Future Steamboat Springs School District enrollment gains could create need for more classrooms
March 13, 2013
Soda Creek Elementary School
Strawberry Park Elementary School
Source: Steamboat Springs School District
Steamboat Springs — Soda Creek Elementary School never was supposed to get this big.
When the doors of the rebuilt school opened in 2008, the Steamboat Springs School District expected it would hold no more than 450 kids for the foreseeable future.
Today, it is home to 544 students, and every piece of vacant space in the building is valuable.
"We’re using every nook and cranny," Principal Michele Miller said Wednesday.
Small group lessons for gifted and talented as well as English language learner students are conducted in an upstairs common area.
The room that originally was designed to be a teachers’ lounge became an art room to free up an additional classroom for a growing "bubble class" of fourth graders.
And it’s difficult to get the entire student body into the same assembly.
"We’re obviously making it work, and it’s good for kids every day, but we have to be creative with our scheduling," Miller said.
Since Soda Creek opened five years ago, Steamboat’s elementary school population has grown by 125 students. Even during an economic recession that had school district officials here bracing for stagnant or declining enrollment, the kids kept coming.
And now, with no classrooms left to expand into at Soda Creek or Strawberry Park Elementary School, which holds 525 kids, the school district is starting to ponder whether modulars will be needed in the future if the elementary population continues to grow.
Although enrollment in the Steamboat Springs School District has grown for each of the past eight school years, there is not a sense of urgency to find additional space for students.
But a new enrollment trend could change that.
"At this juncture, I would think it would be a fairly minimal chance we’re going to have to add a modular just because the numbers are projected to be the same (next year) as where they are now," Superintendent Brad Meeks said in January as he discussed the future capital needs of the school district.
Meeks and district officials currently are predicting new space won’t be needed in the short term because birth rates and the projections of the district’s demographer are calling for the enrollment gains to level off and even start to decline in the near future.
However, Steamboat’s recent enrollment growth consistently has defied expectations.
"We did a lot of demographic studies back when we were thinking about remodeling Soda Creek, and what we were told is birth rates would be declining, and we would be at a flat enrollment," Steamboat Springs School Board member Denise Connelly said Wednesday. "What we did not expect was the location-neutral businesses moving into town. That’s a tribute to the people in this valley and the education system and the beautiful location we live in."
Human Resource Director Judy Harris, who previously served as principal of Soda Creek Elementary School, said the new school wasn’t built with this kind of enrollment growth in mind.
"At the time, we were talking about 400 to 450 students being projected for (Soda Creek Elementary) as a replacement school building (meaning that it was not built for growth, but to replace the old building) which the community supported at the time," Harris wrote in an email. "That number does not mean that the school cannot accommodate more than that number of students … only that we talked about that number of students for the future needs."
Out of classrooms
Any growth at Soda Creek or Strawberry Park could come at the cost of small class sizes, Meeks told a large audience at the Steamboat Springs Community Center on Monday night.
Although the number of students at the elementary schools has grown significantly in recent years, the average class-size ratio has remained relatively stable, hovering at about 20 students per teacher.
"The limiting factor we’re experiencing now is if we wanted to add two to three teachers (to lower class size ratios), we don’t have any classrooms to do it," Meeks said at the joint meeting of the Steamboat Springs School Board and Education Fund Board that focused on the worth of class sizes and the future of the half-cent sales tax for education. "We would have to add modulars or displace some teachers."
Without extra space, other options include hiring new aides to assist teachers in bigger classes or putting more teachers on "the cart."
At Soda Creek, that means having a Spanish teacher coming into a class instead of having students go to a dedicated classroom for the subject.
Miller said the schools this year opened kindergarten registration earlier so they could get a gauge of what the enrollment might look like next year.
And now the staff is waiting to see whether the recent enrollment growth is a temporary blip or a trend that could spur the need for more space.
"If it continues to grow, I think we would have to brainstorm as a staff how we would support classrooms larger than they already are," she said. "It’s hard to tell if it’s going to be something we need to address permanently or if this is the height of it and it’s going to to start going down."
There is one modular at Strawberry Park Elementary being used as storage. It would need to be renovated to be used as a classroom, Miller said.
As the district waits to see which direction enrollment goes next school year, some in the community say it should be bracing for more growth.
At Monday night’s School Board meeting, local economist Scott Ford said the district should expect its enrollment to keep climbing.
He said Routt County grew its population by about 5,000 people from 2001 to 2010, with most of that growth attributable to more people moving here as opposed to more people being born.
And he said if history repeats itself, the population will continue to grow during the economic recovery following the Great Recession.
"Great schools are one of the most valuable economic assets we can have," he said, noting adults ages 35 to 55 are enticed to move to a place like Steamboat, where the school district has earned the state’s highest accreditation rating for the past three years. "We’ll continue to grow our location-neutral workforce, and they will bring along their families. And what’s going to happen is our schools are going to keep growing, and our class sizes are going to increase."
The school district can’t predict how many location-neutral workers will arrive in Steamboat with their kids each year. It also has to cope with a student population that sometimes grows months after classes start in the fall.
School Board member Connelly said there are even more factors for the district to think about, including the influx of students the district receives from neighboring school districts.
But as hard as it is to predict, the growth is welcome.
"It’s a good problem to have," Curriculum Director Marty Lamansky said last year about the district’s eight years of enrollment gains. "In the world of problems for education, this one is a good one to have because it means a lot is being done correctly."
Still, the growth of late has come as a big surprise.
"I don’t think there was ever a thought the building would get over 500 students," Superintendent Meeks said about Soda Creek.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com