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District 518 “tapped out” on creative space solutions

Melissa Jensen and Karmel Holinka split their Prairie Elementary classroom with a bookshelf, which eliminates a visual distraction but not background noise. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)1 / 3
A bookshelf separates Reading Interventionist Karmel Holinka and Melissa Jensen's intervention spaces. Holinka meets with elementary students Friday on her half of the room while Jensen also has students on her side. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)2 / 3
Social worker Mellissa Burch meets with elementary students in what used to be a time-out space. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)3 / 3

Editor’s note: This is the third of a multi-part series that will cover issues pertaining to District 518’s space concerns and the Feb. 13 bond referendum.

WORTHINGTON — For the past several years, shuffling and adaptation to existing Independent School District 518 buildings and spaces have occured on an annual basis in order to accomodate for a growing student population, building administrators say.

From divided classrooms, to converting storage closets into classrooms, to teachers mobilizing, the list goes on as to how the district has adapted to use every nook and cranny of available space.

Many of the district’s teachers say they’ve been able to make these adjustments — not because there’s enough space for what they believe to be proper learning environments, but because they work alongside innovative colleagues that have creatively adapted the space to educate more kids.

But now such solutions are tapped out, they argue, as the school spaces have already been adapted further than what many thought possible.

Prairie Elementary

Space at Prairie Elementary has not always been a problem. In fact, when Prairie opened in 2001, teachers had a luxurious amount, said Melissa Jensen, a 23-year veteran District 518 employee.

Jensen recalls being cramped at West Elementary before the opening of Prairie, which board of education members recall building as bigger than necessary at the time.

“So we were spoiled,” Jensen said. “We didn’t need all of that extra space, but we used it.”

That has changed as the enrollment has gradually climbed over the last 17 years, she said.

Jensen went from having two classrooms at Prairie to now using a bookshelf to divide one classroom between herself and Karmel Holinka, who simultaneously teach two groups of students in need of reading intervention.

Jensen said the physical space is adequate considering she is not able to meet with more than six students at a time to make the intense intervention purposeful. However, with up to an additional six students on the other side of the bookshelf, that doesn’t make the environment ideal, she added.

“Typically kids in any intervention are a little more distractible than kids that aren’t, because there’s usually some reason they’re not learning up to par,” she said.

“So we can still hear each other, but at least the kids can’t see and are making gestures at each other,” she added about the bookshelf division between the two groups of students.

Jensen said her classroom is one example of the result of a gradual increase in the student population.

According to Principal Heidi Meyer, there were 44 general education classrooms when Prairie was built in 2001. There are now 54.

Some of the spaces that have been converted into general education classrooms include three special education classrooms, two computer labs and one art classroom. A total of 22 Prairie Elementary spaces have been adapted and used in ways other than their intended purpose, Meyer said.

There are 16 Prairie Elementary teachers who share a classroom simultaneously, and 11 who use a small conference room for their instruction.

That doesn’t include tables dispersed throughout each wing’s common areas for small group work. The building was designed so some of that overflow could occur, but more student instruction is occuring in that environment than what was ever intended, Meyer said.

Some of those spaces, many that have five or more tables, include dividers on wheels.

“We try and do things to minimize distractions as much as possible,” Meyer said.

Some common areas have also become makeshift lockers for student’s backpacks, coats and boots since their classroom was not originally built for that purpose.

Jensen said the overcrowded state of Prairie is very similar to West Elementary prior to Prairie’s opening. But while Prairie now feels as crowded as West Elementary was, there’s a key difference.

“(Prairie) is still a beautiful, fabulous building,” she said. “It’s safe and it’s warm, but the crowded piece feels the same.”

Worthington Middle School

Shared spaces and space conversion is also the reality at Worthington Middle School. According to WMS Principal Jeff Luke, seven spaces that were previously storage or workroom areas are now classrooms or offices.

As the enrollment has grown, so has the need for additional faculty.

Luke said the middle school is able to continue to add staff, but only if those new hires share classroom space with other teachers — which is already happening.

There are currently 31 teachers that share classroom space, Luke said. Nineteen of those teachers share their space with another teacher and must vacate their classroom during one or both of their prep times. About 12 of those teachers share a home base, but move to a different room almost every period of the day.

One of those teachers is WMS Mathematics Instructor Inga Dudley, who is new to the district.  

Dudley’s position was added this year to help ease the class sizes, as was Casey Hertz’s science position. The two teachers share a classroom that has a small space that was converted to an office for teacher prep time, eliminating the space to be used solely for science material storage.

Hertz has five periods of instruction in the classroom, while Dudley transitions to three classrooms throughout the day.

“I carry a tote,” she said. “I have to have all my materials with me, even if I don’t need it.”  

While Hertz doesn’t have to transition all of his classroom materials, he said he’s more cautious about what’s left on the back lab table since the space is shared.

“I have to allow for more cleanup time than I would otherwise,” Hertz said.  

WMS Interventionist Jill Spiegelhoff — who shares a classroom with WMS Interventionist Scott Burns — chooses to navigate her mobility differently. Spiegelhoff wheels a cart with all her materials from classroom to classroom throughout the day.

“Throughout the day I’ve learned that if I take something off the cart, I put it back on the cart,” she said. “When I pass through the hallways with my cart, I wait for the kids to pass because it’s too hard to get through because it’s so crowded.”

The classroom space that she uses most with Burns was repurposed from an art storage space four years ago, she said. Adding a ceiling, doorways, technology hookups, speaker system and heating vents were some of the renovations required to turn the storage space into a classroom, she added.

Another repurposed space is WMS Social Worker Melissa Burch’s office, which she uses to meet with students to talk about personal and often sensitive subjects.

Burch’s office, which was once a designated time-out space, is a small space off of a sixth grade special education classroom. The space, she added, does not have ideal sound blocking capabilities.

“Some kids ask me, ‘Can (the special education classroom) hear me as much as I can hear them?’” Burch said.

Worthington High School

Despite some additions, there are about 10 teachers without a classroom space of their own., according to WHS Principal Josh Noble.

The need to accomodate for a teacher population without their own classrooms led to the creation of a teacher hub, which is one room with small cubicles shared by teachers for prep work and to meet with students before or after school.

One of the teachers working in that space is first-year WHS Mathematics Teacher Jeremiah LeTourneau.

Because LeTourneau does not teach more than one period in a given classroom, he hauls a backpack with his materials to three different classrooms throughout the day for regular instruction. He also utilizes the cafeteria three days a week to meet with an average group of 15 students that need additional math support.

“We tried sharing a classroom with another teacher at one time, but in that classroom there are all these other students that do not need extra help,” LeTourneau said. “We got moved down to the cafeteria so we have more space and places we can write.”

An additional four teachers are also using the cafeteria for intervention time like LeTourneau.

LeTourneau said one of the implications about not having a permanent classroom is having to calibrate his computer to the digital screen.

“That’s precious time I could have to help students,” he said. “Instead, I have to go and set up a classroom every single day I go in there, which takes time away from instruction time.”

Alyssa Sobotka

Alyssa joined The Globe in July 2017 and covers education and crime beats. The Nebraska native earned her bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. In her own sarcastic tone, her blog, Aimlessly Navigating, recounts the reality, pitfalls and triumphs of a young 20-something navigating to maturity. Follow her on Twitter: @alyssasobotka

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