One high school or two? Bond sparks debate

One high school or two? Bond sparks debate

Michele Ellson
One high school

Backers of a proposal to build a single, comprehensive high school think the land now occupied by Wood and Lum schools and Rittler Park is the place to put it. Photo by Michele Ellson.

Should Alameda have one comprehensive high school or two? That’s one of the main questions facing schools leaders as their proposed $179.5 million facilities bond heads toward a November vote.

The bond measure contains up to $90 million for Encinal and Alameda high schools – money some longtime residents believe should be used to build a state of the art campus for both schools’ students.

“If we put all our resources into one school, we could have a first-rate school, which the city deserves. The students deserve it,” single high school backer Don Peterson said. “There’s no reason to keep supporting two second-rate facilities.”

Supporters of a single high school said it’s time for the school board to consider consolidating the schools, a subject they accused civic leaders of avoiding for years. And they said they think a call for a new high school could consolidate support for the bond measure.

“I think what any of us are doing is asking them, please, sit down and talk about it. Ask the community, see if they’re interested. Look at it and have conversation,” said John Piziali.

In a letter to the editor published this week, school board president Margie Sherratt said the board will tackle the topic in the fall.

Peterson and others seeking the development of a single, new high school said a bigger school will be able to offer more courses than Alameda an Encinal high students can now access, along with better extracurricular activities and athletic facilities. And they said it makes more economic sense to run a single high school.

They said the construction of Encinal High School after World War II for the children of largely non-white workers at the Alameda Naval Air Station who populated the West End created an East-West, race-and-class divide that lingers to this day. A proposal to consolidate the campuses on the College of Alameda campus when that school was facing closure in the 1970s came and went, they said.

While a flood of new families who mingle on Alameda’s sports fields and in other youth activities has lessened that divide, one high school backers said they think consolidating the schools could erase what remains.

“It’s been a division forever,” said Nick Cabral, a community leader and, like Peterson and Piziali, an Encinal grad. “Why should the community have to deal with that?”

Cabral and the others said that they’re big boosters of Encinal High and that they cherish their experiences there so much that they want future generations of students from across the Island to be able to share them.

“I love the school, but I want it for the whole city,” Cabral said.

They said they think a new high school could be built where Donald D. Lum elementary and Will C. Wood middle schools and Rittler Park sit now. Additional funds to build the school could be generated by selling the Alameda and Encinal high properties, they said.

Not everyone is on board with the concept of a single high school, though. Followers of The Alamedan’s Facebook page were split on the question of one high school or two, with some agreeing a single high school would unite the city and others saying they want both campuses fixed up.

“There is no way you could fit that many students into one school and still create a cohesive and friendly learning environment. That's almost 2500 high schoolers,” Zack Kjelland wrote. “I just graduated from (Alameda High School) and that alone was already very over crowded.”

Another Facebook reader, Patti Cassaro, said consolidating the schools would mean fewer opportunities for students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.

Others said they think Alameda Point may be the only place on the Island with enough space for a new high school. Kevis Brownson said the Lum/Wood site was studied and found to be too small, and that Alameda Point is too far for some families to travel. School district spokeswoman Susan Davis said the district has not yet formally studied the proposal to put a high school on the Lum/Wood site.

“Although building one high school could help to solve the perennial East-West resource debate, there does not seem a way to do it with no practical site,” Brownson wrote. “The plan to reuse Historic (Alameda High School) for students with the (new) AHS renovated for … administration, and renovating (Encinal High School) with a new performance space, seems like the best way to go to me.”

Most of Alameda County’s suburban districts have a single, comprehensive high school, with the size of the student body in single-high-school districts ranging from 742 at Piedmont High to 3,934 at Newark Unified’s James Logan High, 2012-13 enrollment data on the state’s Ed-Data website show.

Pleasanton Unified has two comprehensive high schools, each of which had more than 2,000 students enrolled in 2012-13, state data show. Of Alameda County’s suburban districts, only San Lorenzo Unified had two comprehensive high schools serving fewer than 2,000 students each, as Alameda does.

A single, comprehensive high school would serve nearly 3,000 students based on district enrollment data for Alameda and Encinal high schools – making it a “very large” school based on the California Department of Education’s guide to school site analysis and development. It says school districts typically plan for a maximum of 2,400 students in a single high school, though it acknowledges more urban districts where space is at a premium may need to operate bigger schools.

