With overcrowding still a problem in Seattle Public Schools, the district says it may have to displace some child-care programs to make space for more classrooms.
To make room for the surge of students over the past seven years, Seattle Public Schools is building and expanding dozens of schools and, in the meantime, has added hundreds of portables and pressed teacher lounges, cafeteria stages and other available spaces into service as classrooms.
Next fall, with enrollment expected to go up again and a state requirement to reduce class sizes in the early grades, the district is eyeing some rooms now occupied by before- and after-school programs, preschools and other programs housed in school buildings — some of which have been operating there for decades.
Even with five new and expanded schools scheduled to open next fall, the district estimates it will need 65 more classrooms than it has right now. It is considering reclaiming 19 now dedicated to child care.
The hope is that the child-care programs can find other spaces, either close by or elsewhere in their schools. They could be part-time users of gymnasiums, for example, or cafeterias.
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But there are no guarantees, and some child-care directors say if they’re moved from their dedicated spaces, they might have nowhere to go.
“There aren’t really any options right now,” said Susan Brown, president and CEO of Kids Co., which has worked with the district for 26 years and operates nonprofit child-care centers in nine Seattle schools.
The district is looking at other options, too, including buying even more portables and moving some of the existing ones. But the Seattle School Board is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a $6.5 million plan for the 2016-17 school year that includes possibly taking back spaces that outside groups have used for years.
“This really is something new,” School Board President Betty Patu said last week. “It never crossed my mind we would actually be at 52,000 kids. That is mind-boggling to me.”
After years of steady decline, the district’s enrollment began to increase around 2008, when the district had about 46,000 students. The increase blindsided district officials, who are still struggling to keep up with it.
Patu said she may recommend postponing the vote on the proposal, to give the community more time to share their views, and for board members to research how schools might be affected.
Flip Herndon, associate superintendent of facilities and operations, acknowledged that the changes could be a challenge, including for his youngest son, who goes to before- and after-school care at his school.
“While I understand the desire to have before- and aftercare on-site, the responsibility of Seattle Public Schools is to provide space for classroom instruction first and foremost,” Herndon said. “Hopefully we are able to find some other multiuse spaces within the buildings that might be used for child care, but it may not be possible at all locations.”
The district needs to find some way to make room for a projected 2.3 percent increase in the number of students next fall. About 28 new classrooms will be needed for those students, district officials say.
An additional 37 rooms, they say, are needed as the district starts to lower class sizes to 17 students per teacher from kindergarten through grade three, which will be required by the state starting in the 2017-18 school year. The district is taking steps ahead of time to prepare for when the requirement takes effect.
The $6.5 million used to fund the new rooms would come from two of the district’s existing capital levies and from a K-3 class-size reduction grant from the Legislature.
The district also is seeking an additional $475.3 million from the voters in next month’s special election to continue to address overcrowding issues. The new levy, called Buildings, Technology and Academics/Athletics (BTA) IV, is partly a replacement for BTA III, which expires this year, but will ask for $205.3 million more.
In the meantime, the district sent letters in October to the directors of the 69 child-care programs that operate in Seattle schools and occupy a room dedicated to their needs. The letters warned them of potential displacement.
It’s unclear what programs might have to move, though district officials say the majority will likely be in elementary schools. An initial list will be finalized at the end of the month, Herndon said.
Brown, of Kids Co., said the letter came as a shock.
“It’s hard when you have established a system of care for nearly 30 years, and literally in six months they (the district) could begin the wiping out of it,” she said.
At last week’s school-board meeting, board directors acknowledged the longtime partnerships with the child-care providers and asked whether the programs could be moved to other spaces, such as gyms or multipurpose rooms. Directors noted that they had received more than 60 emails from concerned parents in four days.
“We recognize that our academic goals for our students cannot be achieved by Seattle Public Schools alone,” director Stephan Blanford said at the meeting. “The partnerships are an essential element in us achieving our academic goals and even more important in us achieving our equity goals.”
But even if a gym or other room is open, Brown said the loss of a dedicated space might mean that her programs would have to lower the number of students served.
At Bryant Elementary School in Northeast Seattle, the LASER program provides before- and after-school care for 90 students in a dedicated child-care space, and it also already uses the gym and cafeteria.
The program is so popular that an additional 45 students are on a waiting list, said Sequoia Hartman, the executive director of LASER, which also has programs at Laurelhurst and Sand Point elementary schools.
“There’s still the option of providing care, but it’s going to look different,” Hartman said. “When you are sharing a space, it’s constantly setting it up and tearing it down. If you have a permanent space, it’s going to be a little bit nicer.”