Thursday, June 5, 2014

Clearview K-8 a Wise Investment for our Community

On Wednesday, our school board  will likely to take the next step towards approving several additions to existing schools in order to accommodate increasing enrollment in the elementary grades. The purpose of this post is to provide some background on the enrollment trends that are causing these additions, and to explain why I believe that it is critical to the future of our collective communities that we preserve and strengthen our system of community schools by investing in school expansion and replacment when the need arises.   

Old timers will recall that back in 1992, the school district constructed three new elementary schools, Talahi, Discovery and Oak Hill.   Partly construction of those schools reflected a significant change in the population distribution in the St. Cloud area.   Older schools were all placed in an arc on the north side of St. Cloud from Lincoln and Jefferson,  to Washington, Garfield, Tech, North, Apollo and McKinley.  Those schools were located because old St. Cloud's population had been concentrated heavily towards the northen half of St. Cloud.    

As population shifted to the South and Southwest, these older smaller schools were geographically out of place.  Most of them were much smaller schools, and as a variety of financial challenges struck the district in the 1980's and 1990's, these older schools seemed more expensive to run in addition to being in the wrong place.  Three new larger more modern schools were built to address some of these needs.  At the time, the school district was projecting that enrollment would continue to grow to 11,000 or higher.  

During the 1990’s total enrollment in our school district fell at a rate of about 200 students per year, however, resulting in a loss in revenue of about $1,000,000 per year.   Running older partly empty schools seemed like an unaffordable luxury.   After three years of heated debate in the community, in 2003, the then school board decided to close Jefferson, Roosevelt and McKinley.   They also gave serious consideration to closing a fourth smaller elementary school, Lincoln Elementary.   The closure of those three elementary schools removed about 849  seats from our elementary school capacity.

Starting in about 2007, an enrollment turnaround began in the elementary grades.   From 2009 to 2014, elementary enrollment (including 6th grade) rose by 694 students or 20%.   Enrollment increased for a variety of reasons, but most of the elementary enrollment increase after 2007 has been concentrated in four schools:  
  • Clearview:   From 2009-2014 K-6 enrollment at Clearview increased by 132, (about 25%).  Clearview's 2017 enrollment is projected to be 250 students higher than its 2007 enrollment.  The school is functioning with temporary classrooms.  A number of critical functions are being conducted in unacceptably cramped quarters.
  • Madison:   From 2009 to 2014, Madison Elementary (K-5) grew by 284 students (over 33%).  Madison's  2017 enrollment is projected to be 244 higher than its 2007 enrollment, even though it lost its sixth grade to North in 2007. 
  • Kennedy Elementary:  From 2009 to 2014, Kennedy Elementary’s K-6 enrollment increased by 154 (about 30%).  Kennedy's 2017 K-6 enrollment is projected to be 235 higher (56%) than its 2007 enrollment. Kennedy's  enrollment increase coincided with the construction of a K-8 new Kennedy.     Before construction of new Kennedy, many leaders in St. Joseph were calling for formation of an independent school district, because they wanted a community school that would meet their local needs.  Construction of the new Kennedy, with its environmental theme, cemented a strong relationship between the district as a whole and the St. Joseph community.  ((In the five years from 2009 to 2014, Kennedy’s K-8 enrollment increased by 197 students, and by 2017 itsK-8 enrollment is projected to have doubled from about 400 to 800 students.)
  • Lincoln Elementary.   Having narrowly escaped the closing decision back in 2003, from 2009 to 2014 Lincoln Elementary’s K-6 enrollment increased by 68 students or 20%, even though it lost its 6th grade. Its K-5- enrollment during that time period increased by 100, or about 33%.
Together these four schools accounted for a 2009-2014 elementary enrollment growth of 670 students--- in other words, nearly equal to the entire elementary enrollment growth in the  district. Thus three of the schools with the largest enrollment growth benefited from  major district efforts to make those schools more attractive to their community. Madison and Clearview initiated language immersion programs.   Kennedy reinforced its relationship with the St.  Joseph community by  instituting a K-8 configuration and received a brand new building.

There are many reasons for our school district’s enrollment growth:  immigration has played a part.  A new post-baby-boom population growth cycle helped reverse the downward trend in population growth. An economy that has made enrollment in private schools more challenging may have caused the return of some families.   But without question, an important component in the enrollment growth in our district has been efforts to serve communities with community schools.   Where the community has confidence in their community school, enrollment growth is more likely to follow.   
  The proposals before the Board of Education represent part of an ongoing building program designed over time to address the enrollment shifts and enrollment increases.   In the past few years, the district shifted some of our sixth grades into the  junior highs, leading to a middle school configuration that has been discussed for several decades.  But the side benefit of these shifts was that it delayed for a time the necessity of adding new elementary space (especially during a time of deep recession).    We added classroom space to Madison Elementary and made small school border shifts.   We added classrooms to South to help accommodate the shift of 6th grades to the middle school configuration, which relieved crowding pressure on Oak Hill and other elementaries.  

We added temporary classrooms at Clearview to address the marked increase in enrollment there.   
The situation in Clearview is paralllel to that in St.  Joseph several years ago.  Clearviews community is growing, and the enrollment at the school is growing at a rapid rate.  Building a parallel K-8 on the east end of the district has the prospect of attracting back some of the resident students who were in the past siphoned away from the district by Annandale and Becker.  But most importantly, the Kennedy experience proves that when our larger district meets the needs of its constituent communities, our district is strengthened.      When we recognize the needs of our constituent communities the entire 250 square mile district benefits.  Building a K-8 in St. Joseph was one of the wisest decisions our district has made:  it restored our bond with the St. Joseph community.  It brought back some of the families that had been looking elsewhere for public education.  And, it has kept St. Joseph families in our school community through high school 

For all of these reasons, I strongly support the K-8 proposal for Clearview, just as I supported the K-8 proposal for St. Joseph. 

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