The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 17, 2013

South, North adopt temporary space solutions

Teachers using hallways, media centers, cafeteria for lessons

By Amanda Dyslin
adyslin@mankatofreepress.com

---- — ST. PETER — As St. Peter Public Schools officials examine potential solutions to the crowding issues, South Elementary Early Learning Center and North Intermediate staff have come up with creative ways to maximize their space.

The South situation

At South, classrooms are spacious, and class sizes are 18-19 kids per kindergarten section; 20-21 for first-grade sections; and 22-23 per second-grade section. For these grade levels, Principal Darin Doherty said the class sizes need to stay at these numbers.

“We want to keep it that way for the way we instruct,” he said, adding that larger class sizes are not the best learning environments. “We know that's not what's best for kids.”

With a K-2 population of 463 students this year, Doherty and Ytive Prafke, district special programs administrator, both said most of the stress of space constraints is felt by the teachers and administration, not by the students. The reason for using unique building spaces is to ensure that the kids are still receiving the kind of instruction and lessons they want them to have.

“We utilize hallways, entryways, the cafeteria,” Doherty said. “Wherever we can find space.”

The Early Childhood Special Education program now takes up the entire lower level of the school. Two sections are taught in classrooms and Nick Moeller's is held in the theater room, which does not have ready access to running water or a bathroom, Prafke said. (The state requires a maximum of eight students per section, with one teacher and one paraprofessional.)

The program's SMART lessons are being provided in the hallway. The students are taken upstairs to the cafeteria several days a week for physical education class (because the gym is occupied by K-2 students). And on days they don't have phy-ed, they come out into the hallway to get their brains fired up for learning through some motor activities, such as “spinning, jumping, rolling and balancing,” said ECSE Teacher Mariah Myhra.

Myhra said holding SMART in the hallway has limited the activities, and they used to have access to more equipment.

The K-2 SMART lessons are being taught in the corner of the cafeteria. Cabinets have been strategically placed to act as two half walls, creating an enclosed space with mats, trampolines and other equipment.

“That used to be in a classroom,” Doherty said.

English Language Learner instruction is taking place in the media center. During days when Doherty is “coaching,” or visiting classrooms all day, his office is used as conference space. Prafke's office has been moved to a small space at the far end of the building.

“It's like dominoes all the time,” Doherty said of the space constraints' affect on people. “It's logistically very frustrating.”

But Doherty said he also sees the issue from a broader perspective.

“It's a good problem to have because we're growing,” he said.

Kellie Satrom, who has been a teacher for 27 years, loves her ECSE classroom at South, which is large and has everything she needs for her kids. She worries about the possibility of having to divide the classroom in two with a half wall. Children in wheelchairs would have more difficulty navigating the space, and both halves would somehow have to be able to access the sinks and bathroom on the far side of the room.

“Noise would be an issue,” Satrom said, but added she could potentially make it work in the short term.

North making sacrifices

Morgan and Madison Kelly are sisters who attend an after-school daycare program at North Intermediate called Third Floor. On Wednesday their dad, Matthew Kelly, didn't have to work. But the girls still asked their parents if they could take part in the program that day because there's so many cool things to do: play Wii, Xbox, ping pong, board games or do crafts — all on the stage of the gymnasium, which is home base to Third Floor.

On a light day, 30 third- through sixth-grade students will gather on the gymnasium stage after school from 3-5 p.m. On a busy night, it's 100 kids, said North Principal Karen Coblentz, which is why spillover space in places such as the cafeteria is necessary.

Previously, Third Floor was held in a room that has since been turned into a computer lab — because in the past five years, North has run out of space.

“It's unbelievable. We have no closets,” Coblentz said. “We all kind of laugh about it, but it's tough.”

Third Floor (named because of a previous location) can't use the main floor of the gym because sports practices are going on. And nobody wants to cut the program at North because it's such a big help to parents and students.

The daycare program is free. Working parents know their kids are being looked after, and they can come collect them after work at 5 p.m.

During those two hours Gustavus Adolphus College and Minnesota State University students volunteer to help with homework. The kids have a TV to watch movies, and they can play board games and do arts projects. Some use the school's computer lab, go outside on the playground or use the time for piano or guitar lessons.

“They have access to a lot of different things,” Coblentz said. “And with kids, they don't realize it's so full. If they can fit six kids on a couch, they do, and they'll play a video game.”

Coblentz said the Third Floor space crunch is just one symptom of a systematic issue: “We don't have enough space in our district.”

In 2007, after the North building addition was completed, Coblentz said the congestion was relieved for a while. The school even had a storage room, she said.

“We thought that would last five or six years. It lasted three. We had to change that (storage room) over into a classroom,” she said.

Coblentz said she can't walk a hallway in the building without seeing paraprofessionals or Reading Corps staff working with students there. Just recently a group of teachers wanted to hold a meeting in the building, and Coblentz couldn't find a private space that wasn't already occupied.

“We have severe issues,” she said.

Having that many kids and adults in one building is also tough in a “personal space” kind of way. The building has 628 students, and Coblentz said, from a comfort standpoint, it should be at 450. The crowding can most be seen during school assemblies when the whole school piles into the gym, she said.

“I don't really realize how crowded it is besides at the end of the school day when everybody is in the hallways,” said Morgan Kelly, a fifth-grader.

Matthew Kelly said he and his wife, Laurie Kelly, aren't concerned about the space constraints having an effect on his children's learning. He said he knows his daughters are receiving a good education.

“They're a good crew,” he said of the North staff. “We're pleased with everything they're doing.”

So far, class sizes have been between 23 and 28 kids, which Coblentz said isn't ideal. But to keep them from increasing, the administration is looking at doing some remodeling for next year.

The school will likely create a computer lab out of part of the media center and turn the current computer lab into a classroom. Another smaller computer lab may have to be looked at down the line for additional classroom space.

“We've got some thoughts,” Coblentz said. “After that, we're really out of space.”