By Amanda Dyslin
---- — ST. PETER — Paraprofessional Bridget Klein and a preschool student duck behind a filing cabinet and work on reciting some numbers.
Behind the two, several tiered rows of theater chairs sit empty. On the other side of the cabinet, Early Childhood Special Education Teacher Nick Moeller is busy with half a dozen chattering students at South Elementary Early Learning Center in St. Peter.
Moeller has taught at South for five years. But this year he had to make some adjustments. Due to increased enrollment in the elementary grades, a serious lack of space at South meant that Moeller had to leave a traditional classroom setting and move his class into the theater room on the lower level of the building.
School-wide programs used to take place here. Teachers and parents would gather in the theater seats to watch their kids give presentations.
Now Moeller focuses on trying to keep his curious little explorers out of those theater seats and within the confines of the makeshift boundaries of the main floor area.
“It's been an adjustment,” Moeller said. “But we're making it work.”
Moeller's class is one example of many creative, temporary solutions happening at South and North Intermediate in St. Peter. Lessons are taking place in hallways. A corner of the cafeteria has been turned into a K-2 program space. Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) students also are having to use the cafeteria for physical education space.
“We're using every space possible,” said Principal Darin Doherty.
With a projected enrollment increase of about 1 to 2 percent per year, St. Peter Public Schools is in the midst of examining future needs, said Supt. Jeff Olson. A facilities task force has been studying space needs to determine the best course of action, which could include a new high school building and re-purposing of space in the existing facilities.
If a new school is pursued and a referendum passed, the doors wouldn't open for at least five years, leaving administrators, principals and teachers with the task of continuing to scrounge space for growing kindergarten classes that will keep matriculating through the grades.
Fall of 2007 was the last time major changes took place at South and North Intermediate to deal with the population boom. “Almost every classroom is moving somewhere new,” Olson said that summer.
A $1.2 million five-classroom addition was built onto North, which allowed the school to take third grade away from South. New science and technology labs were added to North, and most third- and fourth-graders became housed in a separate wing from fifth- and sixth-graders.
ECSE — which serves ages 3 to kindergarten who qualify for services based on assessment results — was relocated from North to South. That's also when South adopted the Stimulating Maturity through Accelerated Readiness Training program (SMART), which focuses on physical activities designed to stimulate the mind. Beginning that fall the school had two SMART exercise rooms and another creative playroom.
The changes helped alleviate the congestion at the time. But the kids have kept on coming.
“As time has gone on, now we've kind of been crunched again,” said Ytive Prafke, district special programs administrator.
The district has more than 1,900 students enrolled this year. In grades K-6, there are only two grades with fewer than 150 kids. In grades 7-12, there isn't a single class with more than 150 kids, showing the growth in elementary.
This year's kindergarten class has 165 students, which would have been about 180 had some not been pulled out for the Ready for Kindergarten program, Doherty said. That compares to a first-grade class of 141, showing the marked growth in just one year. (Last year 14 kids were pulled out for the Ready for Kindergarten program.)
South has nine sections of kindergarten this year, and seven sections each of first and second grade. With another large class of kindergartners expected next fall, classrooms may have to be divided or class sizes may have to be increased to accommodate the growth.
“We're already looking at where to add another classroom next year,” Doherty said.
Olson said families with parents who are ages 25 to 40 are the fastest-growing demographic in St. Peter. They're drawn to the “great community,” he said, which has nice parks, a newer community center and “really good schools.”
“And it's a good location,” Olson said. “The other huge factor is the regional growth that the whole Mankato area is experiencing, and we're simply tied into that.”
Olson said district enrollment has grown by more than 150 students in the last five years. With a projected growth of 1 to 2 percent annually, the district should have between 200 and 400 more students in the next 10 years, he said.
“So we really believed it was time to take a look at how do we handle that growth,” Olson said.
Bond being considered
A 50-person facilities task force convened in January and conducted an in-depth study. The primary conclusions included addressing overcrowding issues in the lower grades; having all early childhood programs together (they are at three locations now); modernizing or finding a new facility for dealing with inadequate recreation areas at the middle/high school level; dealing with district safety and security at the buildings; and exploring the possibility of adding a new building.
Olson said adding a new high school building and shifting other grades and programs within the existing buildings makes the most sense if the district were to move ahead with a new building plan.
The district is working with construction consultants and architects to develop a potential plan for a new facility and for repurposing existing buildings. In February a community survey will be conducted to gauge whether a bond referendum would be supported.
“It's not necessary looking at 'yes or no,' just what are the barriers. Are we off base in what the community wants? Is it too costly?” Olson said.
If the community shows support, a bond question could be on the ballot by the spring or fall of 2015. A new school likely wouldn't open its doors until 2018, Olson said.
“The general buzz that I hear is, 'That's something we would be interested in, but we need to know more,'” Olson said.
Plan B, Olson said, would be looking at renting space or remodeling existing facilities. At South, Doherty said remodeling would be difficult due to its open-concept layout. An addition would be costly because of how the heating and ventilation is set up.
Matthew and Laurie Kelly, who have a third- and a fifth-grader in the district, moved to St. Peter from Arizona last year. Matthew Kelly said he's been impressed with the schools and teachers so far, and he'd definitely consider a bond question. But he would need more information on what exactly the money would be going for and the impact on taxes.
From what Kelly has gleaned of the St. Peter community, he said a referendum would likely be supported if a new school building is truly needed.
“I think it's a pretty supportive community,” Kelly said.
District-wide, while solutions are being developed, principals and teachers still have quite a wait for relief.
“Even if we're able to develop and execute a plan to address that overcrowding, we've still got it for five years,” Olson said.
Prafke said whatever the temporary solutions may be during the next several years, the administration and teachers will work hard to make sure the students are the least affected.
“The kids still receive excellent quality programs, it's just a little different setting,” Prafke said. “We'll do what we have to do.”