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Ready to pop: DL Middle School Principal Mike Suckert talks student count, space issues

Blue skies greet visitors to the middle school. On nice days, according to the principal, students are allowed to go outside during lunch. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)1 / 3
One teacher's desk sits among stacks of textbooks, paper and other supplies. The desk was moved to the storage area due to a lack of space. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)2 / 3
Middle school students eat lunch. According to faculty members, it takes around 2 hours for all of the students to eat. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)3 / 3

(Part two of our series on school tours and space issues in the district.)

The middle school has certainly seen some improvements in its day—there's no doubt about that. A small addition for two more classrooms, a new gym floor, an auditorium remodel, and a new buzz-in security system being some of the more major upgrades. However, the building is also gearing up to host the entirety of "the bubble" (the largest group of students, which currently sits in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade) in fall 2017, and Principal Mike Suckert is looking into immediate solutions to make everyone fit.

Originally built for 750 students "in a junior high setting," the middle school topped its capacity long ago with the current student count in the mid-800's after moving the fifth grade in—and it's only climbing.

"The bubble is here," said Suckert, who is looking at adding 20 additional lockers before the coming fall—but even finding space for 20 lockers is a challenge.

"We're still trying to figure that out (where to place lockers). We know we need to," said Suckert.

After moving Roosevelt fifth graders into the middle school during the 2011-12 school year to ease an even worse space crunch there, the numbers jumped dramatically and, Marc Henderson, the eighth grade earth and environmental science teacher, says that's when they had to give up their ideal block schedule, which posed a problem.

The block schedule allowed the teachers to function more as a team, said Henderson, as well as being able to connect with students better.

Now, the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders work more like a junior high, with different students going to different classes, rather than the "true middle school" block scheduling, which had groups of students who all stayed together going from class to class, making it easier for the teachers to keep track of the students.

With the new scheduling, the teachers and students have also had to give up "directive study," which Courtney Henderson, the seventh and eighth grade life and environmental science teacher, says is taking a toll on the kids.

"Kids are losing out," she said. "They're getting lost in the cracks. I don't think we're doing the best we can."

C. Henderson says the increasing class sizes are also making it difficult on students and teachers alike.

"With 34 kids, I have a little over a minute that I can give each kid (when classes run for about 40 minutes, after all is settled in and class begins)," she said.

Not to mention, she doesn't have enough desks for all of her students--and the desks she does have take up too much space in her room, making it hard for her and her students to move about the lab to do projects or for her to get to them if students need help.

"I move desks to try to get to kids," she said.

And it's not just the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders who are feeling cramped--the fifth graders are also missing out.

C. Henderson said since the fifth graders at the middle school are now officially considered "middle schoolers," they don't get the same activity funding for extracurriculars that the fifth graders at Rossman are afforded.

"Rossman just had book bingo," said Courtney, adding that the Roosevelt fifth graders didn't get to participate in that since they're now part of the middle school.

Teachers are cramming into spaces where they can, too, since the middle school recently hired some part-time teachers to ease the ever-increasing class sizes. But there just aren't enough classrooms for the incoming teachers who either need to squeeze into closets-turned-classrooms or have a desk in a science storage closet and move from room to room like Christine Gerdes, a part-time seventh and eighth grade science teacher.

Gerdes recently ordered a cart to make it easier for her to haul her materials from science lab to science lab for first, second, and third period, a hassle that bumps teachers out of their rooms, meaning both teachers lose out on prep time, which Marc says then just eats away at time spent teaching.

With space as tight as it is, they're just hoping the coming school year won't bring the student count higher than the projected high 800's

"We're hoping to not get to 900," said Suckert, adding, "We love our middle school kids—there's just a lot of them."

With the extra bodies, the middle school has had to convert many a storage closet into classrooms, and the last few general storage areas are being eyed to potentially turn them into space for the incoming students.

"Anywhere we can find some space, we've found some space," said Suckert, adding that they have successfully kept all but Gerdes and one social studies teacher off carts by sharing classroom space between teachers and converting storage (or other) rooms.

But they're crowded "utilizing space for kids, when it wasn't designated for kids," like the narrow closet that barely fits three chairs and a table, where a teacher now holds one-on-one special education classes.

Not just storage space, the middle school has also seen the loss of computer labs, much like the high school. However, the middle school does have classroom chromebooks and iPads to help offset that loss.

As for the actual classrooms, Suckert says those are beginning to reach maximum capacity as well.

Meanwhile, the remodeled auditorium poses its own issues, since it's so close to so many classrooms—which were not originally classrooms. But now those rooms just operate with extra noise when the middle school—and Roosevelt, since their stage is filled with storage—holds play practices.

And speaking of noise, the lunchroom, during all four of its periods, reaches its own volume when they block off one of the hallways near the kitchen to corral each student through the lunch line, a process that runs over two hours, meaning the eighth graders are eating early and the fifth graders are eating late.

A higher student count than the high school and unable to leave for lunch like the high school students, the four rotating lunch groups of about 270 kids cram into the common area and, on warm enough days, are saved from the close, noisy quarters by going outside for recess. (Which is another issue—the middle school has nothing more for recessing middle schoolers than a cement slab and some ball fields.)

"You can imagine how loud it is," said Suckert, adding that they are looking at adding sound-proofing paneling into the stairwells to help deaden the sound.

"(The need for space) has us being creative," said Suckert. "It's like a puzzle, you just have to move some pieces around."

The student-increase projections have come true with a "slow and steady growth" causing a "bubble" ready to pop at the middle school, and by the time another referendum hits the ballots, that large group of students will be onto the high school.

The middle school now needs more immediate solutions "to make it the best educational space for kids."