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District 518 student population on the rise


WORTHINGTON — It’s up, up and away at Worthington High School (WHS).

Based on figures provided by District 518 officials last Friday, enrollment in the district — especially at WHS — is ballooning, with a total at the ninth- through 12th-grade facility at 808 — a full 94 students higher than when school doors closed in May, and further adjustments likely yet to come as classes begin next week.

“This is the largest number I’ve ever had to deal with in my six years as principal,” WHS principal Paul Karelis said. “It’s a significant increase, with the numbers far higher than we projected last spring using census and school enrollment data.

“And it continues to grow and change daily.”

District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard is mindful that while more students certainly means more challenges for faculty, administrators and staff, a growing school district — particularly in a largely rural, outstate area — is, in fact, a plus.

“This is a positive for our community,” Landgaard asserted. “There are very few rural schools and towns in Minnesota, or anywhere else across the country for that matter, that are seeing the kind of growth we are.

“We have to be able to address the needs that come with the growth, part of which is having enough building space, but most rural communities would love to be in our position rather than closing schools.”

Perhaps just in the nick of time, given the rising student enrollment trend, the District 518 school board voted last spring to move ahead with plans for a new intermediate school (to accommodate grades 3-5), some remodeling at Prairie Elementary and a roughly 60,000 square-foot addition along with a measure of remodeling at WHS.

All of that, however, is dependent on the District 518 voting public approving the funding for the projects in a November referendum.

“Our district is obviously growing and will continue to grow, and this (Friday’s 2013-14 enrollment figures) makes it pretty obvious when you look at it overall that there is a real need for that new building,” Landgaard said.

WHS is not the only District 518 school expecting a higher student population when doors open for the 2013-14 year beginning Aug. 19; Prairie Elementary has 1,224 in its tally (Early Childhood pupils through fourth-graders), an increase of 124 since last May.

“We are finding space, but have had to convert other rooms into classrooms,” said Prairie Principal Josh Noble. “The building was designed with 48 (designated) classrooms, and this year we have 50.

“We have converted an art room and a special education room into classrooms, and those teaching specialists have been pushed into much smaller conference rooms.”

The student swell is smaller at Worthington Middle School (WMS), where Principal Jeff Luke reports that, thanks to the large departing eighth-grade class of last year, the population is relatively stable.

“We knew it would be about the same as last year, because the big outgoing eighth-grade class was about the same size as the incoming fifth-grade class,” said Luke. “We ended the year at 772 and are now at about 782.

“We do have every possible classroom space in use, and next year we will have to figure out ways to have teachers share some classrooms, as they do now at WHS. Thank goodness for the fifth-grade addition.”

Landgaard admitted the next few years (until the new building and all renovations/expansions are completed) will force District 518 staff to use their creativity and tolerance when it comes to fitting in every student and program.

“Really, when you look at the design capacities based on the studies done for each building, WMS is OK, but WHS and Prairie are at or above their design capacity,” Landgaard said. “We are stretching the limits right now at those two facilities.

“The problem that exists for our community is that as each year passes and we continue to grow, the buildings get fuller and it gets harder to rearrange spaces to accommodate that.”

Reasons for the influx of students include having received more pupils than anticipated from the tuition agreement with the closing Round Lake/Brewster school district, new immigrants and more kids moving with families to the community from other places.

“Worthington has work, and that’s probably the biggest thing,” said Landgaard. “And there is a little more opening with housing locally, so as parents work here and find housing here, it creates larger student numbers for us — it’s a combination of many things occurring in our community that have contributed to the increase.”

Landgaard also believes the variety of opportunities District 518 offers that are not necessarily available in smaller area districts — two foreign languages at WHS, for instance, and an orchestra program for students in grades four through 12 — are additional draws.

“What we can provide students here is a factor, and the opening of our online school once we have approval from the Minnesota Department of Education is also attracting students,” said Landgaard.

Karelis and other WHS staff are scrambling to manage their burgeoning student population in preparation for next week.

“We try to keep class sizes in the 23 to 25 student category, but an influx like this makes it hard to maintain an average class size,” observed Karelis. “We’re seeing some classes — like Introduction to Computer Applications for freshmen — filled to maximum capacity.

“We still have lockers available, but depending on how many more come, we could run out. It’s not as much of an issue for food service, but we’ll have to balance the three lunch periods to use the space we have.”

Karelis, too, believes growth is a “great problem to have.”

“This verifies the census data we were looking at, and everyone here is going to have to put on their work caps, think positive and move forward,” he added.

Meanwhile, Landgaard advised the public to be on the watch for more news about District 518’s future in the weeks ahead.

“There will be a lot more information coming out about the district’s needs over the next couple of months,” he said. “We want our community to be well educated about the needs even as we get on with the business of educating the students.

“It’s always fun to have lots of kids.”