With a new school opening in the Mountain View Whisman District, and a host of changes to school attendance boundaries rolling out, hundreds of students will be saying goodbye to their old campuses and going somewhere new in the upcoming school year.
Recently released enrollment projections for the 2019-20 school year show hundreds of district students are being relocated to new schools following a complete re-drawing of the attendance zones to reducing overcrowding at some schools. Vargas Elementary School is also opening in the fall, and is expected to enroll 323 students in its inaugural year.
And while most of the shifts in enrollment were expected by district staffers, whose estimates were central to the boundary-drawing process, there are some surprises. Huff's enrollment didn't decline at nearly the rate anticipated, and Landels Elementary enrollment didn't explode to 545 students -- it actually saw a decline.
Monta Loma Elementary, long considered a vulnerable school that could become too small to be viable if enrollment declines, also has fewer students than anticipated. In 2017-18 the school had 444 students, and now it's projected to have 354 in the upcoming school year.
In 2017, school board members voted to approve new boundaries to balance enrollment between district schools, focusing on a smaller "neighborhood school" model aiming for between 400 and 450 students on each campus. The decision came with a simultaneous crackdown on intradistrict transfers, doing away with a long-standing policy allowing the free-flow movement of students to any school campus with space.
The result is that a whole lot of students would be forcefully moved -- 540 in total, according to Assistant Superintendent Carmen Ghysels. To take the edge off the transition, school board members allowed "grandfathering" exemptions so fifth grade students could finish elementary school next year, along with their siblings. Several neighborhoods, including Shoreline West, North Whisman, Willowgate and Wagon Wheel, were moved in their entirety from one school to another.
While families were promised the opportunity to contest the move and request an enrollment exemption, the list of legitimate reasons for switching from neighborhood school is narrow and inflexible. Of the 81 that asked for an exemption, only 12 qualified, Ghysels said. Some families sought to switch from Theuerkauf Elementary to Landels, citing a need for safe bike routes to school. Ghysels said the district's exemption committee rejected those requests, in part because those same families were also requesting admission into the Stevenson PACT choice program. Stevenson shares a campus with Theuerkauf.
"It wasn't really about the distance, it was about the perceptions of the school quality," she said at the May 30 school board meeting. "And those were hard conversations and crucial conversations that the committee had."
One of the driving principals behind the new school boundaries was that Bubb and Huff elementaries, among the district's highest performing schools, were packed to the brim and needed several portable classrooms to house all their students. While both school shrank in size, both are still well above the sweet spot of 450 students.
Part of the reason could be that many families opted for the fifth grade exemption, temporarily dulling the effect of the boundary changes. A total of 95 fifth grade students and 43 of their siblings took advantage of the exemption, Ghysels said.
On the other end is Monta Loma, which is expected to lose students in the coming school year, and district officials are already estimating they will need to reduce the teaching staff from its current 18 down to 14 next year.
For years, outspoken parents and residents worried that opening a new school and redrawing boundaries could spell trouble for Monta Loma and Theuerkauf, dragging down enrollment until the schools could barely sustain two classrooms at each grade level -- otherwise known as "strands." Three strands was considered the goal throughout the boundary-drawing process.
It's unclear whether the boundary-drawing task force and the school board anticipated the enrollment drop. In June 2018, the board was advised that Monta Loma would have 396 students in the 2019-20 school year, just shy of the target. As of May 2, that number was only 342, climbing to 354 by month's end.
District spokeswoman Shelly Hausman cautioned that the enrollment estimates are a moving target and will change -- almost daily -- in the late spring and summer, before school starts on Aug. 19. She also suggested that the district's estimates back in June 2018 were right on the money, anticipating 346 students at Monta Loma for the upcoming school year. However, the publicly available documents from the June 2018 school board meeting tell a different story, showing a difference of 50 students. Monta Loma's enrollment project is the only school with a number that's changed in what is apparently a revised estimate for the school that is also dated June 2018.
Monta Loma is the designated campus for military families residing on Moffett Field, which could also be delaying enrollment at the school as families await military orders. Most orders are given in the spring and through July, Hausman said.
Another exemption approved by the school board allows student transfers to "under-enrolled" schools at less than 75% capacity. But the way the rules are being interpreted by district administrators, no school actually qualified for this exemption for the 2019-20 school year, Ghysels said. "Capacity," in this case, is based on a maximum of 450 students, rather than the available classroom facilities, meaning Theuerkauf and Monta Loma can each handle 575 students but neither one is considered an under-enrolled school.
As for Vargas Elementary, the early projections indicate plenty of families are planning send their children there for its inaugural year. The best guess last year was that 298 students would attend the school in 2019-20, whereas the latest update shows 323 students will be attending in the fall.