School board members tentatively agreed to restrict the free-flow of students between schools in the Mountain View Whisman School District starting next year, ending a long-standing practice that caused overcrowding at some campuses and chronic under-enrollment at others.
With virtually no discussion, school board members on May 31 largely accepted recommendations from a district task force that completely revises the rules dictating where children can attend school, moving away from the current model where parents could choose from a menu of campuses across the entire district. As long as a seat was open, it meant their child got in.
The existing policies have led to a whole host of problems, particularly overcrowding at the district's popular, higher-performing schools. Bubb, Huff and Landels elementaries have historically been packed to the brim, and at times families who moved in right next door had to send their children to other schools across town. After a big uproar last year, district officials opted for a Band-Aid fix, adding more portable classrooms in lieu of displacing students.
It also led to a large contingent of families transferring their children away from lower-performing schools to a more desirable option across town, leaving some of the schools with the largest campuses under-enrolled. Historically, only about one-third of families with incoming kindergarteners request their own neighborhood school if they live near Theuerkauf or Castro elementary schools, compared to more than 80 percent among families living near Bubb and Huff.
These loose open enrollment policies are likely to change in the 2019-20 school year, after the Enrollment Priorities Task Force forged a new set of rules that largely enforce attendance boundaries, meaning children are funneled to their neighborhood school. Board members are expected to formally vote on the proposal at the Thursday, June 14, meeting.
The streamlined policies state that students living within a school's attendance boundary get top priority to attend that school, regardless of capacity. Last year, Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph and school board members doubled down on a commitment to prevent students from being displaced, which forced parents to drive their children across town to a school they didn't want to attend in the first place. Instead, the district provided portable classroom space to accommodate students.
The new priorities still allow for some limited movement. Under the proposed rules, families would be allowed to send a child to a school elsewhere in the district if the campus is deemed "under capacity," which means that school is below 75 percent of its maximum number of students. That designation, which would be up for revision each school year, currently applies to Monta Loma, Castro and Theuerkauf elementary schools. But the transfers, as envisioned by the task force, would have some significant strings attached, Rudolph told board members.
"It would be on a year-to-year basis and does not apply to siblings," he said. "Which means that if you enroll two kids, you have to apply (separately) for both."
Rudolph said the district also plans to do residency checks, and families who move out of a school attendance boundary would be required to move their children to their new school at the end of the academic year.
Bubb parent Matt Grunewald questioned the idea of not giving enrollment priorities to siblings through intradistrict transfers from one school to another, and said it's not clear whether siblings would be given priority in deciding who gets to attend a school with a limited number of open seats. Allowing transfers can be a valuable tool in keeping enrollment balanced across the district's schools, he said, but parents may be hesitant to move around if siblings aren't given preference.
Under the task force recommendations, the district will also set up a formal process for requesting transfers due to special circumstances, which could include children who need to be moved because of bullying or compliance with federal Title IX civil rights, as well as special education placement for special day classes at designated school sites.
Parent Christine Case-Lo told trustees she worried that the transfer requests would only apply to kids in special day classes and wouldn't extend to special education students in general education classrooms. She said the district is seeing "wonderful" results from inclusion, but it needs to be incorporated into the enrollment priorities to avoid uprooting children who may not be able to handle displacement as well.
"They are doing great, but their neighborhood school is across town," she said. "And they're being told if you move into general (education) you have to move to your neighborhood school."
The task force held back on big changes to enrollment priorities for the district's choice schools -- the PACT program at Stevenson Elementary School and the Dual Immersion program at Mistral Elementary School -- citing a need for more time to explore all the options that could increase diversity at both schools.
The core problem that task force members grappled with is economic diversity, particularly at the PACT program. Stevenson has traditionally enrolled far fewer low-income families than the district's demographic reflect, despite drawing students from every single neighborhood. That's something that could be evened out through changes to enrollment priorities. Task force members considered a myriad of ways to prioritize lower-income families -- some of which may not be legally permissible strategies -- before asking for an extension. Tentative plans call for revisiting choice school enrollment priorities in the fall.