Ty Swenson
A Seattle Public Schools public meeting on short term solutions to school overcrowding brought droves of parents out on Dec. 11. SPS staff has until Jan. 9 to formulate a plan and present it to the school board, and they are taking public comment now.

School district grapples with West Seattle capacity puzzles

It was only fitting that the community meeting on short term capacity solutions at Seattle Public Schools on Dec. 11 was filled beyond capacity, with parents concerned about overcrowding and student relocation resorting to standing or tracking down chairs in the hallways.

There are 49,677 students enrolled in Seattle Public Schools this year, and with projections of that number continuing to grow with no end in sight, capacity becomes a full time concern. New or expanded schools are in the theoretical pipeline to help ease the pressure, but their fruition is dependent on Seattle voters passing the BEX IV Levy in February, 2013.

In West Seattle, for example, passage of the BEX IV (building excellence) Levy would mean replacing Arbor Heights Elementary with a new, larger facility by 2018 and, sooner, moving Schmitz Park Elementary staff and students to a new school on the Genesee Hill site by 2015 (and in doing so, opening up the Schmitz Park building for another elementary use).

The situation citywide is no different in West Seattle, with many young families moving into the area, procreating and, eventually, sending their young ones off to school.

There is also the issue of transportation, as the school district works to have more students attend their geographically-assigned neighborhood school. SPS has been slowly transitioning to a new “Student Assignment Plan” since 2009. In the grand sense, according to SPS Asst. Superintendent of Operations Pegi McEvoy, the goal is to spend more money on classrooms and less on buses.

As SPS Operations spokesman Tom Redman puts it, “There are a number of school bus routes associated with the former Student Assignment Plan that have been kept in place and are transporting students to schools other than their neighborhood/assignment school. The board has voted to discontinue these grandfathered routes after the current (2012-2013) school year.”

Although the vote went through, Redman said they may need to keep certain bus routes alive (they call it “grandfather”) in 2013-14 to help spread student populations.

With student population growth and shrinking bus service on the horizon, the school board is looking at ways to solve short term capacity problems on the peninsula in the 2013-2014 school year, and they presented early alternatives at the Dec. 11 meeting held at SPS’s SODO headquarters in exchange for feedback from the crowd.

Potential solutions include adding portable classrooms (SPS said they hope to minimize these as a solution), increasing use of underutilized facilities, repurposing rooms for classroom space, opening closed facilities or leasing facilities, “grandfathering” bus routes so neighborhood schools are not overwhelmed, and relocating students to annex sites (such as the Louisa Boren Building on Delridge Way S.W., currently being partially used for the new Kindergarten -5th grade STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] School.)

What follows are the West Seattle schools on SPS’s radar for overcrowding easement, and their initial options for remedying the situation. To comment, email capacity@seattleschools.org.

*Transportation note: There will be mention of the need for additional homerooms if bus routes are cut. That means buses that were transporting students to a facility besides their neighborhood school could be shut down, forcing those kids to attend the local option which will pump up enrollment. A short term capacity option on the table in most of those cases is to “maintain transportation grandfathering,” meaning the bus routes are maintained to help spread student populations.

Denny Service Area
At Arbor Heights Elementary, SPS predicts the school will need two new homerooms to make room for enrollment growth. Options include using an underutilized homeroom (they say one is available now) and repurposing other space for a homeroom (while not specific, this space could be a teacher planning room, an art room, a music room, etc.).

As one parent put it at the Dec. 11 meeting, “I know it’s unusual to beg for a portable, but if it means keeping our music room …”

Highland Park Elementary needs one additional home room due to rising enrollment. Options include repurposing an area or moving the kindergarten program to annex space at the Boren building on Delridge (where the K-5 STEM option school is now).

Sanislo Elementary has no needs unless bus routes are eliminated, forcing more students to attend the school. If that happens, they’ll move into an available portable, repurpose space, or maintain transportation grandfathering to make room for one additional homeroom.

West Seattle Elementary will need two to three homerooms based on population growth, and an additional four if bus routes are eliminated. They can place portables, relocate kindergarten program to the Boren annex site, or maintain transportation grandfathering.

Madison Service Area
Pathfinder Elementary needs one more homeroom based on enrollment, and the only option on the table at this time is placing a portable on site.

Gatewood Elementary will need two homerooms if bus routes are cut, causing them to either repurpose space, place portables, or maintain transportation grandfathering.

Schmitz Park Elementary is expected to need 2-3 additional homerooms due to enrollment growth, with the same three options as Gatewood.

Middle School
Denny International Middle School is expected to need an additional three homerooms due to enrollment growth by either repurposing space or bringing in portables.

High School
Chief Sealth International Middle School is expected to need one additional homeroom, with only one option at this time: bring in a portable.

At the Dec. 11 meeting, frustration was in the air.

“Why are our children being treated as pawns?,” one father asked, followed by a mother expressing worry on how overcrowding could make it more difficult to evacuate children during a fire (McEvoy said SPS works closely with fire marshals to ensure evacuation procedures are solid).

McEvoy, asst. superintendent of operations as SPS, fielded the frustration in stride and reassured parents, no matter what solutions are decided upon, that instructional and academic needs will be met, that SPS will continue to strive for equity in school placement, and that core facilities (lunchrooms, bathrooms, etc.) will be sufficient to support additional portables.

A short term capacity plan from SPS staff will be presented to the school board on Jan. 9 and they are expected to vote on a short term strategy by Jan. 23. In the meantime, suggestions can be sent to capacity@seattleschools.org. For more information, including a feedback form you can fill out and send in, visit http://www.seattleschools.org/modules/cms/pages.phtml?pageid=229309

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