Archive for Thursday, March 18, 2004

Finding school buildings a perfect balance

Deciding to build new schools means balancing fiscal responsibility, school values

March 18, 2004

The life of Eudora's schools could be stretched by filling every inch of space or by reducing programs, but sooner or later the district will have to decide when enough is enough.
Eudora USD 491's planning consultant, Howard Smith, told the group of administrators, teachers and school patrons last Wednesday that they would have to begin thinking about at what point the district should begin talking to the community about building new schools.
"There is no recipe to this," Smith said. "Every community is different. Parents and staff want to know when you make the call."
Smith and the group that gathered last week are part of a long-range planning process for the district. The first part of the process had the group identifying what people liked about Eudora's schools.
Such discussion revealed small class size coupled with friendliness and familiarity at Eudora's attendance centers were positively received. However, those aspects can quickly disappear as schools grow larger.

Size is relative
Smith said the definition of a large school could vary depending on the community. Whereas four sections of a grade per building could be considered large at one school, another community may allow 10 sections before considering a school large. Smith commented that nonverbal responses from the group indicated 10 sections per grade was definitely large for Eudora.
Class size was also an area where schools could -- and sometimes did -- compromise, even though the Eudora district has set small class sizes as a priority. Smith had the group consider the functional capacity of each of the district's four buildings. The question, he said, was how far could the building be stretched to accommodate students without compromising the learning environment?

Tough decisions
For Eudora Middle School, expanding the school to its maximum capacity would also mean cutting electives and putting a near-exclusive focus on core curricula, said Principal Don Grosdidier. Cutting classes and programs was never easy, Smith said.
"Every program has helped somebody," Smith said. "Any time you try to cut a program, you'll (hear from) everybody it's ever helped."
However, he said it was important to keep the community informed were the district to make such compromises in the future.
"People need to know there would be no electives," Smithsaid. "Sometimes we're a little hesitant to tell people bad news."
Smith said it was important to keep in mind that elementary schools could be built as quickly as 14 months but that middle or high schools could take as long as two years to build.
It was important that capacity at the high school not compromise students' sense of ownership of the building and their ability to get around in it, said principal Dale Sample.

Fair and balanced
One life-extender districts employed was mobile classrooms, a road Eudora High School had traveled down in the years between the 1918 building's demolition and the construction of the building now housing the middle school.
"It was known as 'Eudora Mobile High,'" said Eudora High School Assistant Principal Ron Abel.
Smith said the perception of portables was often a negative one.
"Most of the time, people see it as 'less than,'" he said.
Even though schools could deliver the same education in smaller or windowless classrooms, students often felt like their instruction wasn't as good.
"It carries some friction," Smith said. "Nothing's ever fair when you're an adolescent."
He said using every inch of space -- such as teaching a math class in a makeshift classroom on the stage -- was an option for extending buildings' life spans, but it was a policy that carried consequences.
"The math teacher didn't think it was a great space for instruction," Smith said.
If all-day kindergarten were instituted in the future, the functional capacity of Nottingham would be reduced. At the district's other elementary school, expanding capacity would mean losing the touches that many previously said made Eudora's schools desirable.
"It's not personal anymore," said West Elementary School Principal Rod Moyer.

Shuffling the deck
Shifting the make-up of the district's attendance centers was another way of dealing with growth, Smith said, although that meant changes in the district's culture.
At the high school level, for instance, the larger the school grew, the more difficult participation was for students. Smith reminded the group that even in a school with more than a thousand students, there would still only be five varsity basketball players on the court at a time.
Deciding to keep all grade levels together would mean all Eudora students would progress through the district together. However, Smith said districts with just a few grade levels per building meant more adjustments for students, who would change buildings every few years. Yet the students were usually OK and it was usually the parents who felt the transition more traumatic.
Making smaller, neighborhood schools meant cramming more grade levels in one building, which was an issue when middle school and high school students were thrown in together.
It was a difficulty the Eudora district knew firsthand from when seventh- through 12th-graders were housed together at the buildings downtown, where school officials said problems arose with the different age groups and maturity levels interacting with one another.
The long-range planning discussion will continue later this month when the group meets again.
"There are always people who don't like growth," Smith said. "But people are moving here for your schools."

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