, and has fallen for 5 years in a row.

1 person likes this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 11, 2015 at 2:08 pm


Are you taking into account the fact that for several years the incoming kindergarten covered only 11 months of birthdays rather than 12 months due to the gradual change in the enrollment cut off from December to September?

This means that for several years there has been a bubble as these 11 month birthdays progress through the grades.

I am not saying that you are wrong, but sometimes the data for enrollments over the years is not reflecting this change of age information.

2 people like this
Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 11, 2015 at 2:48 pm

@Paly Parent - you are right of course, but 2010 was before the change and 2015 is after, so each reflects 12 months of enrollment. Adjusting for the change, Kindergarten enrollment went up slightly in 2012, and has fallen each year since. In fact, this year's 12 month Kindergarten enrollment (758) was actually below last year's 11 month total (783), a drop of 9% in one year (adjusting last year to 12 months). Enrollment has been steadily dropping.

9 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 11, 2015 at 3:42 pm

Hiya, Fellow Onliners,

Dr. McGee's new plan reports candidly and vividly on our high-schoolers’ sense of disconnection and of lack of belonging.

The plan's solution to alleviate these feelings is to shrink the numbers at Gunn and Paly, but the report offers no proof that our schools' current size is the actual problem.

And it fails to note that large crowds of people have always been able to live contentedly in even the biggest cities when they feel a texture of close and secure human ties within their apartment buildings, on their blocks, and to their city's institutions and values.

Palo Alto's schools can be downsized to nutshells but they'll have the same atmosphere of estrangement as long as our leadership resists re-stitching their social fabrics.

Gunn and Paly have 407 classes with 30 or more students—cutting kids off in myriad ways from the teachers who could otherwise champion them.

Our District, while recommending a limit of 2 APs, has failed to stop 680 students, this term, from taking three or more—putting kids in a constant, exhausted hurry.

The District reports grades non-stop, giving depressed students no time to bounce back from the hurts of adolescence.

Homework loads remain un-modulated by the latest, state-of-the-art means.

87% of Gunn kids cheat; Paly had a three-year cheating "ring of dishonor." Studies show that 65% of high-schoolers get on their phones during class.

Before the eye-catching PAUSD "Building for the Future!" construction signs are planted, let's have a thoughtful debate.


Marc Vincenti
Campaign Coordinator
Save the 2,008
(our sensible, affordable plan to bring hope to our high-schoolers is at savethe2008.com)

5 people like this
Posted by Its_Time
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 11, 2015 at 7:25 pm

Students at the new Stanford housing project should be 100% overflowed to space in any elementary school in Palo Alto unless the developer contributes a new school. This makes much more sense then overflowing other kids to make room for the new housing complex at Nixon or Escondido.

The school board needs to get involved in the development debate occurring in this town. Large developments that are creating impacts need to be responsible for the fix - at least to a large degree.

The city and the school district need to start working together much more closely to manage this growth

11 people like this
Posted by No raise for defenders of harassers
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 11, 2015 at 8:26 pm

Both these committees have gone completely off the reservation. The elementary committee decided to take on reform of Barron Park school, which was nowhere in their charge. They wrote things in their report [portion removed] about the "concentration" of minority and ELL and special ed students. I was glad to hear Winter Dellenbach call them out on this and highlight the valued diversity of BP school.

The high school decided to build McGee Academy. Also not in its charge. Now it wants the board to authorize a "Design" Task Force. Design what? Their new McGee Academy. Appoint it before the board decides to build it?! What the hell happened? This is just off the rails.

The board should stop this foolishness. We need a middle school, we need an elementary school. We don't need a high school -- obviously. BTW, it's 2350 students not 2300. Here's the cite for that: "Gunn and Paly are being prepared for capacities of 2,350 each (current enrollment is 1,879 at Gunn and 1,860 at Paly)." (2011).

