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Projected increase of 500-600 students for Palo Alto high schools

Original post made by Gunn senior, Gunn High School, on Apr 26, 2007

Within the last week, Gunn High School administrators have distributed a survey to the senior class asking for their input regarding a projected increase of student population. The PAUSD district is expecting an increase of 500-600 students in high school attendance. Questions in the survey asked for opinions about plans to address the massive increase.

Proposed Plans:
1) Add more portables to both Gunn and Paly, and have more teachers share classrooms

2) Re-open Cubberley High School and rezone school boundaries

The effects of Palo Alto's growing population are beginning to have their ripple effect upon city services. The community has already felt a strain on library services to accommodate the population increase, and now we may see the same effect in our city's schools.

School administrators at Gunn already claim the campus is overcrowded. A massive increase of several hundred students will exacerbate current problems. Over my four years at Gunn, the school orchestra has expanded from 36 students to nearly 70 for this year. Next year Gunn will set a record and new milestone for having two periods of orchestra. In addition, AP classes are beginning to grow in size as well. For example, AP Biology enrollment climbed to surpass the 100 student enrollment mark this year. For next year, AP Biology is expected to climb to 130 students; another milestone for Gunn history.

Classes are already overcrowded since four years ago. The first day of my freshman year, Japanese 2 was so overcrowded that there weren't enough desks for all students for a few days. Today I'm in Japanese 5AP, which is now integrated with Japanese 4H during the same period because the language department cannot afford another Japanese instructor. Principal Noreen Likins is already anticipating the population growth. Instead of having two assembly blocks, the school may now have to have three to accommodate more students.

For the reader:

The issue at hand is about the expected increase in student population and will it diminish the quality of our schools?

Should the city promote housing at the cost of sacrificing city services?

How do we address the growth in our schools? (Plans 1, 2, or another alternative?)

Comments (29)

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 26, 2007 at 7:47 pm


I suspect the work of the High School Task Force. This seems to be one study group doing some work!

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Posted by Alan
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 26, 2007 at 10:56 pm

More poeple mean more diversity, more shoppers, etc. etc. Perhaps looking at population growth from the point of view of how it can be leveraged for OPPORTUNITY, instead of an imagined burden, is called for. Good grief! WHERE is all the creative imagination that our city loves to pat itself on the back about? All we hear about around here is FEAR. Go read Roosevelt for some ideas about how to rid oneself of fear, and doubt.

Let's get busy and CAPITALIZE on growth, instead of crying in our beer like so many helpless victims.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Stanford
on Apr 27, 2007 at 6:36 am

No, it isn't fear. It is a real discovery process of realizing that our funding structure is set up in a way that doesn't support the growth of "services" in response to the growth of "people", and that therefore growth means more people to serve with some percentage less of money/person than the "generation" before.

The bottom line is...the bottom line. It always goes back to that.

And to the eternal struggle between those who want to keep the city "smaller" and less big-city like, and those who want to make the city more "city-like" with more people per square foot.

Impugning emotion or motivation is not helpful. Sticking to the ideas, philosophies and facts gets the discussion further.

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Posted by Alan
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 27, 2007 at 10:12 am

Resident, your assumption clearly projects "not enough money" and does not at all assume that our city's revenue can increase, or that efficiencies can be created sufficient to absorb additional population.

There was no impugning in my post, just the FACT that virtually everyone I've heard wonder about our future FAILS oto consider growth as an opportunity and instead brings forward all the black swans.

Palo Alto _will_ grow. Name one city in a region like this _anywhere_ that hasn't grown over time. It's time to "get real" and work toward solutions that will handle growth, instead of wondering about when the sky is going to fall.

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Posted by Mom
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 27, 2007 at 10:45 am

I went to a 2000-person high school. It was much too big. The social environment really suffered because of it. It was also lousy academically, but I would chalk that up to a litany of factors, not just size.

I hate to lose our local community center, but we should reopen Cubberly.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 27, 2007 at 11:17 am

Alan: I wasn't projecting "not enough money". I was projecting, to paraphrase the idea "not enough money if we don't change our funding structure".

We have driven out our major tax base which pays for city infrastructure, and are increasing the number of students exponentially more than the amount of school revenue that comes from the way our School District is funded.

