Education

'Busting at the seams' Whittier Elementary is among top schools for replacement

Whittier Elementary braces for growth

Whittier Elementary Principal Fernanda Brendefur is starting her second year at a school that has historically been one of the poorest in the Boise School District. With 542 students enrolled this year Brendefur manages a schedule for a building d
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Whittier Elementary Principal Fernanda Brendefur is starting her second year at a school that has historically been one of the poorest in the Boise School District. With 542 students enrolled this year Brendefur manages a schedule for a building d

Around Whittier Elementary School, one staffer calls the line of students queuing up for lunch the Disneyland line because it’s so long and moves so slow.

The seemingly endless procession of students snakes down the hallway — passing industrial-size cafeteria refrigerators that are too large to put in the kitchen — toward the tiny, seven-table cafeteria.

In two hours, the cafeteria staffers must feed more than 500 students, and they can’t set up for lunch in the dining area until the last physical education class is over with the space — seven minutes before the first lunch bell rings.

“It is really difficult,” said Cara Bounds, Whittier’s food service manager.

The tough news: Things could get worse.

Whittier Elementary, an often-overlooked school on North 29th Street in Boise built in the late 1950s, once led the district in the percentage of low-income students — 97.4 percent in 2002. Enrollment dropped as low as 280 in 2007 in a school built for 350 students.

But its fortunes are changing, with curriculum changes by the district and the school’s now-hip and hot location. Whittier sits near the new Esther Simplot Park, the new Boise River Park, with machine-made whitewater waves, and Quinn’s Pond. In the Whitewater Park Boulevard area, commercial development is accelerating and a new college campus is proposed.

“We’re busting at the seams,” said Fernanda Brendefur, Whittier’s principal in her second year at the school.

$350 million Estimated cost to improve Boise School District’s buildings

Once considered in the backwater of a growing city, the school is now among the top schools under discussion for possible replacement as Boise School officials consider what to do about aging and overcrowded buildings over the next 10 years in its district of 25,600 students.

Whittier is operating at 136 percent of its capacity, with a cadre of 11 portable structures flanking either side of the main building. That’s the highest utilization of any elementary school in the district.

While the portables give Whittier some breathing space, school officials say they aren’t a long-term solution. Mobile home-style portables are high maintenance and, worse, security problems. It is possible for anyone to walk among the structures at Whittier without ever entering the main building, signing in at the front office and letting anyone know they are there.

DUAL LANGUAGE BRINGS GROWTH

In 2008, Boise School District started a dual-language immersion project at Whittier alongside the traditional, English-only education. The district took advantage of a large Spanish-speaking population already at the school to start a program parents had asked the district to create.

Students in the dual-language program are taught all subjects in English one day and Spanish the next. (In kindergarten, the teacher instructs bilingually each day). As word of the program spread, parents enrolled their children from outside the school district and outside the school’s attendance zone. When school started up again last month, a quarter of Whittier’s students were from outside Whittier’s attendance boundaries and nearly all the out-of-boundary students are coming for the dual-language program.

Monica Meyring, who lives three miles south of Whittier, enrolled her two children in Whittier to take advantage of the dual-language program. “I really wanted (them) to have a second language” she said. “When I checked Whittier out, we really liked it.”

The beauty of Whittier is it is so diverse.

Fernanda Brendefur, principal

As she and other parents took advantage of the language program, Whittier’s low-income rate began to recede, to 89 percent this year.

WHITEWATER PARK BOULEVARD BOOM

Dual-language instruction already has brought Whittier beyond its capacity.

But now the school is bracing for a second influx of growth as developers eye apartment complexes that could add more than 300 units in the blocks surrounding Whittier. And the College of Western Idaho could build its new Boise campus just steps from the old elementary, which likely would add more growth in a few years.

Both the Boise School District and the company it hired to study buildings for the district’s 10-year plan estimate each housing unit produces a half a child, as it regards to student counts, which means about 160 children in those complexes if all are constructed. Not every student would be elementary age, or go to Whittier, but given that potential growth the school could see enrollment easily pass 600.

The district is not yet saying how it would deal with the overcrowded elementary. Two meetings this fall could help decide that.

Growth, however, is chipping away at Whittier’s ability to educate students, said Erin Sorensen, a parent who lives in the Whittier attendance zone.

“They are not getting the education they deserve because the facilities aren’t adequate,” she said. “Having that cafeteria-gym combination is a logistical nightmare.”

IS A NEW BUILDING THE ANSWER?

Support is strong among parents and teachers for a new building at Whittier, but the district is not yet saying how it would deal with the overcrowded elementary. The district has options in addition to millions of dollars in new brick and mortar:

▪  More portables: More Whittier students attend class in portables than do in the main building. More portables would be one possible solution, but that would add to the concerns that portables already bring to the school.

▪  Redraw attendance zones: The school district could shift school attendance boundaries, but that would affect other elementaries by sending more students to Lowell, Taft and Washington.

▪  Build a new school. Estimated cost, $12.8 million. A new Whittier might fit on the playground behind the school facing Whitewater Park Boulevard, but that would require money from a bond that requires a two-thirds majority vote of district taxpayers to pass. Asking voters for a bond is one option, but not one the district board is yet ready to make.

Whittier isn’t the only school in the district with problems. Amity Elementary in West Boise has leaks from a sod roof built in 1979. And growth in Southwest Boise around Harris Ranch is filling up nearby elementary schools. A new school would ease crowding.

All these decisions lie ahead for the board of trustees

Even as Whittier faces growing pains, Brendefur sees a bright spot: A lot of people like and want to be a part of Whittier, and that is not a bad problem to have, she said.

“In my dreams I would want to have a building that would accommodate all the families who want to open-enroll here for the dual-language program and who want to open-enroll for the traditional (education), and everybody in our neighborhood,” Brendefur said.

Board considers building plans

Boise School Board trustees will hold two meetings in September and October to decide what to do about aging buildings:

▪  11:30 a.m., Sept 23: Board meets in a work session to review proposals for what to do about its buildings.

▪  6 p.m., Oct 10: Board holds meeting where it is expected to adopt a plan. Citizens can speak at that meeting by signing up as they enter.

Both meetings are at the district office, 8169 W. Victory Road.

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