Guest Opinion: The Cubberley plan — Isn't the issue over-crowded schools?

Support Palo Alto's secondary school students rather than create "haves" and "have nots"

Like many in our community, I am excited by the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) proposal presented at the Palo Alto Unified School District board meeting on Oct. 26. We welcome focus not only on the academic excellence of our schools, but also on the social-emotional well-being of our students. We know our students need to connect with teachers and fellow students, and that attending overcrowded schools hampers these relationships. The work the committee did is amazing, but nonetheless, I am conflicted because the proposal makes only a slight dent in our secondary school over-enrollment, which is the problem the EMAC was asked to address.

I wholeheartedly support project-based learning. With parent support, Stanford support and philanthropic capital, PAUSD is well-positioned to develop a project-based learning program. The EMAC report favors opening a small innovative school for grades 6-12 at Cubberley rather than a comprehensive neighborhood middle school.

But with only 700 to 1,050 students, this new combined middle and high school would not substantially mitigate the over-enrollment at the other secondary schools, and is not consistent with the wishes of our community. The committee's research shows that 75 percent of our community prefers choice programs in our current neighborhood secondary schools over opening a new choice school. If our community is energized by project-based learning, then with the support of Stanford and philanthropists dedicated to funding such programs, tracks or smaller learning communities could be established in each of the secondary schools.

The committee discusses the "competition" with private schools, suggesting that a new innovative school might lessen the "leakage" of the 240 secondary school-age students in the district who attend private schools, but the committee neglects to add these additional students into their enrollment projections. Even without counting these students, the committee admits that the proposed new middle school and high school do not succeed in lowering the population of the other secondary schools to the target capacity range.

Complicating matters, the real capacity at our current middle schools is much lower than the stated capacity. The EMAC indicates the stated capacity figures may or may not be possible or advisable, and are not representative of actual capacity or potential capacity at each school. As an example, Jordan, with 19 acres, cannot possibly have the same capacity as JLS, with 26 acres, yet both have the same stated capacities. And equally concerning, the proposed new middle school and high school are themselves well below the suggested target range in size.

Schools lower than that range have much higher operational costs per student, due to the disproportionate staffing. It is suggested in the report that private funding sources be identified to offset the ongoing operational costs, which would mean that the 700 to 1,050 students at these two schools would benefit from private funding not available to the other students in the district. Is the intention to replace the district's current, highly valued central fundraising model to allow individual school sites to raise private funds for operational costs? I hope not.

While all our middle and high schools currently exceed the target range, both high schools have recently benefited by extensive building projects that have increased their capacities. The middle schools have not. A fourth full-sized, comprehensive middle school is needed at Cubberley to alleviate crowding at the middle schools.

The problems of over-enrollment go beyond exceeding a school's reasonable physical capacity. The EMAC findings also indicate that over-enrollment leads to the creeping up of class size, the lack of open space, limitations on courses and pathways, and the limitation on student-teacher interaction. The EMAC recommends a set of standards be created, including setting maximum classroom sizes and creating capacity models, such as a square-feet-per-student formula.

The "School Size Study Report: Impact of Smaller Schools," prepared for the Maryland State Department of Education, which much of the EMAC findings are based upon, indicate that more than half of their schools use "target utilization rates" or a square-feet-per-student standard and maximum class sizes to evaluate optimal school size. Yet these recommendations, which directly impact secondary school over-enrollment, are omitted in the final proposal.

In the meantime, for both the middle schools and high schools, there are many strategies that can be implemented as early as next fall to address over-enrollment and promote connectedness. The middle schools currently all group students into "teams" that share core teachers. Teaming could be continued into grades 9 and 10.

Students at all the secondary schools would benefit from enforced maximum class sizes to facilitate teacher and student interaction, and additional counseling staff at numbers proportionate to school population would improve student well-being.

