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Helmut Schmidt, Published November 22 2010

North Fargo has unused classrooms; south Fargo needs space

A steady erosion of students in north Fargo and burgeoning numbers at elementary schools in the School District’s far south is forcing the School Board to decide whether it needs to build classrooms, bus students or reconfigure boundaries.

Raw numbers show a full school of classrooms – at least 17 – that aren’t being used for teaching full classes of students in the six elementary schools north of Main Avenue in Fargo.

In fact, if rooms for music, art, special needs, computers and other uses were switched over to classroom use, about 35 spaces are possible north of Main, School District materials show.

At the same time, Kennedy Elementary, the district’s newest school on the south side, is so full that its fifth-graders are housed at Discovery Middle School, and four portable classrooms were brought to the Kennedy campus.

Adding to the dilemma, one district official says almost all of the district’s classrooms are being used in some constructive way. Lowell Wolff, the assistant to the superintendent, said only one district classroom sits unused – at Centennial Elementary on the south side.

The situation has sparked a debate on the School Board on what to do: build, bus or redraw school boundaries. That debate may be revisited Tuesday, when board members get detailed information on the issue of balancing school enrollments from north to south.

In taking on the issue of overcrowding at Kennedy, School Board planning-committee members suggested two weeks ago that a six- to nine-classroom addition be built by next August to fix the problem.

Others on the board balked at that plan, which would have cost $500,000 to $1 million, calling for more information on the enrollments and student capacity at each building.

The Forum requested a copy of that data.

Board member John Strand said what he got is a start, but he wants more before he makes a decision.

“It’s not entirely murky. There’s a general confirmation of the reality that we have space on the north side of Fargo,” Strand said.

He wants to know the pros and cons of busing students or changing enrollment boundaries. They might not be popular ideas but should be considered, he said.

“Do I think there’s a great quantity of room not being used in a productive way? No I don’t,” Paul Meyers said. “Do I think we could put more students in these rooms? Yes I do.”

Meyers said the district has options beyond construction, and just as years ago when Central High School burned or when North High’s dome collapsed, students will adapt.

“We handled that,” Meyers said. “If we ended up busing students from one location to another, they can handle that, and they’ll do well. It may not be our first choice, but it could be a wise choice.”

Creative uses

Wolff said classroom space figures are deceiving. Almost all of the classrooms are being used – for special education, physical therapy, tutoring, office space or to serve lunch or breakfast, he said.

For example:

E Washington Elementary has 24 classrooms. Of the 20 general classrooms, 15 are listed as in use. The remaining five house the district’s school psychologists, Fargo Public Schools Foundation and alumni association offices, the Reading Recovery program, a second computer lab and English Language Learner services, Wolff said.

E Roosevelt Elementary has 17 classrooms. Of the 13 general classrooms, seven are in use. Principal Kim Colwell said of the remaining classrooms, one is for an instructional strategist, one is a conference room, one houses a “care coordinator” from Lewis and Clark Elementary, one is a staff lounge, there is a computer lab, and an empty room is used for after-school homework. There is also a small special education room and office spaces.

The problem with older schools, Wolff said, is that classrooms are one size. They don’t have small office or instructional rooms. Also, before 2005, many of Fargo’s schools didn’t have music or art rooms. Past School Boards decided those classes are best offered in their own room, Wolff said.

“Bottom line … it doesn’t mean those classrooms are not being used. They’re being used in very creative ways,” Wolff said.

South enrollment rises

District figures show a continued erosion of enrollment in northside schools. At the same time, an 88-student-per-year increase is projected for Kennedy, Bennett and Centennial elementaries south of Interstate 94.

That has skewed the number of classes feeding the middle and high schools.

Wolff said 72 sections feed Ben Franklin Middle School on the north side, 80 sections feed Carl Ben Eielson Middle School in midtown, and 86 sections feed Discovery Middle School in the south.

In 2004, 37.8 percent of the district’s enrollment was students north of Main Avenue. By 2009, that had dipped to 29.6 percent. Midtown schools – from Main to Interstate 94 plus Lincoln Elementary – made up 38.6 percent of the enrollment in 2004 and 34 percent by 2009, records show. Over a five-year span, that meant 96 fewer elementary students a year in the north and 56 fewer a year in midtown.

The south side, however, boomed.

In 2004, elementary enrollment for those schools was 23.6 percent of the district’s total. By 2009, that had increased to 36.4 percent of the total, district figures show. That was an average of 106 more students a year over a five-year span, records show.

Willing to help

Tracy Strendin, co-president of the Washington PTA on the north side, said that school’s parents would “definitely” be willing to take southside students if necessary.

“I think we’d rather gain kids and teachers rather than losing kids and teachers,” she said. “I think it would be great to see our school grow.”

Strendin said another round of districtwide boundary changes would not be so welcome because it’s only been four years since the last round.

Shannon Olson, president of Kennedy’s PTA on the south side, said the issue is discussed heavily there.

“We are just kind of sitting on pins and needles,” said Olson, who also supervises lunch and recess at the school

Most Kennedy parents don’t want to see their children bused, and boundary changes could cause problems if they push siblings into different secondary school areas, she said.

Trying to include the fifth-graders at Discovery in Kennedy activities has been tough, too, she said.

From her perspective, an addition to Kenney would be the best solution.

“All we know is we want it resolved,” Olson said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583


Online:

For enrollment figures by school and for the district, go to the Fargo School District website at www.fargo.k12.nd.us and click on “Enrollment Overview” under the featured links.