Creating more space where there is none

Too many students and not enough space.

That's why James Blair Middle School will open next fall, and why redistricting talks started earlier this month.

That's why the hallways in Berkeley Middle School feel so crowded — because they are.

"You don't have that breathing room when a school is overcrowded," Williamsburg-James City County Schools spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith said. "Students need the breathing room, teachers need the breathing room, staff needs the breathing room."

The middle schools have been hit hardest by two things: the division's growth and a lack of school expansion. During the division's 2010 redistricting, the School Board determined that optimal capacity for a school is 85 percent to 88 percent.

Berkeley eclipsed that by 23 percent — 174 students — this school year.

Toano and Hornsby aren't far behind; Hornsby has 104 more pupils than it should to meet the 88 percent threshold and Toano has 131.

Together, the three buildings are at 105 percent of capacity. With the extra 608 seats coming online at James Blair in 2018 — bringing the total number of middle school slots to 3,129 — and 2,762 students expected to enroll, that capacity figure will drop to 88 percent.

"We just need additional space to allow our students to do their best work," School Board Chairwoman Kyra Cook said. "(The fourth middle school) is desperately needed."

How to deal

Working around Berkeley's 111 percent capacity takes creativity, principal Amour Mickel said.

"We do what we need to do to make it work," Mickel said. "Instruction is still being done; it's just that not everyone has their own individual classroom."

Chemistry closets have been reworked into study spaces and lunch times are staggered to allow for greater numbers of kids moving through the cafeteria. Kids have 25 minutes to get through the line and eat each day.

This is an improvement from a few years ago, before two classrooms were converted into extra cafeteria space, Overkamp-Smith said; before that 2014-15 remodel, students had less time to eat and there were more lunch periods.

Some teachers share classrooms, relying on crafty scheduling. The school's second health class takes place in the cafeteria and choir is relegated to the auditorium.

School-wide assemblies are nearly impossible; there isn't a large enough space for all 863 students to occupy at the same time.

"It's not so much that it's overcrowded, just that we don't have enough space," Mickel said. "Maybe it's because we're used to it ... Kids are more resilient and adaptive than adults are, they just make it work."

On a climate survey given to staff last October, 74 percent said the school feels quite or extremely crowded. Too many students means less one-on-one instruction and less flexibility for students, Overkamp-Smith said.

Mickel said Berkeley's average class size is 30 students, a number she'd like to see decrease with the James Blair opening. The optimal middle school class size is less than 20 students, according to division documents.

Berkeley added six classroom spaces because when they installed three trailers outside the school. Matthew Whaley Elementary School is the only other school with a trailer. Set-up for each trailer totals $80,000 and leasing it costs $2,500 per month, according to School Board documents.

Hornsby and Toano requested trailers in 2016. One for Jamestown High School — the most crowded school at 112 percent — was nixed from the division's fiscal year 2018 budget by the School Board in January because of budget constraints.

Still growing

By level, high schools are 96 percent full and elementary schools are 94 percent full this year.

James River and DJ Montague elementary schools and Lafayette High School are the only ones under the 88 percent benchmark.

Overcrowding was the driver behind building the fourth middle school, with phase one costs totaling $25 million, Cook said. It's also driving $36.4 million in proposed capital projects over the next decade.

Plans to expand the high schools by 2022, to complete the second phase of James Blair in 2026 and 2027, and to begin designing a new elementary school in 2027 were included in the division's 2018-27 capital improvement plan, approved by the school board in December.

Going forward, the high schools will overtake grades 6 through 8 as the fastest-growing cohort, according to FutureThink, the consulting firm hired by the division to project future enrollment.

By 2022, high school enrollment will expand by 10 percent; 14 percent by 2026. Middle school enrollment will grow 9 percent by 2022 and 13 percent by 2026.

Growth at the lower levels is expected to slow down. Over the next decade elementary schools will grow by 6 percent compared to 9 percent between 2010 and 2016.

Overcrowding can be alleviated by adding physical space, or reallocating students to where there is space available, Cook said at the board's April 11 debut discussion of rezoning.

With redistricting, which must be decided by next spring to accommodate the James Blair opening, the School Board is looking at high school zones for opportunities to push back those expansions.

"If you've got space then you either adjust attendance zones to balance or add trailers or build a new school," Cook said. "If money for building isn't readily available, then it makes sense to consider adjusting attendance zones."

The School Board resume the redistricting talks at their May 2 meeting.

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

Enrollment over time

Elementary:

Capacity: 5,470 students

2016-17 enrollment according to VDOE data: 5,151 students

Projected enrollment according to FutureThink:

2022-23: 5,235 students

2026-27: 5,330 students

Middle:

Capacity without James Blair: 2,521 students

Capacity with James Blair: 3,129 students

2016-17 enrollment according to VDOE data: 2,639

Projected enrollment according to FutureThink:

2022-23: 2,863 students

2026-27: 2,974 students

High:

Capacity: 3,964 students

2016-17 enrollment according to VDOE data: 3,817

Projected enrollment according to FutureThink:

2022-23: 4,167 students

2026-27: 4,287 students

WJCC Schools Capacity

Optimal capacity: 85 to 88 percent

Division facility's capacity is 11,455 while enrollment is 11,607.

By level, the elementary schools are at 94% capacity, middle schools are at 105% and high schools are at 96%.

Clara Byrd Baker is at 101 percent capacity.

D.J. Montague is at 78 percent capacity.

J. Blaine Blayton is at 100 percent capacity.

James River is at 86 percent capacity.

Matoaka is at 95 percent capacity.

Matthew Whaley is at 99 percent capacity.

Norge is at 91 percent capacity.

Rawls Byrd is at 104 percent.

Stonehouse is at 96 percent capacity.

Berkeley is at 111 percent capacity.

Hornsby is at 99 percent capacity.

Toano is at 105 percent capacity.

Jamestown is at 112 percent capacity.

Lafayette is at 88 percent capacity.

Warhill is at 91 percent capacity.

VDOE and schools data.

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