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Originally published February 16, 2013 at 7:40 PM | Page modified February 17, 2013 at 3:41 PM

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As levy plans expand, Seattle schools face further crowding

Big new schools to be built in the next few years will ease overcrowding in the Seattle school district, but in the short term, the problem will get worse before it gets better.

Seattle Times education reporter

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With the passage of its $695 million capital levy last Tuesday, Seattle Public Schools is now moving forward with plans to replace, expand and fix many aging and overfilled buildings.

But in the short term, the crowding that already plagues many schools will only get worse before it gets better.

To squeeze an estimated 1,300 more students into its schools this coming fall, the district plans to place 24 to 30 more portable classrooms across the district, bringing the total number to 214-220. A few schools already have a dozen or more.

More art and music rooms will be converted to regular classrooms, and at least two schools will continue to hold small-group lessons in aging RVs.

The levy — the largest to pass in district history — will help eventually, of course. Over the next decade, the district plans to renovate nine schools and build or rebuild eight others, to handle an additional 7,000 students.

Yet all that won’t happen overnight.

“The next couple of years are going to be the hardest,” said Lucy Morello, the district’s director of capital projects.

West Seattle is one hot spot, especially Schmitz Park Elementary, which already has a dozen portables that house half the school’s students. That school will be one of the first to get relief, with a new, bigger building scheduled to open a few blocks away in 2015-16.

The bigger problem is northeast Seattle, where many schools are already full and overflowing, especially middle schools. Eckstein Middle, for example, has nearly 1,300 students and 14 portables.

How fast Eckstein and other schools will get relief depends, in part, on whether the district decides to use some of its mothballed or half-full buildings as temporary sites while the new schools are being built.

One example is John Marshall, the now-empty former high school near Green Lake. Another is Lincoln High in Wallingford, which has room in addition to the space now used for one of the district’s advanced learning programs.

“The quicker we utilize those buildings, the quicker we can take some of the pressure off other schools,” said School Board Member Michael DeBell.

The district is even looking at reopening the former Cedar Park Elementary, which has been home to an enclave of artists for more than 30 years.

The School Board also has directed district staff members to try to recruit more north-end fifth graders into K-8 schools rather than to traditional middle schools, because the K-8s, especially the one at the Jane Addams building, have more space.

Board Member Sharon Peaslee is helping, too, with a promotional video she created about Jane Addams K-8, which she posted on YouTube.

Anger at Eckstein

For some parents, help can’t come soon enough. At least a few Eckstein parents were so angry the board decided not to open the new middle school at Jane Addams this coming fall that they voted against the capital levy. The board decided instead to wait until 2014, when the new middle school will share space with the existing K-8 there.

Two parents, one of whom doesn’t even have a child at Eckstein yet, personally traveled to City Hall, asking for proof that the building meets the city’s fire codes. (The city has since said it does.) The parents are still waiting to hear from the city about occupancy limits in common areas such as the cafeteria.

In the meantime, the district is moving ahead with construction planning, with some architectural work under way, and more to start soon.

With new and expanded schools in the works, staff members also are beginning to think about how to rejigger school-assignment boundaries.

Those adjustments will be the first big changes to the boundaries since the district ramped down its school-choice system in 2009 and moved to a more neighborhood-based system.

School Board President Kay Smith-Blum said she hopes all the boundary changes will be approved in one package next fall, so families will get a lot of notice if their school assignments change.

Enrollment projections

For now, some principals are looking at their enrollment projections and hoping for a new portable or two. They include Marcia Boyd at Rogers Elementary, who says she’s not sure how she’ll squeeze 40 more students into her Meadowbrook-area school without that.

Like Bagley Elementary near Green Lake, Rogers also has an old RV that’s been parked on the playground for more than 15 years. These days, the school uses it for small-group instruction in reading. If students do well, their reward is to sit in the driver’s seat.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com. On Twitter: @LShawST

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