Citizen group will aim to reshape district
Building a new school (or two) brings about plenty of questions for a school district, from where and when to build to how to realign attendance boundaries.
In the Verona Area School District, the school board and superintendent Dean Gorrell will work to answer those questions over the next few years. But they don't want to do it alone, and are looking for citizen input on some topics that come with expanding the district, both practical and philosophical.
The district is looking for 12 to 15 citizens to join elected officials in that discussion. It opened applications on its website last Thursday, and it had 13 applicants by the end of Friday.
They’ll be looking at the big picture surrounding the need to build up to two new schools within the next decade as a result of tightening space throughout the district.
The first likely would be built within the next three to five years.
The committee, which was first discussed at a special board meeting in December to talk about expansion, is officially charged with three main topics: discussing grade configurations for new schools, evaluating the district’s practice on equalizing students who get free or reduced-price lunches across schools and determining options for the locations of the district’s four charter schools.
As Gorrell put it, “any one of those topics … could be a topic for a committee in and of itself.”
The committee will attempt to tackle all three over the next year or so, Gorrell told the Verona Press. He anticipated the committee’s creation later this spring, with a break over the summer before school issues ramp up again in the fall.
“It’s not something that we have to decide within the next three months, for sure,” Gorrell said, adding that the timeline will also depend on final enrollment numbers for next year, and a higher-than-expected increase could speed that up.
He added that the presence of unelected community members likely will bring an outside perspective that some on the board might not have.
“We get into our own little way of looking at things, so … they call them blind spots for a reason,” he said. “We don’t see them, and for other people it may just be completely obvious to them.”
The committee will first have to decide what grades a new school should comprise, and that decision will likely inform discussions about the other topics it has to cover.
Elementary schools are facing the most immediate space crunch, but the middle schools and high school are likely to follow soon, leaving plenty of options for what grades the new schools could include.
Gorrell said the decision will come down to a balance between age-alike schools, like those currently in the district, with how to best use current and future space.
Other districts in Dane County that have expanded recently have chosen alternative options to the traditional K-5 elementary, 6-8 middle and 9-12 high school make-ups.
In Middleton, for example, the district added fifth-graders to the middle school, opening extra space in the elementary schools with open classrooms that had formerly housed fifth-grade classes and expanding the middle school with referendum money.
“The benefit there is instead of building multiple elementary schools, you put maybe more money into a middle school and have that be a larger school,” Gorrell said.
In another nearby district, Sun Prairie decided four years ago to have a 10-12 high school, 8-9 “intermediate” level school, 6-7 middle school and K-5 elementary schools to help alleviate space issues related to rapid growth.
And in Oregon, Rome Corners Intermediate has hosted grades 5-6 since 2001.
Gorrell said he’s even seen changes as low as kindergarten, with some districts creating “kindergarten centers” where all of the district’s kindergarten students go.
“It isn’t just necessarily grade configurations at the middle school or high school level, but it’s also the elementary level, too,” he said.
Another topic that’s always controversial is redrawing boundary lines for attendance areas.
And when that must be done again, the district will need to consider ways to even out socioeconomic disparities.
As has been the case for many years, the neighborhoods that have the highest number of students getting free or reduced lunches is the northeast section of the district. Currently, that area is carved up creatively to equalize the populations at all of the district’s schools.
But it makes the notion that VASD is full of “neighborhood schools,” where students could walk to and from school, a “misnomer,” Gorrell said.
“There are neighborhoods that go to schools, but there aren’t necessarily neighborhood schools in the strict sense of it,” he said.
Instead, many students are bused out of neighborhoods, which can be split up in many ways, with buses often traveling through a neighborhood all morning long on different routes for different schools.
“The down side of that …is you literally have neighborhoods where if you live across the street you’re going to a different school and you’re a third-grader,” Gorrell said.
But the school board has long favored the equalized approach, Gorrell said, estimating that for the last 25 or so years that’s been the priority, motivated to make sure district schools are representative of the community as a whole.
“It serves everybody’s purpose,” he said. “It definitely looks more like our world, and I think that serves everybody well in the long run.”
Longtime board member Ken Behnke expressed a similar sentiment at the December meeting, telling the board he would “never be in favor of a plan that would make … the populations more concentrated” and possibly create a situation where one school was looked at as the “economically deprived school.”
At the same time, the district has had the same issues with the “achievement gap” that plague many schools around the country. The “gap” is data that shows lower test scores from minority students and those in lower socioeconomic classes than their white or more affluent peers.
That issue led some to question the current system at the December meeting and advocate for reaching out to those communities to get their input.
“Who’s doing well and who’s not doing well in our school system?” VASD director of human resources Jason Olson asked. “It’s our lower students, so what do they need?”
That’s a big part of why Gorrell hopes to get a diverse group of residents to serve on the committee.
“You’re not talking about just the school community, you’re talking about the community as a geographic area, too, as a whole,” he said. “So what impact does it have moving kids out of their neighborhood to another school? I don’t know that.
“It’s not just a numbers game.”
Charter school options
The district’s three elementary school charters (New Century School, Core Knowledge and Verona Area International School), have been facing crunches, too, and it’s been keeping their programs from growing.
CK and VAIS share space with another school, and NCS is based in an old building, which Gorrell said would be excessively expensive to update.
He said all of them have expressed an interest in growing at times over the years, especially CKCS, which shares a building with Badger Ridge Middle School.
“The answer to Core Knowledge’s request to expand is ‘no,’” Gorrell said. “It’s been ‘no’ for the last several years because there’s no space there.”
So Gorrell said the committee will consider the option of a “charter school building” that could house all three or decide whether being hosted at another site, as they are now, is sustainable.
The schools’ fates are also likely tied to the fate of Sugar Creek Elementary School, the district’s “downtown” elementary school, which resides in a 60-year-old building.
The decision not to do physical infrastructure upgrades to that building or the 100-year-old adjacent building that houses New Century could play a role in the big picture, Gorrell said.
“So do we put money into that?” he said. “Or do we think about tearing that one down and building another one on site? Or not having one downtown?”