A change is increasingly likely for eighth-graders from East Palo Alto assigned to Woodside and Carlmont high schools but who want to attend Menlo-Atherton High School. The high school district board is leaning strongly toward giving these students a preference, putting them ahead of most eighth-graders wanting to attend M-A but not automatically assigned there.
Superintendent Jim Lianides of the Sequoia Union High School District proposed the policy change and the board discussed it at its Sept. 25 meeting. Action to establish such a policy is likely sooner rather than later, as the period for choosing a high school for the 2014-15 school year begins in October.
The East Palo Alto students would be allowed to apply for an adjusted transfer to M-A on a space-available basis, before the start of open enrollment. In open enrollment, students also apply for a school other than their assigned school on a space-available basis, but if there are more students than seats, a lottery ensues.
For decades, East Palo Alto students have had to ride buses to Woodside and Carlmont in keeping with a now-expired desegregation-based judicial consent decree from the 1980s. East Palo Alto parents have been vocal and persistent in trying to bring this practice to an end and keep their middle-school cohort intact by having their kids attend a neighborhood school.
The wish for an intact middle-school cohort was also heard in May from parents in the Las Lomitas Elementary School District. They cited rumors and fears that the Sequoia board might divide the district between M-A and Woodside to address a coming enrollment surge in the Sequoia district of at least 22 percent by 2020.
Between 10 and 12 households from the Las Lomitas district are assigned to Woodside High, and Las Lomitas has long had an adjusted-transfer policy, but with guaranteed admission to M-A. That guarantee is not expected to change, Mr. Lianides said.
Public comment on the East Palo Alto proposal tended to differ according to geography.
"This effort to restore a high school for our children is wonderful because you are healing a community in pain," said Assistant Superintendent James Lovelace of the Ravenswood City Elementary School District, which operates schools in East Palo Alto and part of eastern Menlo Park. The Sequoia district closed Ravenswood high school in East Palo Alto in the 1970s for reasons that included low enrollment.
"Our community really feels the lack of a high school," said Ravenswood Superintendent Gloria Hernandez. It's "a wound that has not healed."
In its community outreach on the East Palo Alto proposal and enrollment growth, the Sequoia district has come under fire for its apparent inability to effectively communicate with the public, particularly with affected families in the Ravenswood district. Effective outreach is vital for students lacking advocates who are paying sufficient attention to high school choice.
There could be unforeseen consequences to ending busing. Taking a bus to school can make it easier to leave a gang, said Sequoia board member Carrie DuBois, an ardent spokesperson on the board for kids who don't have advocates, foster children and the very poor.
"We have to remember," board member Olivia Martinez said, "that we are an institution of learning and that our students learn to take care of themselves. I'm encouraged by the board's decisiveness and moving forward."
"We do have an issue of profound educational inequity in Ravenswood," said board member Allen Weiner. "It takes some time to roll out this campaign. We want to do it in a way that is successful."
Board President Chris Thomsen said, "I think that we are a board that fundamentally cares about equality of education." He later said that he might also have put it as "equality of educational opportunity."
The Sequoia district will be providing application forms preprinted with a student's name, assigned school and choice of schools, Mr. Lianides said. "The intent would be, in all of this, to reach every eighth-grader in (the Ravenswood) district," he said. It should also inform the district as to what Ravenswood parents want, he added.
The board took comment on the process of possibly redrawing the map that assigns neighborhoods to schools, a key factor in addressing the coming enrollment surge. Las Lomitas parents pressed the board about M-A's strong academic reputation.
"I haven't heard a consideration of performance (and) academic excellence at M-A," said Greg Portugal. "M-A is a result of a very special and unique ecosystem that I don't think any of us can figure out. ... You should consider engaging experts before you consider such a major decision."
"Is education (at M-A) going to suffer in the interim?" another parent asked. "I'm just trying to figure out what to do with my children in the interim. I may be a little selfish."
Mr. Lianides spoke earlier of adding one or two small magnet schools that would be accessible to anyone in the district and ease the pressure on the large schools.
"People are really looking at many alternatives to a comprehensive high school," he said. Among the important questions: Where would the schools go? Would people living nearby enroll? Who would enroll?