The Wilson Beacon

Student body exceeds building capacity

Ethan Leifman and Maya Wilson

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Last week, Wilson opened its doors expecting 1,825 students. Instead, the school received its largest student body ever, with approximately 1,963 students.

This figure is based off the number of active student schedules currently in Aspen. When students transfer to another school, they are still included in Wilson’s enrollment until they officially withdraw. Thus, the current figure is likely somewhat of an overestimate. This process of identifying who is no longer in attendance falls on Registrar Tasha Maritano Bishop, and the final number will not be calculated until Friday, August 31.

When Wilson’s renovation was completed in 2011, the building’s capacity was set at 1,650 students. To accommodate the growing population, the school reconfigured many single rooms into two classrooms, raising the capacity to 1,750 students. Currently, Wilson is estimated to be 213 students over that capacity.

Wilson has 548 classes with over 10 students. Of these 548 classes, 56 of them have more than 33 students. The average size of those classes is 24 students.

“The issue is not that Wilson can’t hire more teachers, but that the school has no more classrooms,” said Principal Kimberly Martin. In fact, DCPS schools are supposed to receive one additional instructor for every 30 students over the enrollment projection, but the hiring process cannot begin until Wilson has an official count of its population and it is approved by Central Office, which is expected to take weeks.

Martin hoped to hire more general education teachers going into the 2018-19 school year with the 3 million dollar increase from last year’s budget, but she soon discovered that most of the funds were already put towards hiring DCPS-mandated positions, including several special education and English Language Learner (ELL) teachers.

“I’m not saying that they’re not working hard and they’re not great people, but the class sizes represent the need that I knew we were going to have,” Martin explained. She maintains her confusion regarding DCPS’ mandate that these positions exist, especially considering there was no significant increase in either of these populations in recent years.

Bilingual education teacher and Department Chair Jonathan Shea said that “the ESL Department could survive without the added staffing, but the addition of teachers helps us to provide better service to students who deserve it.” Shea notes that given ELL students have to participate in standard student-body academic activities such as PARCC and Honors for All while learning English, “more attention will yield better results.”

Once teachers are hired, there remains the issue of placing them in classrooms. Though Martin has investigated the option of renting trailers, she was unable to acquire the required community approval for their installation. Martin notes that the most logical solution would be to have out-of-boundary students voluntarily return to their local schools, but she also firmly states that this is not an option. She wants to keep Wilson open to out-of-boundary students to preserve the integrity and culture of the school, and to not disrupt the lives of over 100 students.

Scheduling is always a chaotic time at Wilson, and the inflated enrollment only aggravates this. Wilson attempted a new system of filtering this year where students were only allowed to talk to their counselors on certain days based on their grade levels, and other, more easily solvable concerns were addressed by deans positioned outside the counselors’ suite. Despite the staggering, there were 643 meetings between students and counselors in the first week of school alone.

Teachers with packed classrooms are forced to adapt. Spanish teacher Isabel Vazquez Gil feels she has to make adjustments in her teaching style. “I’ll be constrained to having fewer out-of-desk activities,” said Vazquez-Gil, who has 32 students in her AP Spanish Literature class. “It will affect one-on-one attention and tutorials, and lengthen the time it takes to grade papers.”

Wilson’s longtime instructors have noticed a change over time. English teacher Belle Belew said that when she started teaching 12 years ago, 22 kids in a class was considered large. “It’s just hard to keep up with all the assignments,” said Belew, who notes that she had around 120 students her first year. Belew now has close to 180 students. “It’s like teaching two extra classes in the same amount of time.” she said.

Junior Lily Perez isn’t fazed by the large class sizes. Perez, who is in both Vazquez-Gil’s AP Spanish Literature class and a calculus class pushing 35, said that “Both classes are high level classes—a lot of the kids know how to manage work and work independently.” Perez believes that most kids in the classes, including herself, will be able to adapt to the size, and that the large classes will have little to no effect on grades or AP scores.

Though Wilson is overcapacity, Martin emphasized that she remains confident that students will be able to get a robust and compelling education despite the large class sizes.

In terms of safety, crowding does not appear to have much of an effect on potential fire hazards. If a room is intended to hold fewer than 50 people, then it is not legally required to have a room capacity, explained Lieutenant Aaron Hazel from the DC Fire and EMS Department. Being over capacity in a singular room is an issue for fire safety, but as there is no legal limit for the majority of Wilson’s rooms, there is also no legal liability.

The jump over the anticipated enrollment begs the question: why are so many families coming to Wilson? Martin believes the answer lies in rising PARCC scores and graduation rates. “As those measures continue to improve, families are looking at Wilson as they place they want to send their kids.” She laments, however, the thought of displacing students who could improve their in-boundary schools. “I never wanted to be the principal of the school that was a big ugly monster creaming the top off the other schools,” she said. “I hope we’re not doing that.”

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Student body exceeds building capacity