Sunday, February 9, 2014

Time to Replace Technical High School?

For several decades, various task forces have urged that the school district consider building a new Technical High School.  The school has a proud history and justly deserved reputation for providing a rigorous curriculum that includes a broad range of advanced placement courses.   Its success is a testament to the principle that a school building is far less important than the teachers, programs, and school culture of excellence within.   Building a new Technical High school simply because the building is old would not be justified.   Families send their students to old facilities when they believe that the educational program is strong, and there are numerous examples of high schools and colleges thriving in old facilities.  

We are considering a new Technical High School because the building has outlived its useful life.   Tech was first constructed in 1917.   Over the years, as enrollment grew, the district implemented a number of additions and improvements (1938, 1955, 1962, 1967, 1975).    As a result, the building has numerous roof and wall junctions, and that made it far more difficult to preserve, maintain, and more costly to operate.  Heating, lighting and ventilation are accomplished inefficiently.  During recent years, the District has confronted issues with mold and asbestos.    As it became obvious that the facility needed to be replaced, the District began moving towards high school replacement, but then the great recession hit in 2007-2008.  Our board and administration felt that it was inappropriate to ask the community to approve a major bond issue during a period of high unemployment and widespread fiscal challenges.  Last year, asbestos began to flake off of some of the interior surfaces.  In many respects, that was the last straw.   It became obvious, we simply cannot put off replacement of the nearly 100 year old building any longer.

If we now decide to go forward with construction of a new high school, we have a lot of careful planning to do, and some critical decisions to make, and we will need to find  a community consensus by listening to parents, students, and the entire community.  The decision to replace Technical High School presents major issues that demand that we plan thoughtfully and prudently, to make sure that the decisions we make now will stand the test of time.   The history of district teaches us that the future takes unexpected twists and turns.  Through the 1960's and 1970's, enrollment in our school district was on the rise partly as  a result of the post-war baby boom, and partly as a result of the development of semi-rural land in the surrounding townships and small cities.   The center of population was much further to the north than it is now.   Homes sprung up along Northway drive and along the border of the City and St. Cloud Township.  Ultimately, the community decided that it was imperative to build a second high school near the VA hospital, and Apollo High School was born. Notably, the new building did not drive students out of the older building, because strong and attractive programs in the older building maintained loyal followings.   In the 1970's and 1980's, district and city planners concluded that the growth boom would persist, and they began to plan for a school district with 12,000 or more students.   Three new elementary schools were built, Talahi, Discovery and Oak Hill, to accommodate the continued growth.  However, contrary to predictions, enrollment began to decline, and our enrollment never approached the 12,000 that had been projected.

When I joined the Board of Education in 2004, the district had been experiencing a decade- long period of declining enrollment.  In 2003, the year before,  the Board of Education decided to close three elementary schools, Washington, Jefferson and Garfield, and there was even talk that Lincoln Elementary would certainly be next to close.   Enrollment at Clearview and Madison elementaries was falling precipitously.   The wave of smaller classes in the elementary grades had begun to work  through the middle school and high school grades, and eventually total high school enrollment dropped to about 2200.  Yet, each of our high schools remained individually larger than any other high schools in the area.  

 But in 2005-2006, district enrollment stabilized.  Growth in the elementary grades began to cancel out the declining enrollment still occurring in the high schools, and it began to become apparent that our enrollment would begin gradually to rise.   Madison and Clearview started immersion programs, and at about that time, the surrounding neighborhoods began to attract more families with children, replacing retirees who had no children in school any more.  Immigration contributed to the growth, and other neighborhoods began a new cycle of attracting families with young children.     Growth in St. Joseph justified the construction of a K-8 school, although at the time, skeptics predicted that the school would be underenrolled for a long time to come. 

Elementary school enrollment is now on the rise, and that means that in future years, the increase in enrollment will work its way through the high schools.  In the last several years, the board has been forced to add space to some of our elementary buildings and we'll be forced to expand some others in the near future.  Temporary classrooms at Clearview must be replaced as their permits run out.  South must be expanded to deal with middle-school growth.   Expansions of Madison and Waite Park elementary were completed in recent years because the growth in those schools exceeded their existing capacity.    In the meantime, as I stated at the beginning of this post, the weight of mounting evidence has convinced even former skeptics, that Technical High School must be replaced.  

In recent months, a few advocates for high school replacement have argued that we should replace both of our high schools, not just one, and consolidate those two high schools into one centrally located larger high school.  The current enrollment of our two high schools totals about 2200, but as stated above, total high school enrollment is expected to grow significantly in the the next decade. So what about a centrally located larger High School?

There are about ten Minnesota high schools, extra large high school advocates argue, that exceed 2000 in enrollment--schools like Wayzata, Edina, and several of the Anoka-Hennipen high schools. But it is important to recognize that these extra large-high schools largely serve much more compact communities, communities that are mature and fully developed.    A single high school in our district would serve 250 square miles, in a district that stretches from Clear Lake to St. Joseph.   Most existing  extra large- high schools are serving 30-40 square miles in fully developed residential communities.   Wayzata's school district is 42 square miles.    The average area served by Anoka's five high schools is 34 square miles.   In the table below, I've placed some of the extra large high schools and shown the area that each high school serves.   Then, in the lower rows, I'm showing the area and student population served by some central Minnesota high schools.  I'll have more to say in a future post about the concept of replacing both of our high schools with a single extra large high school.  

District District Area HS Enroll SqMi/HS
Anoka-H (5 HS) 172 2202 34.4
Burnsville 37 2530 37
Edina 13 2436 13
Eden Prairie 34 3007 34
Minnetonka 31 2750 31
Wayzata 42 3060 42
White Bear 46 2257 46

Sartell 48 962 48
Sauk Rapids 138 1078 138
Rocori 122 742 122
Annandale 135 498 135
Albany 152 468 152
(Note, Anoka figures represent average area and average enrollment for the five high schools)

A single extra large-high school in St. Cloud would serve the largest geographic area of any of these schools, by far, six times the area served by Wayzata High School.     In the next months, board members and those in the community who want to weigh in on this issue need to do some homework.   Here are some places to start:

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