The guide says size may not be the most crucial factor in the success of a school, and that bigger schools can be impersonal and also, more costly to operate on a per-student basis. Research on the impact of school size on academic achievement is inconclusive, it says.

“Determining the size of a new school is an important decision for a school district and deserves serious thought,” the guide says.

Using the guide as a rough estimate, the ideal size for a high school serving Alameda and Encinal students would be 276,000 square feet at 92 square feet per student and would sit on 58.7 acres – 52.7 acres for the first 2,400 students plus an additional acre per hundred students.

Alameda High School is 221,255 square feet and sits on 12.9 acres, while Encinal has 134,440 square feet of building on 21.9 acres. Lum, Wood and Rittler Park, which would also be considered for a single high school site, have a combined 18.6 acres, data contained in the district’s facilities master plan and a 2012 city parks master plan show.

Former school board member Bill Garvine said he’s not sure if a single high school is right for Alameda, but he said he thinks schools leaders should weigh information and opinions for and against the proposal as part of an effort to more specifically detail what voters are getting if they approve a bond.

“These are questions we need to get together to talk about as a community before we obligate taxpayers, to be sure we get it right,” he said.


Here's what The Alamedan's Facebook followers had to say about whether Alameda should have one comprehensive high school or two.


Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Thu, Jul 17, 2014

Excellent article, Michele. Especially interesting the stats on how much space is needed for per student and in total.

Regarding the fantasy bond measure and single high school mirages, why would the average Alameda voter believe that a school district that can't manage the smaller things, would ever get it right about bigger things? Giving them $180 million to fix schools or another mystery mega millions to build one high school would be showing confidence in a system that does not warrant it.

Submitted by C. (not verified) on Thu, Jul 17, 2014

I very much like the idea of one high school. Limit enrollment to just Alameda families and stop allowing out of district students to enroll. The Lum/Wood parcel is central and can be reached from all parts of the island. Surely there is a way to retain the traditions of both high schools under one campus and honor both schools' histories. I definitely think this is an idea worth seriously considering. Three of my children attended Alameda High and I was born in Alameda. Some of my kids also attended Lum and Wood. It is a large parcel when the two schools are combined. At the point that the base closed I felt sure Encinal would eventually be closed and the two high schools would merge - but that never happened and they opened enrollment at Encinal to out of district students instead. I always thought not merging the high schools was a missed opportunity to unify our community.

Submitted by Sylvia Gibson on Thu, Jul 17, 2014

As a parent, teacher, and Alameda native, I think that the school board has done a decent job of navigating our district through the rough waters of the economic downturn that began in 2008-- a recession that hasn't finished its assault on public services including education.
I love it that we have two high schools and am glad that my son will go to Encinal in a few years. Nothing against AHS, but I've heard that EHS offers a better sense of community to its students while at the same time providing top notch AP classes. EHS grads go to Cal, Stanford, and Ivy League Colleges.
I do think that the Koffman Auditorium should be considered a community resource and that EHS drama and musical productions should be performed there-- I don't see why this isn't happening.
One big comprehensive high school could be amazing; I'm not against it. Our two smaller comprehensive high schools are close to amazing. California public schools rely on local funding, such as the upcoming bond, to be amazing.
Those who don't like the school board decisions can vote for new members in the upcoming election. It's a democracy and power over the school board and its decisions rests, ultimately, within the Alameda community.

Submitted by luczai (not verified) on Thu, Jul 17, 2014

Kofman Auditorium was always intended to be a community resource. In its very first year, a variety of groups, including the Elks Lodge presented programs there. If a change is made to the overall location of facilities, and adequate parking could be built adjacent to the theater, it could be operated along the lines of Lesher in Walnut Creek. As a venue, if it can be unburdened from the "high school auditorium" moniker, it could draw folks from outside town for events like smaller stage musical acts and theatrical touring companies.

Submitted by Ken (not verified) on Thu, Jul 17, 2014

Vote NO! Are you serious about one big high school. It doesn't work! Look at Logan High School (Union City), Milpitas High School...too crowded with 3,500-4000 kids at each site.

Consider something like sports. I'm not going to bring up the obvious sport, football. Let's talk about tennis. If you had just 1 tennis team for the whole island, you deny dozens of kids a high school experience of being on a team, having pride for playing for their school, giving them training for a life skill (such as tennis). We could say the same for other sporting events. But change it from sports to the Yearbook Staff. You're not going to have 2 sections of yearbook (about 60 kids) for one high school. You'd only have a yearbook staff of about 30-35 kids. Again, denying KIDS unique life experiences.

