Crowded schools vex Clark County districts

Space, funding present obstacles to administrators facing growing student populations

By Justin Runquist, Columbian small cities reporter

Published:

 
photoClick to enlarge.

When lunchtime starts at Battle Ground High School, chaos ensues.

Hundreds of students rush the halls on their way to the cafeteria, but few actually eat there. Most park themselves on benches along the school's sprawling hallways, and many students eat outside or head to their cars to grab a meal off campus.

The students are allowed to leave or spread throughout the building for good reason, Assistant Superintendent MaryBeth Lynn said.

"There's no way all those kids could fit in this nice, beautiful cafeteria that we have," Lynn said. "If you look at Battle Ground High School now, they're bursting at the seams."

The school is one of many throughout Clark County's small cities that has already run out of space as projections show continuous growth in student enrollment over the next several years. The trend has forced district officials to carefully weigh their options: build more schools or expand existing facilities where there's still room to grow.

Looking to address the issue in the next few years, school boards are considering several difficult strategies, including modifying district boundaries or instructional models and expanding class sizes, despite state pressure to shrink student-to-teacher ratios for kindergarten through third grade. Some schools have applied temporary fixes by recently adding more portable classrooms.

Battle Ground district

In the past two school years, Battle Ground has been one of the fastest growing districts in the state. In recent years, the district has added 110 portable classrooms among 12 of its 16 schools to accommodate burgeoning student enrollment until the finances for new schools are available.

This year, the district had enough space for about 13,000 students at its schools, but only after adding 32 classrooms, Lynn said. Those additions included two new portable classrooms for the high school, bringing the campus's portable classroom tally to 11, she said.

About 7 percent of the district's students take classes in portables. Unless a few new schools are added to the mix in the next three years, administrators expect that figure to double, leaving more than 2,000 students in portable classrooms by 2017.

The most pressing areas of need are at the elementary and high schools, where administrators are looking to add two new primary schools and one high school by 2017 as a number of new subdivisions in Battle Ground continue to take shape. The district owns several undeveloped properties in Vancouver and Amboy that have been on reserve for new schools in the coming years.

Washougal district

A similar situation has been unfolding in Washougal, where administrators project slow and steady growth for the next decade, though a few schools are already overflowing with students.

Jemtegaard Middle School was designed for 320 students, but the student population has ballooned to 480. The district added nine portables to the campus, but there's no more room to expand, Facilities Director Joe Steinbrenner said.

"A third of our (Jemtegaard) students are in portables," he said.

With 613 students, Gause Elementary School is also more than 100 students too full, Steinbrenner said. The school already has six portables but no more room to add any others.

"We're over building capacity and we're at portable capacity," he said. "There are some options, but that's a challenging school to expand there."

Administrators are exploring several solutions for Gause, but none would necessarily be easy for the community to stomach, Steinbrenner said. For instance, they could add a second story to the school or convert the atrium in the center of the building into classroom space.

The district recently held a town hall meeting with parents to ask how they'd like to address the need for more space. Next month, the facilities staff will make a recommendation to Superintendent Dawn Tarzian about whether to build any new schools or expand the existing facilities, Steinbrenner said.

Camas district

The Camas School District dealt with its own growing pains several years ago. Between 1984 and 2007, the district's enrollment climbed by an average annual rate of 4.3 percent, compared to 3.1 percent each year countywide.

In that time frame, enrollment at Camas schools more than doubled. This spring, the district has 6,376 students and Superintendent Mike Nerland said he expects to see steady growth for years to come.

Seven years ago, Camas voters approved a $90 million school construction bond to relieve overcrowding. With that and state and local matching funds, the district financed a number of expansion and remodel projects, including the construction of two new elementary schools and Hayes Freedom, an alternative high school.

But even with the added space, Camas schools still have more than 20 portable classrooms this year. Heading into the fall, a committee made up of parents and staff will study the district's facility and programming needs and present its findings to the school board, Nerland said.

Ridgefield, Woodland districts

Ridgefield schools reached their enrollment limit several years ago, when portables accounted for 28 percent of the district's classroom space. Then, after two decades of failing to ramp up funding for expansion projects, voters approved a $47 million construction bond in 2012 to address problems with overcrowding, infrastructure and safety.

The bond translated into new classrooms, cafeterias, gyms, and a rebuilt football field next to Ridgefield High School. More projects could be in the mix for the next several years as city leaders anticipate spikes in development for housing and business.

In Woodland, construction began last year on a new high school on Dike Access Road. Two years ago, voters approved a $52.8 million bond to replace the current high school, which was built in 1953 for a much smaller student population.

Since 2005, enrollment has hovered around or stayed well above 600 students at Woodland High School.

The new campus — designed to accommodate 900 students and 300 more if portables are added — is slated to open by fall 2015.