Parents looking to send their kids to some of the city's highest-performing schools in August had better get ready to wait in line. Last week, the Mountain View Whisman School District released the wait lists for kindergarten enrollment for the next school year, showing lopsided demand to get into the district's schools.
The largest wait list by far is for Stevenson PACT, the district's popular choice program that encourages strong parent participation in the classroom. As of March 10, the school had 129 students on the wait list for next school year's kindergarten class. Wait lists for the school have steadily increased since the district started using an enrollment lottery system in 2009, as more and more parents seek to get their children a coveted spot in the school.
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph told the Voice in an email that the number of families looking to get into the PACT program this year is particularly high, in part because the number of kindergarten classes varies from year to year. The school will have only two kindergarten classrooms next year, compared with three this year, because of building constraints at Stevenson, Rudolph said. The result is not only longer wait lists at Stevenson, but longer wait lists all over the district.
Things get even trickier for schools like Huff Elementary, where students living within the school's boundary may not even be able to attend their own neighborhood school. Wait lists show that 11 students zoned for Huff are on the wait list for kindergarten, and 11 more students are seeking intradistrict transfers into the school. Bubb Elementary had 13 students requesting enrollment from other areas of the school district. Rudolph said that last year the district was able to eventually place all of the students in the Huff area into the school within the first few weeks of the term.
School board member Greg Coladonato called the wait lists at schools like Huff and Bubb a major problem that needs to be addressed, particularly when students are unable to enroll in the school that they've been zoned for by the school district.
"If the number of people we assign to a neighborhood school don't fit, I consider it an acute problem that we need to address immediately," Coladonato said.
While it's typical for Huff and Bubb to experience wait lists, Landels is a bit of an anomaly this year. The school has nine students on the wait list in the neighborhood, according to the district, and has had 20 requests for intradistrict transfer across the rest of the district. Rudolph said that the lack of space at Stevenson created a "domino effect" that prompted more demand for enrollment at Landels.
"It's important to know that there are spots in our schools for all registered students," Rudolph said in an email. "(The district) does its very best to honor families' requests, but we are limited by building capacity."
But the issues go beyond building capacity. Huff Elementary is nearly busting at the seams with enrollment of nearly 600 students, and recent efforts to bring that number down with new school boundaries fell flat last year. Huff Elementary boundaries include the area around the school, as well as a noncontiguous chunk of the northeastern end of the city, known as the Wagon Wheel neighborhood. The area has 149 students, of which 69 go to Huff Elementary.
An attempt to rezone the area to the closer school, Theuerkauf Elementary, didn't go over very well. Test scores at Theuerkauf are significantly lower than Huff, and a survey last year showed just about every prospective parent in the area would apply for intradistrict transfer, send their kids to private school or leave the area entirely rather than have their student attend Theuerkauf.
Another solution would be to increase the capacity of the PACT program, giving more families an opportunity to have their children attend the popular school. As of last year, 368 students were enrolled in Stevenson Elementary, which is relatively low compared with neighborhood schools in the district. But Mountain View Whisman board members have signaled that they would be reluctant to support a big increase in enrollment. Last year, board member Bill Lambert said at the Dec. 10 board meeting that there needs to be a cap on choice schools in order to make sure enrollment remains steady at all the other schools. In other words, too many families may flock to the higher-achieving PACT program across the city rather than stick to their own neighborhood school.
Coladonato, who has two children attending Stevenson, said it would be entirely unrealistic to meet the demand for kindergarten at Stevenson, which would require the district to add an extra five kindergarten classrooms this year. Instead, he said, it would "behoove" the school district to survey parents and find out what is drawing parents to the school. It could be the parent participation, the project-based learning or other philosophies that could be exported and used to attract families to other schools.
The flight of families away from lower-performing schools and toward Huff, Bubb and Stevenson has been an ongoing concern for the school district. Kindergarten requests from recent years show that just over a third of families in the Theuerkauf, Castro and Monta Loma attendance areas had requested their own neighborhood school for kindergarten enrollment. None of the three school has a wait list for the upcoming year.
Lambert's notion that the PACT program may be sapping enrollment from nearby schools was mostly validated last year, when former Interim Superintendent Kevin Skelly revealed that well-to-do families in the Theuerkauf Elementary attendance area were flocking to other nearby schools.
In a memo, Skelly said that the number of economically disadvantaged students within Theuerkauf's boundaries represented about 45 percent of children living in that area, but the number of economically disadvantaged students at the school itself jumps to 69 percent of student enrollment. Sharing the campus next door to Theuerkauf is Stevenson Elementary, where the latest data shows that only 7 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. A 2014 demographic study showed that 109 students from the Theuerkauf attendance area attend Stevenson, making it the largest migration away from a zoned school to the PACT program.
The constant pressure to enroll more students in Huff, Bubb and Stevenson prompted community members on the Boundary Advisory Task Force last year to question whether school boundaries were really the primary problem. Some parents wanted the district to explore why parents are choosing to send their kids to anywhere but their neighborhood school, and go from there to find a strategy to even out enrollment. District administrators said analyzing parent preference was beyond the task force's role, and did not study it any further.
A new boundary task force is expected to convene later this year to talk about redrawing school boundaries, and it's likely that the problem of school preference will bubble to the surface again.