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New school for Detroit Lakes?

Some outside faces looked inside Detroit Lakes schools with a critical eye recently.

Former West Fargo Schools Superintendent Charles Cheney and former Dickinson and Bemidji School Superintendent and Minnesota Assistant Commissioner of Education Rollie Morud were hired by the school district as consultants to assess district performance and to help find the best way to deal with overcrowding in the schools, specifically in the elementary schools.

"The best part of having these guys come in is that ... we live here. We might not always see the obvious," said School Board Chair David Langworthy. "Having them come from the outside with a fresh perspective is very valuable."

The consultants, who presented their compiled report to the school board Thursday night, toured each Detroit Lakes School, including the Lincoln Education Center and the Administrative Building.

They also reviewed district documents and surveyed each teacher, while extensively interviewing 50 teachers and the school secretaries.

After what they said were an incredible number of research hours, Cheney and Morud determined that there were three issues that need to be addressed in the Detroit Lakes School District sooner rather than later.

Those three issues are space, curriculum and development and technology.

"You need to think of it in terms of a three-legged stool," explained Morud. "If you only focus on two of the problems, the stool is still off balance; you need to focus on all three."

Space, or lack thereof, prompted a four scenario solution from the consultants.

Scenario 1: The schools would "cluster" the students into grades, meaning all students in the same grades would be together in the same building. In scenario 1, Roosevelt Elementary would house all fourth- and fifth-graders, and neighborhood third-graders.

Rossman Elementary would house first- and second-graders and neighborhood third-graders.

The Lincoln Education Center would then be extensively remodeled and added onto in order to house kindergarteners and preschoolers. All other facilities would remain untouched.

This scenario would cost the district $3.2 million.

Scenario 2: Build a new elementary school. Roosevelt and the "new school," which would hold 500 students, would house grades 1-5, while sticking with the "clustering" idea.

Rossman would be turned into a pre-K and kindergarten center. Rossman's portable classrooms would be removed and the Lincoln Education Center sold.

All other facilities would be unchanged. This option would cost the district $7.9 million dollars.

Scenario 3: This scenario also calls for the building of a new, bigger elementary school, which would hold 600 students.

The new school would house pre-K through fifth grade, leaving the option open to "cluster" or not.

Rossman would no longer house elementary students, but would be remodeled and turned into the Administrative Center, Alternative Learning Center, and would hold community education classes.

The existing Administrative Center would be sold and there would be no school programs at the Holmes Center.

This option would cost the district $10.2 million dollars, but would have the lowest operating cost -- with only four buildings to maintain instead of five.

Scenario 4: Build a new high school for 1,000 students. This is by far the most expensive option, as the 180,000-square-foot building would have a $29.9 million pricetag, plus the cost of land for the new school.

Rossman would be remodeled and its portable classrooms removed, as it would become an early childhood center for pre-K and kindergarteners, as well as serving as the District Administrative Center and Alternative Learning Center.

Roosevelt would house first- and second-graders, and the middle school would become an elementary school to house grades 3-5. Middle school students would then go to the current high school.

Lincoln Ed and the administrative building would be sold and community ed classes would no longer be held at the Holmes Center.

"We never would have thought to build a new high school," said Langworthy. "And I just thought...'where'?"

"But," added Superintendent Doug Froke, "they (the consultants) said not to worry about that; to figure out a plan and then worry about finding a spot."

Both Froke and Langworthy say this doesn't mean they are ready to go out and do anything just yet because they'd like to get the public's opinion on everything first.

"We want to get this report up on our website so that everyone can take a look at it, meet with some of our service groups and maybe some parent groups; that way we can get them to come to the board with recommendations as well," said Froke.

The consultants also made the suggestion to forget the idea of adding onto Rossman, one of the ideas the district had been entertaining.

"There's a point in time when you stop adding additions," said Cheney. "Or if you do add, it should include the demolition of the existing building."

The problem Cheney and Morud see with Rossman is that its new additions surround the old building, making it nearly impossible to do demolition.

The second "leg of the stool" is curriculum and instructional delivery.

Cheney and Morud told school board members that the schools are too individualized in their operations, and that a more centralized unit would strengthen the curriculum and clarify common goals.

They suggested having a common, comprehensive curriculum, an assessment to go with it, and a follow-up of strategic adjustments where needed.

Another area lacking, according to Cheney and Morud, was technology.

"Your teachers don't feel a part of the vision for technology; they need to be brought in on this," said Cheney.

The consultants suggested focus groups and teachers proficient in classroom technology helping other teachers.

Early Childhood Programming was another area discussed, as Cheney and Morud suggested the district work more closely with local Pre-K groups, and possibly even assist in a "ramping up" of early childhood services such as quality daycare.

Morud also pointed out that the Detroit Lakes School District does little in terms of "marketplace technology," which is typically in manufacturing, computers or engineering.

"We're almost like a college preparatory high school," said Langworthy. "We're getting kids very prepared for college; our weakness might be in getting them prepared to go out and work."

Froke added that DL is dedicated to advanced placement, so shifting that focus to trades jobs would be difficult, but something the school might be looking at.

The consultants did have high praise for several areas of the school district, including the success of the Alternative Learning Center, the high quality of staff, good class sizes, an "incredible" school board and financial stability.

At one point during the meeting, Langworthy asked the consultants if they noticed any extravagances in the school system.

"None," Cheney answered, "In fact, we noticed a few minor maintenance issues."

"I was glad to hear that because it means we are good stewards of the taxpayers' dollars," said Langworthy, adding, "we're not going to go out and build a Taj Mahal middle school or high school, but we know we do need to address the space issue soon."

It cost the school district $9,800 in consultant fees, but Froke and Langworthy say that was a very low price compared to most consultant groups, in some cases, half the price.

Now, with a lot of fat to chew on, school board members say their next course of action is to start taking the suggestions and begin working on improvement.