When students file into the cafeteria at Sunnyside Elementary School for lunch, they wheel a trash can to the tables with them.
The can isn’t for garbage; it’s the easiest way for each class to bring along all of the student’s lunchboxes. With nearly 200 students trying to eat lunch in a 20-minute span, most have learned to just bring food from home instead of dealing with the line for lasagna and green beans.
“If every kid went through the line and ate hot lunch, we’d spend all day feeding them,” Principal Kylie Dixon said as she looked over the packed room.
The lunchroom is the biggest symptom of how overcrowded Sunnyside Elementary has become in recent years. The school’s original capacity was around 500 students. This year 655 are enrolled. Over the years, almost every space in the building that could be turned into a classroom has been renovated to try and fit more students.
Idaho Falls School District 91’s board of trustees is considering dramatic action to address the growing needs of the school. On Wednesday the board will make its first vote on plans to design and build a stand-alone addition to the school that will provide a new cafeteria and classroom space. If approved and built on schedule, the new space could be completed by the beginning of the next school year.
Jill Rehfield has been teaching second grade at the school for 21 years. She said the school has almost doubled in population since she started, which has presented some issues to the most recent classes. In the last two years, the school experimented with merged classes, where first- and second-graders would be in the same room learning from different teachers at the same time.
“Sometimes that works, but sometimes it just causes more problems for the students,” Rehfield said.
Sunnyside has spent the last years turning every available space at the school into a space for students. A wall between two offices was knocked out to expand them into a classroom. The computer lab was turned into an art class, then into a regular classroom. By now, the school has run out of places to renovate.
“Next year, we have to add another sixth-grade classroom, and we do not have the space for it,” Dixon said.
The biggest strain from the overcrowding is felt during the lunch period. Between 10:30 in the morning and noon, the school’s gymnasium is temporarily turned into the cafeteria. Kitchen equipment is rolled in from a back storage room, eight rows of tables are set up and students begin filing through.
Each set of grades gets just 20 minutes to get and eat their food. Students at the end of the hot food line could have as little as five minutes to sit down, so many get their own table in the corner to stay at after the rest of the students finish and leave for recess.
Head custodian Barb Taylor and her part-time assistant are the ones cleaning the cafeteria between groups and preparing the room for afternoon gym classes. Once the last child eats, they have 15 minutes to clean and put away all the tables and sweep up the floor to prepare the gym.
“We’re always running, it’s such a tight window,” Taylor said.
While Sunnyside’s rapid expansion is worse than at many other schools in the district, it isn’t a unique case. The three southern elementary schools in District 91 — Edgemont, Longfellow and Sunnyside — have all seen their student population boom in recent years as more families move into that section of town.
“We have a highly concentrated set of families down here. A lot of people that registered this year seem to be brand-new to the area,” Dixon said.
Superintendent Greg Boland first proposed a solution for the crowding at Sunnyside to the school board in August. After learning about the situation at Sunnyside and hearing potential solutions, he presented the board with four initial drawings from Hummel Architects of the possible new addition.
“I wanted to see if this was a feasible option and could be done in the window of time we have available to us before August 2020,” Boland said.
All four of the drawings contained four additional classrooms, along with a cafeteria and extra bathrooms for the school. The differences between the four were in which side of the school they would be built on and whether they would have any physical connection to the original school.
“I can’t express how much that would do, just to have a little breathing room around scheduling classes and lunches,” Rehfield said.
The new feature will likely cost between $2.5 and $3 million, low enough that the district would be able to pay for it with reserve funds and not take out a bond. If the board goes forward with the design Wednesday, the blueprints could be finished by February and go out for construction bids. Boland said the bidding process could be the biggest hurdle to getting the addition built on-time and under budget, though the hope was to start building late next spring.
Similar additions at Edgemont and Longfellow would likely wait to be considered as part of the district’s 10-year plan. The district has also marked out potential places on the south side of Idaho Falls to construct a new elementary school to fit more students.