Put on your sorting hats people, because Hogwarts is coming to town … or at least a new “house system” for Palo Alto’s middle schools and high schools possibly is. The house system, a proposed initiative to divide Palo Alto’s massive student bodies into tight-knit “houses” to promote student unity, was proposed by the Palo Alto Enrollment Management Advisory Committee in October. This new proposition is representative of the innovative mindset that the Palo Alto Unified School District has adopted to curb the over-enrollment in City schools. In fact, if the School Board maintains its innovative momentum, Palo Alto students may soon be enjoying a host of new educational reforms similar to the house system, and possibly, an entire new school.
Responding to Palo Alto parent’s longstanding complaints of giant middle schools, EMAC investigated how to reduce over-enrollment in local middle schools and high schools. The committee, made up of 11 parent volunteers, concluded that space in the Cubberley Community Center could be reallocated as a hybrid middle school and high school for overflowed students.
Another advantage of starting a new school in Palo Alto is that doing so creates a smaller educational community, which benefits students’ education and sense of mental well-being, according to Joe Lee, the team leader of the secondary school subcommittee.
“The academic research, the thinking and the interviews that we did in the focus groups was that people were thinking we would have better academic outcomes if students were in smaller communities,” Lee said.
Relative to other schools in the nation, Palo Alto’s schools are overpopulated. According to a 2010 report by the National Center for Education Statistics which was referenced by EMAC, Palo Alto’s middle schools and high schools are 52 percent and 121 percent larger than the national average, respectively. This was further supported by student testimonials which showed that around 20 percent of students in PAUSD middle schools and high schools are dissatisfied or strongly dissatisfied with their school sizes.
Programs like the house system are intended to supplement the proposed Cubberley school by improving the student environments in Palo Alto’s existing secondary schools.
“We [EMAC] wants to reduce the feeling of size in current middle and high schools by forming these smaller learning communities,” Lee said. “The advantage of that is that they feel more connected to each other and teachers… and feel that even though they are apart of a bigger school, they have all the advantages of electives and sports and arts. They retreat to a school where they learn subjects with a common cohort.”
Although there are many benefits of creating a school in Cubberley to reduce class sizes and many parents are in support of opening the new school, PAUSD is considering the negatives of doing so.
“The cost is a big obstacle,” PAUSD School Board member Terry Godfrey said. “It would take $65 million worth of work for the building itself … the ongoing cost [of running a public school] is $3 million … and we would lose the rental income of $5.5 million from people who rent Cubberly now.”
Another issue of opening a new educational institution would be attracting parents and students away from the prestigious scholastic and athletic programs at existing Palo Alto schools. To counteract this, PAUSD could attract students to the new Cubberley school with innovative social justice and project based-curricula, according the EMAC report. At the same time, presenting students with the option of choosing their school also raises transportation concerns.
“The other kind of obstacle that you have is, when you have a choice-program, everyone has to drive there,” Godfrey said. “We spent a lot of time thinking about traffic. … Safety is a factor.”
Although EMAC’s proposed initiatives have yet to be voted on, Lee and other community members are optimistic and determined to make a change.
“The schools [current middle and high schools] are already very good, but they could be much better, and by reducing school size and increasing the connectedness, we can take our schools from good to great,” Lee said.