(Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of Mirror stories looking at USD 464’s proposed $26.9 million bond issue)
The numbers Tonganoxie Elementary School reported to the Kansas Department of Education on Sept. 20 appeared to give the school temporary respite from a growth trend that has it filled beyond its walls.
The school had an enrollment of 669 students on the September date the state uses to determine state aid to local districts. Principal Tammie George said the number seemed to reverse a trend that has seen the school’s enrollment increase 17 percent since the 2006-2007 school year, the year the district’s new middle school opened.
“But since Sept. 20 we’ve added 20 more students,” she said. “We’re back to a 2 percent increase.”
A new $16.9 million elementaryintermediate school is the crown jewel of projects in USD 464’s $26.9 million package to be before voters in the April 5 spring election. The new school would be built on the district’s 80-acre south campus and open in August 2014.
With its construction, the current elementary school would be remodeled to serve as a home for the district’s pre-school program, kindergartners and first-graders.
The breathing room the new middle school afforded at the downtown school in August 2006 — when TES fifth- and sixth-graders joined seventh- and eighth-graders from the former junior high that’s now part of the high school campus — didn’t last long. The elementary school started outgrowing its walls the next year.
“That (2006-2007) was the only year it was doable in this building,” George said. “That was the only year it was doable when we weren’t using outside buildings.”
The school has two third-grade classes and a music class in two modular units and a second-grade class and a third-grade class in the Quonset hut.
The age and location of the school have created a number of challenges involving such things safety and security, parking and utility maintenance. But the real problem is just finding space for the added students.
The elementary school complex provides 92 square feet for each student. That compares to the national average of 125 square feet per student and the Midwest average of 140 square feet.
Hallways designed for an enrollment capacity of 500 are too narrow during peak times, forcing some classes to stand against a wall to let the hall clear, George said. Inadequate lunchroom space has the school scheduling lunches from 10:40 a.m. until 12:25 p.m.
“If we want to have an all-school assembly, we don’t have the space under fire marshal regulations,” George said.
The space limitations haven’t affected class sizes yet, which average the 23-students-per-class level research suggests should be maximum, USD 464 Superintendent Kyle Hayden said. At the current growth rate, average class sizes are expected to grow one student per year unless the district purchases more mobile classrooms at the expense of playground space, he said.
With the opening of the new school and its 40 classrooms, class sizes can be reduced to the target average again, although state budget considerations would play a part in that decision, Hayden said.
“Of K through five, 22 to 23 is our target (class size),” he said. “We do feel the data is out there showing the larger the classroom the more negative impact it has on students. I think there is a threshold there.”
The new intermediate school and the remodeled current school would open in 2014 at 80 percent capacity, Hayden said.
Classrooms at the new school would have 900 square feet, Hayden said. Because of its hodge-podge nature, the physical size of classrooms at the current elementary school vary, with only the newest wing affording 900 square feet, Hayden said. The smallest classrooms are those in the modular units, which are only 750 square feet, and Quonset huts, he said.
Linda Vernon, a 16-year veteran at the school, has taught third-grade classes in the Quonset hut for three years.
There’s no sink in the room as there are in those in the main building, and she had to cobble together bookshelves for the classroom library, Vernon said. And with no facilities in the Quonset, students need to cross to the main building to use the restroom, a need that creates an added classroom disruption when the designated student “keeper of the key” locks and unlocks the front door for the student.
And there are the limitations of the small classroom, Vernon said. Setting up special project areas is difficult, as is breaking up into smaller groups.
The later is a problem throughout the school, George said.
“When we want to do more small group lessons, many times teachers have to set up learning centers and break into small groups around the room,” she said. “With the small quarters, you can’t spread out. Students in one group can hear what is going on in another group. It makes it difficult.”
Vernon is excited the problem would be addressed with the new school. She also likes the set-aside activity rooms in the class wing and the flex rooms Hayden said would be used for technology and science labs.
“I thought it would be wonderful to have all that space,” Vernon said. “You could keep existing projects up for more than a day and set up a science lab — things we can’t do now.”
Available space forces other compromises at the elementary school. On cold or rainy days, physical education teacher Diane Titterington is forced to have her kindergarten classes in the foyer of the school’s north gym.
“The biggest challenge is space, moving safely in that confined area and still getting their energy expended” she said. “You can’t really set up equipment in that small space, and you have be able to have it open for fire drills.”
Hallways also serve as the home of some remedial classes. And with no room to offer the state-mandated pre-school at-risk classes, the district is forced to bus the students to Linwood.
George praised the school’s staff for working through the challenges to provide an education she said still attracts young families to Tonganoxie. But she said the bottom line is the district has outgrown the downtown school.
“This building is not designed for this many people,” she said.