In fact, I was agreeing with your implication that we need to figure out how to make sure our "bottom line" grows in whatever way it needs to absorb more people, and still keep what we want to keep.

Again, this is reality, not sky is falling. "Sky is falling" comes from drawing broad conclusions with insufficient data. What I am talking about is simply fact. It doesn't connote or promote any kind of conclusion, other than what I just stated.

Your method of garnering support for your opinion leaves something to be desired.

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Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 27, 2007 at 11:45 am

Resident, well, we're in agreement. :) May I say that your point is now made in a way that's far more clear. So, in the way of irony, perhaps my "method" was successful in teasing out your meaning in a way that is understandable.

btw, emotion is a final pathway to decisions of all kinds, without exception. It would be better - even though we're in agreement on this issue - for you to accept that differences in presentation, even those that appear more linguistically "emotional" than yours, present through similar final pathways in the brain, and that, in fact, the language you use to claim "more reason" is just as emotionally charged as anything that I have out out there, by definition.

In teh way ofo whimsically supporting my point, let Oscar Wilde make a point
"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

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Posted by PA high school teacher
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 27, 2007 at 12:00 pm

There are costs to going from two average-sized high schools to three smaller schools. To start with, switching from two schools with 2,000 students each to three schools with 1,300-or-so students each will mean the end of many of the elective classes and programs in Palo Alto High Schools. Many programs struggle as it is to get enough students to fill a class.

Does 2,000 seem too big? I went to a suburban California high school with 4,000 students. I have mostly very positive memories but I also see the value of the smaller community where I now teach.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 27, 2007 at 12:18 pm

Size of high school is all very relative. To those who went to high schools of 4,000 our schools seem small. To me who went to a small private high school of 300sh, it scares me the size we already have. However, there are good and bad points of making the schools smaller.

Yes, we will have to be careful about electives and maybe the electives can be a way of garnering those from one high school to another. In other words, if one high school was high performing in say the arts and the other in say sports,and all were very well evened out in general academics, then we might be able to get those of similar interests into the same campus and we wouldn't have to duplicate some of the lesser attended electives.

The other way of looking at things is that as technology advances, some of the electives could be taught in a different way to what is presently the norm. In other words, a class at two or three high schools could be taught with a web cam in three classes while the teacher is in a separate room say at Churchill. Looking at this realistically, we could have a room in one school with students studying two or three electives, each having an ipod and webcam to tune into whichever class taught by a teacher who may even be working from home. This may not be obvious to us now, but who knows how long it will be before this type of teaching becomes the norm as technology widens our narrow scope or vision.

The future gives us warnings about school size, but some of these warnings may ultimately prove beneficial.

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Posted by SkepticAl
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 27, 2007 at 9:22 pm

I definitely agree with "Parent" that the creative use of technology could help diversify course offerings in ways that we wouldn't have anticipated in the past. However, as a secondary teacher, I would suggest that there's no substitute for being in the room. Classroom management depends on being able to see and hear too much, the ability to focus anywhere at any moment, to have those eyes in the back of your head with a room full of adolescents. But technology might allow some creative teaming or collaboration.

There are MUCH more radical reforms under discussion in the world of education - maybe some of them will come up in the near future here. Are we ready to entertain any really innovative ideas in PA? Are we willing to change any mindsets, explore new paradigms? Or will we settle for minor tweaks of the status quo because it served most Palo Altans well enough in the past and we fear change?

Here's a minor example - not even so radical. A number of high profile private prep schools around the country have abandoned AP classes, citing concerns about "breadth vs. depth" and teaching to the test. They undertook a slow, deliberate process in which they built consensus, did a lot of "homework" regarding the effects of that move, and created their own honors/college level courses. Those changes were well-received by admissions offices, and college acceptances have been unaffected. I have a feeling that if PA parents caught even a whiff of a possibility of such a change, we'd see a highly vocal group of people with some serious entitlement issues bringing huge pressure to bear on the BOE. We're smart and active to a fault, it seems. I hope someday to be proved overly pessimistic. Maybe I'll even drop the "skeptic" part of my moniker and just be "Al."

