Can We Fit Two Schools In One Building? The Extreme Solution On The Table For Crowded Washoe Schools

Dec 9, 2015

Credit Alexa Ard

Much of the debate around overcrowding in Washoe County schools has centered on the idea of shifting to a year-round schedule, also known as multi-track. But for high schools and most middle schools, even that solution won't work. Reno Public Radio’s Amy Westervelt has the story for our series Bursting At The Seams.

Washoe County high schools that are exceeding their capacity, of which there are already seven, have various schedule constraints that take year-round school off the table.

"You can't go multi-track at high schools for various reasons, but mainly because you can't have some kids off when SAT prep is happening or when college apps are due."

That's Pete Etchart, the district's chief operations officer. He says if no new schools are built to address overcrowding, high schools and middle schools may have to implement a drastic measure: double sessions.

"With double sessions, you basically have two schools operating out of the same building," Etchart explains. "Half the school goes in the morning and the other half in the afternoon."

Etchart says double sessions would have some kids waiting for buses at 5 a.m. while others wouldn't get home from school until 6 p.m. or later.

Dylan Shaver, a mining lobbyist who lives in Reno, is the vice chair of the Washoe County committee charged with trying to address overcrowding. He remembers experiencing double sessions himself growing up in Clark County.

"School for me started at 6 and I think we got out about quarter to noon and then an entire new school would move in--students, teachers and administrators."

Most of Shaver's friends were on the afternoon track and he was on morning, which was alienating.

"You spend all this time in elementary and middle school making friends," he says, "and then suddenly it's just, well, you're not going to see them anymore, go make new ones."

Along with students, double sessions have an impact on families and the community.

"As a parent, you've got to worry about what's happening to your kid if they get out at quarter of noon and what they're doing between then and when you get home from work," Shavers says. "Or on the other side, if they get home at dinner time, then you have to help them with homework before bed because in the morning, you're going to work and they're doing who knows what until whatever time they start their day."

Double sessions could affect local businesses, too, many of which rely on high school-age employees to fill afternoon shifts.

"Who's going to hire a high schooler," Shaver wonders, "whose availability is 8 in the morning until noon?”

Most local parents have yet to hear about double sessions, but when they do, opinions are mixed.

Ashley Jennings, who has step-kids in middle and high school, says she thinks her family would adapt:

"I don't think the schedule part would necessarily be so bad because our kids don't do sports, but we also have the luxury of more flexible work schedules."

Joe Chavez, whose daughter and son will both be starting middle school next year, sees several problems:

"The middle schools are already starting way too early and there's a lot of research that shows starting kids that age that early in the day just sort of fries their brains for the rest of the day."

Chavez says it could also impact his kids' ability to do after-school activities and could result in higher childcare costs. But most importantly, he's concerned about his son's ability to cope.

"My son is autistic, so I also worry about how a big change like that would affect him," Chavez explains. "Transitioning into middle school is already going to be a big shift, and he's got a routine that works now, so that will be difficult enough without adding in these types of changes."

While the idea of double sessions sounds extreme, it is possible, and soon.

"It could easily happen in the next three to five years," Pete Etchart with the district says.

"There are so many portables on the campus right now at McQueen High School that they can't get a permit to put up any more," explains Dylan Shaver with the overcrowding committee. "Whether the double sessions come in one year or five years, if there is not something that happens soon there is no doubt in my mind that we're going to see that eventually." 

The education package passed by the state legislature last year specifically prohibits the use of those funds for repairs or new schools. That leaves the district scrambling to find other solutions to a $70 million annual discrepancy between the capital funding it has and the money required to effectively address the overcrowding issue.