Panel explores how to address growing elementary school population

Predictions of a growing student body is driving the work of a subcommittee charged with examining the needs of Jefferson City’s elementary schools.

The group, which came forward with six suggestions Thursday night, is part of the Jefferson City school district’s Long-Range Facilities Planning Committee (LRFPC). Last fall, the group was asked by Superintendent Brian Mitchell to create a 20-year plan to address issues the district has with overcrowded and aging buildings.

Among the six ideas are four short-term solutions and two that could be implemented as needs arise over the next decade or longer.

The four shorter-term proposals include:

• Building a new elementary on the city’s eastern end. The new school likely would be built on land located between McCarty Street and Lewis and Clark Middle School that was purchased by the Jefferson City Board of Education three years ago.

• Renovating East Elementary School and keeping it in use, but reducing the number of students who attend there.

• Constructing more classrooms at Callaway Hills Elementary.

• Addressing security concerns at buildings across the district.

The two longer-range ideas include building a new elementary on the city’s west side and constructing a third middle school north of the Missouri River. The most-likely site for that new middle school would be on the 31 acres the district owns adjacent to Callaway Hills Elementary.

Brad Bates, who serves on the LRFPC’s elementary subcommittee, shared his team’s ideas with the larger group.

He said the suggested changes are designed to cope with predictions that the student body is growing.

Earlier this month, Mitchell reported to the Board of Education that next fall’s kindergarten enrollment is likely to be the sixth consecutive year with a class size of 700 students or more.

Six years ago, 3,700 students were enrolled in grades K-5. Today 4,400 students are enrolled in those grades.

“That’s 700 more kids we’re providing an array of services to,” he said. “It means expanding sections in grade levels at different schools.”

The list of changes also addresses concerns about East Elementary’s deteriorating 75-year-old structure.

Last fall, the Board of Education hired Kansas City-based firm ACI Boland Architects to conduct an appraisal study of 18 facilities within the district. East Elementary received an overall score of 57.4, putting it in the “borderline” category, below “satisfactory” or “excellent.”

Bates noted East is the only school with a trailer. And he added that kindergarten classes in that building have 27 to 28 children — too many, he thinks.

“It’s pretty easy to see the need there,” Bates said.

According to the ACI Boland study, three of the district’s 11 elementary schools have one empty classroom; two of the schools have “underutilized” classroom space. The other six schools don’t have an empty classroom to give a new teacher.

The architects’ evaluation of the district’s capacity shows it has room for 217 more elementary students. But that figure may be misleading, because the architects looked at square-footage per student, not at space for classroom desks. So, an elementary with a larger-than-average gym, cafeteria or atrium might be deemed as having extra capacity when it doesn’t.

By renovating and constructing new classrooms on the city’s east side, the committee hopes to create more room for students throughout the district. And Bates sees the proposed construction as a way to better ensure all the elementary schools in the district have roughly the same socioeconomic balance and similar levels of academic achievement.

“By building the new elementary, it will allow us to shift the boundaries to relieve (overcrowding) pressure at the other elementaries throughout the city,” he said.

Larry Henry, another subcommittee member, said more socioeconomic parity among the city’s 11 elementary school will mean parents are less hesitant to enroll their children in the public schools.

The committee’s recommendations are expected to be shared with architects at ACI Boland so they can attempt to pull together preliminary figures for what the ideas might cost.

The information likely will be shared with the public at a town hall meeting this summer, but no date has been set. The LRFPC is scheduled to meet again May 29.

Bates suggested the proposals for a new elementary school and more funding for safety and security could be less controversial and more amenable to the voting public. If voters approved those ideas, it could build “a little momentum” for the district, Bates suggested.

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