The establishment of "houses," where several classes of students would be grouped together throughout the grades, has been a successful strategy for high schools to create a sense of belonging in larger schools, provide continuity and soften transitions, as have academic interest tracks or "schools within a school."

The board has stated that the school district is flush with money and has told the EMAC that now is the time to spend it, but these funds should be used in a way that actually addresses overcrowding and gives the most benefit now to all the district's secondary school students rather than creating "haves" and "have nots."

The new task force should be charged with implementing the many strategies recommended for reducing over-enrollment, increasing connectedness and social-emotional welfare of our students, establishing project-based learning tracks in all our secondary schools, and redeveloping Cubberley as a neighborhood middle school.

Rita Tetzlaff, the mother of twin girls who attend Jordan Middle School, has held positions as director of product marketing, division controller, and business manager for software and services security companies.

Related content:

Guest Opinion: Our schools: some questions about the 22nd century

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5 people like this
Posted by Derp
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 13, 2015 at 9:03 am

The premise of this article is wrong; the idea that Palo Alto schools are over-enrolled [portion removed.]

12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 13, 2015 at 10:46 am

Our schools were not designed for the numbers of students. They may be able to put in more classrooms, but that doesn't mean that the schools are not beyond their original design numbers.

For the most part, schools are in residential neighborhoods that can't handle the volumes of students, parents, staff, all descending on the campus at the start of each day. Many of the schools can't even handle the parking for teachers on the campus so they have to park on the streets.

Our students generally do not have the same class with the same group of students each year. For many students having to get to know a large number of classmates is a daunting procedure at the beginning of each year. The teachers are in the same boat too.

When it comes to sports, there are still only the same number of spots on each team and even though they are introducing more sports, lacrosse is definitely not as cool and the community does not come out for a lacrosse game the way the community comes out for a football game.

For all intrinsic purposes, our schools are huge. An individual can easily get lost or feel lost. Classes of over 30 students does not help a student feel connected to the teacher and able to ask a question or get the extra help needed to understand the material. Even with teachers available after school or at lunch, the availability of one teacher for any one student is that much harder.

350 students for elementary, 750 for middle school and 1500 for high school was once thought of as being optimum even for Palo Alto. We have long gone beyond those numbers. Giving them all a desk in a classroom does not mean that our schools are not over-crowded.

1 person likes this
Posted by Palo Alto
a resident of Woodside
on Nov 13, 2015 at 11:08 am

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Wow
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 13, 2015 at 11:16 am

[Post removed.]

12 people like this
Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 13, 2015 at 11:25 am

Putting more buildings on the high school campuses, as has been done, does not necessarily mean that they have room to grow. If I build 5 more bedrooms in my house, that does not mean that my house can now handle 5 more people.

The reason the schools are overcrowded is because they do not have the space nor the resources to handle the number of students currently on or planned for these campuses. When Tetzlaffs middle schoolers get to Paly, she will realize the true issue.

PAUSD needs to take some of the strain off of all grade levels. One benefit of the Cubberley proposal is that it has the capability of doing this without stripping the current schools when enrollment numbers might dip.

11 people like this
Posted by PolicySage
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 13, 2015 at 11:48 am

Not enough salience has been given in these discussions to the vital role of Bay Area philanthropists and foundations, who stand in the wings right now waiting for something like a project-oriented, really student-oriented, proven system of teaching and learning that could occur at Cubberly on a 6-12 level. It would bring the PAUSD into the 21st century, which, while perhaps a shock to one or two school board members, would be a great thing, indeed!

6 people like this
Posted by Wow
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 13, 2015 at 12:55 pm

@Policy Sage - the building cost, while high, is probably not the biggest concern. What about the operating cost - >$10M/year, between lost rent and new overhead cost at Cubberly? Will donors fund that going forward? Otherwise, it uses up our budget surplus, and when the current boom ends and state funding dips again, we will be deeply in the hole. The donors paying for a school is like buying somebody else a puppy - it feels great for the donor, but creates a large, long-term obligation for the recipient.

