Updated: Supe suggests 4th middle school


In an effort to relieve the overcrowding at Ascencion Solorsano
Middle School, school Superintendent Deborah Flores has proposed
opening a fourth middle school as early as August 2011.
In an effort to relieve the overcrowding at Ascencion Solorsano Middle School, school Superintendent Deborah Flores has proposed opening a fourth middle school as early as August 2011.

Next school year, Solorsano will swell to nearly the size of both South Valley and Brownell middle schools combined thanks to the addition of about 180 transfer students – the majority of whom are incoming sixth graders – from the two other middle schools. Accommodating the ballooning population will require nearly $650,000 in extra classrooms and restrooms.

Brownell and South Valley are in fifth year Program Improvement, a designation given to schools that do not make federal growth targets on state standardized tests. This year, that target is set at having 56 percent of students at or above proficiency in math and language arts. The target increases about 10 percent every year. Federal law allows families to transfer their children from a PI school to one that has met growth targets. In Gilroy, the only middle school not in PI is Solorsano, home to almost 1,200 students next year.

Brownell and South Valley middle schools’ PI status and Solorsano’s subsequent overcrowding – topics that have been discussed in some aspect at nearly every board meeting during the past few months – prompted the most recent discussion of opening a fourth middle school at the former home of El Portal Leadership Academy. The Academy, adjacent to South Valley on IOOF Avenue, was shut down last year after an audit revealed failing academics and possible financial malfeasance. The facility consists of 12 classrooms, restrooms, an office and a multipurpose room.

According to Flores’ proposal, the new middle school would open in August 2011 with sixth graders. Seventh and eighth grade students would be added over the following two years. Similar to the district’s existing three middle schools, the new school would have a seven-period day, core academic courses and some elective offerings. District staff is investigating the concept of introducing a special focus – such as math, science or technology – at the school.

The creation of the new school would allow the district to stop allowing transfers to Solorsano, Flores said – an option trustee Mark Good has suggested several times previously, even before the idea of opening a fourth middle school was under consideration.

“It’s time to draw a hard line in the sand I believe on this PI transition,” Good said at board meeting in April. “Continuing to increase the size of Solorsano while we have empty classrooms at two other middle schools – from an economic standpoint, I’m done. It’s up to us as a board to show some leadership and stop those transfers. It makes absolutely no sense. It’s insanity.”

Flores has said that the district is required by federal law to honor transfer requests.

If the district opens a fourth middle school, incoming sixth graders transferring from Brownell or South Valley would be sent to the new site. Meanwhile, the district would continue to honor seventh and eighth grade transfer requests to Solorsano during the first two years of the new school’s operation, Flores said.

Though the details were sketchy, Flores said she expected the cost of opening up a fourth middle school to be “minimal.”

Not ready to approve the proposal without more specifics, board members requested additional information about the possibility of housing the fourth school in some of the vacant classrooms at South Valley or Brownell – an option they’ve discussed at prior meetings.

“I agree with the concept of having to create an alternative,” trustee Rhoda Bress said. “But I have concerns about opening up a whole new site.”

Because the district already has three middle schools, “it just makes sense” to make use of the existing campuses, Bress said.

“We should be using classes where we’re losing (the students) from,” she said.

Given the number of transfer students, Brownell should have seven or eight empty classrooms, Brownell Principal Greg Camacho-Light said. However, the district has filled them with other offerings, such as after-school and county-run programs.

“When you’re a school that has room available, that’s where everything goes,” he said.

Bress suggested moving those programs to the El Portal site and using the empty classrooms at Brownell to house the fourth middle school.

That might work for a year or so, but neither Brownell nor South Valley has enough classrooms to accommodate transfers from both schools if the requests continue at the current rate, Camacho-Light said.

“It has to be a viable alternative that appeals to people,” trustee Denise Apuzzo said. “If we’re going to offer a program and we’re going to make it a quality program, it can’t just be ‘We’re going to shove you here.’ We don’t have the space for a fourth school at the campus of one of the other two schools.”

Of the approximately 180 transfer students Solorsano will receive next year, about 70 are from Brownell and most are incoming sixth graders, Camacho-Light said. If all those students were to stay put at their neighborhood school, Brownell would be over capacity and the district would need to take a look at opening a fourth school in the coming years anyway, he said.

Even though his school is doing well, Camacho-Light said he was not opposed to opening a fourth school – as long as it was done right. One major issue is that the district cannot predict the number of students who will continue to request transfers if Solorsano is removed as an option, Flores said.

In the meantime, Brownell and South Valley are working to change the perception that their schools are not succeeding, Camacho-Light said. With 75 percent of the students he loses to Solorsano demonstrating proficiency or above on state tests, he sometimes wonders what his test scores would look like had those students stayed at Brownell.

“We’re doing better and better, but just think how well we would have done,” he said.

Despite the transfers, the size of Brownell’s incoming sixth grade class – about 230 compared to seventh and eighth grade classes closer to 200 each – indicates a turnaround, he said.

During the board’s discussion, a visibly frustrated Good asked how the board could make a decision without all the necessary information.

“It seems like we’re going down the road and we haven’t looked at any of the economics,” he said. “We don’t know what we’re doing and we’re going to march down a road being completely clueless. That doesn’t sound like a good plan to me.”

He also pointed out how having test data from this school year would be informative. District staff plans to present additional details at an Aug. 26 board meeting, allowing them to factor in the past school year’s standardized test scores, which are released mid-August.

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