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Year in review: Fifth-graders on the move

District 518

WORTHINGTON -- When the District 518 Board of Education solicits bids early next month for construction of an addition to Worthington Middle School, the move will have been nearly a year in the making.

In February, the board started discussion about how to handle increasing enrollment at Prairie Elementary and considered a number of solutions: purchase or lease of a portable building; purchase and remodel of some other building in the community; the addition of eight classrooms to Prairie Elementary at a cost of about $4.2 million; an addition of eight classrooms to the middle school at a cost of about $2.4 million; or the "Do nothing" or "Wait-and-see" option -- eventually the district would need to hire additional teachers and paraprofessionals, and the number of students per classroom would increase.

An addition of classrooms at WMS would mean moving the district's fifth-graders, currently housed in Prairie Elementary, to the middle school.

In August, faculty and staff from Prairie Elementary and WMS weighed in on the potential move.

Some were enthusiastic, while others raised logistical concerns.

"We're already teaming and flipping and flopping and I think the kids are handling that beautifully," said Stacy Dibble, a fifth-grade teacher at Prairie, referring to the middle school schedule, which requires a classroom change for each subject.

Music teachers from both schools questioned whether there would be space available for an additional music classroom. Others wondered if students would get enough physical education time in lieu of the recess they would have at Prairie, or if they would be burdened with too much homework in a middle school setting.

Board member Steve Schnieder asked the Prairie representatives what would happen if the district did nothing to deal with increasing class sizes.

"Really there's no space to put an additional teacher in every grade level to keep class sizes down," answered Prairie assistant principal Josh Noble.

"We really need the help with our strugglers (who fail in large classes)" Dibble added.

The addition would likely be paid for by stimulus money and alternative facility bonding through the district's lease levy, which does not need to be approved by voters.

"The overall (tax) impact would be less than $100 per $100,000 home," said Superintendent John Landgaard.

The board presented its options to the community during an August meeting.

Some were concerned about negative consequences of fifth-graders interacting with eighth-graders. Currently, Landgaard said, sixth-graders do not interact a great deal with seventh- and eighth-graders, and fifth grade could be managed in a similar way.

Sixth-grade classrooms are located on one side of the building, and typically sixth-graders do not leave that area except for lunch and physical education, said WMS principal Jeff Luke. Most hallway disciplinary problems that occur take place between students in the same grade.

People were also concerned about scheduling sufficient math and reading time for fifth-graders and having additional parking and congestion during drop off and pick up time at WMS, which is already congested.

Several supported the idea of purchasing a portable temporary structure, allowing the district more time to make a more permanent decision.

The district considered a number of factors, including the potential loss of Title I funding for fifth-graders if they move to WMS; special programming needs; and music, physical education, library and computer programming for fifth-graders.

In a 5-2 decision at its September meeting, the District 518 Board of Education voted to develop plans for an addition to the school that would accommodate the extra grade level.

The cost of the new addition could vary greatly depending on which components the board decides to pursue. The current proposal allows the addition of six to eight classrooms, additional administrative office space and other multipurpose rooms.

"We should wait and see the current enrollment trend and not spend millions of dollars until we're sure it's necessary," board member Mark Shepherd said.

Landgaard spoke with Windom Area Schools Superintendent Wayne Wormstadt to see how that district has fared after its board voted to move fourth-graders to the 5-12 building.

"Really how they've managed that is all through programming," Landgaard reported, including different lunch schedules and "supervision to ensure appropriate interaction" between students.

Several board members said they favored a "wait and-see" option if the addition weren't a possibility, but agreed building now to take advantage of low interest rates and construction costs was appealing.

"The middle school option actually prepares us better for the future," Schnieder said. "I'd rather be more proactive."

At its Dec. 15 meeting, the board approved bonding for the project, which will allow the district to move forward with the addition if the board approves one of the construction bids.

If bids received are too costly, the board can still opt not to build the addition. At the earliest, changes would take effect at the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year.