Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Elementary schools with highest percentage of students over projection.
Elementary schools with highest enrollment
Brenton Lago stands in the middle of a hallway teeming with students.
Nearly 150 second-graders are exiting the cafeteria, having just finished lunch. Nearby, about 30 fifth-graders are about to leave an art class. Just down the hallway, a class of fourth-graders is starting to head out of the library.
Like an air-traffic controller, Lago begins directing his students to their proper destinations. As the children stream past him in a quiet and orderly fashion, a boy in a blue T-shirt jumps up and down nearby, visibly antsy as he waits for his turn to depart.
Lago quickly nudges the boy to stop fidgeting.
"There are so many kids coming and going, I don't want you to fall and get hurt," he says.
Maintaining student safety is just one of several growing concerns for the principal of Mendoza Elementary School, which — like many schools across the valley — is bursting at the seams.
Each winter, the Clark County School District tries to estimate each school's student enrollment for the following year to establish staffing and resource allocations. Oftentimes, those projections are hard to pinpoint.
That's why each fall, the School District rejiggers its student enrollment figures by using an attendance number from "Count Day," which was Sept. 21 this year. State per-pupil funding and district resources are reallocated based on Count Day attendance.
Mendoza welcomed 108 more students than projected by the district in February. Those additional students boosted Mendoza's student enrollment to 850 students by Count Day.
Accommodating the influx of new students has been a challenge for teachers and staff, Lago said.
"We try to be adaptive and accommodating as much as we can, and do the best for our kids," Lago said. "It's hard though. It's hard to accommodate everyone."
The east valley school, which serves a high population of low-income students, lost five teachers this summer because of budget cuts. Across the district, there are more than 1,000 fewer teachers, which increased average class sizes by three students.
Although higher-than-expected student enrollment will bring some teachers back to Mendoza, they will still face bigger class sizes, Lago said.
Class sizes, which hovered about 16 or 17 students in the lower levels last year, suddenly jumped this year to 24 or 25 students. In some grade levels — such as kindergarten, fourth and fifth grades — class sizes are pushing past 30.
To alleviate overcrowding, Mendoza — which already has nine portable classrooms — received two more last week. The school ran out of space in "portable alley" located in the back parking lot, so the new double-wide trailer building was placed on a school basketball court.
Lago shakes his head in disbelief at his crowded school, which saw the highest student enrollment over projection among the 217 elementary schools in the district that weren’t magnet schools.
"I hate putting people in portables," he says with disappointment. "I don't think people were expecting this many students when they were building these schools 20, 30 years ago."
For more than a decade, Clark County was the fastest-growing school district in the country. Thousands of families were flocking to Las Vegas, attracted by economic opportunities in construction and gaming.
Clark County's student population more than doubled since 1990. Eventually the School District became the nation's fifth-largest.
However, after the recession ravaged Las Vegas, growth slowed and enrollment plateaued.
There are still pockets of growth, however, as evidenced by schools like Mendoza. These booming schools helped the School District post its record high enrollment of 311,380 students this year, an increase of 4,656 students from the end of last school year.
Even with increased students, however, staffing levels have fallen to 93 percent at elementary schools as the district tries to bridge a $64 million budget deficit. That means fewer teachers for more students.
Lago welcomes the new children to his school but is baffled by the growth. Mendoza — which is in the established neighborhood of Sunrise Manor — should have a stagnant population, much like other schools nearby, he said.
Perhaps more people are living together in a single-family home as the economy continues to sputter. Perhaps some students are using fake addresses to attend the three-star school, which posted double-digit gains in test scores last year.
No matter the reason, Lago is adamant the crowding at his school won't interfere with Mendoza's mission: educating students.
"We're not going to let high enrollment bog us down," he said.
However, with fewer teachers and resources, Lago is worried: How many students is too many?
Across the valley, acting principal Angela Cantrell is asking the same question at Wright Elementary.
The southwest valley school is one of five elementary schools in the district that has more than 1,000 students.
With nearly 1,200 students and 100 staff, Wright could easily be a public high school in some states. However, in Southern Nevada, it's becoming the status quo.
Unlike her counterpart at Mendoza, Cantrell knows exactly why her school is over projected enrollments again this year. Developers at the nearby Mountain's Edge community have begun to build homes again, attracting new families to the neighborhood.
Wright, which opened in 2006, was designed to hold 811 students. With an overflow of students, the five-star school added 20 portable classrooms over the years.
The influx of students became so great this year that the district installed a portable cafeteria and a portable bathroom on campus. That was pretty much unheard of in the district … until now, Cantrell said.
"There are so many kids out here," Cantrell said. "The more children we have, the more challenging it gets."
Wright's class sizes have increased to levels similar to Mendoza. The portable classrooms help, but it's just not the same as a brick-and-mortar classroom, said Assistant Principal Pamela Norton.
Individual desks for each student won't fit inside a portable. That's why even fourth-graders assigned to portable classrooms have to study on large group tables, with shared cubbies to hold their notebooks.
And although research shows mixed results on the effect of smaller class sizes, one-on-one attention is hard to come by in classes with upwards of 30 students.
However, the larger concern for Wright officials is student safety. Many parents drive their children to and from school, causing massive traffic congestion and unsafe conditions for walking students.
In response, the school established a "kiss and drop" zone for driving parents, and placed more orange cones around the school to discourage speeding and illegal U-turns. Teachers also have been asked to volunteer after school to monitor student pickup and dropoff.
"We have to do traffic control in addition to teaching," Cantrell said, sighing. "It gets to be pretty crazy out here."
Both Mendoza and Wright have turned to creative ways to tackle crowding.
At Mendoza, officials have solicited outside businesses such as the Orleans Hotel and Casino to help with school supply drives and staff development. The school has also invited parent and high school student volunteers to help out in big classes.
At Wright, larger grade levels have been reassigned to larger classrooms, and staff have stepped up to help alleviate traffic congestion during the morning and afternoons. The school has capped enrollment in past years and denied zone variances to ensure class sizes don't get to overcapacity.
However, the schools can only do so much, officials said.
To alleviate crowding in schools, the School District is proposing building two new elementary schools in the southwest valley, an area that has continued to grow in spite of the recession.
The district is asking for voter approval on a new property tax that would fund school maintenance and renovations, as well as these two new schools. The pay-as-you-go plan would amount to an additional $74 tax increase per year on a home with an assessed evaluation of $100,000.
For overcapacity schools like Wright, the additional campuses could help mitigate crowding, Norton said. It could mean the difference between a class with 34 students or 24 students.
"It's essential for us to have some relief out here," she said.