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Posted by Simon Firth
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 27, 2007 at 10:16 pm

So Al, I'm not clear. Are you in support of dropping AP classes for bespoke honors/college level courses such as those you describe? Your description of the process and the resulting programs seems admiring but then you suggest that they'd be supported by parents here with 'entitlement issues,' which in turn suggests you think their advocacy for such programs would be without merit.

If these non-AP programs are a way around teaching to the test, they sound to me like something worth the district really should look in to. Is that your feeling?

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Posted by SkepticAl
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 27, 2007 at 11:35 pm


I'm not sure which way I'd go on that particular issue, which might be why I came off a bit ambiguously above. But I admire schools that are willing to buck conventional wisdom, especially when it involves programs that serve the more accomplished and ambitious students and families, and with college implications. When you try something new for the least empowered and privileged, you're more likely to be thanked. When you tinker with anything that serves the high-achievers, people get nervous. (I've posted in other threads about how much I deplore the obsession with big name colleges. Nothing wrong with ambition, but lots of folks take it way too far around here with a narrow, short-term view). So when it comes to most school reforms or redesigns, I expect that no matter which way you try to go in Palo Alto, there's a resourceful and vocal minority that will resist change. Whatever they come up with in terms of major changes in the future, someone is going to feel slighted or short-changed, and while a large number of people might go with the flow or even embrace change, so many people in PA know how to gather the voices, statistics, studies, money, and votes to hamstring the process. We have fits over boundary changes, and vile acrimony over MI... I'm not suggesting that people should refrain from voicing opinions and participating in a democratic debate, but some people can't accept the idea of any change that interferes with their vision of what they're entitled to as Palo Alto tax payers who moved here for the schools.

Someone above suggested reopening Cubberly HS. Imagine the hysteria when unveil a proposal for that. If it's a regular HS, we'll fight bitterly over boundaries and equity issues, and if it's a choice program we'll see a fight over what type and who gets in, and if they just add portables at Paly and Gunn, we'll here the cries over the blight on campus and the crowded conditions and the failure to open another school.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 28, 2007 at 9:27 am

Skeptical Al:

I don't think people "fear change". I think there is a valid point in "don't throw out the baby with the bathwater", which we seem to do in California a lot. Or, even "don't fix what isn't broken".

Defining what is broken is the problem, and adjusting what is needed to fix it, without abandoning that which is great...there is the rub.

Alan/Mike ( you answered my post to Alan, but signed Mike)- I love Oscar Wilde's wit. Quote him all the time. But, do you realize the price he paid for his philosophy on how to NOT live within his means? Perhaps not the best role model for how to institute change.

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Posted by SkepticAl
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 28, 2007 at 9:55 am


Maybe "fear" is a strong word... perhaps "resist" change. I agree with everything you said, but I worry that maybe we only want change when something is "broken" and not for the sake of improvement. When something was good for one generation, they might cling to it even when it's past its prime. The status quo in education has served our local community fairly well - we have a huge percentage of wealthy people who have worked their way through the educational system and then made the transition to work and financial success. I'm one of them, and yes, when I picture my children's future, there's a lot of appeal in being able to project forward and imagine them doing what I did, and what my parents did. But if a convincing case can be made for doing something even better, then it triggers in many people a cautious or skeptical reaction. Some people are open-minded and willing to revise their visions when presented with new ideas. Some people are closed-minded and will resist any change. Some people are open-minded but still reject the new idea - that's fine. And some ideas should be rejected. But I fear that a small, loud, resourceful minority around here can effectively suppress change, wear down or intimidate people they view as personal "opponents," and effectively stall changes that might effectively serve some broader interests.

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Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 28, 2007 at 11:06 am

Simon and SkepticAl

This thread is now very similar to the thread about high school seniors being able to do Chinese and British university entrance problems in math. There is a lot of talk there about our education being superior to others because we teach the whole child and we are more creative and we give second chances, etc. etc. Yes there are more than one way to pluck a chicken, but the end result is the same. Are we educating our children to compete globally against other countries' college graduates. Who will get the best jobs is one question. But the more serious question is who will lead the world in innovative technological breakthroughs? We start by looking at our high schools and ask deep questions. There is a deep question on the other thread and no one is answering it.

