Editor's Note: This story won an Associated Press Television and Radio Association (APTRA) award for best use of sound in a hard news story in 2015. Learn more.
The Washoe County School District is facing an overcrowding crisis — with a majority of its schools at or over capacity. As we continue our Bursting at the Seams series, Reno Public Radio's Julia Ritchey visits Double Diamond Elementary to experience what it’s like as a student in a jam-packed school.
"So this is fourth and fifth grade, who being our oldest students, they're well managed," says Double Diamond's Principal Mike Dixon. "It's probably about 280 kids I think."
Welcome to the controlled chaos of the cafeteria at Double Diamond, a textbook case of the overcrowding problem facing Washoe County schools.
Principal Mike Dixon says because of skyrocketing enrollment, they've expanded from two lunch periods to four.
"But we're tapped out on space as you can see right now," he says. "This is all the tables we can fit in here. This is seven rows of three tables — that's 21 tables. ...As we talk about continuing to grow, without creating more lunch periods, because we already have four, how do we accommodate that?"
To make matters worse, the school only has two cafeteria employees feeding more than 300 kids at a time in a less than 25-minute window.
"So we only have two nutritional workers, and that was a big point of contention with our parents when they were here [to talk] about overcrowding," he says. "[They asked] how are these roles within our schools accounted for based on student enrollment and not just allocated. And that's something really does need to be looked at."
Dixon says this lunch period actually isn’t as noisy as some others, but a few girls nearby feel the need to chime in.
"It's pretty loud!" says one girl.
"Yeah, pretty loud! It can get really hectic in here," says another girl.
Back in his quiet office, Dixon breaks down their recent growth. The school was built in 2002 for a capacity of 738 students and is now far beyond that.
"Then this year, we're hovering between 920 to 930," he says. "So we've had steady growth over the last three years and we're just to the point where we're pretty full."
To manage this many students, Double Diamond has employed a tight, almost air-traffic control-like schedule being used across the district.
The school has six portable classrooms and their main hallway quad has been divided into study cubicles — utilizing all available space.
"But as instruction is pouring out of the classrooms, it's starting to impede learning, and that's where I'm getting most concerned," he says.
Because classroom sizes are capped by the state, to allow more students in a single classroom, a few of Double Diamond's kindergarten classes are being co-taught, euphemistically referred to as team teaching.
One of these co-teachers is Lori Olsen. She says their class of 35 students has spent a good amount of time mastering a routine, but she does worry about what next year could look like.
"When you just think about your class and what you can do for your class and how to manage it, it's not too bad," she says. "When you think of maybe having more than 35 kids in a kindergarten class, that becomes overwhelming and you wonder if the kids are actually getting what they need."
Double Diamond is not alone in this fear. More than half of Washoe County's 62 elementary schools are overcrowded and six are categorized as severe.
"We really are in a situation where we're facing a perfect storm."
That's Pete Etchart, the district's chief operating officer.
"We're facing basically — we're a district at full capacity, and now we have growth, maybe significant growth going forward," he says.
His team has spent more than a year analyzing this situation to craft a plan to manage the coming economic boom, that will add roughly 1,000 students each year —a conservative estimate from the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada.
"We should've been building schools for many years to avoid this, with all this growth that's coming, and we haven't had any money, any bonding capacity, through our property tax to do anything about it," he says.
Principal Mike Dixon says one of the problems they face is the perception that overcrowding is not a big deal.
"You know, I think on the outside looking in we're doing a really good job of managing it right now, so a lot of the feedback we get is positive," he says. "And I almost think it's worked against us a little bit because it's allowed people to think that it's ok and it's not a problem."
Looking to next year, Double Diamond and five other severely crowded schools have created a management plan. But Dixon says they want to do a better job of getting the word out on their challenges and how they may impact learning in state that is already far behind.
NOTE: Tune in on Wednesday when we continue our Bursting at the Seams series on school overcrowding.