The Mountain View Whisman School District Board of Trustees decided at a Thursday, Oct. 21, meeting to hold off on trying to change its enrollment system for choice schools in time for next school year, instead agreeing to follow a longer timeline that district administrators proposed.
The board is pursuing the possibility of prioritizing low-income students in its lottery system for the district's two choice elementary schools: Stevenson and Gabriela Mistral. The discussion comes as an attempt to rectify enrollment disparities, particularly at Stevenson, which has a far lower proportion of low-income students than the district overall.
At the district's previous board meeting, held Oct. 7, administrators presented information about barriers to access at choice schools and suggested that the board make changes to district enrollment priorities in time for the 2023-2024 school year.
Some board members said they favored moving more quickly and getting new enrollment priorities in place in time for next fall, but Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph told trustees that would mean delaying the annual choice school enrollment lottery, which could lead to a cascade of unintended consequences.
At Thursday’s meeting, Rudolph and district Director of Equity Megan Henderson said the lottery would have to be delayed from March until June, which would impact all schools in the district, because neighborhood school enrollment is dependent on which students are admitted to Stevenson and Mistral.
Henderson then ran through an extensive list of potential consequences that she said could stem from that decision, including issues with teacher hiring, more families opting to send their children to private schools and compliance issues in administering the English learner assessment.
Trustees didn't take a formal vote, but directed staff that it was worth taking the longer route, which would change the enrollment priorities starting in the 2023-24 school year.
"This is a hard one, because it's so close we can taste it," board President Devon Conley said. "And I think there was a lot of interest from the board because we really do want to see Stevenson be a more economically, racially and ethnically integrated school campus."
Nonetheless, Conley said she recognized the need for the board to dive deeper on a number of issues and explore the causes of equity issues at the district's choice schools.
Currently, only 7% of Stevenson students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, compared with 48% at Mistral and 29% for the district overall, according to data Henderson presented at the Oct. 7 meeting. There is also a far smaller share of Latino students at Stevenson, 10%, than at Mistral, 69%, or in the broader district, 34%.
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.
If more students apply to a choice school than there is space to accommodate, enrollment is determined using a lottery that is governed by a list of enrollment priorities, which includes criteria like siblings of current students and children of district staff members.
Trustees are considering adding a preference for low-income students, although the district has not yet decided what mechanism it would use to determine eligibility.
Stevenson, which focuses on project-based and experiential learning and encourages parent participation in the classroom, has a waitlist of 176 students. Mistral, which offers a Spanish-English Dual Immersion program, only has one student on the waitlist for a single grade level, Henderson told the board earlier this month.
Any decision to change the enrollment priority list would impact both campuses, Rudolph said.
At this week's meeting, Rudolph told trustees that despite a "narrative" that district staff is trying to sway the board on the timeline, that isn't the case.
"We're not really arguing for or against, but what we do believe is that it's important for the board to understand the impact of whatever decision it makes," Rudolph said.
Although he said administrators were "agnostic" on the issue, the official staff recommendation listed on the meeting agenda was for the board to stick with the proposed enrollment timeline, which calls for trustees to make a decision next year that would take effect in the fall of 2023.
After hearing the district staff's presentation, trustee Laura Ramirez Berman said she wanted to believe there's a way to at least slightly increase the number of underrepresented students at choice schools next fall without causing a ripple effect that pushes the lottery until June.
"I'm sort of in the place where I want my cake and I want to eat it too, a little bit, so I'm struggling with this one," Ramirez Berman said.
Ultimately though, a majority of the board indicated that they preferred to hold off on making a decision just yet. Trustee Chris Chiang advocated for the board to take the time to consider items beyond the preferences themselves, including the possibility of providing free after-school care to low-income students at all district schools.
The longer timeline the board opted to follow includes time to do a "root cause analysis" of equity issues at choice schools, as well as collect feedback from community members.
Trustee Ellen Wheeler said that although she initially wanted to move "full steam ahead" on changing the enrollment preferences, she now sees value in going slower and asking more questions.
"We've raised the issue," Wheeler said. "Now let's have it simmer in the community for a while and find out what people really want."