LP-A needs space in its grade school
When Lake Park-Audubon Board members were in the final stages of planning a high school and elementary construction project in 2009, they anticipated that approval of the $21.1 bond referendum for the project would cause a jump in enrollment.
They just didn’t expect it to grow so much, so fast.
“Lake Park-Audubon had a May 2009 K-12 enrollment of 616 when our plans were in the final stages,” said LP-A Superintendent Dale Hogie. “LP-A has experienced enrollment growth each year since.
“Our May 2013 enrollment was 684, and it is expected to approach 700 students by the start of the 2013-14 school year,” he continued. “Most of that growth has been at the elementary level.”
“Some of it was anticipated, but not to the extent we have seen,” said LP-A Elementary Principal Sam Skaaland.
Part of the reason? “We have really high quality programs here,” he added. “We have a high level of achievement, not just in academics, but in physical education, music and arts. We offer a very well rounded curriculum.”
The recently upgraded facilities are undoubtedly another reason.
“We’re very happy with our new facilities, and grateful to the community for the support (in approving the bond referendum three years ago),” Skaaland said.
But those new facilities are already being stretched to their limits by projected enrollment increases.
Figures provided by the district show that the projected K-6 enrollment at LP-A Elementary this fall stands at 380 students, including 58 kindergarteners; 65 first graders; 50 second graders; 63 third graders; 55 fourth graders; 50 fifth graders; and 39 sixth graders.
This means that the kindergarten, first, second and third grade levels will each require a minimum of three classrooms to meet the district’s current standard of keeping each class’s numbers below 30 students.
“We’ve had to add a section of third grade for next year,” Skaaland said.
And according to Anne Braseth, coordinator of the district’s Early Childhood Family Education and School Readiness programs, that growth is expected to continue.
“Our census shows that there are over 70 four-year-olds eligible for preschool next year,” she said.
Though fluctuation always occurs, there is still the possibility that all of those students will be entering kindergarten the following year, which will create even more of a space crunch.
In the past, LP-A has housed all of its Early Childhood, Head Start and School Readiness programs in the elementary building, alongside the K-6 students.
Both Skaaland and Braseth would like to see that continue.
“Our students use the same gymnasiums, playground, lunchroom,” said Braseth.
That means they enter kindergarten already familiar with many of the facilities and staff at the school.
“The transition is much smoother, and it makes things less stressful for them (and for parents as well),” Braseth added.
The problem, of course, is that the school’s capacity is already being stretched to its limits.
“Mr. Skaaland and the elementary staff have worked to find spaces for small group instruction,” said Hogie. “We have relocated instructional areas to create additional classroom spaces, but we have run out of options in the elementary building.”
Some of the things that have already been done include using one of the two available music education rooms as a third grade classroom, with the two music teachers now sharing the same classroom space; and converting a former weight room into space for the district’s special education programs.
“We use any space we can get and make it work,” Braseth said. “Every room is being used.”
There is another issue on the horizon as well, Hogie added.
“An emerging change in national and state level philosophy is toward an increase of instruction for four-year-old children,” he said. “We currently have one room designated for preschool classes, and anticipate a need for additional rooms in the near future.”
The reason for this trend toward additional instruction for preschoolers, Braseth said, is because there are multiple studies that have shown the importance of starting a child’s education before kindergarten.
A 2010 School Readiness Study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Education stated that “children’s proficiency at kindergarten entrance is predictive of achievement at third grade, as measured by the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA tests).”
In three of the last four years, “less than 50 percent of LP-A students entered kindergarten below proficiency levels,” Skaaland said — which in essence, means that the district’s preschool programs are doing what they were intended to do.
While there are multiple examples of the benefits of investing in preschool education, Skaaland said, the lack of available space at LP-A Elementary has rendered the possibility of expansion to be limited, at least for the time being.
“We are exploring the possibility of an ‘Early Learning Center’ to alleviate our space issues,” said Hogie. “We have discussed a 10-room, 18,000-square-foot addition to the current elementary building (or) a 10-room, 21,000-square-foot addition to be built in close proximity to the existing elementary building. Initial cost projections range from $2.5 million to $2.8 million.”
“It’s something our Early Childhood staff is obviously very excited about,” Skaaland said.
The new addition, once built, would provide space for Early Childhood, preschool and kindergarten classrooms, thus freeing up spaces in the existing elementary building for additional sections of grades 1-6.
So how soon could this facility be built, if funding could be secured whether it be through partnerships with other agencies, grants or other resources?
“Realistically, we’re not going to have anything ready next year, or even the next… (but) some action needs to be taken,” said Skaaland. “The time to start planning is now.”
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.