Austin School District deals with growth

Published 3:28 pm Monday, December 6, 2010

It’s well known Austin Public Schools is growing.

The district’s student population has been on an upswing since 2002. Yet district officials had no idea they’d be experiencing such dramatic growth within the next couple years, thanks to a demographic study done last year. Now, with a recent facility usage report showing every school except for Austin High School over capacity, school officials will soon be looking at ways to ease the problems caused by student overcrowding.

“What we’re trying to do is get out ahead of this thing and plan ahead for it before it happens,” said Mark Stotts, the district’s finance and operations director.

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Last year’s demographic study showed a large increase in the student population over the next five years, which prompted a facility usage report showing how the student population growth will affect class sizes at the kindergarten, elementary, middle school and high school level over the next five years.

Even using lower projection estimates, which reflect a more modest student growth, almost all district schools are projected to be far over capacity even with slightly increasing class sizes. This sudden influx of students is primarily due to Mower County’s higher than average birth rates, according to Stotts. Stotts said that despite popular perception, the student population boom isn’t coming from new families moving into the community, but rather from families that have lived in Austin for a while that are having more children.

“We’re going to have to do something, just because the increasing enrollments are going to cause space issues, and we know it’s going to continue,” Stotts said. “We also know the last two years it’s been increasing at a faster rate than we anticipated.”

At the kindergarten level, Woodson Kindergarten Center will have several challenges over the next couple of years. Slightly over capacity this year at 360 kids, Woodson is scheduled to have about 420 kindergartners even with more conservative projections during the 2013 school year. The kindergarten center had a few more students than projected for this year, as well.

District elementary schools show the same trend, with every school except for Sumner Elementary School currently over capacity. School officials responded to a larger-than-expected increase in student growth this year by adding more classrooms, bringing the total amount of elementary classrooms to 79 compared to 71 last year.

Southgate Elementary School is among the hardest hit by the student increases. Southgate is currently up 50 students over last year, which surpassed its projected increase, according to Edwina Harder, Southgate’s principal. As a result, a new second-grade teacher had to be hired and a first-grade teacher was brought over from Sumner to teach a new first grade classroom, which was formed at the end of September.

“We are using every available space that we have,” Harder said. “We tried to be very wise with what spaces we had.”

Several new classroom spaces had to be made to accommodate the new classes, including a space for physical education and a space for music. Southgate staff responded by making the school library more of a multipurpose room. The library now hosts an art class once a week, after school classes three times a week, orchestra practice once a week, and other classes which reserve the library at will. The school cafeteria is now scheduled for gym space, which according to Harder has been difficult to do, since the area must be kept clean and must accommodate 530 students during various lunch periods. The front foyer area at Southgate has been used for several intervention classes since September as well.

More students are expected to come to Southgate in the coming years, which will present challenges to Southgate’s already teeming halls.

“It would mean some really, impactful decisions in our current space if we were to go up any more students,” Harder said. “I don’t have any more natural spaces. It is very tight. I don’t have any other spaces that could be made into classrooms without displacing current programming.”

While Southgate’s space troubles are an extreme example of how crowded the schools have become, Southgate shows just how far school officials are committed to keeping class sizes to a reasonable level. School officials have deemed elementary class sizes of 22 to 26 students to be the optimum amount, according to the recent facility usage report. However, district administration has also planned for larger class sizes, although getting classes larger than 30 will present headaches to teachers and staff at the elementary level.

“When they get that high … classroom management becomes that much more difficult for the teacher,” Stotts said.

Ellis Middle School presents a larger problem. As the only middle school in the district, it is already over capacity this year, with even the lowest student population projections predicting Ellis will be vastly overcrowded by 2014.

“There are potential space issues coming down the road,” Stotts said. “We’re seeing them right now.”

Ellis has dealt with large class sizes for years, according to Cheryl Dunlap, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Ellis. Dunlap teaches five classes a day, with about 27 to 32 students to a class, which is within the size range district officials have set as acceptable for the middle school and high school level. While she has her own classroom this year, in the past she’s had to share classrooms with teachers who rotate from room to room.

On top of the current student population, more students are coming to Ellis, with four new sixth-grade students alone in recent weeks, according to Dunlap.

“You can only get so many desks in a room,” Dunlap said. “It’s a good problem to have. We’re happy to have the problem that our student population is growing in our school district because it makes a much healthier school district. But we do need to find creative ways to address the problem.”

Austin High School is the only school projected as able to deal with the student population growth in the facility usage report, although the report is slightly deceptive. While AHS has a lot of space, it also has two auditoriums, several district administration offices and four gymnasiums.

“In terms of pure instructional space or class space, it’s maybe not as big as people think it is,” Stotts said.

The Austin Public School board voted to order the district’s facilities committee to brainstorm and research solutions to the overcrowding problem during a special session meeting on Nov. 29. The facilities committee will start talks during its Dec. 9 meeting, a process which Stotts hopes will be wrapped up soon, so a district plan could be in place by this summer. All options are on the table, from switching grades to different buildings to district boundary changes. Renovating and converting facility space, creating possible additions and building a new school are also options. Even with the possible solutions, the only sure thing about overcrowding solutions is the community will have some sort of input on how the district handles the issue.

“The solution, in my mind, has to come from the community,” Stotts said. “Whatever solution is derived has to come from the community.”

Even though there is much to be done, all of the school officials maintain the current overcrowding concerns are a good problem to have, financially. School districts are funded based on how many students they have, with secondary students worth more than elementary school students.

APS gets, on a very rough average, about $8,000 a student according to Stotts, which means the 56 or so students which were added to the district means about another $448,000 in state funding. That doesn’t keep up with inflation costs the district incurs on a yearly basis, which Stotts said ranges from $800,000 to $1 million each year.

Regardless, the district will be looking at increasing enrollment solutions for the foreseeable future.

“We’re problem solvers and we’ll figure it out,” Harder said. “But it will present some issues. If it goes up, we’re going to have to address some other things.”