District considers opening alternative school

Increasing enrollment of students at PAUSD schools prompts proposal for project-based school at Cubberley


The Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) School Board is entertaining the idea of adding an innovative new secondary  school at the Cubberley Community Center, which would include grades 6 through 12.

The plan was proposed by the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC). The EMAC was formed in January with the aim to “look broadly at the challenges in enrollment across the district,” according to PAUSD’s website. Its members include PAUSD parents, staff and community members.

The EMAC’s proposal involves both the opening of a new experimental, project-based school as well as a plan for the implementation of different learning techniques in the existing secondary schools, such as a housing system.  District Superintendent Max McGee believes that the Cubberley school, if approved, would stimulate similar advancements in project based education at Palo Alto High School and Henry M. Gunn High School.

“I think [the Cubberley School] will inspire both schools to explore some more project-based, inquiry-driven learning experiences,” McGee said.

The EMAC convened in spring with the goal of solving the over-enrollment problem at PAUSD schools. Paly and Gunn enroll 1,979 and 1,886 students, respectively, both more than double the national average of 847.

According to EMAC’s findings, learning efficiency begins to drop off at high schools in which there are over 1,700 students. With enrollment projected to increase, PAUSD is looking for ways to distribute out students and maximize learning.

The proposed Cubberley school would enroll 450 middle schoolers, and 600 high schoolers. Paly and Gunn enrollment could then drop to 1,800 and 1,700 students, respectively. Furthermore, the three existing PAUSD middle schools would each reduce enrollment by 150 students. With the additional school, all PAUSD schools would approach the optimal number of students.

The EMAC changed its fundamental goals after the screening of  the film “Most Likely to Succeed,” which highlighted the evolving approaches to education and the importance of small classroom size.

More than 1,500 PAUSD parents watched the film on April 30. According to a survey conducted by the EMAC shortly after the screening, 83 percent of parents indicated that they would likely enroll their children in a similar innovative program.

Now, PAUSD hopes to solve class size inflation and innovate learning in the district in one fell swoop. The potential location of the school seemed clear, as the district signed a 5-year lease for the Cubberley Community Center in 2014.

To gauge student opinion, the EMAC recently sent out a survey that asked whether or not students felt crowded at their school and if they would prefer a specific learning style.

However, even in an education-driven, innovation-friendly city like Palo Alto, many people still hold reservations about the EMAC’s plan.  An editorial by the Palo Alto Weekly implored the district to exercise caution and beware the “perils of innovation.”

Others still point to the potentially crippling financial cost of opening a new school. Refurbishing Cubberley alone could set back the district $60 to 70 million. The operating cost of a new middle school is $2.5 million, and $3.6 million for a new high school.

Furthermore, many parents commenting on Palo Alto Online argue that funds should be spent on improving conditions at existing schools, rather than on a new school that would benefit only a few hundred students.