116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — As the Cedar Rapids school district continues building new, larger elementary schools, some educators say it will alleviate operational challenges smaller schools present, provide consistency to staff and students — and the cost savings will be funneled back in to educating kids.
Some parent advocates, however, question the impact that closing an existing school will have on their neighborhood and on historically marginalized people, such as people of color and of lower socioeconomic status, if the kids are too far away to walk to school.
At Garfield Elementary School, where there are 220 students, one of the operational challenges is being able to offer only one section of each grade because of the small student body. In past years, this has meant combining classrooms for a more even distribution of students across each classroom.
“My population here tends to be rather transient,” Garfield Elementary Principal Joy Long said. “I never know how many kids are going to actually come the first few days of schools. We make a plan, and we lose or gain kids and have to change it at the last minute.”
Having only one section of a grade level also isolates teachers who don’t have peers to bounce ideas off of and help them problem solve, Long said.
Arthur Elementary first grade teachers Katie Cater and Catherine O’Connell have taught there for almost 20 years each and have been in a professional learning community — a team of educators — with each other for at least seven years.
“Our jobs can be very isolating,” O’Connell said. “Having a team has helped us become better teachers. We collaborate constantly. … Katie and I have been blessed to be working together for as long as we have”
“I don’t know how anyone can go through teaching alone,” Cater said. “You need support. I can always talk to Catherine and she knows exactly what to say.”
Arthur Elementary Principal Jennifer Nurre said she loses staff to other schools in the district every year because of declining enrollment in the school, which has about 290 students.
“When you’re moving teachers, you’re having to rebuild a professional learning community,” Nurre said. “At the end of the day, that’s student learning that’s impacted.”
Specials teachers — like for art, music and physical education — and media specialists often rotate between the smaller schools. The media specialist at Garfield is there for one week every three weeks, Principal Long said. At Arthur, the physical education teacher has seen her students just over six times since the first day of school, making it hard for her to establish relationships with them, Principal Nurre said.
While some parents fear a larger school will result in a lesser sense of belonging for their children, Nurre said it’s on the principals to be intentional about getting to know the students. One way she plans to do this is going in to classrooms and reading a book to the kids.
Plan to close Garfield, Arthur
Earlier this year, the Cedar Rapids school board approved a plan to build a new elementary school on the annex of Arthur Elementary, and combine Arthur and Garfield Elementary attendance zones. Arthur and Garfield schools would be closed and a new, bigger elementary school would open by fall 2024.
Combining the student population of these schools will result in a population of between 400 to 500, which means about three sections of each grade level. Right now, elementary schools vary in student population, serving between 200 to 500 students, creating an inequitable distribution of resources, according to the district.
The district is hosting community input opportunities at Arthur Elementary, 2630 B Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids, from 4 to 8 p.m. Oct. 11 and at Garfield Elementary, 1201 Maplewood Dr. NE, Cedar Rapids, from 4 to 8 p.m. Oct. 18.
“I’m looking forward to our students having the best facilities they can possibly have — and our teachers, too,” Long said. “Larger classrooms, adequate storage, and all the things they need to do their jobs. They do an amazing job already. With all the challenges we face, we consistently are in the top in terms of academic growth for our students.”
A 2018 facilities master plan included building 10 new elementary schools and renovating three over the next 15 to 20 years in the Cedar Rapids district. This process included the closure and repurposing of eight schools.
Since then, the district has opened two new elementary schools — West Willow and Maple Grove — and closed Coolidge and Jackson elementary schools. Truman Elementary was transitioned in to an early childhood education center.
While these schools will have between 500 to 600 students, they learn in “pods” organized by grade level, which is a group of classrooms with a common area for students to gather or do group work to make a large school feel more personalized.
The elementary school work is being funded by SAVE — Secure an Advanced Vision for Educators — an existing statewide sales tax allocated to school districts based on certified enrollment.
Money saved goes back to educating kids
Operating Garfield and Arthur — schools that are just over a mile apart — “doesn’t make financial sense,” Long said.
It costs $7,000 to educate a student in a 500- to 600-student building compared with $11,000 to educate a student in a smaller building like Garfield, according to district officials.
“That’s a savings of $4,000 per student per year. You’re talking $1.6 million a year of savings between” Garfield and Arthur elementary schools, Long said. “Those savings are immediate and can go back in to educational programming.”
Those savings include having one administrator, one counselor and fewer custodial and nutrition staff at the one school, Long said. ”People say we’re letting people go, but we’re not because we have openings everywhere right now,“ she said.
More family engagement
Arthur Elementary Principal Nurre said a larger school also creates more opportunities for family engagement. “Right now, I have to limit parents coming in for lunch because I don’t have a space for them to sit and eat with the kids,” she said.
There’s also a lack of space at each of these schools, so much so that a staff member at Arthur Elementary who is a new mom has to use Nurre’s office to nurse. “You can imagine how complicated that is,” she said.
Students often work in small groups and one-on-one with teachers in the hallways because there isn’t the classroom space.
Parents question ‘one size fits all’ approach
While parents who are a part of a Grant Wood Elementary School advocacy committee acknowledge the financial aspect of fewer and larger elementary schools, they worry about the community they could lose in the process.
Grant Wood Elementary School is one of the schools the district plans to close under the 2018 facility master plan. No decisions have yet been made on the future of this school.
The advocacy committee is asking the district “dig deep” about what the Grant Wood community needs and not take a “one size fits all” with the elementary schools, said Maura Pilcher, president of the Grant Wood Parent Teacher Association.
Pilcher wants data on how the newly constructed West Willow and Maple Grove elementary schools have impacted student outcomes before the district moves forward with its facility plan. “Why are we in a rush to build another building right away?” she asked.
“We do believe our school should stay,” said Pilcher, a founding member of the advocacy group that started meeting in February.
Pilcher walks a few blocks every day to drop off and pick up her children, who are in second and third grade. In this way she has gotten to know her neighbors and even the teachers at Grant Wood. Closing it would be a “disinvestment” in the neighborhood, she said.
Mike Barshis, who has a first- and fourth-grader at Grant Wood, said “a lot of these conversations started on the walk home from school.” He believes closing the school could make the neighborhood "a less appealing place to move to,“ he said.
Barshis is a part of a parent-run landscaping committee that spends a Saturday twice a year weeding flower beds, laying fresh mulch and trimming bushes. “I can’t imagine that happening at a larger school,” he said.
Deidre Chestnut, who has daughters in preschool and second grade at Grant Wood, said she “100 percent” is for improving and investing in the schools, but she worries about an increase in bullying and a decrease in student connection with teachers in a larger school.
Leigh Ann Erickson, founder an education consulting business and previously a teacher at Mount Vernon High, is concerned a larger facility will decrease students’ sense of belonging in their school.
Having a sense of belonging “is critical” to help students “achieve their potential,” Erickson said. “I think we lose that when we go bigger.”
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