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Posted by k
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 28, 2007 at 11:27 am

My long-retired uncle taught at a famous private academy back East and I understand they got tired of the offical AP courses and dropped them. They put in challenging courses in place of the APs. I don't think it's hurt any of the students in their quest for top universities. One other thing - I believe they have very small classes and the teachers know exactly what each student is contributing to the class, so they may rely less on standardized testing/AP testing for results.

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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 28, 2007 at 11:44 am

To Paly Parent's point, I do hope that one of the key questions that is asked and we get started answering with the new PAUSD strategic plan and in choosing MFC's successor is:

"What must we teach our students in order for them to participate effectively in the 21st Century?"

This is a question I posed to some candidates last BoE election, and one that I believe we must constantly be asking ourselves.

The opinions on this are many and varied, and I don't want to get into a Coke/Pepsi challenge around the question. There will be some strategic choices made for the District's future in the coming months, and a fair test of how well the alterntive strategies that are considered address this basic question should help inform the strategy that is ultimately chosen.

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Posted by RWE
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 28, 2007 at 3:48 pm

Paul, Well spoken, but is it possible to go after the challenge you raise with Superintendents that evolve in primarily political environments, with little or no attention paid by most of them to the future of anything?

District Superintendents have evolved from a 1950's management model, and - with rare exceptions - are visionary in their approach to education futures. The goal for most Sups is to build a solid 5-year resume, and then move on to the next assignment. The structural underpinnings of the position mitigate against deploying vision. Most Superintendents play it very safe; thus, one of the problems with American education.

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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 28, 2007 at 4:02 pm


You describe the "careerist" phenomenon endemic in many positions of responsibility, in both the private and public sector. Look at our elected officials, some of whom are thinking as much about what they will run for next as they are about the duties they have. They are easy to point out, since they public officials, but it exists elsewhere, as anyone who has worked in a company of any size can attest.

The only check that I think we may have on it in this particular case are our School Board Members. While some of them may aspire to things beyond their tenure at Churchill Avenue, I think having a local impact and perhaps leaving a legacy locally should be foremost on their minds as they consider whom they select.

I know nothing about the candidates to succeed MFC, but someone who views PAUSD as a capstone to a career may be a factor to consider in the selection. There never is an assurance that when someone is hired they will work out as expected or be able to resist the lure of something else that appears more attractive, but careful vetting of the candidates may reveal their career intentions and aspirations if they are offered the position here.

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Posted by Grandma
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 29, 2007 at 2:42 am

I take issue with their assessment that there will be a 500 - 600 increase in students for the PAUSD. Many of the new projects being built are apartments and the District is well aware that histoically apartments do not generate many children. This first became obvious when the Greenhouse apartments were built and the first year generated zero elementary students and only 4 high school students. Since then the 800 High Street apartments generated one infant. The Campus for Jewish Life is entirely senior housing.

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Posted by QualityFirst
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 29, 2007 at 9:46 am

The only solution that really makes sense is to reopen Cubberly. It is currently a wasted space leased to a number of organizations and non-profits. Just take it back and do some improvements. What makes PAUSD uniquely excellent is not Gunn or Paly but the quality of students that feed them. Cubberly will also be known for its excellence in no time. As for boundaries, it's also a no-brainer.

Paly - North of Embarcadero.
Gunn - West of El Camino.
Cubberly - The rest of Palo Alto.

Now, if this results in a bit of imbalance, just move the lines a bit south to extend Paly's range or east to Gunn's.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2007 at 1:37 pm


To answer your question in part, the reason senior housing produces children is that seniors (who it is theorised) presently live in Palo Alto is a family sized home, move into the senior housing leaving their home on the market free for new families to move into.
Likewise, many condos are bought by parents divorcing and often they leave a family sized home for a new family. Yes, ask the realtors who buy condos, it is often PA families newly divorced forced to sell their home as terms of the divorce, but don't want to leave because it means taking their children out of PA schools.

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Posted by wrong?
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 29, 2007 at 2:24 pm

Please correct me if I am wrong, but hasn't the school district been notoriously wrong with its enrollment projections over the years? It's my impression...

Also, can we expect objective enrollment projections from a school district that is about to ask the voters for a quarter billion dollars in bonds ? ...

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Posted by kate
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 29, 2007 at 9:42 pm

To Quality First:

When there were three high schools, the 'traditional boundary of Paly was north of the Oregon Expressway. Paly itself is south of Embarcadero and is on Embarcadero at El Camino.

