Should We Build a New High School?

In 2015 the Superintendent's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) looked hard at our enrollment trends and whether we needed to build new schools.  I was a member of the committee, but disagreed with some of its findings, particularly with regard to the need for a new high school.  On November 10, I made these remarks to the board, and followed up with a 16 page review of the EMAC's high school analysis (long and detailed, but you can read it here). The Board ultimately agreed, and decided not to build a new high school, and instead to focus on the schools we already have.

Overall, I think the major conclusion of the secondary committee - that our schools are "too big" - is not compelling.  I think important evidence has been overlooked and in some cases omitted, that important questions have not been answered, and some of the analysis, if improved, would yield different conclusions.  I'll provide details to the Board, as I have to the secondary committee.

But so what?  There is a school of thought that, even if they are wrong, what's the worst that can happen - we open a new school?  Capital cost are viewed by many as practically free, and we are told that there are donors waiting in the wings to fund all or part of the project.  Why would anyone be against opening a new, innovative school and making our existing schools somewhat smaller?

I actually think a lot is at stake.  We are not a district that is light on its feet - we spent three years debating the school calendar!  The decision to open a new secondary school, the bond to fund it, the design of the building, choice vs. neighborhood enrollment, the impact on traffic(!), not to mention what these new educational programs will be - the project would consume our complete attention for the next 5-7 years, plus our entire current budget surplus every year thereafter. And in the end, we may or may not get the improvements we are hoping for.

But if we don't do this, shouldn't we do something?  The report paints a grim picture of our current high schools with stifled innovation, students lost in the crowd, and frustrated parents looking for choices. The school environment is portrayed as so resistant to change or improvement that the only solution is to start over from scratch somewhere else.  I disagree. 

Instead of starting over, a better solution is to focus our attention on improving the schools we already have.  If we are willing to spend $10M more on school administration, as the new school would require, why not $5M on more counselors, small learning communities, and novel classes and programs for our existing schools?  Why not not expand already successful programs like Middle College at Foothill?  The Stanford D-school wants to help us?  Great - let them come to Gunn, Paly, and our middle schools and design programs there - I'm told there are principals who would welcome their support. 

If we want to utilize "project-based learning," we don't need to build a new campus. We can start next year using buildings on our expanded high school campuses, just as we have the Connections program at JLS.  If we really need a separate campus, we can start with 525 San Antonio or Garland, which are available on fairly short notice and little loss of income, and then expand the program back to our existing schools.

None of these projects would be easy - but that's the point.  They will take our time, money, and most of all, our limited attention. If we want to see our current schools improve, that's what we need to focus on, not a "moon shot."

So I encourage the board to proceed with thoughtfulness and care, as it usually does.  The case that's been made for a new school, based on our current schools being "too big," is not compelling.  Let's focus on improving education at the schools we already have.


Todd Image

Father of three, alumni of Briones, Barron Park, Terman, Gunn, and Morgan Autism Center

Career: 25+ years in technology, management consulting, growth investing

PAUSD: PTA officer; Bond Oversight chair; Enrollment Committee elementary chair; Bond Tax Rate Committee founder and spokesperson

Education: BA, Harvard College, MBA Harvard Business School

Feel free to contact Todd directly at 650-403-2084 or todd@toddcollins.org.

Paid for by Todd Collins for School Board 2016  (FPPC ID 1384953) | Photos courtesy Felipe Munera Savino (except as noted)

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