By Amanda Dyslin
---- — In the 15 years since Bridges Community School opened in 1999, there hasn't been a single year without a sixth grade.
The school has always been a K-6 building, even that first year when the school had just one sixth-grader enrolled, said lead teacher Robin Courrier.
But news of the plans to remodel Bridges as a K-5 school when a new middle school opens in 2016 has caused some Bridges families to leave the school early. Twelve families elected to send their kids to Franklin or Garfield elementaries for sixth grade in 2014-15, leaving just 12 students in next year's sixth-grade class at Bridges.
In order to be fiscally responsible, Bridges and Mankato Area Public Schools decided not to offer sixth grade at Bridges beginning next fall with just 12 students to one teacher. Sixth-grade class sizes in other Mankato schools are more than 30.
Courrier called the 12 remaining families with the news.
“The parents who wanted to stay are disappointed. They weren't ready for this,” Courrier said. “... (But) I just want to emphasize the opportunity that we have with this change. With choice comes opportunity.”
Jennifer Domas wanted her fifth-grade daughter, Julia, to be able to stay next year at Bridges, which is on the west side of Mankato in a building leased from St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church. Domas hadn't heard until Courrier called her that sixth grade was being eliminated sooner than planned.
After some time to think about it, Julia is now OK with the move to Franklin in the fall. But when she first heard the news, she cried.
“It was a surprise. I was disappointed,” said Domas, who wanted her daughter to be able to stay at the same school as her younger sister.
Without a sixth grade, Bridges has been able to begin the process early of growing the school's population, said Heather Mueller, district director of teaching and learning. Next fall the school will offer a second section of kindergarten for the first time.
Because Bridges, as a choice school rather than a neighborhood one, operates on a lottery system and always has a waiting list in the lower grades, many more families were told recently that their children will be enrolled at the non-traditional public school in the fall. The restructuring of the district will allow Bridges to eventually add more than 100 students, Courrier said.
The new middle school facility on the east side of the district will open in fall 2016, and that school and Dakota Meadows will operate as 6-8 schools. (Dakota Meadows will receive a new addition, to be completed by August 2016).
West and East high schools will serve grades 9-12, and all elementary schools in the district will become K-5 buildings. (Currently, Garfield, Bridges and Franklin have sixth grade.)
Garfield Elementary School is being renovated to turn the school from a sixth-grade facility to house grades K-5, and Bridges will be moving into that building when the sixth-graders are moved into the middle schools. The move is what will allow Bridges to expand its population, and the early transition of the sixth-graders has started that process sooner than expected.
“This was our opportunity, our chance to start the growth now,” Courrier said.
The growth will be staggered for a couple of years with two sections of kindergarten in 2014-15, two sections each of kindergarten and first grade in 2015-16, and so on. Eventually, when the school is in place at the Garfield building, there will be two sections of every grade in K-5.
Courrier said Bridges families learned of the plans of aligning the school to house grades K-5 because of the bond referendum in November, and half decided to make the transition early.
“They're planning ahead, and they're taking the opportunity for choice,” Courrier said. “With choice comes change.”
Beth and Jason Hanke have a fifth-grader, Anna, at Bridges this year, as well as a kindergartner and first-grader. Beth Hanke said their family was one of those to choose to send Anna to Garfield next year, prompted mostly by social considerations.
Hanke said most other elementary schools in the district send their sixth-graders to either Garfield or Franklin for sixth grade, where they get to know each other and form cliques before moving onto middle school. Hanke didn't want Anna to have to enter middle school as a new kid with so few peers from Bridges.
“Garfield does a good job of combining other schools at that time,” Hanke said.
For the most part, Hanke said Anna is excited for the change.
“It'll be hard. She'll go in knowing fewer kids than other students,” Hanke said.
Families have for years been sending their Bridges kids to sixth grade at Franklin or Garfield so that they become accustomed to larger class sizes and schools before starting middle school. Although, fewer families made that choice until this year.
“Because we're a choice school, parents know they have kids in a class of 24 and they would be moving to a middle school of upwards of 300,” Courrier said. “An average of five families would choose to go to (a larger) sixth-grade school to transition to middle school.”
Hanke said the number of parents who made that choice has varied over the years.
"I think some classes are stronger and more connected to each other. Last year's class, a lot of people chose to stay," she said.