Plans for a new school in the Whisman and Slater neighborhood area of the city may be on the ropes after members of Mountain View Whisman School District's Boundary Advisory Task Force agreed last night that a new school would siphon too many students from existing schools and threaten a school closure in the future.
Members of the task force have a two-pronged mission: re-draw the district's attendance boundaries so schools like Huff Elementary aren't packed, and explore the feasibility of opening a new school in the northeast quadrant of Mountain View -- an area that has no neighborhood school.
The task force, in a "thumbs up or thumbs down" vote, on Tuesday approved recommending new boundaries that would move children in the Whisman neighborhood currently zoned for Huff School into the Theuerkauf Elementary boundary. The proposal was considered an obvious change, as students had to cross much of the city, including Central Expressway and El Camino Real, to get to school. A wedge of Huff's boundary north of Grant Road was re-zoned for Bubb Elementary.
But the task force came down hard against opening a new school, with task force member Thida Cornes saying the district does not have the enrollment it needs to fill seats at nine schools without pulling too many students away from existing schools. To do so risks a school closure elsewhere and compromises school programs at nearby Monta Loma, Landels and Theuerkauf elementary, she said.
"Our problem is, 'Can we get enough students at each school?'" Cornes said. "Our enrollment doesn't support it. That's the simplest answer."
One of the problems identified by task force members was the potential reduction of classrooms per grade level from three to two at schools like Monta Loma. Having three classes, or "strands," in each grade allows for "differentiated" learning tailored for groups of students in each classroom.
"We've barely got the numbers to have three-strand schools across the district," said task force member Jennifer Coogan.
Cornes and Coogan, along with Huff parent Magda Wilkinson and others, broke off last week into a smaller group to discuss over a dozen different boundary scenarios. The goal of the group members was to try their best to make nine schools work, but they said they couldn't find one they felt comfortable with, according to Terese McNamee, chief business officer for the district.
"This group really banged heads with each other trying to come up with this," McNamee said.
McNamee acknowledged at the meeting that it may seem a little anticlimactic for the task force to recommend tweaks to the boundaries when big decisions regarding schools opening, closing or relocating were all on the table at some point, including moving the district's Dual Immersion program from the Castro campus and closing Theuerkauf to make room for the Stevenson Parent, Child Teacher (PACT) program.
A Monta Loma parent at the meeting commended the task force for focusing on hard data rather than what the community wished it could have in deciding whether to open a ninth school. She said Monta Loma has made great progress improving student performance at the school, and that it would be a significant blow to the Monta Loma community if enrollment was siphoned away to fill up a Whisman school.
"If you shrink the school, it would be like kicking the chair out from under us," she said.
By choosing to recommend against a new school, the task force reversed course from the school board's 3-2 straw poll in March that supported opening a school in the Whisman and Slater neighborhood area.
Board member Greg Coladonato said the boundary adjustments to Huff recommended by the task force would help alleviate some of the overcrowding at the school, but it may not be "sufficient" to meet the long-term goals for the district. The task force recommendations would continue to leave the northeast quadrant of the city without a neighborhood school in the area.
Task force member Peter Darrah suggested that the reasoning behind the rejection of the nine-school scenarios be included in the recommendations to the board, which he said they really owe to Whisman residents like Bob Weaver, who has been a vocal proponent of opening a new school for years.
Despite the expected disappointment for some resident, Cornes maintained that it was the best decision the task force could make with the enrollment assumptions they had. Enrollment forecasts show that, despite the booming economy, all the people moving into the city and all the new residential areas in the pipeline, enrollment is expected to flatten out and even decline in the next five years.
"This is not where we make everyone happy and the unicorns come out. This is reality," Cornes said. "Yeah, people are going to be unhappy, particularly in the Whisman-Slater neighborhood (but) we can't make the numbers work."