Overcrowding in PPS

Large amounts of students crowd into the main hall after the school day at Franklin. The problem of overcrowding is occurring across PPS. Photo by Nora Hugo.

This new school year, Franklin High School welcomed over 2,000 students. The student population is the largest Franklin has ever seen. Last year, 1,750 students were enrolled, filling the recently modernized school to its planned maximum capacity. Students and teachers were already noticing crowded hallways and cramped classrooms. An almost daily traffic jam occurred in tighter spaces, leaving students to elbow their way through a crowd, still moving at a snail’s pace. 

These trends have continued into the current school year, with teachers rarely in the same classroom for the whole day and students having trouble managing the intersections of hallways because of the congestion. Some students may have only noticed this type of crowding at the high school level, but there are other schools around the district that are experiencing similar problems. 

Most schools that feed directly into Franklin are not middle schools in the truest sense; they are kindergarten through eighth grade (K-8) schools, where most students who attend are there for the majority of their academic life. Jim Bridger Elementary School, a K-8 within the Franklin cluster, is suffering from the amount of classes they have taken on. 

Launching in 2014, Bridger underwent a series of internal and external renovations, due to a long awaited project. This resulted in more classes per grade, with the expectation that a new middle school would be rebuilt by the 2018-19 school year. Since the construction of this school had been delayed, Bridger felt more pressure to find room for their ever-growing student population for the coming school year. This caused many issues, including no longer having designated classrooms for art and music classes. One of the other major classroom changes that affected students was when three of last year’s classes moved to the gym and the library for the first few months of the school year while they waited for the construction of an additional portable building. Tara West, a parent of two students at Bridger, said that her middle school-age son had a class in the gym last year, where she believes it was “hard to learn because it was very distracting and very loud.”

As an improved temporary solution this school year, kindergarten classes at Bridger have been moved to a different building: the Holladay Annex on Division and 71 Street. Cheryl Robert, the school secretary at the Annex, attributes the amount of crowding to the growth of the school’s Dual Language Immersion (DLI) program. “As we’ve grown, we can’t accommodate everyone,” she says. Robert doesn’t know how long the kindergarteners are expected to stay at the Annex, but she doesn’t see it as a long-term solution. She hopes the district is working on a more permanent plan.

This is a familiar sentiment, because the problem that is occurring within Bridger is not a unique one. Schools across PPS, especially K-8 and elementary schools, are suffering from lack of building space as well as lack of funding. Robert says that money is one of the main issues that is fueling this problem. “Our funding needs to be increased… I think we need to fully fund schools.” When a classroom reaches about 30 students, she says, they qualify for at least an assistant. But even with extra assistance, classes of that size can be difficult to manage. 

Classrooms have been needing extra support more than ever in the last few years, as school and district-wide enrollment has been increasing. Data from the Enrollment Projections of the PSU Population Resource Center (PRC) show that general population within the PPS district has been on the rise over the past couple decades. The population of people living within the district boundaries grew by 44,752 people from 2010 to 2017, and is predicted to grow by anywhere between 45,000 and 74,000 people by 2030. This could possibly result in district-wide enrollment increasing by, at the most, 2,562 students by the 2033-34 school year. 

High school and middle school populations alike have been increasing district-wide. Data from the PRC shows that although the Franklin and Cleveland clusters have been and continue to be the largest clusters in PPS, other areas like the Grant, Jefferson/Madison, and Wilson clusters have seen the highest growth rates in PPS, with growth rates of 10% or over from 2012-13 to the 2018-19 school year. All predictions from the PRC say that student enrollment at the high school level will peak in the 2024-25 school year.

To account for this steady increase in general population and student enrollment, among other things, Portland voters passed a bond in May 2017 to address health and safety issues within the district as well as work towards the modernization of a number of schools. Among the actions taken by the district was the decision to rebuild Kellogg Middle School, which has been closed since 2006. The plan was to rebuild the school, then move the neighboring K-8 schools’ sixth through eighth graders into the brand-new middle school. This move was originally expected to include all remaining K-8 schools in the Franklin cluster, though as Robert says, “There aren’t any promises made yet.”

The deconstruction of the old Kellogg has been completed, and the opening of the new building is on the calendar for the 2020-21 school year. This solution is one that many families and teachers have been anticipating for years, ever since the bond was passed. “I think there’s more equity in having the middle schoolers have a proper middle school experience,” Robert comments. However, some middle schoolers who were expecting to be able to go to Kellogg may not have that chance. The school is being rebuilt to accommodate a high of 810 students, which may not include all the intended schools.

An Area Senior Director, whose role within PPS is to oversee schools and administration teams, was contacted and declined to comment, but did provide a link to a project called Enrollment and Program Balancing. This project seeks to create a plan to help neighborhood schools maintain a healthy rate of student enrollment. To do this, the project will engage with each school’s community to make sure everyone’s input is heard. 

The information page on the PPS website says, “The goal is to use data and community input to build a thoughtful and equitable plan that addresses all schools and programs as well as short- and long-term student, staff and community needs.” This project intends to incorporate data from the PSU PRC Enrollment Projections, as well as assessments of facilities and capacity. The district wants to examine and decide which plans previously implemented were effective, and which were not. Using this information, they hope to create a plan to account for the imbalances in enrollment. 

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