Innovative ideas blossom at session on JHS overcrowding

Parents offer options to offset defeat of bond measure
By Paul Archipley | May 31, 2018

Plenty of out-of-the-box thinking has produced some novel ideas on how to solve overcrowding at Henry M. Jackson High School.

Why not offer more online courses? How about two-story portables? Run a new bond measure for a less expensive middle school, then move the Heatherwood students out and Jackson high schoolers in.

About 150 concerned parents had crowded into the Jackson cafeteria Tuesday to participate in a “High School Growth Community Conversation.”

Jackson students and parents who are already coping with difficult overcrowding with the addition of 17 portable classrooms on campus were motivated to find a solution.

If no other changes are made, projected enrollment increases will force the district to add another 13 portables by 2023. Jackson, designed to accommodate 1,500 students, is bulging at the seams with more than 2,100. It’s projected to top 2,300 in the next four years.

With the defeat in February of a bond proposal to build a new high school – the 55.4 percent “yes” vote was just over 4 percent shy of the required 60 percent supermajority – school officials began looking at alternatives.

Sometime down the road, the district is likely to float another bond. But even if it were to pass, officials say it takes about four years to design, receive permits, build, hire staff and open a new school.

The district needs to act in the meantime to accommodate projected growth. District-wide, officials expect high school enrollment to increase by about 800 students by 2023. Nearly half of those students would live within Jackson’s current boundaries where the bulk of new housing will be built.

The school board decided it needed to open the conversation on the prospect of a new campus.

School officials presented three options on Tuesday night:

A) Change boundaries and transport students to Cascade or Everett high schools. Under this scenario, about 375 Jackson students would be bused to Cascade, and the same number of Cascade students would be bused to Everett. That would even out the number of students at each of the three high schools;

B) Add more portables and leave boundaries unchanged. This proposal is attractive to some parents who moved to Mill Creek in large part because of the quality of its schools. But more classrooms on the Jackson campus will further stress the already overused cafeteria, gym, library, restrooms and other central facilities, and they would have to put those new portables on a parking lot, sports field, tennis courts or other needed space;

C) Modify school schedules. This proposal could mean year-round school, two shifts (morning and afternoon) of classes, staggered starts or similar scheduling changes that, when tried in other school districts, have created unintended educational and social problems.

Following a presentation on the options, participants were invited to sit down at one of numerous tables around the room for one-on-one conversations with staff to learn more and offer ideas.

District staff said they are prepared to compile the input, present it to the school board and make their recommendations on June 19 for a preferred option. Further public comments will be invited on the preferred option, with the board expected to make a decision in September.

Supt. Gary Cohn joined nearly two-dozen other district employees and school board members at the session. The group agreed to keep an open mind to new ideas.

“This was not intended to be a ranking or rating activity,” Dr. Cohn said of the district’s three options. “We wanted to cast a broad net and collect as many people’s ideas as we could.”

And collect they did. Among the district’s three options, none appeared to win overall support.

Some parents supported boundary changes – as long as it didn’t affect their family. Others were concerned with options that jeopardized the safety of students being bused long distances. Others were focused on negative impacts on home values.

Cedar Wood principal David Jones was seated at a table of parents who were worried about more portables.

“Portables don’t feel as safe, especially in the current climate in the country,” Jones said some participants told him.

Jackson Assistant Principal Michelle Renee heard a similar theme, saying parents worry that children and teachers in portables could be “sitting ducks.”

And despite some concerns about potential negative impacts, some participants were open to learning more about schedule shifting.

Daniel Natividad, an assistant principal at Cedar Wood, said some participants thought “staggered schedules are a new idea worth exploring.”

But the “out of the box” proposals could prompt the district to expand its options list.

In addition to the alternatives presented by the district, a few parents proposed repurposing existing facilities, such as the old Safeway store on Bothell-Everett Highway; creating different magnet programs, such as STEM courses, at each of the three high schools to encourage voluntary moves by students; collaborating with local colleges to use some of their facilities when available; or requiring only the newest residents who haven’t established relationships with their neighborhood schools to send their children to schools outside Mill Creek.

At least three proposals won scattered applause. One parent suggested developers weren’t ponying up enough to cover the costs for new schools. Another said the state should be funding new schools, rather than local districts having to shoulder the burden.

And a third said Dr. Cohn should be granted ultimate authority to determine whether a new housing development could proceed, depending on school capacity in that neighborhood.

While the school board will have plenty of options to consider, it appeared, based on the diversity of comments, that no one option would please everybody.

Jackson principal Dave Peters assured parents that, no matter how crowded the school gets, students will be welcome.

“Regardless how this turns out, we’ll welcome kids here,” Peters said. “Whatever it takes.”

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