It’s no secret that many schools in the city are bursting at the seams, with an ever-growing number of portables and new schools needed. In our special series that starts today, we will examine how growth is affecting students, parents and school staff alike. We’ll also showcase some of the creative solutions the district is utilizing to grapple with the challenges of overcrowding. In part one, we look at what life is like for secondary students inside the city’s most – and least – crowded high schools.
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The parking lot of Sullivan Heights Secondary is dotted with people and cars as students make their way back to the building from the various fast-food restaurants nearby.
Inside the school, the sound of the bell cuts through the noise of hundreds of students milling about in the hallways and hub.
Lunch time is over. Like clockwork, students traverse through packed hallways and head to class.
But some make their way out of the back of the school, walking along a footbridge that leads to a 10-plex of portables on what was once an overflow parking lot.
Caellum Armstrong says walking across the bridge is “not fun.”
“Especially with 300 kids also trying to get across that little bridge,” says the Grade 11 student. “It becomes single-person traffic really quickly or it could be just one whole group of people going one way.”
At 153.4 per cent capacity, Sullivan Heights Secondary is the Surrey school district’s most-crowded school. Built to accommodate 1,000 students, as of Sept. 30, 2018, it has an actual enrolment of 1,534.
It’s something you don’t need to remind Caellum about.
“You definitely notice it in the halls, like you try to get through to your classes and there’s 1,500 kids trying to get to classes… and you notice in the hall that you’re shoulder-to-shoulder,” he said.
“Honestly, I just expect it. Like I walk in the halls and I just expect it. It’s like, ‘Oh, someone bumped into me, that’s great.’ If you’re in a big school but with not a lot of kids in it, like it’s under crowded, and someone bumps into your shoulder, you know it’s intentional. But when you’re at this school, it’s every other day.”
Sophie Knibb, a Grade 11 student at Sullivan Heights, said it’s something students get used to.
“You just kind of brush it off and go on… I don’t have time, I’ve got to go to class.”
While being in an overcrowded school can allow for a wider variety of classes, Sophie said it has its limitations – she’s had difficulty trying to switch classes some semesters.
“Because all the classes are so full, it’s really hard to get into classes you want, or if you’re in a wrong class, to switch your classes.”
Sullivan Heights Principal Raj Puri said there are some cases where the school is unable to accommodate a student based on either their schedule or the school’s, so students will either have to take summer school, night school, delay the course by a year – if the student is in Grade 11 or below – or take an online course.
“Our kids are forced into making some pretty firm decisions around course selection very early because they know down the line, they’re not going to have the flexibility to be able to say, ‘Oh, there’s room in this classroom, let’s just make changes as we go.’ That’s a tough thing, but it also forces them into making sure you sit down and really decide what you want to be in early.”
Caellum said sometimes students can also have a gruelling semester because of complications with switching around timetables.
“I know one person got three sciences and math in the same (semester), which is just brutal. They would have like to have changed it, so at least their semesters would have been even, but they weren’t able to, unfortunately, that’s just how overcrowding is.”
Sullivan Heights switched to a five-block timetable in the 2012/2013 school year, as a way to ease overcrowding. Students will either have classes in blocks 1 to 4 or blocks 2 to 5.
But the switch to five blocks isn’t supposed to be permanent. The goal is to go back to a four-block system when the school is not as overcrowded.
“For us, what will get us back to the four-block type of timetable is the addition,” said Puri.
Outside of the school sits a sign announcing the provincial government’s $40-million, 700-seat expansion, expected to be completed by fall of 2021. The expansion would give the school a total capacity of 1,700. Construction on the expansion, and another gym, is set to begin this summer.
Sullivan Heights has the most portables on site out of all high schools in the district with 14 portables – four on the south field and the 10-plex.
“The 10-plex has been in place for two years now. Before that we had a five-plex and before that a couple portables, but it’s just growing every year,” said Puri. “This is like a mini complex — a little bit self-sustaining.”
The goal of the expansion, Puri said, is to eliminate the need for portables at the school.
“That is our hope to have enough space to accommodate all of our students in the regular school building.”