So then if you wipe out all of these opportunities for kids to be in sports, arts, and extra-curricular activities...hmmm, I wonder what they'd do after school with NOTHING TO DO...? Hmmm...I recall some of the things my classmates did. Drugs, theft, graffiti, sexual exploration....or maybe worse, hours and hours of reality TV!!!

Would every parent from Harbor Bay (that would normally drop off their kid at AHS) want to drop off their kid on Grand and Otis?

How would Park Street business owners feel that the high school kids wouldn't be able to shop there right after school? (or lunch if they still have open campus) Let's ask the manager's of Peets, Starbucks, Tapioca Express, Jack in the Box, High Scores Arcade, Subway, and others.

For all of you who live near Lum/Wood, you really want Friday Night Lights near your house? You want a weekly football game around your home?

VOTE NO!!! Warn everybody to vote NO!!!

Fix the schools at their current locations!

Submitted by R. Parodi (not verified) on Thu, Jul 17, 2014

Did nobody catch the part in this article about how the Wood/Lum site is SMALLER than the existing site at Encinal, and barely a third of what would be required for a combined school? Not to mention we'd then have to spend millions building a new space for the Wood and Lum students.

Even if you don't care about facts and numbers, it's been my experience that large schools just mean turmoil and poor student achievement. Big schools tend to have big problems.

Submitted by Kevis Brownson (not verified) on Sat, Jul 19, 2014

Since I was quoted here, and Susan Davis said the one high school at Lum/Wood had not been "formally" studied, I wanted to say that the source of the information that it had been studied was the architects presentation at the 2013 meetings on the future of AHS. I am not sure if it is in their report, but that is what I thought I heard at the meeting. And, as the comment just above this states, the site is smaller than that of Encinal by itself, a place that already has a track and field, but no auditorium.

Submitted by Sally Brownson (not verified) on Sat, Jul 19, 2014

@Sylvia Gibson: I don't know exactly why Encinal's musical and theatrical productions aren't staged at Koffman, but I can guess. AHS also has to pay to use the auditorium at night, and staging musicals there is expensive because musical licensing is charged by the seat. AHS drama cuts down a bit on that cost by keeping the balcony closed, but it's still an enormous theater and only the strength and reputation of AHS's drama program has managed to make staging musicals there make any economic sense.

Full disclosure, I'm Kevis Brownson's daughter. I'm also AHS class of '09.

In theory, I have no problem with one combined high school. In practice, there's no place to put one. The Wood/Lum/Rittler Park site isn't even 150% the size of AHS's site, and it would have more than 150% of the student population, including the disadvantages that AHS has: no football field onsite (in fact, wouldn't the closest one still be Thompson? isn't that kind of far?), limited other PE facilities, overcrowding in classrooms, limited lockers, etc. And that's without the distinct advantage of being right by Park St for open campus lunch. What's more, the 70's buildings were built at a time of low enrollment as well. It's not a good idea to build a school for the low capacity the district currently needs. If the base finally ends up getting developed, where are those kids going to go? To the high school built for 3000 kids on a site that's too small even for that? We'd be giving up a 3500 high school student capacity for a 3000 student capacity. I don't think that's a good idea just because we have low enrollment right now. It's not taking the future into account.

This might seem to be a small thing as well, but having classes in the old buildings and the newer ones at AHS really demonstrated to me that it's much more inspiring to have classes in a beautiful building with tall windows than one that is cramped and falling apart after only 3 decades. When Alamedans in the 20's and 50's were building the high schools, they poured tons of money into those projects because they wanted their high schools to be the pride of the city. I just don't have confidence that if we built a new high school that we would have those values in mind. Instead, I think that we might turn out with something like the 70's buildings at AHS: cheaply made, prison-like buildings that show that we clearly value thrift over education. I'd much rather fix up the buildings we have and make them state-of-the-art.

As for the inequality between AHS and Encinal: maybe we shouldn't just be sending kids by default to the one closest to them by district. If we want to even them up, I think we should have different electives at each school and let people choose which one they want to go to based on those. Maybe one school has orchestra, dance, French, and theater while the other has auto shop, tv/media, Mandarin and computer programming. The point is, some students will still choose to go to the closest school, but others might choose to go further away to be able to take a class that they can't take at the closer one. It seems like a better solution than trying to cram everyone onto a new campus that isn't really big enough for the current student population and definitely won't be big enough if student enrollment ever increases again.