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Playing sardines

At Forest Grove High School they're squeezing students into every available space, but the options are running out
by: Chase Allgood,

John O'Neill is praying for sunshine.

As long as the weather stays dry, some of the 1,942 students streaming through two daily lunch periods at Forest Grove High School can find places outside the building to eat.

Wood shop students hammered extra picnic tables together last summer so that latecomers to the packed cafeteria would have someplace to sit and munch their sandwiches, said O'Neill, principal at the school. But when Oregon's fall rains inevitably come, he wonders what will happen.

'We're extremely cramped - that's a fact,' O'Neill said of the 23-year-old building, located on 37 acres of residential land north of the downtown core.

Between last June, when FGHS housed 1,704 students, and last month, the school's census saw a big spike. Much to O'Neill's surprise, an additional 158 students signed up for classes and checked out locker space in September.

It was an unexpected and overwhelming turn of events that's affected everyone from teachers and students to administrators and custodians.

'We have dramatically surpassed projections in student enrollment,' O'Neill said. District demographers predicted the high school would enroll 1,675 students by 2010.

'These were not kids who were in the computer system last summer,' O'Neill insisted.

Besides the predictable crowd from Neil Armstrong Middle School's 2005-06 eighth grade class, students who formerly attended private school or were home-schooled are streaming through the high school's front doors.

O'Neill attributes the extra influx to a combination of unique course offerings and parents' recognition that FGHS 'our improvement endeavors are definitely working.'

The local high school offers among the highest number of advanced placement courses in the state, O'Neill said, attracting students with an eye toward higher education.

'Parents of these high-achieving kids are very much interested in the academic program we offer here,' he added. 'They are seeing success, and they want to be a part of that.'

While the high school normally sees an attrition rate of about 100 students per academic year due to transfers, relocation or dropouts, that number is declining slightly.

The district itself is 'doing a better job of keeping kids in school,' said Dave Willard, assistant superintendent.

'Our dropout rate is down to 2.9 percent, and that's a good sign that things are going well,' said Willard. 'On the other hand, we have a dilemma to solve with regard to available space.'

This year's senior class, at 458, is the largest in recent memory. And, the freshman class is 528 strong. District-wide, schools have seen an 8.5 percent jump in enrollment for 2006-07.

The high school's cafeteria, gymnasium and library were built in 1983 to house 1,200 students. A new wing of 15 classrooms, added in 1998, bumped capacity to around 1,650.

Cramming so many extra bodies into finite space has been a challenge, said Howard Sullivan, a social studies teacher and activities director who's been at the school for 10 years.

'It's definitely caused us to re-think how we do our assemblies,' said Sullivan, the staff member in charge of coordinating such events. Five years ago, he said, many more formal assemblies were held in the auditorium, which seats 750 students. Half the student body attended in the morning, and the other half attended in the afternoon.

'We can't do that anymore because of the sheer volume of kids,' Sullivan said. All major assemblies - sports-related or not - are now held in the gym. 'We have to be really, really cognizant of what's going on when kids come into a gym setting,' he noted.

The most unusual accommodation this year is a math workshop that's being held in an old computer repair room next to maintenance, said O'Neill.

'There isn't one classroom that's vacant during a given class period,' he added. 'We've added eight class sections to handle the growth, but it's very crowded, particularly in the halls and the lunchroom.'

So far, O'Neill said, no fist fights have broken out as students maneuver the hallways to get to class on time.

'They're dealing with things in a courteous manner,' O'Neill said. 'I give nothing but positive praise to the kids.

'We have 1,012 boys and 988 girls this year,' he said. 'There's no wiggle room. That's just life at Forest Grove High School.'

The school's 93 teachers are also 'coping very well,' O'Neill noted. Administrators visited every classroom during the first several weeks of school, 'taking head counts to verify the numbers really were what we thought they were.'

Class sizes have ballooned due to the increased student numbers. Last year, few classes had more than 30 students, but this year '33 kids in core classes is average for freshmen,' O'Neill said, and tallies are in the mid- to upper 30s for seniors.

'We'll be monitoring those numbers throughout the year,' he said.

Sullivan's American Government classes for seniors run 35 or more students. His largest class enrolls 39.

To help counteract some of the frustration and anxiety caused by close quarters, a fourth counselor was added to the guidance staff this fall. FGHS also employs a fulltime mental health counselor, a drug and alcohol counselor and a school psychologist.

O'Neill is musing on adding two additional hall monitors to make sure students arrive in class by the time the bell rings.

Bond to the rescue?

Part of the answer to the high school's game of 'sardines' lies in money earmarked for major remodels to the building.

Those funds would come from a $49.7 million bond levy voters will face in the Nov. 7 general election. Measure 34-136 is backed by the Forest Grove School Board.

If the measure passes, about $2.7 million would be used to expand the school cafeteria and kitchen, build a new gym to seat 2,500, improve athletic fields and expand PE areas, including locker rooms and the weight room.

About $1 million would develop the second floor of the Taylor Way support annex, which houses the district's Community Alternative Learning Center. This year, 56 students are enrolled at CALC.

At FGHS, O'Neill said, the weight room is 'arguably the most-used room' with an average of 55 students visiting each period. A close second is the gym, 'the most-needed classroom facility,' he said.

'We close the building at 10:30 most nights. It's used nearly round-the-clock for sports, drama, youth athletic programs and FFA.'

O'Neill, whose son Johnny is a Forest Grove freshman, aims to keep tabs on the school's cultural climate.

'We want to maintain a positive, close-knit community here,' he said. 'No matter how big we get, I'd like every kid here to feel supported.'