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Classroom crunch in School District 27J forces administrators to get creative

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By Crystal Nelson

BRIGHTON — Growth in the Brighton, Commerce City and Thornton area is beginning to impact schools in School District 27J. Brighton High School and Prairie View High School have already reached their student capacity and have had to be creative in how they manage the growth.

On Dec. 16, School District 27J announced what changes Brighton High School and Prairie View Middle School would be making for the 2014-15 school year, as the schools are projected to surpass their capacities by more than 200 and 100 students, respectively.

According to the district’s planned changes for next year, Brighton High School will use eight classrooms at the nearby alternative school, Brighton Heritage Academy. The additional classrooms will provide space for about 200 students, but district officials are still determining which classes will be taught there.

BHS will also continue the practice of traveling teachers — teachers without designated classrooms — to allow for additional classroom space.

Traveling teachers will also be implemented at Prairie View High School, as will multiple lunch periods. Teachers will also begin to utilize teacher workrooms for planning time instead of their classrooms, which will free up additional classroom space.

According to district spokesman Kevin Denke, the continued capacity shortages will mean fewer students will be able to have full class schedules, including freshman and sophomores. Programs, such as reading intervention programs for students in need of additional help, will be scaled back and both schools will consider limiting open enrollment in the coming school year.

Preliminary enrollment numbers over the next five years show enrollment in the district will continue to increase. According to Planning Manager Joy Gerdom, the worst problems are anticipated to occur at the secondary level, where the middle schools could be 855 seats short by the 2018-19 school year and the high school could be 1,400 seats short. To accommodate growth at the elementary level, she said the district would also need two new elementary schools and to finish the second phase of Brantner Elementary School, which would increase the school’s capacity to 650 students.

“We will be more short of seats than we ever have been in the past and this growth, with new housing development is fueling that,” she said. “Had we passed the bond in 2008 when we approached voters the last time, we would have been prepared for this growth but because we didn’t get the support of the voters, we’re in a position that we can’t accommodate, essentially, and we’re going to have to use measures that we’ve never used before to accommodate the growth.”

She said the reason the district is growing so much is because the size of incoming grades are larger than they ever have been and that the area is beginning to see an upsurge in housing development. She said incoming kindergarten enrollment has exceeded 12th grade enrollment since 1991, but that it wasn’t until 2001 that the gab between those two grades began to grow impressively.

As student enrollment increases, administrators are having to get creative in how they utilize space for learning. When office staff at Turnberry Elementary School returned from summer break in July, they found out they had an unanticipated increase in enrollment of 224 students.

To better utilize space, Principal Brett Minne said the school had to give up its art room to make room for a kindergarten class. And although the students still receive art, the program is now dubbed art on a cart, where the teacher travels from classroom to classroom.

Next year, Minne is anticipating having upward of 900 students enrolled in the school and said administrators are already taking a look at classroom configurations.

“We’ve taken over the art room. Our next step will probably be — and everyone hates to hear it — but our next step will probably be the library,” he said, adding that they will also be looking at the guidelines for open enrollment, which gives parents the opportunity to send their child to the school of their choice.

“In the past, if you want to come to Turnberry, I approved every single one of them. I believe in the idea that if a customer wants to come to your place of business or your organization, you don’t want to turn customers away, but we’re in a spot now where we don’t have space for those people who want to come to Turnberry, so we’re taking a look at our open enrollments and will probably be making some changes to that,” he said.

Despite the increased enrollment at the school, Minne doesn’t believe it has had a direct impact on teacher instruction or student learning. He said the increase in enrollment has the biggest impact on the office staff.

“What we forget is the amount of relationships that you have to manage when you have so many people within a building,” he said. “At the beginning of the year, the office staff was just crushed with the normal needs that families have when school starts and we didn’t have enough staff to keep up with that.”

At Prairie View Middle School, enrollment is nearing capacity. The school currently has 823 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, and Principal Tom Delgado expects enrollment at the school to be about 12 to 14 students over capacity.

At 294 students, the sixth grade class is the fullest its ever been. The class is so large that 14 students don’t have lockers and are using milk crates instead and the average class size varies from 35 to 36 students.

Delgado said he recently met with Gerdom and will be working with school and district administrators to determine how they would like to handle the growth. Because the each class operates on its own schedule, Delgado would like to keep it in place as long as he can so students don’t loose valuable instruction time.

He said students would loose instruction time if the school had to implement a more typical schedule where classes change with a bell, add modular classrooms or add a fourth lunch period. Although Delgado strives to make things work at the school, he said it’s becoming harder and harder to come up with creative ways to make things work.

“Three years from now (Joy Gerdom is) projecting 1,010 students, which puts us 128 students over our building capacity,” he said. “That’s in three years and that’s going to be extremely difficult and then it keeps getting worse, I don’t want to look any further (ahead).”

The increasing enrollment in the district has reached a point where district officials would like to put a ballot measure before voters in November 2014. The district has developed a Quality Schools Initiative committee to help determine what that bond measure will be. The committee met Dec. 19 at the District Training Center.