3000+, a space odyssey: District 518 strives to make room for exploding enrollment
WORTHINGTON — They don’t build schools like they used to.
And with a burgeoning, diverse student population, it’s no surprise that District 518 is almost literally bursting at its buildings’ seams.
“What’s happening in our district is a rate of growth we haven’t seen here since the late 1950s and ‘60s when the baby boom generation was young,” said Steve Schnieder, chair of the District 518 Board of Education.
“We’re seeing that kind of growth here again, and it amounts to the equivalent of adding three or four new classrooms each year.”
District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard contributed data to back up Schnieder’s statements.
“Our current student enrollment is 3,065, which, looking back two years, is a year to a year and a half ahead of our projections,” Landgaard said. “We’re now projecting an enrollment of over 3,350 students in the next four years, but because we’ve been trending faster than projections, that number could be 3,400 students in four years if the trend is truly accurate.”
An extended enrollment study, Landgaard said, has shown that District 518 could have close to 4,000 students by 2025.
The facilities crunch comes with this reality: Each of the district’s main school buildings is already filled beyond its designed capacity.
“Prairie Elementary’s design capacity was 1,150, and we’re now at 1,207 there — 1,255 when you include Early Childhood,” said Landgaard.
“The Worthington Middle School design capacity is 850, and we have 917 students at WMS this year.”
Worthington High School (WHS) was designed for 800 students, with 826 now in attendance.
“With the 2015 addition, the WHS design capacity improved to 850-875, so that temporarily alleviated some of the crowding, but our projections show there will be over 900 students at WHS within two years so the problem is right back in our faces,” said Landgaard.
“And in four years, we’re projected to have 1,000 students at WHS.”
Schnieder said his primary concern as a school board member is the difficulty in forecasting student growth and assuring that schools built now will satisfy the space requirements for 20 or more needs.
“Prairie Elementary was built in 2001, and the additions to WMS and WHS have handled some of the growth, but we’ve now outgrown those buildings and will soon have enough students in our district to fill an entire other school,” Schnieder said.
“For us to meet the need of our community’s growth, we must build for the future, and we’d like to have already done that by now.
“We’ll have to shoehorn kids into the buildings for the time being and then spread things out again when a new school is built.”
Schnieder observes that other community initiatives, like the push for more water, more housing and more industry, will inevitably lead to more students.
“We need to be in sync with the city of Worthington, the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce and the economic development initiatives in order to be able to accommodate more kids,” said Schnieder.
Landgaard assures that all options for maximizing existing space are being explored.
“There are teachers holding classes in spaces designed as closets,” Landgaard said. “We are using every possible bit of space in our buildings, and this is an issue the community will have to grapple with and help us determine the next step.”
EL students, diverse student body
Additionally, the District 518 student population is far from homogeneous, with a K-12 population that is 68 percent diverse.
“When I started here in 2003, just 13 years ago, our diverse population figure was at 34 percent, so it’s doubled in that time,” said Landgaard.
In 2003, the number of English language learners (EL) was around 250; today, it’s nearly 1,000, or close to one-third of the total student population.
Similarly, the number of EL teachers has grown, from five in 2003 to 25 in 2015-16.
“District-wide, we embrace all students who come to us regardless of their language levels, disabilities or free and reduced lunch status,” said Katie Clarke, District 518’s Director of Teaching and Learning.
“We don’t worry about what kind of students are or aren’t coming to our schools; once they’re here, we take them in and put the pieces in place to help all of our learners.
“Yes, we have a high EL population, and our district improvement plan makes closing the achievement gap a high priority, with specific strategies to address that — one of those being appropriate facilities.”
Clarke explains that many EL teachers need specific places in which to meet with smaller numbers of students.
“When the existing buildings were designed, maximum occupancy and capacities were different,” she said. “Also, there are state square footage requirements for special education rooms.
“We now have interpreters on staff who need offices, social workers who need places to meet, so maybe in past years there were similar numbers of students here but there weren’t three social workers on site,” Clarke observed.
“The way we utilize space has changed partially because we know different things about ‘best practices’ in education than we did 30 to 40 years ago, and there are different mandates and usage requirements from the state level that contribute to the facilities needs as well.”
Clarke is quick to point out that the lack of English proficiency in no way equates to a disability.
“With almost one-third of District 518 students having some sort of language gap, it’s very important to not only offer them extra language support but to also expose them to our grade-level standards, or they become increasingly disadvantaged,” Clarke said.
People who view the statewide standardized test results annually and shake their heads at District 518’s statistics need to keep the whole picture in mind, advised Clarke and Landgaard.
“When you stack our diversity percentage against the state average, it’s 68 percent to the state’s 30 percent,” Clarke said.
“The state EL percentage is eight percent, while we’re at nearly one-third, and we have 70 percent of our students qualifying for free and reduced lunch while the state average is 38 percent.
“The state gives every student the exact same assessment, and that can pose challenges for our students who aren’t yet as proficient in English.”
Quality teachers and staff, agreeable students
Landgaard stressed that District 518 teachers and staff work hard at meeting kids where they are and helping them advance.
“It’s our goal for every student to advance at least one grade level each year, and the bulk of them are advancing appropriately,” Landgaard said.
“A better measurement for the kids of our district than a one-day, same-level-for-all test would be to assess how far a student has individually progressed in the course of a year, because sometimes that’s well above what the expectation might be.”
Clarke sees the district’s efforts to close the achievement gap and its need for adequate facilities space as hand-in-hand goals.
“It comes down to District 518’s vision of excellence for all, and our desire to meet the needs of all the students we have,” Clarke said.
“In order to do that, all the pieces of the system have to be in place, and that includes having adequate 21st century learning facilities.”
Landgaard recognizes that many things in District 518 are on the right track; students generally get along well with each other and tend to respect their teachers.
“We have really good kids overall,” credited Landgaard. “Do some of them make poor decisions at times? Absolutely, but for the size of our school system, they behave pretty darn good.
“It doesn’t matter what country they come from or how they’ve been brought up — the amount of conflict we have among students is very minimal, and when it does arise, it’s rarely related to race.
“We have endless success stories about kids who have come to this district and are doing extremely well, both during their school years and after graduating, and that speaks to our teachers who put in the time and effort to help them be successful.”
“Part of the reason we are so hopeful and focused in District 518 is that we have an excellent staff, including the teachers, para-professionals, tech support, transportation people, custodians, cooks — we have a great district working together to help our students learn,” said Clarke.
“We strive for excellence for all, and to give our students high quality learning opportunities so they can be ready for jobs in their chosen field or prepared for college.
“That, to me, is hope, and the measure of success for us as educators.”