South Kitsap High School students, fed up with crowding described by some as “insane," are taking matters into their own hands.
Some members of the 2,800-plus student body — though not all — are planning a peaceful demonstration at Friday’s morning pep assembly and before Friday night’s football game, though organizers have vowed the game won’t be interrupted.
On Wednesday, they gathered at Coffee Oasis, painting signs that said “#wedeservebetter,” “SOS Save Our School” and “We Are the Future.” Students demonstrating plan to wear black to hammer home their point that enrollment at the school — up by nearly 600 this year — is too dang high.
“I couldn’t even open my locker because I was getting pushed up against it,” said sophomore Erika Brende, describing a recent hallway scene.
Photos and videos on the student-administered Facebook page “We the People at SKHS” show hallways and stairwells crawling with kids, or at a standstill. The district brought all ninth-graders up to the high school this year to make South Kitsap a four-year school.
“It kind of feels like you’re driving home on I-5 at five o’clock in the afternoon,” said senior Ian Conte, one of the organizers. “It’s really difficult, this stop, go, stop, go movement. It’s very packed. It’s almost like we’re packed into a can of sardines. It’s insane in the hallways. It’s really difficult to get to class.”
But that’s not all, students say. There are complaints of long lunch lines, food running out, lack of seating in some classrooms and not enough textbooks to go around. The district says it has addressed those complaints and advises students to contact the principal or other school staff.
District looks at food shortage complaints
Student Liam Hembd said food ran short Wednesday in the cafeteria. After he stood in line for much of his lunch break, “All that there was available was a carton of chocolate milk, and I got soup.”
“I have fourth lunch, and there’s literally no food left,” said Rhiannon Hutchins. “It is an everyday issue. They have no food to feed the students.”
The district disputes that lack of food is a routine occurrence. Spokeswoman Amy Miller said the nutrition department is investigating the complaints of food shortages.
“During fourth lunch, we ran out of sandwiches and salads in the deli line for the last seven students,” Miller said Thursday. “There were plenty of other choices available in our burger, pizza and international fair options for those students. We have increased our order for today and moving forward. We have been observing and timing the wait in lunch times and the average wait time is 12 minutes."
The school has been adjusting the timing of its passing periods and lunch lines to minimize crowding, Miller said. “There are plenty of seats in our lunches,” she said. “They may have to sit with students they don’t know and some sit on floors or stairs because of choice during lunch.”
More textbooks on order
Complaints of there being not enough text books for all students persisted on Wednesday, a week after the start of school.
Principal Diane Fox said more math and chemistry books are on order. Algebra I and II students have online textbooks available, likewise for chemistry classes. Geometry teachers were photocopying chapters, which Fox said some students like because it’s lighter than a textbook. Other math classes are adequately supplied, Fox said. Some teachers are posting pdfs of material on their websites. German textbooks are on order, but the teacher is making instructional accommodations.
Finding seats for students
A persistent complaint among students on the Facebook page is lack of seating in classrooms.
On Friday, student Scion McKinley said, “In my humanities class, three people have to sit on deskless chairs in the back or corners of the classroom.”
The same day, Miller told the Kitsap Sun the district had been working on the issue. “Students have been accommodated and have seats in classes at SKHS,” she said. “Staff is working to balance class sizes now that we know who is enrolled and who is attending.”
In December 2016, the district, anticipating the ninth-grade move, assessed the school’s maximum seat capacity at 2,897. An updated enrollment count Thursday showed a total head count of 2,811 students, 25 of whom attend the off-campus Running Start Program. Within the total, there are 204 Running Start students who are on the SKHS campus part-time, and 33 who split their time between West Sound Technical Skills Center and the high school.
In theory, there is adequate seating. But as Jerry Holsten, the administrator orchestrating the ninth-grade move, said at the time, students don’t come in neat classroom-sized groups. Some entry level classes are large, while others, like advanced foreign language, could have empty seats.
A challenge at the start of this school year is the three double-wide portables (six classrooms) weren’t ready for occupancy and are just now being installed. The estimated completion is the end of October.
This isn’t the first time capacity at the high school has been strained. For the 1999-2000 school year, the high school, then with grades 10-12, had more than 2,500 students and a similar count in 2006-07. That was before portable classrooms were installed. In the late 1970s, the high school was on a split shift, with half the students attending an early shift, half later.
Saffron Gossman, one of the demonstration organizers, said students are open to working with staff on short-term solutions, such as staggered start times for students. “I personally think it would make it less chaotic than it is now,” she said. “I think they’re doing their best to support us and show they’re supporting us, but there’s only so much that we can do this year.”
Adding support on busy bus routes
Miller responded to reports that students on some buses have been sitting three to a seat. Reports of students sitting in the aisles are unfounded, she said.
“We have extra buses for overages,” Miller said. “We did not have students sitting on floors of buses but did have three to a seat on one bus, and our transportation department is providing support on that route.”
Miller says administrators have driven through parking lots and side streets to assess traffic flow “and our students managed safely.”
Keeping the protest positive
Organizers want to be clear Friday’s demonstration isn’t an attack on the school, staff or other students.
“South Kitsap High School is a really great community,” Conte said. “We have a lot of really great teachers. We have an amazing administration staff. Our custodial staff works incredibly hard. They have to clean up after 2,800 students, more this year than last year.
“We have a very active student body. We shine in light of all the extenuating circumstances with the crowding.”
Conte said his beef is with voters who have turned down multiple bonds for a second high school since the 1990s, including three since the start of 2016. He says he feels “disenfranchised” by the lack of support that signals, although the most recent three bonds failed to meet the required 60 percent approval by narrow margins. Conte supports removing the super-majority requirement for bonds.
“We are doing our best, but we’re struggling right now,” Conte said. “I feel like in light of all these issues, we are still prospering as a community and as a school. But I feel like voters in this community, they don’t have a vested interest in the students and in our future. … We are the future of this community, and right now that future is not looking very good.”
District officials support students' right to free speech but with an eye to maintaining safety.
"Students have a right to express themselves," South Kitsap Superintendent Karst Brandsma said. "It becomes an educational opportunity for the school and students when done appropriately. The district has a responsibility to ensure that school is safe and orderly. So the lens we look through would be a substantial disruption of the school environment and anything that might invade the rights of others."