Puri said he’s not sure if the school will once again be over capacity after the addition opens.
“Right now I’m grateful that we’re getting an addition,” Puri said. “Over the years, if the pattern continues, I’m sure that we’ll be looking for other ways to be able to accommodate more students.”
Puri was at Sullivan Heights when it opened in the early 2000s. He said the school opened with grades 8 through 10, and a student population of about 670 students.
“Subsequent years, again, due to growth and the fact that we had a French Immersion program here as well, we were probably (in the) second year adding the four portables to accommodate more than 1,000 students in this building.”
Puri said he remembers when he first worked at Sullivan Heights, there was “a farm across the street that had llamas here and there was horses beside our field, and now, all of those have been replaced with townhouses and lots of construction in the area that continues to expand the number of students we could possibly see over the years.”
Sullivan Heights’ early days aren’t much different from the district’s least-crowded and newest school – Salish Secondary. Similar to when Sullivan Heights opened, Salish is surrounded by farmland.
Salish opened for the 2018/2019 school year with a capacity of 1,500. As of Sept. 30, 2018, 826 students are enrolled at the school, but it only includes grades 8 through 11.
Salish opened to ease crowding at Clayton Heights and Lord Tweedsmuir secondary schools.
Clayton Heights has a capacity of 1,000 students and in the 2017/2018 school year – the year before Salish opened – the school had 1,410 students, putting it at 141 per cent over capacity.
Lord Tweedsmuir has a capacity of 1,400 students and in the 2017/2018 school year, it had 2,034 students enrolled, putting it at 145.3 per cent capacity.
Since then the enrolment at Clayton Heights and Lord Tweedsmuir has dropped to 1,096 students and 1,694 students, respectively.
Salish principal Sheila Hammond said while the new school is large, “we’ll definitely grow into it.”
“There’s a lot of forward thinking done with this school which is very advantageous,” said Hammond, highlighting, the “pod” design of classroom blocks, the gym facilities and makerspace rooms.
“Comfortably, we’re built for 1,500; 1,800 before a portable. But even if we had upwards of 2,000, people can really see that perhaps rooms could be converted to a classroom.”
With a smaller student body, Hammond said she and staff have noticed that students don’t have the same anxieties as they might in a crowded school.
“We have those things where they don’t even realize the effect that having more space is having on them, but we don’t see pushing in the hallway, we don’t see the rush to go and try to get to class because, really, your class could be next door or across the hall to the next pod,” said Hammond, noting that the design of the school allows for the pods to be grouped by grade with the students’ lockers nearby.
Maddie Guild is a Grade 11 student who transferred to Salish from Lord Tweedsmuir. She said when she began Grade 8 at Tweedsmuir, she was “super stressed” by the “crowdedness of the school, which was not very good for me and my nerves.”
“Especially when you’re walking from class to class, you’re bumping into people all the time,” Maddie said. “I know here we have a special Grade 8 hallway and most of their classes are in that one area of the school, and I notice some days they completely just stay out of the way of the older kids and it might calm them.
“At Tweedsmuir, we had a main stairwell and it was super stressful and you would have to fight people, basically, to get people into it and then even when you’re walking up the stairs, there’s just so many things to focus on. I know here there’s stairs in each pods, so it’s a lot calmer and you can go up there even by yourself sometimes.”
Paige Barnes is a Grade 11 student at Salish who transferred from Clayton Heights. She said she doesn’t expect the school to feel crowded next year with a full student body.
“I’m interested to see what will happen after we graduate because, obviously, there’s all this new development going up around here,” Paige said.
“I’m sure there will be a lot more students coming here. I don’t think it will be too bad next year because… we have a lot of open space right now and the hallways aren’t crowded right now, so I feel like adding one more grade won’t make too much of a difference spread out over the whole school.”
But Paige said she has noticed “a lot of development” in the area surrounding Salish.
“I think everyone’s hoping that maybe some non-housing will go up around here because there isn’t really anything for us to walk to around here,” she said. “Here, we’re just kind of in the middle of nowhere.”
UP NEXT: In part two, we visit some of Surrey’s most and least crowded elementary schools to see how growth is impacting younger students in this city.