The state-of-the-art building that houses Hillside High School and Hillside New Tech High School is experiencing a significant enrollment increase this academic year. The building, which was built for 1,500 students, now is opening its doors every morning to almost 1,700.
This year, large freshman classes and individual transfer students have pushed the building’s capacity near its limit. What has really pushed the capacity to the edge is the recent closing of Kestrel Heights charter high school, which suffered an academic scandal last year and was officially closed by the state board in early March.
About 90 students have transferred from Kestrel Heights, 50 to New Tech and roughly 40 to Hillside High. The local charter school closing has presented unique challenges to both high schools, and with only about five months to plan before building doors opened in August, both administrations had to scramble to adapt.
For New Tech, the increased enrollment was not a large issue because they are still under their maximum capacity, which is 400 students – giving slight wiggle room with 340 enrolled now. Still, New Tech’s total student population increased by 131 students, from 209, in just one year, which required strict expectation-setting from the beginning.
“We really have had to implement the rules from day one, ” said Janice Alston, data manager and school treasurer. “The biggest one being no cell phones, headphones, and other tech,” which, she added lightheartedly, “is an unbearable change for some students.”
For New Tech, a selective enrollment magnet school, students coming from Kestrel Heights are feeding into a similarly sized program, so they are accustomed to a smaller setting with an accelerated track across all subjects. The main difference between the two schools is that, as a charter school, Kestrel Heights was independent from a public school district, whereas New Tech functions within Durham Public Schools.
For Hillside High, transferring students from a charter school into a purely traditional public setting requires more strategic planning, especially considering these students are entering a school that is much larger than they may be used to.
So far, Hillside High’s administration has been managing this challenge by taking each student, evaluating their transcript, and developing individual success plans to work them into the public system.
“We’ve been working hard to make sure we are developing a track suitable for each individual,” said Assistant Principal Ray Harrison. “We can’t punish a kid for some mistake their old school made. We are just here to make sure they all can succeed.”
Even with those administrative efforts, the building shared by both high schools is experiencing moderate overcrowding issues.
Malik Woodberry, a senior at Hillside High, is frustrated with how congested the hallways have become during passing periods.
“Sometimes you can’t even tell where you are going, and you have to walk slow,” he said.
Woodberry and his friends have adjusted to this hallway traffic by walking with a purpose. “As soon as the bell rings, you have to go. No time for talking,” he said while laughing.
Both schools have also seen larger numbers of students in the classroom. At New Tech, the average classroom size has increased from around 20 students to about 25 to 30 this year. For Hillside High, some freshman teachers are having to manage classrooms of over 30 students.
Almost a month into the school year, neither administration has reported a change in overall student achievement, and both students and teachers do not seem overly concerned about the larger numbers.
More students means more work for teachers, however, which could be concerning for classroom management and long-term student performance. This is especially concerning for Hillside High, which, according to U.S. News & World Report, is already underperforming compared to state and district averages in standardized test scores.
Adam Sharpnack, a sophomore English teacher, explained, “No matter how good of a teacher you are, the more students you have, the more grading you have to do, and the less time you have for planning, which is where you have more disruptions.”
Despite the added difficultly, teachers at Hillside seem ready for the challenge.
“No teacher is upset about having overall more numbers,” Sharpnack said.
“We are in the public school system and things change all the time – you have to get good at improvising. Also, most of us think Hillside is a good school,” Sharpnack added. “So we have the students’ best interests at heart when we say the increased numbers is good, even if it’s more work for us.”
Additionally, student adjustment appears to be going well for both ends of the building. Janice Alston is proud to talk about the accepting culture at New Tech and believes students, both old and new, are managing the change well.
Woodberry highlights a tone of empathy in the school hallways.
“I think some [of the old Hillside students] are still frustrated with how crowded it’s gotten,” he said. “Some joke and say they should go back to the school they came from. But we all know they don’t have that option, so it’s all good.”
Positive attitudes towards this enrollment challenge cannot be missed when having candid conversations with students, teachers, and administrators.
Many credit Tounya Wright, principal of New Tech, and William Logan, principal of Hillside. Still, a large part of the credit also lies in the spirit of the community, which seems to realize that increasing student enrollment may be a new trend as the neighborhood continues to grow.
“Dr. Wright and Dr. Logan are pretty well versed with how to manage any excess,” said Jesse Alston, Hillside’s dean of student information.
“It’s also important to remember that all of these kids are neighborhood kids,” Alston said. “If the charters never opened, they would have been here at Hillside from the start, so we would be dealing with this excess anyway.”
“So yes,” Alston added, “it has been a little taxing forming the master schedule, and a few classes have gone over 30 students, but you gotta do what you gotta do.”