Downsizing dilemma

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Students complain about having too few desks in classrooms and being trampled in hallways.

Teachers lament a lack of storage space and programs cut because there isn't enough room to hold classes.

It's not what one would expect from Central High School -- a 1-year-old, $23 million facility lauded by school officials as "state-of-the-art."

"It's a natural assumption that when you build a school, you build it big enough for your needs," said Dr. Mike Cowan, Central's principal. "I think people realize there was a limited amount of resources, but even an understandable sacrifice can present problems you have to confront."

Central's special education teachers may be dealing with the most significant space problem. Because those classes typically have fewer students than a regular class, the rooms were cut in half to save money when the new high school was being built.

Donna McDowell, one of Central's 13 special education teachers, works in an 11-by-23-foot classroom designed to hold eight students, but she has up to 16 students in some of her classes.

"When we found out about it, we tried to advocate for special education, but by then construction was already going on, and there was nothing we could do," she said.

Because of the crowding, McDowell has to cart all of her materials to a regular classroom for two hours a day and then return to the smaller space.

Students aren't allowed to bring backpacks into special education classes because space is so tight. The close quarters has also led to more behavior problems among McDowell's students, she said.

"Special education students tend to be more volatile. When you're shoulder-to-shoulder, there's a higher possibility something might happen," McDowell said.

Scaling back

Although Cowan hasn't heard any complaints from parents, he said he could understand why people might be distressed to learn of the space problems.

"There are some very nice features in this building," Cowan said. "But nice features don't cancel out the realities."

District officials introduced a master plan in 1997 that included a new high school. Blueprints were drawn up and a budget was set by the school board at $25 million. It wasn't long before officials realized the school they wanted to build cost $50 million. That's when the corner-cutting began.

Those involved in the planning and construction of the new building say they knew what would happen.

"It's not totally a surprise," said Dr. Bob Fox, the former school board president who took part in the planning of the school. "We did have to redesign some of the building, and it's difficult to project what classroom space will be needed."

To save money, architects moved the industrial technology and business classes to the nearby Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center, eliminated storage space and divided special education classes in half.

"It looks so big, but it's so crowded," said ninth-grader Brittany Matlock, whose biology class doesn't have enough room for desks for all the students.

Matlock said she sits at a table in the back of the room.

Three of the high school's business teachers and the industrial technology teacher are lodged some 400 feet away in the Career and Technology Center.

Because the normal five-minute break between classes isn't enough time for students to walk from the high school to classes on the far side of the CTC, they're given an extra minute.

There is no covered walkway connecting the two buildings, so students find themselves dealing with the weather conditions as well.

"We tell them at the beginning of the year to bring umbrellas to keep in their lockers," said Rene Pingel, business teacher.

Pingel said having her class outside of the regular high school hasn't been as big an inconvenience as she'd anticipated.

"In a perfect situation, we would be in the new high school," Pingel said. "But you know the real world."

Tech program reduced

Being isolated from the high school has had more of direct impact on industrial technology teacher Larry Strattman.

The industrial technology program was located within the high school in the original construction plans, but the final plans approved by the school board did not include space for the program.

Several classes were cut from the program and a teaching position was eliminated. Strattman, now the lone industrial technology teacher, is located in the CTC but rotates classrooms. And his program, which once served 500 students each year, can now only accommodate 60 students.

"It's a very frustrating position I'm in," Strattman said. "Every time I need something, it's in another classroom. Not having a home base is taxing."

Without a permanent classroom, Strattman has no storage space for materials or his students' projects. The area in the new high school that was designated for Strattman's program is now a dance studio and band storage area.

"The new building is wonderful, but there could have been better use made of some areas," he said. "We just sort of got left behind."

Even regular core-subject classrooms seem to be crowded, although perhaps for different reasons. Budget cuts forced the district to not fill two open teaching positions this year, which means class sizes have increased.

Some teachers have as many as 32 students at one time, and there often isn't enough room for that many desks.

"They told us there was supposed to be more room here," said 12th-grader Rebecca Beaman. "But the classes and halls are so crowded it's hard not to trample people."

Problems with crowded classrooms may only worsen as district officials make cuts to the budget. If more teaching positions are eliminated, as officials are currently discussing, class sizes will go up for those teachers who remain.

"Anything we could do to remedy the situation requires resources. They simply aren't available here, or really anywhere else with the budget crunch," Cowan said.

335-6611, extension 128

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