by nathan oster
The School Facilities Department (SFD) has hired an architectural firm to conduct capacity studies on six Wyoming school districts, including Big Horn County School District No. 3, where the primary concern continues to be overcrowding in its middle school building.
A special school board meeting was held Dec. 19 to formally kick off the capacity study, and attending either in person or via phone were all seven members of the school board, a team of school administrators and representatives of both MOA Architecture and the SFD.
Troy Decker, a project manager, represented the SFD, while MOA Architecture, the firm that will be doing the capacity studies around the state, was represented by Bill Speck, a project manager, and Jack Mousseau, the firm’s lead architect.
Superintendent Barry Bryant called the meeting a productive one, noting that he believes school officials made inroads in convincing the SFD that overcrowding is an issue in the middle school, and that the SFD’s contention that there is “excess space” in the high school, due in part to the size of the auditorium, was not a feasible argument.
The task facing MOA will be to come up with a number of possible solutions to the overcrowding at GMS. One it has those options, another public meeting will be held. From there it will go to the SFD, which will then decide whether to recommend the project to the School Facilities Commission for approval.
If everything goes well, Bryant said construction could begin within the next two years.
How much of a concern is overcrowding in the school? GMS Principal Scott McBride made the argument that it negatively impacts students and staff.
Enrollment at GMS (which is home to sixth, seventh and eighth grades) has ranged between 120 and 140 during the last four years. On opening day this year, the school’s enrollment was set at ….
A PowerPoint presentation put together by the school district emphasized that, “For students to thrive, they need a learning environment that engages and challenges them to reach their individual potential.”
McBride pointed out that the building has small windows and primarily uses artificial lighting. “Through research, we now know that natural light helps kids feel better,” said McBride.
The staff lounge is too small, he continued. “You can only have a few teachers in there at a time, so most of them are isolated in their rooms most of the day with very little interaction or ability to communicate with other teachers about what’s happening in the school.”
McBride also noted that the building does not have a defined “teacher prep” room; its ceilings are low, which limits the number of banners and signs that can be put up to encourage students or display their good works.
Perhaps the biggest concern, however, is the layout of the building. The hallways are very narrow to begin with — and when lockers are opened, they become even more so, according to McBride.
“Kids struggle to get to their classes on time because of the congestion,” said McBride, adding that teachers routinely play “traffic cop” during the transitions between classes. But with more than 100 kids pouring into the hallways at the same time, not everything gets noticed. McBride said the school office gets a number of complaints from students claiming they were either harassed or bullied between classes.
Eddie Johnson, a school board member who spent many years teaching at GMS, concurred, calling those transition periods “scary times” for kids.
“All of this has an impact on climate — and how kids feel about their school,” said McBride.
McBride emphasized that research has proven that “if you improve the culture and climate, you will improve test scores.” He added, “In spite of the problems with the building, our teachers do an excellent job. But our potential is hindered by this structure, by things we cannot control, such as the size of the hallways and the size of the classrooms.”
The school district’s presentation cited several other concerns as well, including the lack of a media center, inadequate room for special services, and limitations in the way GMS instructors can utilize technology in their instruction of students.
“This is not a new issue,” said Bryant, when McBride’s presentation came to an end. “The district has been leading the charge on this for more than 10 years. If it sounds like we’re frustrated, it’s because we are. Not to point a finger at anyone … but I feel it’s time some of the smaller districts are taken care of in this state.”
Bryant pitched one possible solution to the SFD and MOA representatives, one developed through consultations with the school district’s architect, Jim Bauer.
That plan calls for the construction of a new wing, between the sound end of the high school and the current Greybull Middle School Gym, which would house the grade six through eight classrooms.
Administrative offices, which are currently spread among the bus barn, the high school and in the GMS Gym, could then be consolidated into the current middle school building, which in its current location is centralized on the GHS-GMS campus, increasing efficiency in the process.
The district’s plan calls for a reclaiming of the two classrooms to the rear of the GMS Gym, where there are currently administrative offices for special services and a computer lab. The possibility of turning those rooms into a weight room was discussed.
Under the plan, GMS students would utilize the GHS library, which would featured a section just for middle-school level books.
Bryant urged MOA to “take a hard look” at the practicality of the square footage numbers. For example, by the SFD’s formula, Buff Gym is big enough to hold a class of up to 77 kids — but a class of 77 students with one PE teacher is not feasible.
“That gym was built before the SFD, and we are penalized because the good people of this district spent their hard earned dollars building these things,” said Bryant. “We saved taxpayer money by keeping (the GMS Gym) when the old high school was torn down … but now we’re penalized because for excess square footage.”
In summation, Bryant told the SFD and MOA representatives that the district has looked at all of its options, including varying bell times, but that in the end, it always comes back to the limitations of the building, which was constructed in 1980.
“Please don’t think we haven’t sat and brainstormed about how we can make this better,” said Bryant. “We have already extended the school day by five moneys — to the point where our middle school kids get more in-school time than is required.”
Mousseau said MOA’s mission is to look at “capacity based issues” that are either occurring now or are expected to occur through 2020.
While he didn’t draw any conclusions, Mousseau said the GMS’s primary problem isn’t “capacity” as much as it is “improperly designed infrastructure, such as the hallways.
“You may have enough classroom space, but the corridors don’t support the number of students in those classrooms,” which makes for “a horrible situation for those poor kids, in every way that you folks described.”
Mousseau said the capacity study would be an analysis of the entire 6-12 campus and how to best utilize the available space and that he expects that it will be completed by no later than March 2013. It could then head to the SFC by as early as the following month.
At one point, someone suggested moving the sixth grade back to the elementary school. Bryant scoffed at that idea, saying, “Good luck with that one. There is no space there.”
Mousseau concurred. “I don’t see that as an issue either.”
Another suggestion from the audience involved a greater mixing of GMS and GHS students, but Bryant said that, too, would be problematic. “The school board has more say than I do, but I do not want to have a 6 through 12 school,” he said. “We have a middle school for a reason — because it’s more conducive and better for our kids.”
While the district proposal does call for the GMS building to be adjacent to GHS, Bryant emphasized that it would have its own entrance.
Johnson echoed Bryant, saying that from day one in this discussion, “We haven’t wanted a 6-12 school. Middle school kids have very specific needs for getting them ready to go over to the high school.”
The other school districts that are getting capacity studies at this time are all located in large districts in the counties of Park, Campbell, Natrona, Laramie and Fremont.