The consistent lack of low-income students at Stevenson Elementary School is prompting the Mountain View Whisman School District to reconsider how it enrolls students at its choice schools.
The district's school board members last week signaled support for adding an enrollment preference for low-income students, though the timeline for such a decision is still uncertain.
A staff report at the Oct. 7 board meeting showed lopsided enrollment demographics at the district's choice schools.
Only 7% of Stevenson students this school year are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, compared with a district average of 29%, according to data presented by Director of Equity Megan Henderson. That's in stark contrast to the district's other choice school, Gabriela Mistral Elementary School, where 48% of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Stevenson focuses on project-based and experiential learning and encourages parent participation in the classroom. Mistral offers a Spanish-English Dual Immersion program.
The paucity of low-income students at Stevenson has been a long-running issue. Since at least the 2015-16 school year, the percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged students at the school has never cracked double digits.
Stevenson also has a lower portion of Latino students, 10% this year, compared to 69% at Mistral and 34% for the district overall. White students make up 33% of Stevenson's student body, 18% of Mistral's and 32% of the district's. Asian students account for 39% of Stevenson's population, 3% of Mistral's and 24% of the district's.
"Obviously we have schools that look very different from one another, even though they're within a very similar geographic region," Henderson said.
Enrollment at Stevenson and Gabriela Mistral is not subject to traditional enrollment boundaries, but is instead open to all families, with a lottery if too many students apply.
Stevenson currently has a waitlist of 176 students, while Mistral only has one student on a waitlist for a specific grade level, Henderson said.
Some board members initially advocated at last week's meeting for making changes to the set of enrollment priorities that govern the lottery in time for next fall's incoming class.
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph told the board it could be done, but said it would require pushing back the lottery, which is normally held in February, potentially as late as next summer to give district staff time to implement the new policies.
"You would essentially delay enrollment at every single site in order to accomplish this," Rudolph said.
That prospect left some board members concerned about whether such a compressed timeline would be workable.
"I think it will be chaos if we wait until the summer (for the lottery)," board member Laura Blakely said. "I think that would be a disaster, personally."
The board didn't make any formal decision about when they would vote on changing enrollment priorities, but Rudolph plans to present a timeline at the next board meeting showing what making a change in time for next fall would look like. If the trustees decide against that course of action, a board decision about choice schools is still expected by June 2022.
The district has held focus groups with parents, teachers and others to identify why a more diverse set of families aren't applying to Stevenson. Participants reported a belief that Stevenson is a private school for the "elite," Henderson said, with focus group members saying that families face pressure to take part in the classroom. Neither parent participation nor donations are required, Henderson said.
Members of the focus groups also said that Latino families don't feel welcome to apply to Stevenson.
Communication issues also came up, with people reporting that information about choice schools largely comes through word of mouth. Some families were also discouraged by the waitlist.
Board members expressed interest in improving communication about choice schools and their application process, as well as changing the enrollment priorities.
"It makes 100% sense to me if we want to diversify the school that we give a priority to low-income families," trustee Ellen Wheeler said.
Superintendent Rudolph told the board that any decision to change its enrollment priorities would impact both choice schools. If a preference for low-income students was added, it would impact Stevenson as well as Mistral, where close to half the students are already considered socioeconomically disadvantaged.
"Even though the conversation is focused on Stevenson, the unintended consequence is how it will impact Mistral," Rudolph said.
During Thursday's meeting, some public commenters brought up equity issues at Mistral.
Another issue that came up was whether to keep the existing enrollment priority for siblings of current students at choice schools. This school year, 61% of Stevenson students and 48% of Mistral students have a sibling at the school.
Multiple members of the public spoke at the meeting, urging the board to keep that preference.
"I have three kids," one commenter said. "If there's not a chance, or a significantly high chance, that all of my kids will eventually go to the same school, I won't want to apply there."
The parent said her first child wasn't able to get into Stevenson, but when her second child secured a spot at the school, her first was able to follow.
Board members supported keeping the sibling preference, noting that low-income families may face transportation issues if their children are split between schools.
"If we were to remove that as a priority, I think that an unintended consequence is that we would hurt the families that we are actually trying to recruit," trustee Laura Ramirez Berman said.
The board also considered whether to tackle issues of diversity on all of the district's campuses, or just at the choice schools. Trustee Christopher Chiang supported exploring the make-up of traditional neighborhood schools and how their boundary lines are drawn.
"I think that we have places where, without any intention, we have segregated outcomes," Chiang said.
Other board members said they preferred to start with choice schools, at least for the time being.