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'Packed like sardines': Wichita district sounds the alarm about crowding at Southeast High

Wichita Southeast High School opened in 2016.
Courtesy photo
Wichita USD 259
Wichita Southeast High School opened in 2016.

Wichita school district officials have made some short-term moves to address overcrowding at Southeast High. Longer term, they could shift attendance boundaries in parts of the district.

Wichita school district officials say they want to act quickly to ease crowding at Southeast High School, which is more than 200 students over capacity, prompting safety concerns.

“Students are packed like sardines, and … one wrong move, one step on a shoe, could lead to a commotion and even a fight,” said Andrew Le, a senior and student body president at Southeast.

“Students worry about, ‘Could the escalation of these fights lead to weapons being drawn? Will I get caught up in the middle of a pepper-spraying incident when I’m in the middle of a fight?’ These are genuine concerns.”

Last month, a security guard used pepper spray to disperse a crowd of students during a brawl in the Southeast High cafeteria. Students and teachers say fights are a near-daily occurrence at the school.

Beyond that, many classes have grown to 35 students or more, in classrooms that were designed for about 25. Some buses are overcrowded, so students have to sit on the floor.

Sixteen teachers have given up their planning time to teach overflow classes. During a recent tornado drill, teachers worried there wasn’t enough time to move everyone to storm shelters, and not enough room when they got there.

Michael Harris, a Southeast High debate teacher and coach, pleaded with Wichita school board members this week to address the overcrowding.

“Our crisis plans will not work if we have too many students. Our classrooms will not be safe if we have too many students,” Harris said. “And our teachers will leave this district if we do not do something to fix this problem.”

Southeast High, near 129th Street East and Pawnee, is Wichita’s newest high school. When it opened in 2016, it replaced an older school at Lincoln and Edgemoor, which is now the district headquarters.

At the time, Southeast High had the highest transfer rate of any high school in Wichita. Nearly a third of students who lived within the Southeast High boundaries attended other schools — public, private, e-schools or home schools.

Since then, development in the city’s southeast quadrant has exploded, and so has enrollment at Southeast. This year, about 80 percent of ninth-graders who live within the Southeast High boundaries are attending the school.

The official enrollment count on Sept. 20 was 2,192, making it the second-largest high school in Wichita after East High. If you include teachers and other employees, the school is more than 20% over capacity.

School and district leaders have enacted some short-term measures to ease crowding and related concerns. They include:

  • Moving about 30 students to a new ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) program at Heights High.
  • Allowing more transfer requests to go to other high schools.
  • Opening more spots at Northeast Magnet High School.
  • Adding long-term substitutes to help with overload classes.
  • Adding another assistant principal and two more security guards.

But it’s still not enough.

Fabian Armendariz, operations director for the Wichita district, has proposed tweaking some attendance boundaries in the north part of the Southeast High attendance area. If approved, some students at four Wichita elementary schools — Adams, College Hill, Jackson and Price-Harris — would be assigned to Heights High School instead of Southeast.

“If we were to make the move today, there would be 260 students that are currently at Southeast that would be reassigned to Heights High School,” Armendariz said. “So that area would just shift.”

The district plans to hold community meetings starting later this month to talk about potential boundary changes. If approved, some could go into effect as early as next fall.

Board members also suggested a demographic study to look at enrollment trends districtwide. That could lead to other boundary changes.

“All of us feel a sense of urgency, and we don’t want to downplay that,” said board member Sheril Logan. “We’re trying to be as quickly responsive as we can.”

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.