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As many WA schools lose students, this small-town district faces overcrowding

caption: Phelicia Record teaches her first grade students in a makeshift classroom behind Orting Primary School's stage. Only a thin, temporary wall separates Record's classroom from the gym right next door.
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Phelicia Record teaches her first grade students in a makeshift classroom behind Orting Primary School's stage. Only a thin, temporary wall separates Record's classroom from the gym right next door.
Courtesy of the Orting School District


t’s recess time at Orting Primary School, and kids are running off a lot of energy.

On a clear day, Mount Rainier is visible in the distance. So is a group of portable classrooms, where about 250 students learn because their school is way beyond capacity.

Inside, first grade teacher Phelicia Record also feels the pinch. She’s in a makeshift classroom behind Orting Primary School’s stage, and only a thin, temporary wall separates Record’s classroom from the gym right next door.

“We often have balls that bang up against the wall or really loud music,” Record said.

“One day I was teaching an ELA lesson, trying to read, and there was ‘The Chicken Dance’ going on next door,” she added, as some of her students started clucking like chickens behind her. “So my kids started doing ‘The Chicken Dance,’ and obviously it’s disrupting.”

Her students agreed. Several children said it’s hard to focus on learning when gym class is happening next door.

“It’s like music is in here and I’m trying to work, and it just makes me want to dance all day and night,” one first grader said.

Record's classroom is just one of the many challenges faced by teachers and students at the Orting School District because three of its four schools are significantly over capacity.

The overcrowding at Orting stands in stark contrast to other school districts in Washington state and across the country, where declining public school enrollment is forcing many districts to make severe budget cuts.

Seattle Public Schools is grappling with a $131 million budget deficit and has cut at least 74 central office positions and is considering more teacher and staff layoffs and cuts to arts programs. Across Lake Washington, the Bellevue School District recently decided to consolidate two schools.

But in Orting, the district has seen a near 20% spike in enrollment over the last three years — an indicator of how the education landscape is shifting in the aftermath of the pandemic.

The rising numbers have caused severe overcrowding and the district is desperate to pass a $150 million bond to fund the construction of a new elementary school and expand other schools.

What’s drawing people to Orting? Or away from urban districts?

Orting Superintendent Ed Hatzenbeler has some theories about why people are flocking to the small town, nestled in the foothills of Mount Rainier.

“I think there’s a price aspect to that. There’s a location aspect to it as well,” Hatzenbeler said. “I think many areas closer to your Bellevues or Seattles have been built out for years, so these developments, although they’ve been in the planning stage for years, are just starting to grow as that sprawl kind of makes its way out to Pierce County.”

It’s hard to say for certain where new students in Orting are coming from, or where students leaving Seattle are going. Neither district tracks that enrollment data.

But recent census data does show a healthy migration from King to Pierce County.

Covid — and remote work — also changed some thinking about where and how people want to live nationwide.

As population has boomed in rural resort areas like Bozeman, Montana, during the pandemic, school enrollment has also climbed, according to The Hechinger Report. The trend has been fueled by the ability for remote work and the desire to live in more affordable areas.

In Orting, Hatzenbeler has noticed how people seem to be more willing to live farther away from their jobs if they don’t have to commute every day.

Plus, housing is relatively affordable in the Orting area — at least compared to King County — and there’s more space. By 2035, around 5,000 new homes will be built within the Orting School District’s nearly 65 square miles.

Other Pierce County school districts are experiencing similar growth.

In the Sumner-Bonney Lake School District, a recent demographics and enrollment report found enrollment is “remarkably stable” and the district’s housing is a “well-kept secret” that will soon be discovered.

And the Bethel School District has also seen a 14% increase in enrollment over the last decade. The district passed a bond in 2019 to address overcrowding.

That’s the situation Orting finds itself in now, Hatzenbeler says.

Orting’s schools were built in the 1960s and '80s for a much smaller number of students and without the modern amenities new schools have.

Take Orting Primary School, where overcrowding is the worst. Haztenbeler says the school currently serves almost double the amount of students it was meant to house when it was built in 1968.

“Schools are built a lot differently now versus back in the '60s and '80s,” Hatzenbeler said. “We’re trying to put a long-term plan into place so that as this growth comes, then we’re able to grow with it.”

How crowded schools impact learning

For now, Orting makes do — getting creative to utilize every inch of existing space. But it’s far from ideal.

Hatzenbeler said the district doesn’t have enough space for occupational therapy and counseling, forcing the district to convert small spaces like restrooms and closets into office space.

At all three of the overcapacity schools, there isn’t enough parking or space for traffic. Orting Primary School shares the same front parking lot as the high school, leaving the high school with just 90 parking spots for its 400 student drivers.

But it doesn’t always stop some newly-minted drivers. Hatzenbeler says student parking will often overflow into the Safeway parking lot across the street.

“A lot of these constraints are really with us today and we know those compound over time,” he said.

Overcrowding has real consequences on learning and working conditions.

Brittnee Smith, a third grade teacher, says teaching in a portable can be isolating and inconvenient.

She loses a lot of time that could be used for instruction either taking kids to the bathroom or to the school for lunch, gym, or library time. All 250 students in portable classrooms share one boys' bathroom and one girls' bathroom that they have to access by walking outside, rain or shine.

“We usually have to line up like five minutes prior to any event, say like an assembly or specialists or whatnot,” Smith said. “So, I typically have to end activities quicker than I want and then get them ready to go outside and head to the next location, because I have to get coats and the whole thing.”

Smith said the loss of time is especially frustrating after the disruptions of Covid.

“Any loss of learning time is something that you don’t want to have happen anymore,” she said. “We need every minute of every day.”

caption: At Orting's Ptarmigan Ridge Elementary, the gym is used as both a gym and cafeteria during lunch hours due to overcrowding. The proposed $150 million bond would include the addition of a new gym and food service space in the school.
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At Orting's Ptarmigan Ridge Elementary, the gym is used as both a gym and cafeteria during lunch hours due to overcrowding. The proposed $150 million bond would include the addition of a new gym and food service space in the school.
Courtesy of Orting School District

Expansion plans hinge on public vote

Renee Polly and her husband decided to make Orting their home two decades ago. She’s originally from Tacoma.

“We thought it would be a good place to live and raise a family,” Polly said. “So that’s why we chose Orting.”

In recent years, she’s seen a wave of people coming here, still commuting to their jobs in places like Seattle or Tacoma.

She’s also Orting High School’s business teacher and the mother of two Orting students. And she says a new school is long overdue.

“As a parent traveling to other schools, you see their new buildings and their new facilities and I wish that my children had that here,” Polly said. “And I have high hopes that we will get that here in Orting.”

Orting voters will have their shot at a major upgrade when they vote on a $150 million bond on Tuesday.

It’s their second shot at the bond. The measure failed on Valentine’s Day, after the district failed to get a super majority — 60% of the vote — as required by Washington state law.

It would fund the construction of a new elementary school and new additions at two other schools — making room for a student body that’s expected to double in size in the coming years.

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