Kids move through their school day at Puyallup’s Zeiger Elementary School with military precision.
In a school with more than 800 students that was built two decades ago to accommodate 550, strategizing student movements is a must.
Spaces that were once storage closets, then offices, are now used for small group instruction.
Several times a week, Principal Cari Ake packs up her laptop and paperwork and vacates her office, so students in two special programs can use the room.
Children eat lunch in three half-hour shifts that start at 10:30 a.m. To speed up the line, students grab plastic sporks — a combination spoon and fork — instead of two separate implements.
All of Zeiger’s fifth- and sixth-graders attend classes in portable buildings. At lunchtime, kids who want hot lunches walk to the main building to pick up their trays, then often dodge raindrops on the way back to class. Zeiger has no cafeteria, so all students eat at their desks.
“It’s kinda crowded,” says fifth-grader Jacey Sillito, who spends most of her day in a portable classroom.
Zeiger Elementary, located in the high-growth South Hill area, is the Puyallup School District’s most acutely overcrowded school. But district officials say more growth will soon have other schools packed just as tightly.
They’re proposing to shift sixth-graders from Zeiger to nearby Ballou Junior High next fall. If the School Board approves, more sixth-grade moves to other junior highs could follow in subsequent years at six other Puyallup elementary schools.
The board could vote on the matter at its next meeting on Feb. 23.
With more than 1,000 elementary students expected in the next five years, the district is worried about where to educate them. The district projects the need for at least 50 more elementary classrooms by the 2019-20 school year — and that’s without calculating the effects of a recently approved state class size reduction initiative.
The School Board has already asked a citizens committee working on a bond proposal to accelerate its work, with an eye on Nov. 3 as a possible date for a vote. But officials say that even if voters approve a bond this fall, time is needed to design and obtain building permits for new space. They estimate that relief in the form of sufficient elementary classroom space won’t come until the 2019-20 school year.
As a stopgap measure, they would shift sixth-graders into junior highs, which now cater to students in grades seven through nine.
Most sixth-graders in Pierce County already attend school with older students under the middle-school model. But a Puyallup proposal several years ago to transform junior highs into middle schools, while shifting ninth-graders to high schools, met stiff opposition from parents.
Superintendent Tim Yeomans says that’s not what this move is about.
“The recommendation to the board is to not change junior highs to middle schools,” he told a recent parent meeting at Zeiger.
That’s good news for many parents.
“As a mom, I’d love to keep my kids little while they’re little,” says Jacey’s mom, Jenni Sillito.
While she’s not thrilled with the idea that her daughter will attend school next year with ninth-graders, she agrees that something has to give.
“We are at the breaking point,” she says. “We just need new schools.”
Zeiger parent Colleen AlMousawi, whose son Adam will be a sixth-grader next year, is also concerned about how much interaction he will have with the oldest Ballou students.
“There’s a big maturity difference and a big difference in their interests,” she says.
Like many Zeiger students, Adam is excited about moving up to the bigger school. He has friends there.
But some students don’t want to leave Zeiger a year earlier than they planned.
Shari Owen has a twin son and daughter in fifth grade this year.
“My son is taking it philosophically. He’ll go with the flow,” she says. “But my daughter is angry. She says that they spent all this time becoming the leaders of this school, and now they will be like kindergartners again. We’ve had lots of conversations about that.”
Owen, a member of the district’s bond planning committee, believes the School Board shares parental concerns. She has heard some who say that the proposed sixth-grade shift is a way to scare people into voting for a bond.
“I feel the district is doing their very best,” she said. “This is not a scare tactic. This is reality.”
Several parents say they’re ready to support a bond measure to help ease the space crunch.
Others, like Shannon Sullivan, say they realize there’s overcrowding, but believe solutions can be found other than moving sixth-graders.
“I don’t think my son, and other children, are ready for that,” she told the Puyallup School Board at a January meeting.