Enrollment at Danbury High now exceeds building capacity and student numbers are expected to increase

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DANBURY — Overcrowding at Danbury Secondary School is most evident as the sea of ​​nearly 3,400 pupils move through the corridors between classes.

“If you ever walk the halls between bell times, you’re moving with the tide,” said school board chairwoman Rachel Chaleski. “There is no other direction than this sea of ​​children.”

But the steady increase in high school enrollment also means that classes fill up quickly, counselors are overloaded with about 300 students each, and traffic is heavy during drop-off and drop-off times, among other challenges.

Danbury High School – and schools in the district – have long been overcrowded, but the situation appears to be at breaking point. Enrollment is around 3,390, just above building capacity of around 3,370, according to figures presented to the school board earlier this month.

But next school year, around 3,590 pupils are expected to be at Danbury Secondary School. When students from the Alternative Center for Excellence and the Reach program are included, there could be more than 3,700 high school students in the district.

Principal Dan Donovan said the high school can be “successful” next school year, but the 2023-2024 school year could be tougher. The school will need to consider “serious options,” which could include an alternate schedule or finding ways to add space.

“Everything would be on the table since we don’t have the space,” he said.

The city is expected to announce plans Monday for the location of the highly anticipated career academy, a school that would serve 1,400 middle and high school students.

“On the horizon, we’re going to relieve the spacing problem, especially in high school,” Danbury Mayor Dean Esposito said. He praised the school district for how it handled the growth.

But the academy isn’t expected to open until fall 2024, and that’s if planning and construction is on schedule after issues negotiating with Summit, development on the west side where the city originally wanted to build the school. . It remains unclear whether the city has reached an agreement with the Summit.

The academy would pull about 1,000 students out of high school, which would make “all the changes in the world,” Donovan said.

After learning about the cramped conditions in the schools from a state official during a hearing last week, the newly approved state education commissioner said she would visit the high school.

“When a student is more concerned about how to get to the next class than what’s going on in the classroom, it weakens the educational experience,” said state Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, who asked the commissioner to come to the school.

Become bigger

Danbury’s population grew by 7% between 2010 and 2020, according to the latest US Census data. The city’s growth has been attributed to its affordability, strong economy, and low crime.

The city has long been popular with immigrants and has been attracting more and more New Yorkers since the onset of COVID-19.

This means that student enrollment is growing faster than schools can expand.

“The district and the city are doing everything they can to address these issues,” Donovan said. “They have their hands tied.

The school district has exceeded 12,000 students, with elementary and middle schools running out of space. Danbury opened a preschool on Granville Avenue last year and is building an addition to Ellsworth Avenue Elementary School which is expected to open in the fall.

“The number of students in all of our schools has literally affected every aspect of system operations,” Chaleski said. “It’s not just about space, capacity building, but it’s the staff, it’s the curriculum, the academics and the opportunities we can provide for our students, the technology, the transportation, Planning.”

Danbury High School has been expanded several times over the past 40 years, Donovan said. Classrooms have been added to Buildings A, C and D, with another gym built in Building E and the black box theater added to Building A, he said. Building G, also known as Freshman Academy, opened in August 2018

“We’ve pretty much maxed out everywhere we can go,” Donovan said, adding that enrollment has increased by 400 to 500 students since he became principal in 2016.

Simply adding classrooms to the high school wouldn’t work, officials said.

“No matter what you do with the classrooms, you can’t widen the hallways,” Godfrey said. “It doesn’t make gymnasiums bigger. It doesn’t make the cafeteria bigger.

With the increase in enrollment came an increased number of students with high needs, including English language learners and special education.

High school life

This year’s freshman class has about 1,180 students — far more than the 700 to 840 students each in other classes, according to figures presented to the school board.

State Representative David Arconti, D-Danbury, said the high school was packed when he graduated in 2004, but now “it’s worse.”

Hallways are generally “manageable” for the five-minute walk, but some parts of the building become too crowded depending on the directions students are moving in, Donovan said.

Students don’t have time to stop at their lockers, so they take everything with them, Chaleski said.

Most teachers also have to change classrooms, carrying their materials from one part of the building to another, Donovan said.

“Obviously, this adds a lot of stress to the faculty and all education staff because it’s difficult to accommodate large classrooms full of students,” said State Senator Julie Kushner, D- Danbury. “I think the impact on educators is dramatic.”

The high school changed from a seven-period day to an eight-period day this school year to offer more courses, because starting in the class of 2023, graduates must now earn 25 credits instead of 21.

Even still, students have had to be placed in additional study halls because there are not enough courses available, which could put them at risk of falling behind on credits.

“We’ve pretty much solved that problem, but as more and more students come to our district – at this time of year we get a small influx of students – we have to do some magic to make sure they have all the classes they need,” Donovan said.

Counselors have about 300 students each, while the recommendation is 250, Donovan said.

“It’s even considered high by many, especially with the way things are going with our students now,” he said. “Coming back from COVID, there are a lot more mental health issues happening.”

Some said they worried that the students wouldn’t be able to get individual attention. But Chaleski said teachers are strong at connecting with their students. The school also offers various programs in art, music, sports — whatever interests students, she said.

Long term solutions

The career academy is the main way the city is looking to solve the overcrowding problem. The cost of the project is estimated at $144.5 million, an increase from an initial estimate of $99 million. The state should cover 80% of the cost.

But some argued that Danbury needed to build other schools as well.

“For years I said we needed two or three more schools in Danbury,” Godfrey said.

The superintendent and the school board also discussed the matter. The city may also pursue an expansion plan for Great Plain Elementary School.

The Open Choice program, which would allow Danbury students to attend nearby suburban schools, might help a little, Chaleski said. But the program could not start for the next academic year and is only intended to serve 50 students in its pilot year.

Chaleski supports the charter school, which would eventually serve 770 students. She said it would “offer assistance not only with space, but also in bridging the achievement gap.”

Danbury must provide resources to the school to keep up with the city’s growth, Arconti said. This should be one of the factors in the ten-year master plan the city is developing, he said.

“They really need to emphasize development versus the impact it has on the school system and our city’s resources,” Arconti said.

This year’s budget cycle could also serve as a turning point. The school board requested $152 million, which would add 30.5 staff and increase local spending by 6.2%.

Esposito said he is evaluating that request and would consider increasing signups as part of that.

“I’m sorry for the mayor and sorry for the superintendent,” said state Rep. Ken Gucker, D-Danbury. “They kind of got into a ticking time bomb. None of this is their doing, but they have the ability, at least the city, to really make some tough choices.

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