4 people like this
Posted by Cincy
a resident of another community
on Nov 13, 2015 at 1:20 pm

Cincy is a registered user.

If reason (in my mind anyway) is applied to the current school over-crowding situation, I think Palo Alto is primed to resolve the situation with minimal handwringing now, and into the future.

Consider the flexibility PAUSD has with the Cubberley campus to handle overflow of either middle- or high school students, maybe both. If the current situation involves too many middle schoolers, partition the district so that students closest to Cubberley would attend there. When ready for high school, they continue at the same campus.

When the student population inevitably contracts, the facility can revert to other uses, and students throughout the district would be funneled to Gunn or Paly. Faculty, administrators, and staff who were hired during the time the "new" campus was open, will be given the opportunity to move to another school or district.

**Elephant in the Room**
I think this would all work very well until one considers the elephant: FOOTBALL, or any other sport in which students could excel to the point of qualifying for athletic scholarships, post-secondary. Adding a school to existing leagues is problematic for scheduling. Although the Cubberley football field still exists, short-term development of the infrastructure needed to support a team is challenging. Palo Altans have tremendously creative minds that should be deployed to resolve these and other issues.

The point is, panicking every few decades to meet temporary needs is a waste. A comprehensive plan to expand and contract as needed, with the flexibility to adapt to changing standards for decades to come, will future-proof the district.

11 people like this
Posted by Former Gunn Mother
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Nov 13, 2015 at 1:30 pm

One of the big issues raised with the idea of creating a Middle/High School at Cubberley is who will attend? The reason Cubberley closed in 1978 is every high school student wanted to go to Gunn. Both Gunn and Paly have extremely high reputations and look really good on a resume, Cubberley will mean nothing on a college application or to a future employer.

I wonder if all those parents serving on the committee that proposed the Middle/High School at Cubberley will be willing to remove their children from either Gunn or Paly to have them attend an untested, unproven, unknown middle/high school called Cubberley.

Meanwhile, kindergarten and elementary enrollment is going down. Two classes were eliminated from the Districts elementary schools this year. I am not surprised. For 22 years the baby boomers pushed the enrollment up, then it fell by almost half during the 1970s and 1980s, then slowly in the 1990s enrollment went up. Now it is anticipated that it will decline for the next 22 years or so.

3 people like this
Posted by Cincy
a resident of another community
on Nov 13, 2015 at 2:48 pm

Cincy is a registered user.

Michio Kaku went to Cubberley.

The year I started high school the northern boundary on the Paly-Cubberley divide was moved from Colorado Avenue to Matadero Creek. I went to to Paly. The next year they moved it back. All my friends went to Cubberley. My desire to go to the same school as my friends was irrelevant.

Draw the line. Children will adapt.

6 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 13, 2015 at 3:37 pm

I'm a big fan of HS athletics, club programs, bands - all sorts of extracurricular activities.

Worrying about starting a football team is the least of their worries. Typical new HS start up process is that they first field a JV team for a couple of years and then grow a Varsity team as the school population grows. Plus the SCVAL has an upper and lower league - so the team can start out in the lower league. Believe me, scheduling is the least of the problems.

6 people like this
Posted by Wow
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 13, 2015 at 5:34 pm

FWIW, Gunn, with about 1900 students, can hardly field a football team as it is. Their roster lists 28 players; I believe they typically dressed 20-25 for games last year, given injuries and availability. Most people will tell you this is close to the minimum (if not below), since there are 11 players on the field at a time, and playing with excess fatigue or in unfamiliar positions can be dangerous. For comparison, De La Salle, a local football powerhouse, lists 77 players on their roster; Paly lists 42. Some sports are well subscribed, but others are quite thinn.

