2 Tri-Cities high schools are already overcrowded and school just started

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.

A record number of freshmen started high school in Pasco last year.

Even more — nearly 1,400 freshmen — enrolled this fall, breaking that record.

And Pasco’s two high schools are feeling the most pressure from the ever-increasing growth in enrollment.

Similarly, across the river in Richland, an unexpected jump in students opting to attend Richland High School instead of Hanford High left administrators shuffling schedules to avoid overcrowded classrooms.

While the number of students at all Tri-Cities schools continues to be in flux, the Pasco and Richland districts are starting to get a better idea of how many students they will be teaching this year.

Kennewick is a bit behind after last week’s teachers’ strike delayed the start of the school year for its nearly 19,000 students until this week.

The strike also postponed the start of classes at the STEM-focused Delta High School, attended by students from all three cities. That could bump up Richland and Pasco’s enrollment totals a bit more.

Enrollment matters because state funding for schools is driven by the number of full-time students attending classes on the first day in October.

Last year, lower-than-predicted enrollment exacerbated Richland’s and Kennewick’s budget shortfall issues.

This year, Richland’s estimate is fairly close to its budget estimate.

Pasco, however, budgeted for far fewer students, so it will be getting more money from the state. But that won’t give the district more classroom space for high schoolers this year.

Pasco’s crowded high schools

Pasco is already home to the state’s largest high school.

With the 200 new students added this week to its already crowded halls, Chiawana High has 2,876 students, said Shane Edinger, the district’s director of public affairs.

Pasco High isn’t too far behind with about 100 new students, bringing its total to 2,320.

That number of bodies puts a strain on schools designed to hold 1,100 fewer students, and is a reason a group of parents, district employees and community members is looking at what they want in a third high school.

The meetings could be the prelude to the district asking voters to pass a bond measure.

The 18,600-student district, much like its neighbors, was struck with stagnant enrollment numbers last year. The year before the Pasco high schools saw triple-digit growth.

Randy Nunamaker, executive director of capital programs for Pasco School District, describes the new 72,832-square-foot Three Rivers Elementary School building off Road 84. It has 36 classrooms and cost an estimated $27.3 million.

Pasco’s three middle schools had 91 new students show up this year, and the elementary schools had about 46 additional students.

Crowding was eased at the elementary schools by the recent opening of Three Rivers Elementary near Chiawana High School.

Choosing Richland High

No numbers was immediately available on how many more students showed up this year than last year in the Richland School District.

However, overall, the district is slightly above its budget projection, with 13,700 full-time students, said Ty Beaver, the district’s communication manager.

Even as schools were getting ready to open last week, parents and children were still asking to switch schools, he said.

The district allows a certain number of high school students to switch from the school tied to their address to the other high school.

While this normally leads to having more freshman at Hanford High, this year it brought more students to Richland High.

In a message to parents, Richland High Principal Tim Praino said they had about 150 more students than they expected.

School leaders suspect that’s because several Libby Middle School students who were aiming to go to Hanford High picked Richland High instead.

This meant some Richland High students had their schedules shuffled around by administrators to make sure teachers didn’t have overcrowded classes.

“Although it’s not ideal, it is necessary,” Praino wrote.

Changing one student’s schedule can often set off a chain reaction requiring a lot of students to be shuffled around.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.