Birth rate signals growth
As the Storm Lake Board of Education begins to pound out a footprint for a new elementary to serve the entire community, the question of the moment becomes - "How big is big enough?"
The new middle school was overcrowded within a few years of being built, after being whittled down somewhat in order to get a bond issue past a super-majority of voters.
Today that building, directly across from the site for the new elementary, holds over 700 students in a building that would comfortably serve a maximum of about 650, Superintendent Paul Tedesco reflects. "It wasn't build for that," he said.
A smallish incoming fifth grade class will be a break for the district at that building, but future projections of continued growth could be a space concern.
At the high school building, this year's freshman class is expected to be 40-50 students larger than the senior class that graduated in the spring, and about 40 more students will be retained through the charter school program that otherwise would have graduated and left.
In designing an elementary, local officials want to make sure the structure could be adapted or expanded if needed in the future. The trick is making sure the plan is not overly ambitious or expensive - but also that they don't construct a new building that will quickly become too small for the need.
Currently, district officials are planning for about 150 children in each class, but admit the figure is at best an educated guess.
Tedesco said projecting student body population is tougher than ever, because the state has quit providing school districts with projections based on actual birth statistics.
The latest figures the district has are for 2005 - in which local births match the number of the largest classes the district has seen in recent history - the 180+ student classes that are now in eighth and ninth grade. However, prior to those classes, the district hadn't seen numbers that large in close to a dozen years, Tedesco said.
"We think we are okay in planning at 150 per class, but we can't be sure," the superintendent admits. "There are so many factors that we have no control over."
Indeed, new development or a new industry could bring in numerous new families, or if an existing major industry left, the impact would be immediate. Immigration patterns play a role as well - and it is one that can be unpredictable.
"Our records show student population increasing currently in every non-caucasian ethnic group - every one," Tedesco said. "Last year 42 percent of the district population was Hispanic alone, but in the elementary level, that number is now close to 60 percent."
In discussing such issues, you will now hear the district use that term - "non-caucasian." What used to be considered "minorities" is no such thing any longer.
Will the immigration and birth rates continue to fill desks with Hispanic and other non-caucasian children in greater numbers? The district has no way of telling, but trends over several years would indicate that that is where growth is coming from.
Predictions suggest that the steady overall growth the district has seen over the past decade, which flies opposite the trend for almost all of rural Iowa where districts are bleeding students at an alarming rate, will continue this fall.
"I think the district will see a little growth again this year," Tedesco said. "You can't always tell from year to year. Two years ago we were down 52, and the next year we were up 54. Over time, it is slight, steady growth."
The incoming kindergarten class is shaping up to be about 130-140 students this fall, based on parental contacts - up from 120 this year, Tedesco said.
Even with growth, the district is taking a cautious approach to the elementary building planning.
Tedesco told the Pilot-Tribune that well before the building concept was revealed at a meeting last week, he and other district leaders had directed the architect to cut some 12,000 square feet from the preliminary concept. Much of that came in the form of a downsized gym, which had originally been large enough to hold two full-size varsity basketball courts. The plan now would allow one full size court running the length of the gym, or it could be split with a curtain to allow two games on less-than-varsity size courts running crossways.
"We have not at this time cut any classrooms. We are still in the process of determining exactly how big those rooms need to be," Tedesco said.