Many of Everett’s schools are growing more crowded

MILL CREEK — Deborah Wrobel, the technology specialist teacher at Woodside Elementary School, used to have a classroom.

That was before the start of this school year, when record enrollment at Woodside meant that new classes were created, rooms shuffled, and Wrobel and another specialist teacher found themselves working without a room of their own.

In Wrobel’s case, that involves pushing a heavy metal cart laden with 30 Chromebooks from classroom to classroom.

“This is my classroom,” she said, pointing to the pack on her back while she gingerly steered the cart into Gaylynn Lynch’s 5th grade class, located in a portable building on campus. Lynch heads out as Wrobel begins her lesson.

Wrobel has been teaching at Woodside for 11 years, and while pushing a cart around might be second-nature to her — she used to work as a flight attendant — she recently pulled a muscle in her shoulder while learning how to maneuver the cart, and another teacher strained her back.

“You can’t strong-arm a 350-pound cart,” Wrobel said.

Wrobel’s experience is emblematic of a crowded school in a crowded district. Woodside’s enrollment as of Oct. 6 was 804, well over the 564 the school was built for.

Schools throughout the Everett Public Schools district face similar pressures, especially in the south end of the district where Woodside is.

These demographics will be the subject of a special school board meeting Wednesday night, where district staff will outline their crowding problem as part of a year-long series of meetings intended to identify possible solutions.

Of the district’s 17 elementary schools, 12 of them are over capacity — only the five in the northern part of the district which feed into Everett High School have any excess room.

The district’s high schools tell a similar story: Everett High in the north end has approximately 1,430 students, well under the school’s capacity of 1,876. Henry M. Jackson High in the south end, however, has nearly 2,100 students in a facility designed for 1,738.

The southern and central parts of the district — those which feed into Jackson High and Cascade High — are also where the district has installed 80 of its 84 portable classrooms.

“Portables are kind of the go-to solution because they impact people the least,” said Mike Gunn, Everett Public Schools’ executive director of facilities and operations.

“They don’t require boundary changes, they don’t require more busing, and students who live in the neighborhoods can continue to go to their neighborhood schools,” Gunn said.

The housing challenges will only become more pronounced in the coming years, Gunn said.

While the district has an estimated total population of 19,244 students, just under its total capacity of 19,411, by 2022, the entire district is expected to be at or over capacity at all grade levels. Even Everett High School is projected to have maxed out.

By then, the abundance of elementary school students will have turned into an abundance of high school students, and the district will need 31 more portables.

“It’s like a wave: the middle school wave follows the elementary, and the high school wave follows the middle,” Gunn said.

Portable classrooms are not cheap: to purchase, permit, connect to services and make ready for a class, each portable costs the district about $150,000, Gunn said.

Alternatives are to realign school attendance boundaries and increase busing, which each have drawbacks.

A fully loaded bus carrying 47 high school students costs about $45,000 a year to operate, Gunn said. To bus those students from the south end to the north, however, would essentially double the amount of time students are on buses: an hour each way.

And that doesn’t account for student and parent vehicles joining that migration in early morning or afternoon traffic.

The other solution, redrawing school boundaries, can be even more disruptive. Gunn compared the impact of a potential boundary shift to the district’s plan in early 2013 to change school start times in order to better accommodate buses. The community’s objections were so strong that the district dropped the plan.

Boundary shifts have a practical problem too: the line between Everett High and Cascade High is at Madison Street, about the geographic halfway point between the north and south edges of the district, and just a couple blocks north of Cascade High School itself.

The remaining option is to build more schools. Gunn doesn’t see that happening soon.

“At this point, we’re not expecting much help in terms of new facilities, absent a bond,” he said.

A bond issue is the elephant in the room.

In special elections this year, voters twice rejected a $259 million bond issue that, had it passed, would have funded new schools, among other capital projects.

Even running a new bond issue in February 2016, the earliest likely date, would mean that any new schools would open two or three years after that date, Gunn said. That’s assuming a new bond passes.

In the meantime, the answer has been more portables.

Woodside already had eight portable classrooms before this fall. Once the new school year started, two more had to be ordered.

An 11th portable building houses restrooms for both students and staff who spend their days in the portables, so they don’t need to run back to the main buildings between classes.

One of the new portables currently being installed will likely become Richard Burgess’ combined 4th and 5th grade classroom. On Monday while his class was elsewhere, Burgess was preparing for a science lesson, laying out zipper bags of materials on the floor of the hallway outside his current classroom door.

“It’s just easier to do this out here,” Burgess said.

His current room is a bit small — it was Wrobel’s former computer lab. The students don’t have a lot of cubby space, so they keep their jackets and backpacks at their desks. And the whiteboard is off to the side, making it difficult for some kids to see.

“This school wasn’t made for 800 students,” he said.

The computers from the lab are being stored in the cafeteria. Another displaced specialist teacher has cardboard boxes of materials stacked in another hallway.

Wrobel’s desk was moved into assistant principal Marguerite Moskat’s office.

Enrollment numbers are often a moving target. Woodside’s office manager Salli Smith pointed out that 17 apartment buildings are in the school’s service area.

Moskat said that as the school year started and projections were replaced with headcounts, the school had to adjust quickly.

“When we knew we were over enough, we knew we could create another split class,” Moskat said. That became Burgess’ 4th and 5th graders. Then another 2nd and 3rd grade split was also created.

As the portables are completed in the next few weeks, the expectation is those split classes will move in, and resource teachers like Wrobel will again get a room of their own.

“I get it. I see why I’m on a cart, and I’m making the best of it,” Wrobel said.

“But I’d like my own classroom because I’d like my own space, and when I go into other teachers’ classrooms I infringe on their space,” she added.

Woodside’s administration has been very supportive through all this, she said. “This is not their first choice, either.”

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

School Board meeting

Everett Public Schools is holding a special School Board study session to kick off its “Student Growth Management Process.” The meeting, which is open to the public, will be held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8, in the cafeteria of Woodside Elementary School, 17000 23rd Ave. SE, Bothell (its mailing address — the school is physically located closer to Mill Creek). The first meeting of several planned for the school year will start with a presentation to the board by district staff. The public will be able to speak with the board members in one-on-one conversations after the presentation.

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