Web Link

Can we please stop this? Our high schools are not overcrowded. They are overstressed. We shouldn't try to build our way out of the problem. And as Ken Dauber said, we can't spend more on students there, and we can't have smaller classes, so what are we even talking about.

[Portion removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 11, 2015 at 8:37 pm

"They wrote things in their report that were openly racist, about the "concentration" of minority and ELL and special ed students. "

@No Raise - Those sound like facts to me. How it is racist? Why do you think drawing attention to the school's student profile is inappropriate for an enrollment management committee?

44 people like this
Posted by Time for new Board members
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 11, 2015 at 11:22 pm

I saw the webcast of this meeting and read the Palo Alto Weekly links (thanks Elena!). I feel both committees did a really good job on the analysis, quite professional for a bunch of volunteer parents.

The Board seemed stuck on their inability to get past the $200M that had been spent to expand our high schools over the past 5 years, and that seemed to be a key mental roadblock in not opening a new high school, despite the loads of evidence that suggest a new high school is the right thing to do.

I suspect the Board will now "think small" and shrivel to open a new middle school and possibly a 13th elementary school. What a waste for our kids to be held hostage to poor decision making in the past. What a waste that our big traditional high schools will now just chug along with glacial change.

Why did the Board convene this committee at all if they were predisposed to hear that "everything is fine" and do nothing?

If all the Board wanted to know was "will our schools have sufficient room for our kids?", they could have just hired another demographer to give them a second opinion.

I think it is time to think about new, more visionary leadership for the Board. It's too late for my kids, but we simply cannot continue to be this conservative in our Board representation. We simply can't. It is time for change.

10 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 12, 2015 at 1:21 am

Let's return to neighborhood schools - there is too much driving with choice schools, which contributes to air pollution and traffic congestion. No one is going to leave town if we pull the choice schools. Have some balls, BoE.

5 people like this
Posted by Chop wood Carry water
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 12, 2015 at 9:08 am

@No raise and Elena Kadvany,
That's an important distinction you bring up, and deserves a correction in the article. The article states that the high schools were built for 2300 students. This implies that they were originally built for 2300 students, though I realize you didn't mean that , Elena, most readers will not. It woyld be interesting to have the information on what they were originally built for, because I believe it was around 1500 students? Or even less. At 1800-1900, the schools were already larger than originally built for, which is why we had Cubberley. How large were Gunn and Paly when Cubberley was open, and how large was Cubberley at its highest and lowest enrollment.

The other point is that the schools were not built for 2300 capacity, to be exact, they were recently renovated at great expense as part of district planning to expand to 2350 students (I thought it was up to 2500, but I'll go with the link). Since some of the same people were on the board then, and indeed, Todd Collins is on the facilities bond oversight committee, the public is really owed an explanation, and perhaps even an apology.

Also, making Harry Potter houses, per the research, doesn't really solve the too big school effects. It's rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and done for show, not for great improvement to our students. (Like it really stopped the bullying in Harry Potter - a book in which kids try to and fo kill each other. Just thought I'd point that out, though research tells the more important story here.) The schools within schools become effective when they really are separate schools, with separate administration, even separate entrances. This is actually more expensive than breaking into two campuses when an existing campus can be brought back into service. People go to the effort and expense when they don't have the luxury of the choices we have/had. Suggesting it here as an alternative to reopening Cubberley is based on a whim, not on thinking about this logically.

5 people like this
Posted by Brit
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 12, 2015 at 10:07 am

Just wanted to point out that the Harry Potter house model is a very common practice in British schools and works very well. This is done for reasons of making schools within schools primary for sports and also for well being. It was not something invented by j k Rowling.

2 people like this
Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 12, 2015 at 10:43 am

@Chop wood Carry water - what is it that the Board should be apologizing for? Expanding the high schools? I'm confused.

The oversight committee oversees compliance with the bond/parcel tax/whatever and issues an annual report (there were two presentations on this at the last board meeting). I'm pretty sure it has nothing to do with choosing or approving projects.

