Space Invaders

November 01, 1999 2 min read

There’s no such thing as free parking at Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin. To get one of the coveted spots in the school’s lot, students must carry a C plus average, be involved in a school- or community-based activity, and carpool. As if that weren’t enough, they also have to pony up $100 a semester for the privilege of a space.

Nicolet is just one of many suburban high schools feeling the parking pinch. Administrators have long charged fees for parking permits, but demand is so high in some places that schools have begun to ration the right, making it something students have to earn.

Nicolet High’s incentive scheme encourages students to maintain their grades and get involved, says Leigh Wallace, an assistant principal known as the “Queen of Parking.” But the plan is also something of a necessity: The school has 215 assigned parking spaces, yet 640 of its 1,350 students are juniors and seniors, many of them newly licensed drivers.

The school gives top parking priority to participants in its business-internship program and to seniors who carpool, as long as they meet the grade-point average requirements. Nicolet High also offers 12 no-strings-attached parking spots, which students can reserve for $2 when they need a car for a trip to the doctor or another appointment.

Some students have groused about the grade requirements and the $100 fee. “Kids sometimes don’t understand the cost of maintenance,” Wallace says. Still, “there would be complaints [even] if the fee were $50. Most people feel pretty good about the policy.”

Though facility experts recommend that parking lots be large enough to accommodate half of a school’s 11th and 12th graders, increasing enrollments and the popularity of driving to school are making even generous-size lots seem tiny.

Sometimes, the problem spills into surrounding neighborhoods. Residents and businesses near Nicolet have lodged complaints with police about students parking on their property without permission. Community members have also lashed out in Woodinville, a well-to-do suburb of Seattle where the high school parking lot looks like a new-car showroom, with gleaming Mercedes-Benzes and Jaguars. Students often roam blocks from the school to find a spot for their cars, prompting complaints from residents about congestion. Recently, homeowners in one subdivision successfully got on-street parking banned during school hours.

Priority for Woodinville High’s 350 parking spaces goes to students enrolled in off-campus classes, seniors and juniors who carpool, and athletes in afterschool sports. Students who carpool and attend off-site classes pay $30 for a permit, while seniors who don’t carpool fork over $60. “The school has 1,401 students, and to make them all happy, you’d have to give each of them a parking slot,” principal Vicki Puckett says.

Though the principal encourages students to ride the school buses, they’re routinely half-empty. Meanwhile, there’s a waiting list for parking permits. “It’s not cool to ride the bus, and that’s sad,” explains Puckett. Students, she adds, call it the “loser cruiser.”

At the end of each day, Woodinville’s main student parking lot takes about 30 minutes to clear. The lot also sees at least one accident monthly, according to Puckett. “I’d like to get back to education,” the principal sighs. “Parking is the hottest issue, yet lowest priority on my list. It takes up a good amount of our time.”

--Adrienne D. Coles