Education

Pasco’s high schools are bulging at the seams. Here’s the plan to ease overcrowding

Help decide where Pasco’s next high school will go

Pasco School District wants community members to join its task force to help plan the third location for its new high school.
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Pasco School District wants community members to join its task force to help plan the third location for its new high school.

The largest high school in the state doesn’t have enough space to fit all of its students.

Almost a decade after it opened, Chiawana High School’s 2,700 students are no longer contained to 116 classrooms inside the huge building on Argent Road. Two years ago, the Pasco School District moved eight portables onto the campus, adding an addition 16 classrooms.

The student population at Chiawana and Pasco High School isn’t done growing.

By August 2024, Pasco’s high schools will have 2,100 more students than they have space for — enough to fill a new high school, according to a study commissioned by the district.

Education officials are turning to the community to help plan for a third high school in the city. They recently put out a call for community members to sign up for a High School Planning Task Force that starts meeting in August.

The nine-month mission of the task force is to shape what will be inside and outside the new school. They will look at everything from the number of science labs to how the parking lot is laid out.

Susana Reyes, the assistant superintendent of operations and human resources, wants to attract a cross section of the community to help.

Pasco High School
Pasco High School File Tri-City Herald

“Our intention is to have really great representation from across our community as well as across our school district, including students, staff, parents, community members ... as well as representatives from our key partners, like the city of Pasco, Pasco police and Pasco fire,” she said.

People interested in signing up can apply online at bit.ly/Pasco3rdHighSchool

Getting people involved early

Pasco officials believe they have momentum after passing their latest bond proposal in November 2017.

A lot of the success of that bond had to do with volunteers. Many of those same volunteers helped write the long-range plan that lays out a roadmap for construction in the school district for the next 20 years, including four more bonds.

The first one, scheduled for 2020, calls for a new high school, but district officials point out that the date — and the $83 million cost — are only estimates.

“We’re planning to make plans,” Superintendent Michelle Whitney said. “We wanted to be really proactive with our community because what we learned from the last bond, when it was successful, ... there was lots of stuff that started happening, but it was a lot of planning stuff. So our goal would be to do all of that planning now, so once we get the nod from the community ... we can hit the ground running.”

The district is still finishing two elementary schools and the middle school approved by voters in 2017. Those schools aren’t slated to begin opening until this fall, and the projects won’t finish until 2021.

This time the district wants to have much of the planning in place before asking for voters to approve another bond.

Chiawana building front.jpg
Chiawana High School File Tri-City Herald

Not only will it mean they can see the results quicker, the district will also be able to control construction in what has become a much more volatile construction market.

“Getting people engaged early is really a critical component for us,” Whitney said. “Really, this is about the will of the community.”

While the task force puts together what the new school will look like, the school board will start talking about the future of a bond, Whitney said. They still could decide not to have a bond.

As of now, they don’t know how much the new school will cost, but at least some portion of the cost will be paid by the state.

School Director Aaron Richardson agreed during a May 14 meeting with starting the planning process, but raised concerns about bringing the measure to voters before the new schools were finished.

“The numbers show that we already need this school,” Richardson said. “We’re just trying to catch up again. I think it’s great that we’re trying to get ahead of it, and we’re ready to get that going.”

Space needed for more than 10 years

What is clear from the long-range facilities plan is that continuous growth in the school district during the past 20 years has become sustained overcrowding. According to state statistics, Pasco schools added 3,700 students between 2009 and 2017, which is 1,500 more than Kennewick during the same time period.

During that time, Kennewick schools added, remodeled or expanded 20 schools; Pasco built four.

Pasco schools have only about 300 students fewer than Kennewick, but they still have fewer elementary, middle and high schools.

While students aren’t ready to give up their high school, Reyes and Whitney said the members of the superintendent’s student advisory board are seeing the need first-hand. Outside of crowded hallways, the students pointed to teachers pushing carts carrying all their teaching materials from one classroom to another.

“A couple of them referenced that they see that teachers need that workspace,” Reyes said. “They’re not only thinking about a space for themselves, they’re thinking about the people they’re learning from.”

The extra elbow room will make it easier for teachers who might be fighting their surroundings to do their jobs. For instance, a high school teacher may be packing up a cart to switch classrooms and trying to help students at the same time.

When those issues are combined with two nearby school districts and a tight labor market, it makes it harder to keep quality instructors.

“Our kids get an amazing education,” Whitney said. “It’s what it takes for our adults to deliver that high-quality education. You can either use the physical environment as a tool to help support kids or you’re fighting against it.”

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