7 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 13, 2015 at 5:50 pm

I agree the need for a 4th middle school is a big need. But putting a middle school at Cubberley has severe drawbacks. Let's look at 2 possibilities: (1) it is a neighborhood school, and (2) it is a choice school.

if (1) neighborhood school at Cubberley, then 3 of our 4 middle schools will be in South Palo Alto, and 2 of them at the very southern border of our town. Having such a configuration will do little to off-load Jordan or Terman due to location.

If (2) choice school at Cubberley instead of neighborhood school, then adding yet another choice school in the Southeast part of town will add MORE traffic to an heavily-burdened area. Nearly all K-8 or 6-8 students outside of that area will need to be driven to school, generating at least 2 cars trips per day.

A better solution is to find a site location for a new middle school that is more balanced. The goal is to have 2 middle schools stream into Paly and 2 stream into Gunn. Putting 3 of 4 middle schools in the southern part of Palo Alto isn't smart.

9 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 13, 2015 at 6:03 pm

By the way, Rita, the EMAC committee made an updated presentation to the Board on November 10 (this past Tuesday) where they suggested that instead of Cubberley being 700-1050, it should be a much bigger campus and offload Paly, Gunn, JLS, Terman and Jordan much more aggressively. It was listed as Idea Number 3. The 700-1050 option was listed as Idea Number 1.

They said at the presentation that they strongly recommended the Board kick off a "design task force" to investigate their Ideas #1 (small Cubberley), #2 (house system) and #3 (big Cubberley) more thoroughly and come back with specific recommendations to the Board by June 2016.

Good to take a look at their latest November 10 presentation. The EMAC folks came back with pretty good new options.

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 13, 2015 at 6:20 pm

One possible location for a north PA middle school would be at Churchill and share some facilities with Paly.

PAUSD district staff can lease offices almost anywhere in Palo Alto. They do not have to be located where they are at present.

Just an idea.

2 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 13, 2015 at 7:09 pm

I am excited about Cubberley being put to a valuable use in the community.
Maybe the city can set up an arts - theatre arts dominate program at this location. I notice that there are many classes during the summer at night for music / band /orchestra students. There can be a focal point for the arts that can then be melded into the theatre arts at Paly. That way they can forego the need for athletic teams.

6 people like this
Posted by Blub Blub
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 13, 2015 at 9:11 pm

I would like to know what the EMAC task force has been doing for the past 6 months. It appears that now the secondary school committee has recommended a committee to do what they should have done. All the committees are splintered and none have a real recommendation.

This was a ridiculous waste of time. McGee gets the blame for this as he organized it, served on it, and appointed everyone to it. [Post removed.]

10 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 13, 2015 at 9:35 pm

# Blub-Blub:

Not sure what you are reading.

The EMAC committee recommended a new middle school and high school at Cubberley and creating smaller learning communities (teams or houses) at Paly, Gunn, JLS, Terman and Jordan that span grades.

EMAC recommended the next task force to dig deeper into the design details, and come back with the "how", since they already recommended the "why" and "what". Seems like a good set of recommendations to me.

3 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 14, 2015 at 11:05 am

Our schools were designed for a small town, which Palo Alto is. It is artificially and recklessly being turned into what it can never be. Our schools are overcrowded, and if only a fraction of the PAF vision is enacted, we will need several more schools, which is an impossibility.

2 people like this
Posted by STEVE
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 15, 2015 at 8:20 am


7 people like this
Posted by Resident and Teacher
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 16, 2015 at 7:56 pm

I am concerned that the "Bay Area philanthropists and foundation" being discussed are interested in a special school for their own children. Is this really what our public school district wants? Is that the best use of our scarce real estate and facilities? PAUSD has moved forward from a time when parents only contributed financially to their own school site. PIE now directs generous contributions to be distributed across the district for every student's benefit. Let's continue with this generous mind set.

7 people like this
Posted by Sense
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2015 at 12:32 am

@Resident and Teacher,

The philanthropists can buy private school and whatever they want. The schools are already getting uneven philanthropy anyway.

