“As we’ve been observing the growth these last five years, we’re saying, ‘Are we about to plateau out again?’” said Todd Wilder, coordinator of support services for Park County School District No. 1. “We’re kinda tiptoeing through this next year, seeing what’s happening and being ready if we need to do something else.”
School officials don’t know exactly why elementary enrollment is growing and whether it will continue.
“Frankly, we can’t really pinpoint the factors that are driving the growth here,” Wilder said.
He said it’s not just a matter of looking at factors in Powell, but also in the rest of Park County and even Big Horn County.
“There’s a lot of dynamics going between all of these that are causing people to move here and causing people to send students here,” Wilder said.
The three elementary schools in town can hold 880 students. If growth patterns continue in Powell, state school officials anticipate 897 elementary students this fall.
“So, already they’re saying we don’t have enough seats for students,” Wilder said in his annual report to the school board June 10. “There’s a lot of different options as we’re working through this.”
One option is to build a new elementary school with more classrooms for kindergarten through third-graders. Wilder said the Legislature has provided funding for land acquisition for districts like Park County School District No. 1 that need to begin the process of planning potential new schools in the future.
Based on projections, Powell is estimated to have 1,096 elementary students in 2020.
To accommodate 216 more students, the school district would need four more classrooms for each grade level in kindergarten through third-grade and one each for fourth and fifth grades.
More K-3 classrooms are needed because of a state law requiring smaller class sizes.
The state of Wyoming requires a ratio of 16 students to one teacher for kindergarten through third grade.
Powell already needs more classrooms to meet that ratio, having had 17.1 students to one teacher in the past school year.
For students in fourth and fifth grades, the ratio of students to teacher depends on classroom sizes. The capacity is set at 19 for smaller classrooms at Parkside Elementary. For Southside and Westside, it is 23, Wilder said. In his calculations, he used an average of 21.7 students to one teacher.
Both Southside and Westside elementary schools, built within the last six years, were designed to add classrooms onto them. However, the schools’ gymnasiums, libraries, cafeterias and other common areas are not easy to expand.
“If you add more classrooms and students to the buildings but don’t increase the common spaces, you really run into problems,” Wilder said.
Wilder said he does not want to see Parkside Elementary School replaced with a larger building.
“We don’t want to do that. We’ve invested a lot of money in that school in the last four to five years,” he said, noting various investments and improvements to the building. “We’ve made it as nice as any school that we’ve got.”
“It’s a great neighborhood school,” he continued. Replacing Parkside with a new structure “is something we want to take off the table and look at other options we may have.”
Modular structures are possible solutions.
“One of our options may be, as our growth really pans out, is to consider modulars to bridge the gap between what we’re experiencing right now in growth and whether those trends are going to continue,” Wilder said.
Since more classrooms are needed for younger students to comply with the 16-to-1 ratio, the district may need to consider reconfiguring schools.
Traditionally, Powell elementary schools have served kindergarten through fifth-grade students. Wilder said the district could look at having a K-3 school, but he expressed reluctance about breaking up schools that serve all elementary school ages.
“We like neighborhood schools, and we’d like to keep that,” Wilder said.
As school officials anticipate higher numbers, Wilder said there isn’t a simple fix.
“It’s not going to be easy, and I think the key to it is understanding what’s driving the growth,” Wilder said.
Looking ahead, school officials also must plan for more students in the middle and high schools.
The new middle school that is being built is designed for up to 492 students — a target population five years beyond its completion date, Wilder said.
The total capacity for fifth grades at 100 percent is 176 students. If the district sees full capacity three years in a row, then the middle school enrollment would jump to 528 students — 36 students more than the school’s capacity.
“There will be an impact to the middle school,” Wilder said in an email to the Tribune on Monday. “Those extra 36 students may be accommodated by varying class sizes and scheduling, but the reality is that as you near total capacity, it becomes very difficult and challenging to schedule students and teachers in a way that allows the building to be used at 100 percent utilization.”
The new Powell High School was designed for 690 students.
“Again, the challenge becomes the ability to schedule students, teachers and classrooms to achieve the utilization that is needed when the student numbers near total capacity,” Wilder said. “It requires that every room be available for teaching every period and that is difficult to achieve.”
The Legislature has allowed for school capacity numbers be calculated at 85 percent utilization for middle and high schools to allow for the difficulty in reaching that target, Wilder said.