Schools - January 20, 2010

School district won't suspend Tinsley program

by Andrea Gemmet

The Menlo Park City School District won't be shutting its doors to Tinsley transfer students — at least, not this year. Facing a potentially severe shortage of classroom space in the coming school year, district officials weighed a number of strategies, including the temporary suspension of interdistrict transfers for Ravenswood district students under the Tinsley program.

Parents crowded the district board meeting Tuesday night, Jan. 12, speaking against the idea, one of several possible strategies proposed by Superintendent Ken Ranella for dealing with a projected enrollment bubble.

The Tinsley transfer program is part of a desegregation lawsuit settlement that requires Menlo Park and a half-dozen other Peninsula school districts to accept a set number of minority students from Ravenswood, a district serving East Palo Alto and Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood.

Under the settlement, Menlo Park is required to offer places to 24 new kindergarten or first-grade minority students from Ravenswood each year and guarantee to keep them through eighth grade.

Following Mr. Ranella's recommendation, the board unanimously opted to find other ways to accommodate the expected surge of students. Class sizes will go up slightly in all grades — to an average of 22 in grades K-3 and 26 in grades 4-8 — and Laurel School will expand from 400 to about 475 students with the addition of three or four modular classrooms.

"What I've heard is that the community is willing to make the trade-offs and sacrifices to educate every child who comes to this district," said board member Maria Hilton.

Suspending the Tinsley program would have required permission from a San Mateo County Superior Court judge.

The board preserved the option to open a new elementary school and evict the German-American International School from the district's O'Connor school site, but it's unlikely to happen, given the expense involved.

"Coming to this district has been very enriching for my daughter, and for other people," said Edwardo Hernandez, the father of a Tinsley student. "We have a chance to interact with other people and see the way they see the world."

However, the district's practice of backfilling — replacing Tinsley students who leave the district with new kindergarteners — could be suspended next year. This year saw about 14 Tinsley students leave the district, which is an unusually high number. Mr. Ranella recommended not backfilling those spots.

Board members said they want to see the size of the incoming kindergarten class before deciding, so the backfilling decision will wait until the March board meeting, once the kindergarten priority enrollment in February ends.

No one who spoke at the meeting liked the idea of suspending interdistrict transfers. Calling it a disservice to students, contrary to the community's values and "an embarrassment," people urged the board not to consider suspending the Tinsley program. One mother who lives in the Menlo Park district told the board that her two African American children benefit from having Tinsley students at their school because they like to see other kids like them, with brown skin and black hair.

Jesusita Rivera, a teacher in the Ravenswood district whose daughter is a Tinsley transfer student, told the board that children deserve the opportunity to benefit from a good education.

"I teach a class with 30 students and we don't have half the stuff that you guys have," she said. "To look at all the resources you have, you shouldn't even be discussing (suspending Tinsley)."

Ravenswood is on the right track and improving, but it still has a way to go, Ms. Rivera said. "Right now, I don't dare put my daughter in the school where I'm at," she said.

Mr. Ranella said the district is committed to educating its Tinsley students, and pointed out that the district is working hard to improve the performance of its minority and low-income students. The district's values haven't changed, he said. It's just facing an extraordinary surge in enrollment, he said.

"This is about facilities, not about values," he said, as the audience rumbled with disapproval.

Despite the district's current projects to add classrooms and reclaim playground space on all four of its campuses, projections show that climbing enrollment in the next five years will necessitate larger class sizes or the addition of portable classrooms to its elementary school campuses.

Opening a fourth elementary school campus would alleviate the space crunch, but is a costly solution in a time of shrinking education revenues. And, those same projections show that enrollment will taper off and drop back down to the current level of about 1,850 K-5 students by 2019.

The Menlo Park district is facing a budget deficit next year of about $1.3 million, said Diane White, the district's chief business official.

The board voted 5-0 to approve the rest of Mr. Ranella's proposals. Besides expanding Laurel school and raising class sizes, officials will renegotiate the German-American school's lease with a 14-month termination clause, and get renovation plans for the campus pre-approved by the state.


A study session on the O'Connor school site is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20, in the Menlo Park City School District board room, 181 Encinal Ave. in Atherton. Board members plan to discuss what type of elementary school would make sense at the location — a neighborhood school or a magnet school — and whether it would serve students in grades K-3 or K-5. Those decisions will dictate what sort of facilities will be needed if the district reclaims the campus.


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