Spoiled for Choice

I don’t envy parents of young children these days. When I was growing up, the process of putting your child through school—at least, up until college—was pretty simple: you really only had to choose between public or private school. If you chose public, that generally meant that your child went to the local elementary, junior high and high school, none of which were “magnet” schools or charter schools. By the time my own children were born the process was a bit more complicated, although we only had to select from a limited set of options. When our kids reached elementary school age we opted to send them through Redwood City’s public school system, where we had to choose between “regular” classes, the Spanish immersion program at Adelante, or the K-1-2 program being offered at John Gill Elementary (we chose this third option for both our boys, which turned out well). Our choices increased as our kids went through middle school and high school, with charter schools starting to pop up and with new options such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) program being offered at Sequoia High. Thus my wife and I heaved a big sigh of relief when our youngest selected a college; that pretty much marked the end of the school-related decision-making for us.

Parents these days have more choices than ever. While choice is generally a good thing, at some point you have to wonder if too much choice can start to be a bad thing. How can a parent be expected to select the best for their child from all of the many offerings with which they are presented?

While I could write reams about the different schools—and maybe someday I will—I’ve been noticing a lot of construction-related activity around some of Redwood City’s schools lately. Right now there are three particular projects that I thought you might find interesting: the proposed Rocketship Charter campus, the under-construction Design Tech High School on Oracle’s campus and the forthcoming expansion of Sandpiper School at Sandpiper Park (in Redwood Shores). Each project is as different as the schools themselves, which together serve to illustrate the breadth of choices today’s parent faces.

Design Tech High School—also known as D.Tech or DTech—is a science- and technology-focused charter school that is authorized by the San Mateo Union High School District. D.Tech first opened its doors for the 2014/2015 school year, but as is the case with many new charter schools they didn’t have a campus of their own. Thus, for that first year they occupied available space on the Mills High School campus in Millbrae. The following year they relocated to Rollins Road in Burlingame, where they leased this space from the San Mateo County Office of Education:

The school is there today and will remain until their new campus is complete—which D.Tech hopes will be in time for the 2017/2018 school year.

That new campus is, as I previously mentioned, being built on land that is part of the Oracle campus. It seems that D.Tech will be the first public high school located on a corporate campus within the United States. And just as interesting to note is the fact that the state-of-the-art campus is being built by Oracle itself.

About six weeks ago I visited the site; at that time they were working on foundations. They have made a great deal of progress since that time. Here is what you see there today:

The school will be located at 275 Oracle Parkway, a street which forms a horseshoe shape around the Oracle campus, starting and ending at Marine Parkway. In the above photo the buildings to the right of the street are Oracle’s. The school will sit on a narrow strip of land squeezed between Oracle Parkway and Belmont Slough; previously this was the site of a surface parking lot and an undeveloped grass field. Given the restricted amount of space, the two-story building will contain classrooms and lab spaces but won’t include athletic facilities, food services, or space for large gatherings. Instead, the school will be allowed to use Oracle’s gym, convention center and kitchen. And while the school hopes to purchase a van to assist in transporting students and staff to and from the Belmont Caltrain station, students and staff will be able to take advantage of Oracle’s existing shuttles, which serve the San Carlos, Hillsdale and Millbrae Caltrain stations, and BART.

Being a high school, D.Tech serves grades 9-12. The new campus is being built to accommodate 550 students and 30 full-time staff members.

While the D.Tech charter school’s new campus project is moving right along, another charter school is having a much tougher time getting approval for their new campus. Jumping from the northwest end of Redwood City, where D.Tech is being built, to the southeastern end, at the corner of Charter and Bay streets, we come to the proposed site of Rocketship Education’s newest campus:

Rocketship Redwood City Prep is currently housed on the John F. Kennedy Middle School campus, but Rocketship hopes to convert the light-industrial building at 860 Charter into an elementary school suitable for some 480 students, and then move Redwood City Prep to this new campus. Plans call for the conversion of the existing one-story building (shown above, with the large “860” on the side) into a mix of classrooms, administrative offices, a cafeteria, a technology and tutoring center and a teacher’s lounge. The adjoining parking lot (surrounded by the black fence in the above picture) would serve as playground, parking area and drive-through student drop-off and pick-up area.

