MILL CREEK — As principal Dave Peters wanders the halls and peers out toward the 17 portables at Henry M. Jackson High School, the former math teacher runs equations through his head.
Many are measurements. As in, how to subdivide office space for more staff and where the heck to place more portables. (The tennis courts are a likely destination for the latter.)
Peters pauses at a second-floor railing that overlooks a large addition to the original cafeteria.
Not that many years ago, the newer dining area was a courtyard with trees and picnic tables. Replacing the peaceful setting with tiles and windows was a concession to growth.
Students sit shoulder to shoulder as they eat, chat and scroll on their smartphones.
Peters offers another calculation and a grimace. If the school eventually has to go to three lunch periods, students could lose five minutes of instruction a day. Over the course of a school year, they would be shorted three weeks of learning.
Running a school is much more than a math problem. Peters often wonders: “How do you make a big school feel smaller?”
It is a challenge he can expect for a while. The Everett district has never had more students. Enrollment topped 20,000 in a recent headcount. With rapid growth in the south end, 1,600 more students are projected within the decade. Relief at Jackson could come with a February bond proposal that includes building a fourth large high school.
The Northshore School District is adding students at an even faster clip. Enrollment this fall alone jumped by 700, more than an elementary school’s worth of growth. Like Everett and Arlington, Northshore has a bond measure on next month’s ballot. All told, the three districts are seeking more than $700 million for construction projects.
In Darrington, Buck Marsh faces a different enrollment conundrum. He’s superintendent of a district where the student body has been shrinking for years. In the late 1990s, the timber town had 650 students. Now, there are just over 400.
Marsh, with his own four children enrolled in Darrington, is the dad of roughly 1 percent of the student body. In small districts, a few families can move the needle. Such was the case for the high school football team, which Marsh coached last fall.
Its season ended early, seven weeks in. The team started with 19 players and ended with 12. Two moved away and others were injured or quit.
Enrollment isn’t evenly spread across grades. One class can be double the size of the next. Recent state numbers count 40 seventh- and 24 eighth-grade students. There are several split classes each year, where grades share a room and a teacher.
Though there are financial challenges of low enrollment, Marsh describes a coziness in small numbers. He knows nearly every student by name.
Still, he hopes to see enrollment bounce back. Darrington isn’t getting subdivisions, but new homes are going up.
“I think we’re getting really close to a plateau, if we’re not there yet,” he said.
Predicting enrollment is an inexact, yet high-stakes science: schools receive thousands of dollars per student. Guess too high and risk red ink. Guess too low and face overcrowded classrooms, 13th-hour hires and upset parents.
Housing, birth rates, population trends and jobs all figure into the forecasts.
In the early 2000s, the north and east parts of the county were growing as young couples looked for property they could afford, even if it meant longer commutes. Enrollment was largely stagnant to the south and west. Then the economy soured and the housing bubble burst.
Since the recession, several districts have lost substantial numbers of students, among them Marysville, Stanwood-Camano, Granite Falls and Sultan. Others — Monroe, Lakewood, Edmonds and Arlington — lost fewer students or held steady, when numbers from a decade ago are compared with today.
Declining enrollment patterns from the mid- to late-2000s have reversed in most local districts as the region emerges from the recession. The housing market has exploded in areas of south Snohomish County with buildable land. Developments that were dormant for years seemingly sprang up overnight.
In the Northshore district in 2016 and 2017 combined, there were more than 1,200 newly built single family homes sold. More than 1,700 single family homes and 1,800 multi-family homes are in the pipeline or actively for sale in 2018.
At the same time, the grandchildren of Baby Boomers, those post-World War II children born between 1946 and 1964, are now school age. The average number of births in Snohomish County from 1996 to 2005 was 8,466. Between 2006 and 2015, it rose to 9,352. In 2016, there were 10,045 births.
Demographer Les Kendrick is a walking, talking almanac of enrollment trends. Many school districts tap into his expertise for long-term projections to guide budgets and capital planning.
The enrollment surge in south Snohomish County was expected, he said. His crystal ball “is kind of fuzzy” when he talks about the north.
“This has been really surprising to see that the growth hasn’t reached the outlying areas of the county,” he said. “It’s kind of a new world for me. You normally expect those areas to recover, but they just haven’t recovered as fast.”
That could change as housing prices rise and young families look for homes farther out that they can afford.
Enrollment ebbs and flows from district to district and over time.
It peaked in 1970 at 28,076 in the Edmonds School District and bottomed out in 1985 at 16,118. It has been stable in recent years. The October K-12 head count was 20,882.
Overall head counts don’t tell the entire story. Beyond the bottom line are surprising trends.
Enrollment in the Mukilteo School District grew during the recession largely due to its immigrant population. The number of students learning English as a second language increased from 718 in 2000 to nearly 3,000 by 2016.
Northshore, which straddles King and Snohomish counties, has added more than 2,600 students since 2010, with another 1,700 projected over the next six years. Many are in south Snohomish County.
Its $275 million bond proposal on the Feb. 13 ballot includes a new elementary school built for 500 students on a district-owned site near Maltby. The 33 acres also could someday house a middle school.
The proposal also includes adding 30 classrooms to Skyview Middle and Canyon Creek Elementary schools.
