Overcrowding a concern for Ellis

Breanna Anderson, left, and Brooke Goligowski listen to questions from Ellis Middle School Principal Katie Burgland in a sixth-grade science class Friday. Anderson and Goligowski are two of 33 students teacher Lindsay Sorensen instructed that period. - Trey Mewes/trey.mewes@austindailyherald.com

Ellis Middle School staff are acting like road construction workers.

Staff members have marked hallway floors with red tape this year. They’ve put signs up like “Wide Turns” and “Keep Right.” They’ve taught middle-schoolers to go with the flow when it comes to moving through the hallways.

In other words, Ellis staff manages traffic between periods, since there are so many students in the halls.

“It seems silly,” said Ellis Principal Katie Berglund. “If you talk to an average person, they’d be like, ‘They’re teaching kids how to walk in the hallways at Ellis?’ Yes, we’re teaching kids how to walk in the hallways at Ellis.”

Ellis is one of several Austin schools that Austin Public School officials say are overcrowded. About 980 students attended middle school Friday, while Ellis’ capacity is about 975.

“We knew that this was progressively getting larger,” Berglund said. “The biggest class size at Ellis is sixth grade. We know the ones coming behind them are just as big if not bigger, (and the classes) leaving us are smaller.”

There are more than 980 students at Ellis Middle School this year. The school's capacity is 975 students.

As a result, class sizes are up. Classes get as big as 35 students in some sections, while the average is around 32 students this year. Two instructional coaches have taken on extra sections of science, math, language arts and social studies, which helps keep average class sizes to around 32 students.

Though education experts debate whether larger class sizes affect a student’s learning, large class sizes do mean there are more students for a teacher to manage, which can lead to more distractions or discipline problems as well as less individual time with a teacher for students who need extra attention.

The student population is so large that, although Ellis staff are already teaching positive behavior lessons through the Positive Behavior Instructional Support, they’ve had to concentrate on hallway etiquette so students can get to classes without too much trouble or wait.

Students aren’t sharing lockers yet, but Berglund estimates that students will have to share locker space in two years based on current elementary student populations. Many students are sharing physical education class lockers this year due to the space crunch.

The situation at Ellis and across the district is what prompted district officials to propose a $28.9 million referendum for a new fifth- and sixth-grade school and a Woodson Kindergarten Center expansion.

District officials learned in 2009 that Austin’s student population was growing at a rapid pace in a time when most greater Minnesota school districts were shrinking. According to a demographics study, Austin schools could have 300 to 400 more students by 2014 and almost 1,000 more students by 2020. District officials say the student population is increasing at a higher rate than what they originally projected.

Space is tight, as almost every school in the district is either at or over capacity this year. Austin High School still has room, with about 1,300 students in a building that can fit a little more than 1,500, and Sumner Elementary School’s enrollment dropped to 289 from about 330 students last year.

Woodson Kindergarten Center grew from about 356 students at this time last year to about 392 students this year, with every available space used as a classroom. Banfield and Southgate Elementary Schools are the schools giving district officials the most enrollment headaches, as Southgate’s enrollment is about 537, up from 527 last year, and Banfield is at 586 students this year.

 

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