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New middle schools in Spokane Public Schools bond would help lower class sizes in elementaries

September 30, 2018

Vicki Merrill loves her job.

A teacher for a quarter century, Merrill treasures every day at Mullan Road Elementary School with her “wonderful, curious” third-graders.

Merrill would love her job even more with a smaller classroom. She counts herself lucky to have just 24 students this year.

“Kids have so many diverse needs and backgrounds,” Merrill said. “With a smaller class size, you have a chance to meet those needs.”

The $495 million school bond on the Nov. 6 ballot offers many things, but the biggest is a reduction in classroom size for kindergarten through third grade.

By adding three new middle schools and replacing three others, Spokane Public Schools would move sixth-graders into those new buildings and free space for younger students.

Sixth-graders also would benefit from a three-year middle-school experience, the district believes.

Costing about $60 million each, the three new middle schools would be located at three sites: near Albi Stadium, at Foothills Drive and Nevada Street, and on the South Hill adjacent to Mullan Road Elementary.

For many schools in Spokane, the additions can’t come soon enough.

Around the district, classrooms are overflowing. Many schools have resorted to portable buildings or by setting up certain specialty classes on carts.

“There’s not enough space for all of the classes, and in many schools there’s not enough room for portables,” Superintendent Shelley Redinger said. “We’re also using a lot of rooms for something other than they were intended for.”

After mandating an average 17-to-1 teacher-student ratio for K-3 following an initiative passed by voters in 2014, the state recently gave all noncompliant districts a one-year reprieve.

However, the clock is ticking. Failure to reach the 17-to-1 ratio in a timely fashion could result in lost funding from the state.

“We’re working toward compliance,” Redinger said.

The heavy lifting is happening daily at all 34 elementaries in Spokane.

At Mullan Road, Principal Matt Beal has crafted a color-coded chart that indicates how each space will be used during each period.

“I call it 3-D chess,” said Beal, who solved one puzzle by “turning an art room into a science room.”

By most standards, life is good at Mullan Road Elementary, which draws mostly from the middle-class neighborhoods on the upper South Hill. The school is flanked on the south by an oversized grass field and an expansive concrete playground to the west.

Only five years ago, the school housed 512 students. However, new apartment complexes on 55th Avenue helped swell that number to 688 this year. The crunch was barely eased by a new addition finished over the summer.

“They’re already full,” said Beal, who also welcomes two buses each morning from the fast-growing Eagle Ridge development in southwestern Spokane.

If the bond passes, some of those students would instead arrive next door, at a new middle school.

That would be several years off, but Mullan Road is more than ready.

Sixth-graders already rotate through specialized instructions, easing the transition to the middle-school routine.

Their departure would free at least six classrooms at Mullan Road.

Merrill said she’s thrilled the plan includes new middle schools because it means lower class sizes at her school.

“As a teacher you do your work, 110 percent,” Merrill said. “We support each other, but it’s hard to spread yourself out with that many bodies in classrooms that weren’t meant for that many.”

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