In September, the district opened North Creek High School along 35th Avenue SE north of Bothell.
“Every day I am out visiting schools and we really try to choose wisely the time we go … because of the traffic and the growth,” Northshore Superintendent Michelle Reid said. “For us to keep up with growth, we are going to have to keep building schools.”
To the north
Near the north end of Snohomish County, some districts are bracing for enrollment jumps, while others are simply hoping to level off after years of decline.
Arlington is poised to grow. Administrators are talking about the upcoming need for a fifth elementary even as they seek money to build a new middle school and add to the high school.
The district is asking voters for $107.5 million. Much of the money would go toward a new Post Middle School and another eight classrooms and technology and arts workshop at Arlington High School, along with district-wide security upgrades.
The district has seen fairly steady enrollment but a leap is expected. Brian Lewis, the district’s executive director of operations, recently spoke with the sales manager of an 84-unit development and was told that every home sold in three days.
Arlington High is anticipating 323 more students by 2022, nudging the total to just over 1,800 for grades 9 to 12, Lewis said. By 2025, the district is expecting another 400 elementary and 200 middle school students.
The plan is to add up to 26 portables at elementaries, until there are enough students for another school, Lewis said. The district would use state matching money, if its bond passes, to buy land for an elementary.
While Arlington is anticipating a surge in enrollment, neighboring Marysville, like Darrington, is hoping to hit a plateau.
Many local districts saw enrollment drop during the recession, said Mike Sullivan, executive director of finance and operations for Marysville schools.
When other districts leveled out or grew, Marysville continued to lose students. The decline has averaged 100 per year. Since 2007-08, there’s been one year when enrollment increased, by 42 students, Sullivan said.
The housing market has been busy in and around Marysville, but not necessarily inside school district boundaries. Large developments are at the north end, where students go to Lakewood or Arlington, or south, near Lake Stevens. There also are students who opt to attend Lakewood or Arlington because they live closer to those schools, Sullivan said. Lake Stevens has refused out-of-district transfers from Marysville and elsewhere because it is one of the fastest-growing districts in the county, going from about 7,700 to nearly 8,800 in the last 10 years. A new elementary is under construction there.
The biggest impact of declining enrollment tends to be staffing levels, Sullivan said. According to state numbers, there were 637 classroom teachers in Marysville in 2006-07, down to 578 in 2016-17. Most cuts have been made through attrition, Sullivan said.
There has been hiring, too. With state funding for smaller K-3 classes, the district brought on 22 teachers.
At the elementary level, enrollment finally seems to have stabilized. Middle school is next, then high school, Sullivan said. By 2021, the decline may stop.
Back at Jackson High, principal Peters is eager to learn the results of February’s special election.
The big ticket item for Everett, at $216 million, is a fourth large high school, which would be built in the district’s south end about 1.5 miles from Northshore’s new North Creek High. Another $38 million would add 36 classrooms district-wide to reduce class sizes.
The bond measure also would go to renovate portions of Cascade, Everett and Jackson high schools to provide the chance for students to explore various professions. Each school would have a theme: Cascade would offer programs in aerospace and advanced manufacturing; Everett, medical and health careers; Jackson, information and communication technology. The new school would offer programs in energy and other sciences and technologies.
For now, Peters looks longingly at the portables at nearby Heatherwood Middle School. In the past, Jackson could borrow a few classrooms. These days, they can use just one, for the school’s robotics team. Heatherwood no longer has any vacancies.
He continues to search for ways to make his big school seem smaller, often engaging in conversations with students.
As lunch ends, he holds a door open for hundreds of teens who stream out of the cafeteria. One girl stops. She and the principal talk for a minute in Spanish.
She laughs, tells him no and heads off to class.
Peters explains that he asked her if she likes his hair today. The principal is bald.
The former math teacher has one more equation to solve.
Each day he tries to learn the names and faces of 10 more students.
Over the course of the year, he hopes to have 1,800 in his memory bank.
He’ll still be 400 short in June.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bonds on the ballot
Everett, Northshore and Arlington each expect to see local tax rates drop in 2019 if bonds and levies pass in the Feb. 13 election. Meanwhile, state taxes for schools are going up this year. Those state dollars are not for construction projects. While levies need a simple majority, bonds require more than 60 percent of the vote to pass.
Everett: $330.6 million. Of that, $216.8 million would go toward a new high school. Other projects would include updates at other high schools, more classrooms at many schools and buying land for another elementary. The district estimates homeowners would pay $4.89 per $1,000 assessed value in total local school taxes in 2019, including the bond and a programs and operations levy.
Northshore: $275 million. Projects would include a new elementary on Maltby Road, a 30-classroom building at Skyview Middle and Canyon Creek Elementary schools and a classroom and performing arts building at Inglemoor High School. The district estimates homeowners would pay $3.89 per $1,000 assessed value in total local school taxes in 2019, including the bond and levies for programs, operations and technology.
Arlington: $107.5 million. Of that, $72 million would go toward replacing Post Middle School. Other projects would include another eight classrooms and a technology and arts workshop at Arlington High School, and electronic locks, cameras and secure entrances at all schools. The district estimates homeowners would pay $3.74 per $1,000 assessed value in total local school taxes in 2019, including the bond and an existing maintenance and operations levy.