Finding a balance between student choice and maintaining quality programs at all schools spurred a debate about capacity and equal opportunity for the San Mateo Union High School District board during a special meeting last night.
District enrollment is projected to increase by more than 1,400 students by 2022. But most of that growth is happening in the southern part of the district where many of the recently approved intra-district transfers take place. In contrast, students in San Bruno and Millbrae, where growth has been stagnant, haven’t moved throughout the district as freely. In hopes of creating more choice, the board generally supported increasing the capacity at schools. However, there was concern that allowing more movement could cause enrollment to drop heavily at one school, specifically Capuchino High School in San Bruno, while creating a large increase at another — making for inequitable programs.
"We need to try to find a balance between individual student needs and the program we offer at the various campuses,” said Superintendent Scott Laurence. "We need to do things in a way that we can manage changes; in ways that do not offer students at different schools different academic programs.”
Trustee Marc Freidman supported letting the market take its course while others on the board didn’t want a quick shift in enrollment to make it difficult to continue offering the same quality of programs across the district. To keep that from happening, the board was interested in also setting a minimum enrollment level.
The largest disagreement was about setting a minimum at each school site. The number 1,100 was thrown out in discussion but Capuchino’s current enrollment is 1,126. Using the proposed minimum, Capuchino students may not be allowed to transfer to an open seat at another district school to maintain enrollment at the San Bruno campus, which caused disagreement among those on the board.
Trustees Bob Griffith and Steve Rogers requested a budget breakdown on the cost of running a smaller school compared to the program that would be offered before deciding on a minimum enrollment.
On Thursday, the board discussed two recommendations: adding space at all schools and changing the intra-district transfer policy. In terms of growth, district staff is suggesting increasing capacity at each school, except Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, by 25 students annually over the coming four years. By adding capacity, the district could also allow for students to take advantage of the district’s open enrollment policy.
Over the last two years, the district received 949 requests to change schools and granted 526. Of the requests, most students were looking to attend — in order of most requests — San Mateo’s Aragon, Burlingame and Hillsdale high schools or Mills High School in Millbrae. Requests for Capuchino and San Mateo high schools were both under 60 for the two years. As a result, most students requesting to attend those two schools were approved, according to district records. New student minimums and maximums could create additional spaces but also hinder the choice for students assigned to Capuchino.
The situation at Hillsdale is a bit different.
Hillsdale High School operates three "houses,” or semi-autonomous smaller learning communities. In this system, students often end up with teachers in core classes for two years. Laurence put forward the possibility of adding another house, or 350 students, to Hillsdale. The idea didn’t get discussed at length, however, the board did give the OK to start looking at a timeline for how such a change would work.
How to move the students generated general support. The board gave general support to the recommendation to create a list of intra-district transfer requests once the open enrollment period ends. Then, a lottery would be held, based on the number of seats available. Families will be made aware of their place in the lottery. Once schools are at capacity, intra-district transfers would only be allowed when there is an equal trade between two schools creating a zero impact on both, according to the recommendation. The board policy will come back to the board Thursday, Feb. 14 for approval and will go into effect for the coming fall.
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