While it is still early in the process, the discussion at a meeting of the Sequoia Union High School District's board Wednesday night, Jan. 14, offered a glimpse of what some district officials are envisioning for a new small high school in Menlo Park -- a school with a technology focus that partners with business and the community college district, and has architecture as distinctive as its mission.
The district is finalizing the purchase of a 2.1-acre property at 150 Jefferson Drive in Menlo Park, "an area that's rapidly shifting from light industry to high tech," according to Sequoia Union superintendent Jim Lianides. The district wants to build a small high school that would have 300 to 400 students and could open as early as fall 2017. The district has also purchased property at 535 Old County Road in San Carlos for another small high school, but district officials say the Menlo Park school will be built first.
Matthew Zito, the principal at Menlo-Atherton High School who is transitioning into a new job overseeing the district's building program as chief facilities officer, spoke enthusiastically about what the Menlo Park school could be.
"We have a great opportunity" to do things that the district can't do at bigger school sites, Mr. Zito said. "You want it to be a school that's drawing from a whole population of young people," he said.
The school will be preparing students for college, he said. It will not be a vocational school, but will partner with nearby businesses, which include Intuit, Oracle and Facebook, as well as with the San Mateo County Community College District.
The design of the school building will also be important, Mr. Zito said. "I think the facility, if we do that right, will ... sell the school," he said.
"I've told Aaron (Jobson, the architect working with the district) you'd better design us a cool ... building," he said. "Make sure that the form follows the function of the curriculum."
Mr. Zito said the district also needs to realize that a small school is not just a scaled-down version of a large school, and the district should be "making sure we're leveraging the opportunities of that small school."
Several school board members mentioned "linked learning" as a possibility for the new school. According to the Linked Learning Alliance, formed in 2008, linked learning combines academic and vocational learning in one school, with the goal of readying students for higher education while learning as much as possible about career choices through internships and other partnerships with business.
"I think one of the challenges is, the possibilities are infinite," board member Chris Thomsen said.
The district board adopted Mr. Lianides' recommendations for a task force that will pin down the themes that will guide the design of the two new schools. Mr. Lianides said he hopes the task force will be back with its recommendations by spring.
Technology and health sciences are the two top themes that came out of surveys the district recently did of parents, staff and students. But Mr. Lianides said the district also needs to survey parents of the younger students who will actually be attending the high schools.
"Another key area," he said, "is working with surrounding businesses and so on and see what is supported. Where are strong potential partnerships?"
A meeting with the county community college board is scheduled for late February, he said. "They're very interested to partner with the Menlo Park school."
Other of Mr. Lianides' recommendations for the task force include visits to "successful themed small schools," and evaluation of the college and career options that will go along with the themes. The task force will also seek more input from staff, he said.
Money for the new schools, and for construction on the district's existing campuses, comes from a $265 million bond measure approved by voters last June.
Based on burgeoning enrollments in local elementary schools, the Sequoia district is expecting enrollment growth of at least 22 percent by the 2020-21 school year. Much of the growth is coming from school districts in Menlo Park, Atherton, Belmont and San Carlos.