McGee Elementary School didn't have enough students living nearby to fill its classrooms when it opened in west Pasco more than 30 years ago.
Principal Robin Hay said students were bused to the school so it wouldn't be so empty. Today, almost half of the school's 967 students are housed in portable classrooms, and traffic before and after school clogs the school's parking lot and adjacent streets.
"You don't want to be here when the bell rings," Hay said.
The Pasco School District already has 662 more students two days into the school year compared with the same time last year. And that's despite most of the district's schools already being overcrowded, with several schools enrolling about twice as many students as they were initially built to hold.
School and district administrators said the overcrowding isn't ideal but thanks to careful planning, precise scheduling and supportive families and staff, students are getting the education they need.
"You always get thrown some curves but you want to anticipate them as much as you can," said John Morgan, assistant superintendent for operations.
McGee has 18 portable classrooms -- two of them new this year, Hay said. Even so, the school usually has to send between 30 and 40 of its kindergartners to other Pasco schools because there isn't enough space.
Hay said schoolwide assemblies aren't possible because of the number of students and the lack of space in the gym. Instead, students are split into two groups. And during every minute of the lunch period, a different classroom is going through the lunch line.
Principal Dominique Dennis at McLoughlin Middle School said her 1,656-student school is highly efficient, from the five lines serving students at lunch to the 42 school buses that take the students home each day.
"McLoughlin runs like a machine," she said.
Like McGee, though, Dennis said her school has had to add space to make sure there are enough classrooms. It has 32 portable classrooms clustered behind the main building, nicknamed Panther Village. A new 3,000-square-foot portable is in use this year as a second gym and will be used primarily for cardio activities.
Morgan said the demands of a burgeoning enrollment highlight the importance of the $46.8 million bond approved by voters in February that will pay for three new elementary schools. But the district has taken pains to accommodate the growth and make ends meet.
The number of additional portable classrooms needed each school year is planned for months in advance. Morgan said he and other district officials regularly review available buildings in the community and assess them as possible homes for programs in need of space. The important issue is weighing the availability of and need for space and the cost to provide it.
It's also not just classrooms but, like at McLoughlin, the need for gym space or cafeteria seating, such as at Mark Twain Elementary School, which has a portable cafeteria. The district also has to factor in demand on food services, printing services and maintenance crews.
"It all is a product that has to gel together to get the job done," Morgan said.
Hay said there are some difficulties with having such a crowded school, such as students not getting as much time for music and art, and teachers and administrators struggling to find time to answer parent questions. But McGee has been named a state School of Distinction four years running for improving test scores and students feel they belong.
"When it goes smoothly, kids can focus on learning," she said.
Dennis said the key at McLoughlin has been to have schools within schools. Each student spends a lot of time with two homeroom teachers and this helps to create relationships to provide encouragement and support, she said.
"Nobody feels lost," she said. "It's huge but it works."
Districts see enrollment jump
The Pasco School District saw another jump in student enrollment Wednesday, but so did other Tri-City districts and schools in Hermiston.
Pasco reported having 15,118 students on the second day of classes, 662 more than it had on the same day last year.
The Richland School District reported having 11,630 students on Wednesday, the first day of school. That's 310 more students than it had on the first day last year.
The Kennewick School District reported a preliminary enrollment of 16,778 on its second day of classes. That's 550 students more than the figure reported Tuesday but district officials said a school was left out of that tally. Overall enrollment is 106 students more than reported at the end of the 2012-13 school year.
The Hermiston School District reported its largest enrollment in its history after opening Monday with roughly 5,300 students, an increase of 67 students compared to the same time last year, the Hermiston Herald reported.
School officials say student enrollment is expected to grow in the coming days, especially after the Labor Day weekend.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver