Elementary Center preparing to add South Street students

The Warren County School District board will be faced with the option to close South Street Early Learning Center at its meeting Monday night.

It’s a decision that’s based largely on monetary issues.

The estimated savings of $500,000 has already been written into the preliminary budget for next year.

But it is not an idea that flies in the face of good education practice, and district and building administrators support the plan and are ready to implement it if the ‘ayes’ have it.

“I’m excited about it,” Warren Area Elementary Center Principal Ruth Nelson said. “I think it’s great for kids.”

WAEC has traditionally housed the central attendance area’s second through fifth grade students.

In 2012-2013, the central attendance area’s sixth graders were added to the mix due to construction at Beaty-Warren Middle School.

As the sixth grade returns to Beaty next year, WAEC could take on two new grades – the kindergarten and first grade classes that would have been housed at SSELC.

“Having sixth grade here this year opened our eyes,” Nelson said.

The primary grades – kindergarten, first and second – would occupy the classrooms on the first floor at WAEC. The third, fourth and fifth grades would take up the second floor.

“The timing is right,” Acting Superintendent Amy Stewart said. “This is good for kids.”

Space

Sixth grade in the district works on a middle level scheduling format with students moving through four core classes throughout the day rather than remaining with one teacher. Because of that, WAEC’s six classes of 2011-2012 fifth graders needed eight classrooms and 10 rooms total as 2012-2013 sixth graders.

Freeing up 10 rooms creates most of the space kindergarten and first grade will take. The plan calls for six sections of grades two through five, seven sections of first grade, and six or seven of kindergarten.

Preliminary kindergarten enrollment estimates have led administrators to believe that the grade will require no more than seven classrooms. If there are only six sections of kindergarten, Nelson expects to have one classroom that does not have a class assigned to it. That room could be used, as it was originally intended, as a science room. All the rest will be full. If there are seven sections of kindergarten, all classrooms will be in use.

Increasing class sizes will provide another classrooms. The 164 students in seven sections of fourth grade this year will become six sections of fifth grade next year. That breaks down to an average class size change from a little over 23 to just over 27. The eight kindergarten classes at South Street have about 22 students each. In seven sections at WAEC, that class size will be about 25. The number of sections for all other grades is expected to remain the same.

Nelson suggested that the average class size figures are “numbers, not kids.” Some classes may be somewhat larger, most will be smaller, as some students are pulled out of a section for small group instruction or other services.

No specials rooms – art, music, gym, library – will have to be used as full-time classrooms. The large group instruction room at the school, half of which is used by sixth graders this year, will be available for its intended purpose.

Of the 10 classrooms that can be divided, three were divided in 2012-2013. Only two will be split in 2013-2014 if the merger of the two schools passes.

“We’re using the building as it was designed to be used,” Stewart said.

WAEC has appropriate spaces for support services. All of South Street’s instructional spaces are used. “They’re bursting at the seams at South Street,” Stewart said.

“There are a lot of places for the support staff to go that aren’t under stairwells,” Nelson said.

The library at WAEC was designed for young students and has space to take on the books from South Street.

“Won’t they love that?” Nelson said of the story time area of the library.

“There are a lot of bonuses for the K-1 to be there,” she said.

“Those kids will have more room and supports than they would at South Street,” Stewart said.

WAEC offers a full-time principal, school nurse and guidance counselor.

“That’s huge,” Stewart said. “Those kiddos who are used to a part-time service don’t get sick on a part-time basis.” South Street has a nurse twice a week and a counselor only one day per week. South Street Principal Ann Buerkle has announced her retirement.

SSELC opened in 1971 and never underwent a significant renovation. WAEC opened in 2005. The open plan at SSELC, with rooms that open right onto the multi-purpose room, was part of the practice of that era.

There is a separate space for art classes at WAEC. That space includes a kiln that can be used with pottery lessons.

“The building was built to have a classroom on the stage,” Nelson said.

This year, general music, orchestra, sixth-grade band, and all of the private instrumental music lessons for fourth and fifth grades are held in that space. The stage is sufficiently insulated from the gym. Nelson said she has spent time observing in that room and found that there was little, if any, noticeable noise from the gym. On the other side of the curtain, she said it is sometimes hard to hear the band in the gym.

The district had architect firm WTW check the proposed enrollment – and a figure about 70 students higher – against code requirements. The company reported that the building “meets or exceeds in all capacities,” Stewart said.

Special education changes

Additional space – two full classrooms and half of another – will be delivered by proposed changes to the district’s special education program.

Director of Pupil Services Patricia Horner has proposed bringing the students with the most intensive special education needs together to one location.

Youngsville Elementary Middle School, which already provides services for the western and northern attendance areas, has space to expand those services and is close to the geographic center of the district.

WAEC provides autism and emotional support for students from the central and western attendance areas.

Two sections of emotional support and one section of autism support would be moved out of WAEC and bused to YEMS. Most students with emotional support and autism support needs would remain.

“There are a lot of students who have… support designation,” Stewart said. “Some need many supports most of the time.”

Those students would attend YEMS.

Transportation is a concern. “Patty’s working with (transportation manager) Mike (Kiehl),” Stewart said. “That is probably the main concern that we’re working on.”

Aides can be assigned to ride with students on buses or vans to and from school.

“Some need minimal support some of the time,” she said. “They don’t need a full stable of resources. We have emotional support resources in all of our schools.”

Timing

Adding about 150 students to WAEC will test the limits of the building.

The gymnasium at WAEC can handle a total of 40 sections per week. If the schools merge, Nelson said there will be 37 or 38 sections of each special per week. While the space can handle that many sections, teachers, by contract, cannot be asked to work 38 sections of specials per week. Stewart said it is likely that itinerant specials teachers at South Street will find themselves moved to WAEC.

Each student will go to one of four lunch periods. The first lunch starts at about 11 a.m. The fourth ends at about 1 p.m. The cafeteria has sufficient space to handle all of the students, Nelson said.

Recess periods are staggered so only one class is at recess at any given time.

Transportation

The district is not counting on being able to reduce the number of buses it needs to move students. However, the central attendance routes will be simplified by removing one of the four legs of the daily routes.

Nelson said she expects most students will ride the same buses to WAEC that they would have or did ride to South Street.

The administrators acknowledge that there will be more parents driving through WAEC’s already congested parking area each morning under the consolidation plan. “Whether South Street is coming or not we need to do a better job,” Stewart said.

However, the number of people working to assist flow through the parking lot will increase as the supplementals at South Street move to the hill.

Technology and equipment

There will continue to be three computer labs at WAEC and additional Smartboards and computers will move from South Street.

There have been some reports of problems with the computer equipment at SSELC. Stewart said many of the problems were due to the wireless internet at the school. Because the school’s closure was foreseen, the district did not pay to have its fiber run to the school, Stewart said.

Nelson said she expects to see more computers in classrooms with the merger.

Playground equipment, with the exception of some load-bearing posts, can be moved from South Street to WAEC.

Savings

Whether the savings is $500,000 or the $800,000 once projected by former Superintendent Brandon Hufnagel, closing South Street would help the district’s budget problems.

The savings include the reduction in utilities and maintenance required for a closed building.

The district included cuts of two teachers – from among several who are retiring – in the budget. Stewart said those cuts will take place whether the merger takes place or not. Likewise, because of anticipated cuts due to federal sequestration the number of Title I teachers will drop from five to four whether South Street and WAEC merge or stay separate next year.

The district’s expenditures will be reduced in secretarial, aide and custodial staff and some part-time positions if South Street is closed. Buerkle’s retirement will provide a savings if the district does not need a principal for South Street moving forward.