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June 19, 2007 > School's out, but not for planning

School's out, but not for planning

As students retire schoolbook knapsacks for the summer and post-senior class members ponder significant changes in their lives, school administrative personnel, who attended graduation ceremonies, head back to their offices to tie up this school year's loose ends, continuing to plan and prepare for the '07 - '08 school year and beyond.

Schools are an integral part of any area's infrastructure and growth. Sometimes relegated to the far recesses of consciousness during summer months, school boards and administrators are hard at work determining the best strategy to provide education to their communities. TCV recently spoke with Superintendent of Schools Douglas Gephart about the challenges facing the Fremont Unified School District (FUSD) as well as other districts of the Greater Tri-City area.

TCV: What demographic issues does FUSD face?

Gephart: The phenomenon we face is that in the older portions of our city, the population has matured and student generation rates have slowed; we have space in those attendance areas. On the periphery, newer homes and higher density have a major impact - overcrowding schools. The way we currently deal with this problem is to accommodate as many kids as possible at their "home school" and use a process we call "overloading" for the rest, moving them to another school until there is room for them at their home school.

Overloading has been used for many years. When there are 10 or 20 kids involved, this may be the best approach to the problem. But when those numbers rise to larger numbers such as 100 kids, we need to ask ourselves if there is a better solution.

TCV: What are the solutions to overloading?

Gephart: We have to look at all possible options even though some are not desirable by community or staff. For instance, rather than overloading, can we add another classroom - purchase a classroom, put it on the campus and solve the problem that way? If we had the money and space to put a classroom, we could use that option. We are close to being tapped out on resources to purchase those classrooms. Physical space for additional classrooms may also present a challenge.

Another option might be boundary changes. While that might be a solution in some cases, we recognize this as a highly emotional issue and can generate much passion by parents. We would only pursue a boundary change if it would really solve the problem. Class size can also be considered, but smaller classes are an instructional benefit that contributes to higher test scores, one of the reasons parents move to this area. This is not a sound strategy to pursue.

TCV: Are there any other ways to expand capacity?
Gephart: We can look at adding capacity by going to a multi-track, year round school which would give us 33% more capacity in a school. It adds capacity but can put families on a different schedule between elementary students and junior high or high school students.

We are trying to be proactive, finding long-term solutions in key areas of the city (i.e. Forrest Park, Parkmont, Mission attendance area, Leitch/ Warm Springs). This is not easy because the population we are trying to address represents 10% - 15% of the students, but the solution will involve the other 85% - 90% as well.

TCV: How does new housing impact the school housing dilemma?

Gephart: These problems are compounded by housing construction in Fremont which can range from small infill projects to very large developments such as the Patterson Ranch or the proposed A's Ballpark Village. What are the impacts of these developments on our schools? We are trying to work with developers, educating them and asking for their assistance to address the impact of their project(s) on the capacity and quality of our schools.

Very large projects such as the Patterson Ranch may involve building a new school which we view as a positive step. We are still in discussions with the Oakland A's and are encouraged by a recent discussion with them and a verbal commitment to build a school in that area. Details are still to be worked out.

The school district is looking for cooperation with other developers of small projects which still have an impact on housing issues at our schools. As we look to solve our long term issues, we want to include developers as partners so the high quality of our schools continues to attract residents.

TCV: Will overloading progress to junior high and high school?

Gephart: The way we mitigate the impact of overcrowding at the elementary level is to move students from one school to another. At the junior high and high school level, we do not do this. We have different loading factors and are a bit more flexible in scheduling with more capacity to add classrooms, if necessary. We have never used overloading at the secondary level. Based on current and projected rates, although these schools will be very full, capacity does exist to handle the projected student load.

TCV: What is the time frame of the overloading problem?

Gephart: The immediate problem is between three and ten years depending on the composition of families moving into new developments. The next question is the turnover rate of families living in our area. Historically, in single family residences, families move in and stay for 15 or 20 years; more than enough time for the children to grow up and move through the school system. It is difficult to say what the picture will be 20 - 25 years from now.

What we are looking at are immediate impacts increasing in intensity in the next 3 - 5 years. It may not peak for 10 years. The trend in the region suggests there will be a decline after that, but Fremont is an attraction for families. As we project our kindergarten enrollment, we are seeing that more students are enrolling than projected. It is too soon to finalize this but indications are that projected declines in enrollment will be tempered by the attraction of our good test scores and the desirability of Fremont as a place to live. This may minimize any tendency for decline in enrollment; remaining at approximately 31,000 or more students. We have a current enrollment of 31,600 students.

TCV: Is there a program to involve small developers in school issues?

Gephart: The city provides the school district with information about projected developments. It is incumbent on the school system to invite developers to meet with us; to explain the impact of their development on a particular attendance area. In the past, we have not been diligent about doing this. It is only as a result of these studies that we have looked at this in conjunction with housing issues and realized that it is the totality of all these projects that is impacting our school system. So we are changing our strategy to reach out to the developers to help solve these issues. If we rely solely on the letter of the law to support our schools, we will be woefully inadequate dealing with our housing issues because developer fees alone will not solve this.

TCV: The city has, at times, referred to school issues as separate from municipal concerns. Do you agree?

We believe schools are an integral part of the fabric of our city. Schools are not just a part of the city, rather an important component. Between pre-school and adult education, we serve over 52,000 students, approximately 25% of the entire population of Fremont. Families that move here with an expectation of high quality education, then find their children shifted to another attendance area posing transportation and distance issues, creates a major disappointment that impacts the family, school system and the city. This puts more traffic on the street and sends the wrong message of community and developer commitment to maintaining a high quality All American City.

TCV: Are you optimistic about solving these issues?

Gephart: When we have had a chance to share the successes and benefits of our schools with developers, the response has been very positive. They have an interest to maximize their projects but also provide buyers have a place for their kids in our schools. If they develop today, they will probably want to be a part of our community tomorrow as well. Yes, I am very optimistic.

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