We don't have scarce real estate and facilities. Compared to most districts, we are rolling in dough, and we have school sites we don't even use. Hardly scarce. What we've had is poor planning and poor allocation of resources. We should have been having this conversation when there was still time to use the money. I'm not inclined to pay for another bond. If they try to pass one, in a year or two when we can take the exemption for all of them, we will.

3 people like this
Posted by Sense
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2015 at 10:11 am

Re: the Churchill idea. Great idea.

I wonder if the concern about "leakage" is because it's the richest among us who can leak first? Or because the (not rich) leaks that left because the district didn't think it mattered whether they righted wrongs with children of lesser consequence, turns out those parents have rich and powerful friends, talk with those friends, and once the district has destroyed all chance of setting things right with those people, their opinions will continue, too? (Altho, district admin capacity to ignore the ramifications of poor behavior toward families they feel justified in being terrible to would tend to negate this as a thought in their minds.)

Or, maybe, could the district be concerned because the "leakage" might become competition with innovative PUBLIC charter programs that few realize they can avail themselves of now, but which could affect district funding (despite the basic aid district)? I don't think the district can stop families transferring their students to public charters, and basic aid notwithstanding, the funding follows the students and districts have to shell out "in lieu" property taxes. The district was probably afraid to even mention this, lest families realize they can today find an individualized program through public charters in other districts, get A-G credit through those districts, but follow an individually designed program (with more control and less homework).

I believe some of the funds in some of those programs are at the discretion of the student to use with independent learning educational providers that suit their needs. Innovative educational resources outside the district are growing exponentially, while our students are locked in a burdensome old-style Prussian model run by people more concerned about their "embarrassment" and exorbitant salaries than serving all students well per district vision. Maybe the district is worried about a sudden shift, kind of like the music or publishing industry, because of outside innovators in education. (But they "innovate" in the same top-down ossified way they currently run the district.)

Or maybe even, when property tax revenues drop again, the district might face funding challenges because of students who transfer to nearby districts that attract transfers wanting to shore up their funding. Districts don't have to allow the transfers, but the county can also overrule if the students are transferring for reasons like a special program or health and safety.

Because it just makes no sense that they would be afraid of competition from private schools otherwise, since (assuming all kids are equal) wouldn't that help solve the problem of over enrollment?

1 person likes this
Posted by Alternatives
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 17, 2015 at 11:30 am

@ Sense. You said:

"lest families realize they can today find an individualized program through public charters in other districts, get A-G credit through those districts, but follow an individually designed program (with more control and less homework)."

Can you expand on this? We are tired of our child falling through the cracks in a large school. His teachers have 150 kids and he falls pretty low on the ladder of priorities. He's doing ok, but we'd never call it thriving. We assume the only other option is private. With how much online education has come and maybe also there are some charters around, can a child still graduate from PAUSD if they can do the work elsewhere without being ground through the pressure cooker? Without home schooling, how does one cobble together a meaningful education?

4 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 17, 2015 at 1:50 pm

@Alternative - you might want to ask the District about “Middle College” or “Freestyle Academy”. These are choice programs that would be good publicly funded alternatives for your child.

@Sense - a school bond only needs 60% to pass and it would easily do so in Palo Alto (examine for yourself our recent elections on anything related to our schools), assuming a thoughtful plan that is designed by teachers, students, administration, and parents. As to your comments about private school, the right way to frame the debate is not whether the District is worried about leakage, but rather "what is it about our secondary schools that causes so many parents to abandon our public schools once they finish elementary school?" and "should we do something about that" vs. burying heads in sand.

