Enrollment in Schools

During my four years at Wilson, there have been many adjustments to the school. One particular change that has become almost shockingly apparent is the density of students. The hallways are more cluttered during passing period and lunch, and the stairways seem to serve as bottlenecks full of bodies. The reason behind this population growth is fairly simple: Portland is a hot spot to live, which has led to a steady influx of new residents. But I’m not here to tackle the question of why Wilson’s enrollment is growing, I want to talk about the future of our school in light of this development and explore the problems that could arise because of it. These issues are not just specific to Wilson however. All of the PPS high schools are being affected or will be affected by this rapid growth in enrollment.

The largest problem to emerge from the increasing enrollment is that of PPS high school’s infrastructure. While it is true that some schools, like Jefferson, may be experiencing under-enrollment, for most schools the issue of overcrowding is looming in the minds of the staff and is already a reality at some schools. Take Lincoln High School. Lincoln is one of the smallest buildings in PPS but has the largest enrollment of any other school. At 1,703 students, Lincoln has more students than the building can handle. For a time, some students at Lincoln were required to walk about ten minutes to a church for some classes. This problem was recently alleviated with the addition of modulars.

A recent addition to Wilson’s staff, Joe Minato, spent three years teaching at Lincoln. According to him, there is almost no storage space for Lincoln teachers. This can be especially trying, particularly for those who teach science, a course dependent on the use of various equipment. “ I rented, with my own money, a private storage area and bought my own supplies,” said Minato. Most days Minato was required to carry his school materials to and from work on the bus. Even harder to come by for teachers is personal space. Because every classroom in the building is being used every period of the day, teachers are forced to find somewhere else to spend their prep period. “I found a little-hidden area the janitors used under some stairs, and I would set up on the floor and grade my papers,” said Minato. According to him, without a prep period in their own classroom, teachers are without quiet time to think, away from the students.  “It’s very valuable to have room to work… It’s good to have part of the day for quiet to think, to gather your thoughts. I think you become a better teacher,” said Minato. One might think that the teacher’s problems do not affect the students; however, that is far from accurate. A stress-free environment for teachers means they are more capable of serving the students. “I can see how much calmer I am [at Wilson]; how much more effective and efficient I am; how much easier it is to work with students that need special help,” said Minato.

As a student at Wilson, I thought that the problems at Lincoln are not significant to me or the others here, but what is happening at Lincoln foreshadows Wilson’s future. Wilson is projected to have about 1700 to 1800 students enrolled by 2020, an increase of about 300 to 400 students. While Wilson has the space for the increased student body, some aspects that have unfolded at Lincoln are very likely to be the case here in the near future. “I think 1800 is totally manageable for the size of this building, from a student perspective, but I think the adult comfort will start to be impacted,” said Wilson principal Brian Chatard. As the enrollment rises, The school will have to bring in more teachers to accommodate higher enrollment. Therefore more and more teachers will have to accept the reality of sharing classrooms with other teachers and having to find a new place to spend their prep period. It is up to Chatard to handle moving teachers around and choosing which teachers will share classrooms. The hardest part about this job for Chatard is having to deal with the reactions of those teachers who will be displaced. “I already know that people aren’t easy to change,” said Chatard.

Some teachers like Ms. Jackson, Ms. Cuatt, and Mr. Wells already have to share classrooms. Having to be constantly mobile and not being able to have their own space has affected these teachers in various ways. On the plus side, Mr. Wells, who is in the health department, benefits from being able to work closely with the other health teachers. “That collaboration aspect of being able to work with other teachers is really helpful,” said Wells. For teachers like Ms. Jackson, not having her own space has made it significantly more difficult to tailor her room for her student’s classes. “I think it’s just really important to create an environment for your students and for your classes,” said Jackson. For teachers like Cuatt, having to move from room to room on a cart has made it harder for her to remember her materials for class. But the biggest issue for all three has been students not being able to find them during tutor time or lunch, when they need help for class or if they just need a safe space to be.

The enrollment problems are further complicated by PPS’s aging infrastructure. This was recently made clear with the lead situation at this school and many others in PPS. “Money has not gone to fix buildings for a long time, so we have the junkiest schools, the most environmentally risky schools, the most earthquake-prone damage portfolio,” said Chatard.

The reason that our buildings are not getting funded is much bigger than I could have anticipated. A lot of it boils down to taxes. Measure 5, passed in 1990, limited Oregon’s property taxes and in turn allocated funding of schools to the state government, as opposed to local governments. Also, Oregon has no sales tax, a tax that is generally constant and resistant, which makes our revenue stream more prone to wild fluctuations. Without a reliable and steady source of funding, the infrastructure of schools suffer.

There was a plan to aid in the rebuilding of schools in the PPS district, a school-rebuilding bond to be voted in this November; however, the PPS board decided to delay a vote for that bond until this May, a decision that prompted the walk-out at Lincoln earlier this school year. The reason for delay comes down to environmental problems in our schools. The board deemed it necessary to formulate a more detailed plan in order to gauge how much would be needed to fix these potentially health threatening problems, like asbestos in the ceilings and lead in the water.

While trying to fix those problems is a good start, according to Chatard, “the truth of the matter is that coming up with a remediation, like trying to fix all the lead problems, there isn’t ever going to be enough money.”  The only way that the problem is going to be fixed is through the complete remodeling of several school buildings in PPS. As for dealing with the lead in our water right now, Chatard foresees the need for water coolers in the school, as a substitute for the fountains, for many more years to come. Remodeling the schools could only be achieved through the school rebuilding bond, but because the board moved the bond vote to May, its chances of passing have decreased. The original plan was to have the vote during the presidential election when there is a large voter turnout. In Oregon, however, there is not much cause for voting in May, so it’s possible that an essential bond for schools will be ignored by voters. For now, PPS and the students must wait to see if the bond will pass, leaving PPS scrambling for a new solution to this serious problem.  

There is a lot of talk about what could be done to alleviate the stress of high enrollment for some schools like Lincoln. There has been debate over moving boundaries around to help bring more students from overcrowded areas, like Lincoln, to under-enrolled schools like Jefferson or Roosevelt, “In my opinion, that would be the right thing to do. We have space over there. We have a brand new school, Roosevelt, [that] has just been remodeled,” said Oscar Gilson, The director of all PPS high schools, though his official title is college and career readiness senior director. There is even speculation of re-opening Jackson Middle School as a high school or even Marshall in the future. Those are drastic measures, but they may be needed in the years to come. But for now, at Wilson, there is no need for panic. Yes, there will be changes to the school in the future due to high enrollment, but Wilson and its staff are more than capable of enduring.

Words by Aidan Ormond