Almanac

Schools - September 18, 2013

School district studies enrollment options for East Palo Alto kids

by Dave Boyce

At a recent school board meeting for the Sequoia Union High School District, a thread emerged from the tangle of systemic problems the district is facing over school-choice policies and a looming jump in enrollment: Find a quick fix establishing a default high school for most if not all of the eighth-graders from East Palo Alto in the Ravenswood City Elementary School District.

The five board members did not agree on exactly how to craft this fix, but a draft policy will be forthcoming on Sept. 25 that would ease school-choice options for East Palo Alto families who want to attend nearby Menlo-Atherton High School. For decades, East Palo Alto students have been assigned to Woodside and Carlmont high schools, which they travel to by bus, while students from the Belle Haven neighborhood in the eastern portion of Menlo Park are assigned to M-A.

The district now has 8,300 students, but reliable projections show at least 10,000 by 2020, a 22 percent increase. A policy revision on school choice is a first shot at what promises to be a very difficult knot to untie. Among the district's priorities:

• The district will probably have to build more classrooms, which would require putting a bond measure on the June 2014 ballot. To make a credible case to voters, the district will have to determine what to build and where to build it on built-out campuses, and building up rather than out will be necessary, officials have said. A fifth comprehensive high school is out of the question, given the lack of sites and the approximate $200 million cost of a new school, Superintendent Jim Lianides has said. And construction on classrooms must start by the 2014-15 school year to meet the coming demand, he said.

• Will school-neighborhood connections change as enrollment rises? Proximity makes M-A the natural destination for the East Palo Alto community, which has endured decades of riding the bus to Woodside and Carlmont, 11 miles away. Will increased enrollment affect families in the Las Lomitas Elementary School District and North Fair Oaks neighborhood who bought their houses so as to attend M-A, noted for its high academic performance? About 10 Las Lomitas households are assigned to Woodside High but have guaranteed access to M-A, while other communities must participate in an annual lottery. Revisions to the map that assigns neighborhoods to schools are likely.

• Should East Palo Alto kids have automatic entry to M-A, or should they have to make that choice? If they have to choose, who will speak for uninformed students who may be homeless, living in extreme poverty, or living with addicted or mentally ill parents — "kids of chaos" who don't plan their lives — board member Carrie DuBois wanted to know. East Palo Alto kids should have automatic entry, said board member Olivia Martinez. Board President Chris Thomsen agreed, if there is room. Automatic entry would address inequities associated with the Las Lomitas guarantee, said Ellen Mouchawar, an advocate for East Palo Alto kids. In dissent, board members Alan Sarver and Allen Weiner argued that such a scheme could over-subscribe M-A.

• The Sequoia board is running out of time. Family deliberations on choosing a high school for the 2014-15 school year begin in mid-October and conclude in January.

Board comments

"For decades, many kids in East Palo Alto have not been well served," said Ms. DuBois. She said she wants to hear from more of the community, such as teachers and community groups that work with kids, including foster children. Quoting Stanford University education authority Linda Darling Hammond, Ms. DuBois said that the United States in known for making education decisions without talking about poverty.

As for Las Lomitas households with guaranteed attendance at M-A, the Almanac asked Ms. Martinez about the likelihood of a change to that policy, on a scale of 1-10. "Zero," she said. "I just don't see that happening. I believe in choices for our parents. ... As more and more Las Lomitas parents realize how close Woodside is and how great it is, more and more of them will choose it."

Regarding North Fair Oaks households south of 5th Avenue who expressed concern about being reassigned away from M-A, the Almanac asked Ms. Martinez if the district might assign those families to M-A and those north of 5th Avenue to Woodside or Sequoia. "It seems to me very reasonable," she said.

Priority one, said Mr. Weiner, has to be open enrollment as it affects East Palo Alto families. The superintendent should have the discretion "to make M-A as full as an egg, but not fuller," Mr. Weiner said.

As for map revisions, it is "very hard (and) a ticking clock," Mr. Weiner said. Community outreach has to be much more effective such that informed decisions can emerge from the community meetings to be scheduled for the weeks ahead, he said.

The district should look into creating a couple of smaller schools, Mr. Lianides said, an idea that Ms. DuBois said she supported in that kids who are at high risk for academic failure need small-school environments to make real progress.

The superintendents from the Ravenswood and Sequoia districts should work together over the next two weeks to hammer out an open-enrollment fix, board President Thomsen said.

Any changes to enrollment policies would not affect current students or their siblings, Mr. Lianides noted.

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