Many parents, staff, and students would agree that St. Anthony’s Wilshire Park Elementary School, 3600 Highcrest Rd. NE, is bursting at the seams. With 706 kids in grades K-5 (and 850 projected for the near future), the need for new classrooms and learning spaces has become pressing.
Last month, the St. Anthony New Brighton Independent School District #282 school board approved a school renovation proposal. It includes two additions, one to the east, and the other to the west. It adds classrooms and bathrooms and expands areas such as the gymnasium, media center, and school offices. It also would provide a secure main entrance.
The district will be asking voters to approve the plan in a bonding referendum this fall. Its projected cost will be between $12 and $15 million.
The current plan is the district’s second attempt to solve Wilshire Park’s overcrowding problem. Last October, administrators presented the community with a leaner proposition. Now known as Plan A, it would have added space for three classrooms and two kindergarten rooms on the building’s east side. Its projected cost was $4.5 to $5 million, with completion projected for September 2017.
Some parents and community members were disappointed by Plan A, however. Superintendent Robert Laney said, “The residents told us, ‘We don’t think you’re thinking big enough.’ They said other spaces needed to be enlarged to accommodate that many students.”
Then the soil tests came back. They revealed serious saturation issues that needed correcting before construction could start. That work would have delayed the project.
At school officials’ direction, architects came up with a more comprehensive plan. They presented it to the school board in February. Plan B includes building additions to the east and west. It adds classrooms, learning spaces and bathrooms, plus a larger gymnasium, cafeteria, and media center. After school board members reviewed and approved it, they directed staff to schedule informational community meetings and gather feedback.
Laney, Community Services Director Wendy Webster, and Wilshire Park Principal Kari Page hosted a parents’ informational meeting on April 3. Laney told the group that Plan B “gives us what we need for the next 10 years.” He said they had been surprised to learn that soil tests on the building’s west side showed it suitable for building (“although in the spring, it looks really mushy,” he added). He pointed out that the new plan would make it possible to locate grade levels together. A secure vestibule design would direct people in through the office before they could enter the main building. He said that reworking the outdoors “bus loop” at the school entrance would allow buses to park in the same spot every day, thus increasing student safety. (Currently, older students help younger ones find their buses. Also, because there are more buses than parking spots, two buses must double park at the entrance.)
Webster said that if Plan B is approved, additional space at Wilshire Park would allow them to move the students in School Age Care (the district’s before- and after-school latchkey program) from the city’s community center building to Wilshire Park. “We can save $20,000 in transportation costs. There is almost a full bus that takes Wilshire Park kids to the community center and back again.”
Principal Page said that switching from Plan A to Plan B means that renovation won’t start as soon as they had hoped. “We need to wait a little longer. We’ll be able to do it for one more year. I just keep working with what they give me, to make sure it’s effective for students.”
She said she has been dealing with space issues for the last five years. “As needs have arisen, we’ve tried to figure out how to increase space. We’re thinking of taking existing computer room space and making it into a third grade classroom. With the use of Chrome Books, we can take away desktop computers and move the Chrome Books around the building as we need them.”
Webster said that they started seeing an increase in student population four years ago. Three years ago, the district closed open enrollment. Currently, kindergarten, first, and second grades are all comprised of resident students.
Laney said, “This fall we will be asking voters to consider a bond referendum to finance the additions. Our enrollment is increasing, and we are planning ahead. We are looking at a September referendum instead of November, so that we can get ahead of other school districts. That way we can get more competitive bids and start the project sooner.”
If all goes well, he added, “construction could start in late fall or early spring and the building would be ready by fall, 2018.”
Some history: Wilshire Park Elementary School was built in 1968. In 1994, when the school population was growing, voters approved money for an addition that added four new classrooms, a new art classroom, and a new media center. The gymnasium was expanded and remodeled. The offices were remodeled. Also, technology was upgraded throughout the building. In 2008, voters supported one question out of four proposed on a bond referendum ballot. The money they approved paid for classroom renovation and a new STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) lab.
Last year, the district hired demographer Dr. Hazel Reinhardt, the former state demographer, to analyze its housing, current and past enrollment, and birth rate. She projected that in the years 2025-2026, resident student enrollment at the elementary school will increase to between 795 and 963 students.
When Reinhardt studied Silver Lake Village, she found that last spring it had 600 housing units and produced 31 students for St. Anthony public schools.
City staff looked at Lowry Grove, a mobile home park with 100 housing units as of last spring, and found 32 students attending the St. Anthony public schools. They projected that the proposed Lowry Grove area redevelopment, which likely would include apartments and different types of housing, might not add many more school age children to the district, because, as Webster put it, “more expensive units typically don’t generate kids.”
Webster said that although just under 21 percent of the district’s households have children under 18 years old, they have been looking at demographics. In 2015, she said, the highest number of residents were between 60 and 69 years old. In 2016, however, it was 30 to 39 years old. In 2017, the group might be even younger.
Needing more space
In a Northeaster interview after the parent meeting, Laney said that under the new Wilshire Park renovation plan, the nurse’s office, art room, and media center would be larger. “The teacher and volunteer work room right now are one in the same,” he added. “We would add a teacher workroom, a math intervention room, and a counselor’s office.”
Webster said, “What was exciting for us to hear was that more than 200 community members told us that Plan A was a good start, but they wanted more. It was also encouraging to hear that families are moving here for the schools.”
Laney added, however, that “the flip side of that is that this community doesn’t have a lot of commercial tax base. That means that tax increases fall on the residents, and we are definitely aware of that.”
In addition to higher school enrollment, changing times and new programs have increased pressure on existing building spaces. Webster said that when the building was built in the 1960s, there was no all-day kindergarten. There was no separate art room. Programs for on-site special education, reading and math intervention, ELL [English Language Learner] and STEM did not exist. “All those changes eat up space in a hurry,” she added. “Those things have to be added, and they take space.”
School officials are holding a series of community meetings this month to discuss the renovation. The project will likely go to voters for approval this fall. The meetings are open to the public and scheduled for Thursday, April 20, 6:30 p.m. at Wilshire Park in the multi-purpose room; Monday, April 24, 6:30 p.m. in Wilshire’s multi-purpose room; and Thursday, April 27, 7 p.m. at the Community Center in the city council chambers. For information, call Wendy Webster, 612-706-1170.
Below: A rendering of Wilshire Park’s exterior when first built, and its floor plan, both featured in a booklet prepared for an open house celebrating the school and an addition to St. Anthony’s High School, held from 2-5 p.m. November 3, 1968. (Courtesy of St. Anthony-New Brighton School District 282)