This fall we welcomed 780 more students into our district. Our September 2013 enrollment is 26,089, up from 25,309 at this same time last year. Our district has experienced consistent growth in recent years, and the growth is happening all across the district. The growth is very visible in some neighborhoods, as new housing developments crop up. Growth is a positive indicator of the economic upturn in the region, as well as an indicator that our cities and school district are desirable places to live and raise families. However, with growth come questions regarding the district’s plans to accommodate additional students. This month, I want to take the opportunity to provide more information to help parents understand our planning processes and the options we have available to us as a district.
A key piece of the planning process is enrollment projections. Over the last 10-12 years, our enrollment projections have become extremely accurate. Since the year 2000, the projections in our six-year Capital Facilities Plan have ranged from 97% to 103% of actual enrollment. The range in the last few years has been from 99% to 101%. While it’s much harder to predict out enrollment in the ten-year and longer range, based on a six-year timeframe, we are very confident of our projections.
Therefore, when we talk about the fact that we expect about 4,000 more students to enroll in our district in the next eight years, we are confident in that number. We need to plan for facility capacity accordingly.
Each of our school buildings has a “permanent capacity,” or the number of students that the building was built to hold, plus space for students in programs such as Special Education, Safety Net, and English Language Learners (ELL). Some schools also house district programs such as Quest and Preschool. Schools also often have classroom spaces that are used for computer labs, and spaces at the elementary level set aside for music or as an art/science room. For example, an elementary school built with 25 classrooms may have five or even more of them dedicated for uses other than general education classes.
It has been the long standing philosophy in our district that students attend their neighborhood school whenever possible. Therefore, when enrollment at a school begins to grow, spaces such as computer labs can be converted to regular classroom space. Given that students in our elementary schools have access to netbooks, and students in our secondary schools are issued netbooks or laptops, converting computer labs space to regular classroom space is less impactful.
We also look at other ways to create space. We may move district programs to another school location with more room. We often need to "overflow" Kindergarten students to another nearby school. At our middle and high schools, teachers may use another space for their planning, allowing that classroom to be used for teaching space all throughout the day. We also rely on portable classrooms to house students. Many of our schools have portables on site and these spaces are figured into the school’s total capacity. At times we add more portables to a site in order to house students. Portables are added when feasible given the site and the funds to acquire and/or move them.
At times, a school grows to the point where we have exhausted all of the options noted above. For example, last year Rosa Parks had grown to nearly 800 students. There were 10 portables on the site, with no option to add more. In that instance, there was capacity at nearby Wilder, so the district completed a temporary boundary adjustment. This resulted in entire neighborhoods of students being shifted to Wilder Elementary. This year, due to continued growth, both schools are now at capacity. All across the district we have numbers of schools at or over their permanent or total capacity.
At this point you may be asking, "If the district's enrollment projections are so accurate, why do we have schools at or over capacity?" In 2010 the district ran a bond measure that unfortunately did not pass. Had that measure passed, we would have had two additional elementary schools open by now. We are now back on our regular eight-year bond cycle. We will be running a bond, an Educational Programs and Operations levy, and a Capital Projects levy in February 2014. The bond measure includes funding for new schools needed to accommodate growth in the district, as well as funding to continue our school modernization program.
While the long-term plan to house students is to build new schools, we will also need to develop short-term plans to house students in those schools that cannot sustain until new schools open and new boundaries are drawn. Right now we are analyzing capacity issues across the district and we are determining which schools will require short-term measures to mitigate capacity issues. We will be engaging parents in those schools that are impacted.
Our enrollment growth is both a challenge and a testament to the fact that families are attracted to our area and to our schools. We welcome our new students and new families and we are committed to ensuring safe and innovative learning environments for all of our students across the district.
Dr. Traci Pierce
Lake Washington School District