3 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 12, 2015 at 11:14 am

Marie is a registered user.

Did the committees take into account all the new students from the new Stanford housing and other potential development to meet ABAG requirements? Part of the recent increase is due to the fact that Palo Alto, after having almost flat population from 1970 to 2000, grew close to 10,000 residents from approximately 55K to 64.4K from 2000 to 2010. Per the census, estimated population in 2014 is almost 67K, another increase $2.5K in four years.

Web Link

That rate of increase seems to be continuing and will only accelerate as Palo Alto zones for new housing to meet the ABAG requirements. I don't think just building studios and one bedrooms will work, as some have suggested, with the implication that this will not attract families with children. In fact, we need to have more moderate income housing for families.

Part of the dip may also reflect the increasing pattern of turning residences into AirBnB hotels and and other types of hostels for tech workers. At some point, Palo Alto will make zoning changes that encourage our neighborhoods to stay neighborhoods which will bring back more children as well as changes in zoning to allow for more tiny apartments for tech workers, which will I hope reduce the demand to pack tech workers into residences. How long are workers earning $100K+ going to be satisfied with living in a bunk bed in a small house?

And who knows what Stanford will do? They keep growing and will probably still add more housing. They will be adding 3000 new employees with the new hospital. ABAG is pressuring them too.

Palo Alto has the best public schools in the area and room to expand. Plans should include potential development due to the ABAG requirements, which are based on the expectations of continued strong growth on the Peninsula. A temporary lull thanks to a recession will very likely be replaced by another jump in enrollment once more housing development is approved. I think this is another case of hiring consultants whose instructions don't include estimating the impact of future developments, much like the prior council making decisions about traffic without including future development, even development that has been approved. Please hire better consultants and instruct them to include a scenario in which Palo Alto complies with ABAG.

4 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 12, 2015 at 11:50 am

The Sterling Act (and amendments) limit school impact fees. Further, the Act specifically prohibits the denial of project approvals based on the adequacy of local school facilities.

I don't see the need for opening a new elementary school. There's a fair bit of capacity (see today's Daily Post article) that's available. Elementary school enrollment is shrinking.

There's obviously a vocal group of parents passionate about keeping the status quo at Barron Park. But, these parents haven't been able to convince half of the Barron Park families that they should attend their neighborhood school. Families outside the neighborhood getting overflowed to Barron Park don't stay. So, there's clearly a problem with the program and environment at Barron Park. We sent our kids to Barron Park and took them out. Lot's of neighborhood parents are also unhappy with the school. So, it's an obvious place for improvement that EMAC should examine.

PAUSD board members are school trustees. Their obligation isn't to a group of vocal neighborhood parents, but to the long term health of the school district. Wasting money on a new elementary school and ignoring the problems at Barron Park would be the the wrong thing for PAUSD.

7 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 12, 2015 at 4:29 pm

I think it's unreasonable to designate all the kids in the new Stanford housing project as overflows. I prefer the Garland as a K-8 immersion school and Escondido as the natural home for the incoming Stanford schools. And, then, yes, look down the line to reopening Greenfell. Palo Alto still has ABAG requirements hanging over its head.

Schools don't consist merely of desks and buildings--they're communities. The high pressure and large size of the Palo Alto high schools is hard on a lot of kids--the large size makes for both increased competition and, also, isolation. It also seems to lead to more standardization, rote teaching and less differentiated instruction. Some kids are overwhelmed and struggling and others are bored with what is busywork for them. Those kids can be in the same class. Both groups would benefit from some different learning approaches.

Schools-within-schools are stopgaps that sort of work maybe to address issues arising from huge schools. But, unlike a lot of places, we actually have a location for a new high school and the resources to do something. I think all the high schools would benefit from it.

2 people like this
Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 12, 2015 at 5:06 pm

Why would we open new elementary schools if there is plenty of empty space (20 classrooms I read today) and enrollment is going down? 20 classrooms is like a whole elementary school by itself.

[Portion removed.]

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