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Posted by QualityFirst
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 29, 2007 at 10:47 pm

kate, you are correct in pointing out that Paly is located just south of Embarcadero. However, given the increased housing north of Embarcadero, the "traditional" boundary of Oregon Expressway might be too far south. In all fairness, I can see the triangular swath defined by Embarcadero, Churchill, and El Camino to also be Paly neighborhood.

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Posted by ALTime
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 30, 2007 at 10:43 am

I am very happy to see that the issue of providing a quality education to all our students is taken to heart. I realize the importance of considering the projected population increases, however I also see the importance of considering the needs of the students we currently serve. I work in the trenches so to speak, and I can see that our programs at the high school level, however great, are still allowing students to fall through the cracks. I work with an eclectic group of students, and they often they tell me that they dislike their campus because they don't fit in, or they feel like just another number. Because their talents may not necessarily lie in academics they feel like outcasts in such a highly competitive atmosphere. For them, adult mentoring and sometimes a modified curriculum is especially critical in realizing their goals of graduating and transitioning to adult life. This is why I like the idea of reopening Cubberly as a small school where the main focus is on each student as an individual. Parents and students would have a choice between which campus is more applicable to their needs. While alternative schools can have a negative conotation, I think there are successful models that we can explore. I think it would serve our community to expand our notions of what it means to be successful, therefore teaching our kids that it's OK to be different while still setting high expectations they are motivated to achieve.

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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 30, 2007 at 11:38 am

ALTime's comments, along with AJ's about MI possibly at Cubberly on another nearby, new MI thread are terrific examples of some out of the box thinking around the question our community faces about what we need to do to educate our kids to be effective contributors in the coming decades.

Both point to the need for helping some students achieve their potential in ways that are not part of the formula that fits for the preponderance of students who attend PAUSD schools. The policy question that comes up here, which can cover a number of different specialized instructional programs, is if the District is in a position to provide such programs under one roof that might otherwise be impossible to support, are more effective in a "non-traditional" environment, or may take resources away from other standard programs that cover most students. Among the risks of such an approach are if students in such programs are cut off, conciously or not, from other resources and programs that a larger main stream school is able to provide.

Added enrollment counts pose a multitude of challenges, not the least of which is around facilities such as a 13th elementary school, use of Cubberly, inter alia. Perhaps the first question that should get asked is "With XXX students projected in the year 2015, what can the school configuration look like in PAUSD?" We may surprise ourselves with a District conceptual framework that leverages the many good things the District has going for it, and provides means to offer some additional features that we find ourselves challenged to provide in light of the current configuration and conflcting demands on resources.

I am not advocating any specific program, taking a position on Garland or Cubberly here, nor am I using this as a way to support MI or an alternative learning high school. I am suggesting that if we start from projected enrollment, and ask ourselves what such a student census could enable us to design as a school district, we may come up with some ideas that could result in a very dramtic difference for PAUSD, and one for the better.

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Posted by k
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 25, 2007 at 4:23 pm

While I understand that the school district needs to plan for growth, as a PA resident/parent, I feel a third high school will compromise heavily the top notch education we've come to expect at Gunn or Paly. I can't imagine that a new high school will be up and running at the same levels as the exisiting one's till at least 5+ years of its inception. For some of us, who's children will be going to High school then, it will be a time of uncertainities, questions and changes till the third school reaches the same quality as the other two.

We paid a significant price to move to Palo Alto because of Gunn and if my children can't attend that, we would be devastated, not to mention the costs we may incur in lost real estate value should our home fall outside of the gunn/paly schools.

I would rather that Gunn and Paly be extended - new buildings and teachers - or perhaps even increase the class size somewhat. But to create a brand new school and have many of us be part of that school is an extremely unfair proposition. I realize that opening a third school is one of the many proposals, however, I encourage you to seek other alternatives, as many of the families and friends in my neighborhood feel after reading the article last week.

A very concerned parent.

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Posted by Grandchild
a resident of The Greenhouse
on May 26, 2007 at 3:15 pm

Grandma sent a misleading message when she said that the Campus for Jewish Life is entirely senior housing. There are TWO projects with around 350 residences.. Grandma only mentioned the one that is for seniors. Something like half of them are not for seniors.

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