Here is the overall plan for the property:

[click the above image for a larger version]

As you can see, Rocketship is planning to make the most out of every inch of both the building and the adjacent parking lot. What really fascinates me about this plan is how they are going to make that existing parking lot into a space that serves multiple purposes. Here is a closer view of their design for that lot:

Note how the S-shaped driveway is marked? During the morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up this would be a one-way road by which parents would drop off and pick up their children. This helps to get the cars off of Charter and actually positions the cars right next to the building where the kids can enter and exit. Once school is in session, however, cars would be prevented from driving here and the space would be used as a playground—except for the parking areas you can see at the bottom of the rendering. Incidentally, those spaces at the very bottom would actually be stackers, allowing twenty cars to occupy an area that normally would hold ten.

Something else that fascinates me about this project is the fact that the building is on city land, whereas the parking lot is not—the parking lot lies within unincorporated San Mateo County. As you can imagine, that complicates the whole approval process somewhat.

What is holding up the project, however, is not the fact that it straddles the county line. No, the primary opposition is due to the fact that this school would be located in an industrial area. As well, the soil on which the building stands is contaminated: it is emitting toxic gasses into the air. While the school has plans for a passive mitigation system that they say will keep the air within the building safe to breathe, at the November 1 Planning Commission meeting where the project was discussed it was clear that the Commission was hesitant both about the location and the adequacy of the mitigation measures. As a result, the Commission voted 6-0 to “continue the item,” meaning that they aren’t saying either yes or no at this time but instead want more answers to the issues raised by the public and by the members of the Planning Commission. At a future meeting, then, the Planning Commission will once again be presented with the Rocketship Charter school project, this time with additional detail about why it is acceptable to locate an elementary school in the middle of an industrial area and how the school plans to ensure that students and staff are adequately protected from environmental hazards.

Rocketship Education’s mission is quite different from D.Tech’s: Rocketship’s aim is to construct “a non-profit network of public elementary charter schools serving primarily low-income students in neighborhoods where access to excellent schools is limited.” Both are charter schools, however, unlike the third school project I’ve been watching. Jumping back to Redwood Shores, we come to Sandpiper School. Sandpiper, which currently serves students in grades K-5, is looking to expand to a K-8 school. To do so Sandpiper needs to grow its campus so that it can accommodate another 220 students. Thus, they’ve proposed a project wherein most of those new students—about 180 of them—will be housed in a new L-shaped classroom building constructed on city-owned land; land that today is part of Sandpiper Park.

The above picture shows the traffic circle at the end of Egret Lane. The wooden fence encloses a pump station that would be untouched by this project. To the left and to the right of the pump station you can just see some of the existing buildings that make up Sandpiper School; these are actually behind the pump station, which, like the bits of grass to the left and right of the station, sits on a strip of parkland. The new two-story classroom building would be built on this parkland, stretching behind the pump station and then making an L to extend towards the street on the right side of the station.

Sandpiper School—which, I should note, is part of the Belmont-Redwood Shores Elementary School District—is already located on city-owned land, so the placement of this new building is not novel. As the project is currently structured, although the new building would be owned by the school, Redwood City would retain ownership of the land upon which it would stand.

The Sandpiper School project went to and was approved by the Planning Commission at their December 6 meeting. The project now needs to go before the City Council for final approval; that is tentatively scheduled for the January 23 City Council meeting.

Public or private? Charter or conventional public school? Specialized program (technology-focused, foreign-language immersion, or something else) or general education? On the one hand having so many choices allows you to tailor the educational experience to best suit your child. On the other hand, you have to learn about all your options and then choose. You parents may be spoiled for choice, but you have my sympathies. Fortunately, we have some wonderful schools here in Redwood City; you really can’t go far wrong.

One thought on “Spoiled for Choice

  1. It is overwhelming! We have a 4 year old and 20 month old and I feel like I need a specialty degree to figure out what school is best for our kids. I have started the research but it gives me a migraine. To complicate matters, some of the schools are lottery based meaning you apply and hope your number is called. At least one is lottery based AND your child has to “test in” (they have to score high enough on an aptitude entrance exam to even be considered for the lottery).
    All that and the schools are scored so very low. Then we have to determine why are the scores so low? Do the kids have the materials and technology to reach full potential? Will they have the school support needed to achieve all they can? Are the scores low because they are mixed with results of ESL students who need to learn the language before they can master the subjects? Are the schools any good?
    Knowing how expensive housing is in Redwood City it’s very frustrating to see how poorly the schools compare (at least on paper) to schools in neighboring towns that are equally costly.
    After one exhausting research session I turned to read about the school district I grew up in in Pleasanton (East Bay). Yep, you go to the school based on your neighborhood. Aah. Simplicity. I miss it!

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