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New Billings superintendent pushing early college classes to battle overcrowding

Superintendent Erwin Garcia
Posted at 5:56 PM, Aug 31, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-31 19:56:20-04

New Billings Public Schools Superintendent Erwin Garcia is looking at creative solutions to battle the overcrowding problem currently happening in the city's schools.

The three Billings high schools will have the largest enrollment numbers in the state for the second straight year, with two of the three schools over what the district has determined is their functional capacity.

Billings West High will once again be the largest school in the state with 2,228 students, which puts its capacity at 130%. The overcrowding problem is something West High parent Megan Hughes understands.

"My daughter has, this year, every day come home crying," Hughes said. "She messages me constantly throughout the day. Just with the crowding and everything else and that there is hardly anywhere to sit in class."

Megan Hughes

Hughes said her daughter struggles with asthma and that the packed school struggles with proper ventilation. The situation has gotten so bad for Hughes that she is planning on transferring her daughter to a different school.

"I just don't trust the school district to make the necessary changes," Hughes said. "She's transferring out of SD2."

It's a problem Garcia, who was hired as superintendent last spring, is aware of, but he said it's not specific to West High.

"Billings is a popular place," Garcia said. "People are moving here, and the city is expanding. It's a good thing, but it adds to the overcrowding in our schools."

Senior (1,758 students) and Skyview (1,648 students) are the second- and third-largest schools in terms of enrollment this year. Senior is also over capacity, sitting at 119%, while Skyview is under, but just barely at 98%.

Garcia said there are no plans to build a new high school on the city's west end, although continued growth could make it necessary.

"The thing with building a comprehensive high school is it can go up to $200 to $300 million," Garcia said. "I don't know if the public wants to engage in a proposition for one school on one side of town."

Redistricting is still an option, according to Garcia. There was a plan put together by the district that was postponed last year, but Garcia said even some shifts in the boundaries won't solve the overcrowding problems.

"130 percent capacity and 119 percent capacity," Garcia said. "So, if we moved kids from one school to the next, you're not necessarily fixing the problem. You're just creating another problem."

Students at West High

That's why Garcia and his team are trying a different approach. They are exploring offering early college classes at the Lincoln Center, in an effort to maximize the space the district has.

"There are things we can do that don't require the entire city to be shuffled around," Garcia said. "We are envisioning the 24-25 school year to provide kids with the opportunity to access an early college high school."

Ideally, Garcia said that the early college would have space for 125 students in year one, with the possibility to expand to 500 students if the program is successful. Garcia also said the Career Center building could be expanded, providing more space for the same program in a different part of the city.

"That makes our kids more employable, that makes our kids only two years away from a bachelor degree," Garcia said. "If we could get close to 500 students in both locations, that would relieve some of the pressure that we have at West."

It's a potential solution for a problem that continues to grow, and one Hughes said needs to be resolved.

"I just want to be able to wake up in the morning and do what I need to do and be able to trust that the school system is going to be able to provide whatever they need to provide to our kids," Hughes said.