Like this comment
Posted by Heart
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2015 at 2:04 pm

@Barron Park Dad,
I'm not sure what your comment means. If a lot of kids decide to leave PAUSD for public charters elsewhere, some or all of their funding goes with them despite our basic aid status. That has nothing to do with bonds passing or not. If a lot of students are going to outside charters, someone may decide to bring one to PAUSD for lack of innovation here. I'm suggesting some more logical background on why the district might have made the inconsistent claims that it has to open Cubberly for increased enrollment and also to avoid decreased enrollment from competition. The part of the story they failed to mention is that there is competition that can in fact walk away with that student's funding right out of Palo Alto. I wouldn't worry about our schools, though. I know hardly amyone paying property taxes with kids in school who isn't supporting more than one kid on their taxes, including us. But the district may be caught flatfooted if a lot of students leave over a relatively short time because of growing opportunities (not private school).

2 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 17, 2015 at 2:18 pm

I need to read the EMAC presentations to the Board again, but I'm pretty sure opening Cubberley is about making the other District secondary schools smaller, which are currently far outside recommended ranges according to a variety of criteria and academic research. It wasn't about fear of increasing enrollment, which is hard to predict beyond the near-term anyway.

Just based on upward movement between grades, our middle schools will grow by 100-200 kids in Sept 2016, and our high schools will grow by 700 kids in the year 2020. And even if they didn't grow, our middle schools and high schools are currently really huge.

6 people like this
Posted by Sense/Heart (sorry posted under both)
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2015 at 6:24 pm

""lest families realize they can today find an individualized program through public charters in other districts, get A-G credit through those districts, but follow an individually designed program (with more control and less homework)."

Can you expand on this? We are tired of our child falling through the cracks in a large school. His teachers have 150 kids and he falls pretty low on the ladder of priorities. He's doing ok, but we'd never call it thriving. We assume the only other option is private. With how much online education has come and maybe also there are some charters around, can a child still graduate from PAUSD if they can do the work elsewhere without being ground through the pressure cooker? Without home schooling, how does one cobble together a meaningful education?"

I'm really sorry, I was not able to get to your question before tonight. Someone posting under Sarah1000 linked to a meeting TONIGHT in Los Altos where they will be talking about alternatives like Middle College.

One thing they don't seem to be covering is charters. Unfortunately, the charters are distance charters, but you don't have to choose homeschooling. What you can do is work with them to come up with a plan for your child - it could involve Independent Learning Center classes, or Quantum Camp, Fusion, Coder School, Stanford High School, AltSchool (which has classes for independent learners of only a few days a week) other educational vendors (they are burgeoning). They send an educational specialist to meet with you once a week I believe, to make sure everything is going smoothly. You can design your own curriculum, and your child could do some of it at home, or at various other places. If you choose a program through another public district (unfortunately PAUSD doesn't have any), you could send your child to that district to attend classes at the school. If your child chooses to take some of those classes for social reasons, it could just be the fun or elective classes. The resources for these things change daily it seems like. The charters I know of: Ocean Grove, Connecting Waters. There are others (I'm not sure if CW is the same, but Fremont district has a program that I know people in Palo Alto have used and loved.)

Many families who go this route rely a lot on community college classes. If you want to get preference for the good classes, sometimes people take the CHSPE, but don't tell their districts about it. You have to pay for the CC classes then, but if you go as a high school student, you get last pick. Middle College is another way to do this, but it's not for everyone. Some people prefer the flexibility of going through a high school charter. Plus the charters will give you money to pay for some of the vendors.

It's frightening to step out into the unknown like this, especially when it costs so much money to stay in a top district like this. But it's worth it to see the kiddos love learning again, have time for friends and family, and even time to do interesting things and succeed at them. School can be such negative overhead. Especially if the administration is dead set against working with you. They tend to behave better to their favorites and dole out perks or lumps of coal depending on whether they like you, so you may want to give it a try and see if they'll work with you. Palo Alto does allow independent study, too.

Like this comment
Posted by Sense
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2015 at 6:26 pm

Let me know where to reach you, I will email some information about other options. Hopefully I posted this in time for you to find out about the event tonight. (Search Paloaltoonline under Sarah1000, she posted a link.)

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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