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Minot school district needs input about what to do about crowded middle schools

Submitted Photo Gina Large teaches her foreign language class at Erik Ramstad Middle School in the resource area due to no classroom space available. Other students going to their lockers or the restroom have to walk through the classroom, according to principal Bryn Iverson.

Back to school means crowded classrooms for Minot middle school students and time for school board members to ponder solutions.

Enrollment in the district stands at 7,722 students as of last Tuesday, an increase of 93 students over last year. Enrollment in K-5 is at 4,017; at 1,704 students in grades 6-8; and at 2,001 students in grades 9-12.

“For the record, that is higher than we were even at the height of the oil boom,” said Superintendent Mark Vollmer on Tuesday. “… Minot is becoming a younger community.”

The new Erik Ramstad Middle School was built, largely with Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars and some state funding, after the original Ramstad was destroyed in the Souris River flood of 2011. Some school district funds were used to make the 127,000 square foot middle school building a bit larger than its destroyed predecessor. School district officials anticipated that the added middle school space would be needed and the government would only provide funding to build a school the same size as the old Ramstad. Middle schoolers attended classes at the Minot Municipal Auditorium following the flood and moved into the new Ramstad in December 2013.

Voters in the district approved a $39.5 million bond issue in April 2014 that paid for construction of John Hoeven Elementary and additions at Edison and Perkett elementaries, as well as safety improvements at all of the schools in the district. It was the first time a school bond issue had been approved by voters since 1969, when voters approved the bond issue that paid for construction of Minot High School-Magic City Campus, and it took care of needed classroom space for a surging number of elementary students.

Submitted Photo This gym class at Erik Ramstad Middle School has 120 students.

But that bond issue was a scaled back version of a $125 million bond issue that voters had rejected months earlier. The grander bond issue would have paid for construction of a new high school and the renovation of Central Campus into a third middle school, along with the new elementary and elementary additions.

Instead, voters chose to delay deciding what to do about overcrowding at the middle schools and high school campuses later.

Now it is later and the children who were in elementary school five years ago are approaching middle school and high school age.

Vollmer said elementary classes are still bigger than current middle school and high school classes.

There are 637 fifth-graders, 603 fourth-graders, 650 third-graders, 665 second-graders – “That’s a scary number,” said Vollmer – and 661 first-graders and 686 kindergarteners. That compares with 547 sixth-graders, 623 seventh-graders, 534 eighth-graders, 522 ninth-graders, 518 10th-graders, 462 11th-graders, and 499 12th-graders.

Submitted Photo Portable classrooms are in use at Jim Hill Middle School because there isn’t enough classroom space.

Both in-town middle schools, Jim Hill and Erik Ramstad, were built to hold 720 students.

Ramstad is at capacity, said principal Bryn Iverson on Tuesday, while Jim Hill is currently well over capacity with about 793 students, according to assistant principal Nathan Freeman.

Neither Iverson nor Freeman think the schools would do well if they had to accommodate a couple hundred extra kids.

Freeman said Jim Hill has made some adjustments to deal with the additional students. There are 10 portable classrooms outside, used for language arts classes for 7th and 8th-graders, and reading and mathematics intervention classes. All of the 6th-graders have their classes inside the building. Sixth-graders and 7th-graders use separate hallways to access their classes and 8th-graders have a rotating bell schedule so they get out of classes at different times than the younger students. That helps limit traffic in the hallways and limits some of the interaction between younger students and kids in the upper grades.

But Freeman said the additional students and teachers in the school does add to the stress level.

Submitted Photo Teacher Samantha Jones has a math class with 30 students at Erik Ramstad Middle School. According to principal Bryn Iverson, Jones said that the class size makes it hard for her to do all of the activities she has planned for student learning.

With a building already bursting at the seams, he isn’t sure what the addition of more students would do to the school.

Ramstad, which absorbed about 30 students this fall who would otherwise have gone to Jim Hill, is already dealing with space issues, said Iverson.

“Traveling teachers” from the district’s high schools come to the middle schools to teach extra sections of math or language arts that are needed because of the additional kids.

That means that every classroom is in use and teachers have to share the space. Teachers who are preparing for their next class might not be able to do it in the classroom where they teach the kids.

A foreign language teacher must teach students in an open resource area because all of the classrooms are occupied.

Iverson said two music classes are taught in classroom areas, which means that a social studies class might be taught while kids are playing the drums in the music class above them.

Ramstad follows a middle school concept, meaning kids in each grade are split into two separate teams and each group of kids is supposed to have the same four teachers for language arts, math, science and social studies classes. The concept also means that the teachers get to know kids on their team better and kids feel like they are part of a small community in a big school. Iverson said that concept is harder to practice when traveling teachers are used, since kids in those classes don’t have the same teachers and they may have classes in a different part of the building than the rest of their community.

Despite the demonstrated needs at the middle school level, Vollmer knows that passing another bond issue could be a hard sell at a time when taxpayers already feel squeezed.

The school board plans to hold a retreat later this month to discuss ideas for how to handle the looming problem.

Eventually, the district will also hold public forums to get input from the community about what they would like to see done.

Vollmer said it is extremely important for people to attend those upcoming open meetings and let the board know which way it should go.

“We need input, we need input from everyone,” said Vollmer. “At the end of the day we want to bring a plan forward that everyone will support.”

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