Sunday, April 27, 2003

Lakota hopes quality grows with buildings



By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Cherokee Elementary students negotiate their way through a one-lane walkway to get to two portable classrooms as classes change.
(MICHAEL SNYDER photo)
| ZOOM |
WEST CHESTER TWP. - Success breeds success. And for Lakota Schools, also the need to build buildings.

Top-rated academically among Ohio's 10 largest school districts, Lakota, the state's largest suburban district, is considering adding a third - and perhaps a fourth - high school just six years after splitting into two high schools. Parents this week began meeting in a series of open houses to discuss the future high school options for this booming suburban area.

For many - parents, teachers, students and administrators - growth is a way of life in Lakota. And that's not such a bad thing, they say.

"I would rather be here than in the city where you have to pay for a private school," says Bonnie Jackson of West Chester Township. She has a daughter in kindergarten and a son in the first grade at Lakota schools.

"You don't have to worry about the quality of education here. They are doing remarkably well considering the growth in the last decade."

But the rush to live and enroll students in schools in fast-growing West Chester and Liberty townships still has downsides, say some parents and teachers. Some parents are concerned that the district won't retain its standards of excellence as it continues growing.

Lakota: growing but 'excellent'

Lakota was the only one of the state's 10 largest districts to achieve an "excellent" rating on the 2003 Local Report Card issued this year. The ratings are based on proficiency test scores, attendance and graduation rates.

The district had 9,356 students in 1991, compared with 15,849 now. Projected enrollment in 2010-11 is 17,950.

In 1991, Lakota had eight schools. Now the district has 17 schools and at 11 of them, 28 portables - a total of 55 classes - dotted campuses this year.

LAKOTA EXPANSION
Expansion options

Options call for renovating Lakota East and West.

Two large high schools plus one small high school, all housing Grades 9-12. Cost: $31 million to $33 million.

Two large high schools plus two smaller high schools, each housing students in Grades 9-12. Students would be assigned depending on where they lived. Cost: $37 million to $39 million.

Two high schools, two freshman schools. No change in attendance zones; East and West would each have a feeder freshman school. Cost: $33 million to $35 million.

Three equal-size high schools, each housing students in Grades 9-12. Lakota Plains would be converted to a high school, and the freshman school would be converted to a junior school. Cost: $33 million to $35 million.The Lakota Local School District is holding a third open house 6-8 p.m. Thursday at Lakota West High School, 8940 Union Centre Blvd., to share potential expansion plans with the community. By 2010, Lakota will need to accommodate more than 5,500 high school students.

By early summer, the school board will decide on a high school option and begin working on plans for one or more elementary schools to include on a bond issue sometime in 2004.

Enrollment

1995-1996: 12,735 students
2002-2003: 15,841 students
2010-2011: 17,913 students

Population boom

In Butler County, West Chester Township's population doubled to nearly 55,000 in the last two decades, and it's projected to top 60,000 by 2010. Liberty Township, which with West Chester makes up the Lakota Schools district, grew by 147 percent in the 1990s and now has about 25,000 residents. The population is projected to more than double by 2010.

Source: Lakota Local School District

Two more schools will open this fall - VanGorden Elementary and Lakota Plains Junior School. When they do, most of the portables will be gone but some will remain for future needs, school officials say.

Also this fall, 60 percent of Lakota's 11,160 elementary and junior school students will switch schools.

Lakota achieved the top rating through committed teachers, parental involvement, innovative programs and resources, school officials say.

But some parents wonder how long it will last.

"I do have concerns that as they grow, how long can they maintain the excellent standards?" Jackson says. "There has to be a point where things level off. You can only get so many homes in a certain space. I just wonder when my kids are in high school, it might not be as good of a school system. I just wonder where the trouble begins."

Teachers and administrators worry about the financial burden of keeping up with population, especially as the state considers spending cuts in education.

"Growth is a normal way of life for us, but it's a double-edged sword," says Stu Eversole, Lakota's athletic director. He joined the district in 1973 as a gym instructor at the original high school and recalls when cows and mushrooms surrounded the building instead of new homes.

"We have been able to expand our school system and bring in some really talented people and as our community has grown, the support has been solid. But on the downside, it's no secret that with this tremendous growth comes financial burden."

Lakota voters passed four bond issues and four operating levies from 1985 to 1994 to pay for new schools. And in 2000, voters approved a combined issue: both a bond and levy for new schools and renovations on older schools.

Voters soon may be asked again to support a bond issue for school construction and an operating levy, likely in spring 2004, Superintendent Kathleen Klink acknowledged last week.

In the meantime, the school district has come up with four options for future high schools, which will be needed as the younger students, particularly the booming elementary grades, approach high school.

For instance, the current seventh-grade class will hold the largest freshman class yet: 1,200 students, Lakota officials say. The Lakota Freshman School is nearing its capacity of 1,000 students.

Growing pains

Nowhere are the growing pains more evident than at Cherokee Elementary School in Liberty Township. As bulldozers clear land across the street for yet another new subdivision along Kyles Station Road, the entire fifth-grade and all but two of the sixth-grade classes pack into five beige portables (10 total classrooms).

The new elementary school and junior school opening in Liberty this fall will ease the crowding. But with more than a dozen new subdivisions under way in Liberty, some teachers and parents note the portables will return before long.

Some sixth-graders say they have been in portables the last few years. While they enjoy their school and teachers, learning in a portable has a few drawbacks.

"It's crowded going to classes on the (portable) ramps," says Patrick Hansford, 12. "You bump into people and sometimes lose papers. I've been in portables for the third, fifth and sixth grades. I'd rather be indoors. In a regular classroom, it's warmer. Outside, it's colder and you can hear cars going by and people working on the lawn, so it's really hard to pay attention."

"It's sometimes a little crazy, especially when you're switching classes," agrees Luke Barker, 12. "The ramps get really crowded. But school is school. The teachers make it fun."

Asked what advice he would give to a student attending class in a portable for the first time, Luke, a sixth-grader who sits elbow to elbow with other students in some classes, says: "Wear your coat to every class. It gets cold in the winter."

Teachers acknowledge the challenges of portable classrooms. Marie Walton, a 25-year veteran, says she asked to be moved to Cherokee from Hopewell Elementary School after 16 years to escape portables.

Her last eight years at Hopewell, she recalls, her classroom location also changed each year before she spent her final two teaching in a portable.

Now, the reading specialist, who shares with other reading teachers Cherokee classroom space meant as a band room, will move to VanGorden in the fall.

"If you work for Lakota, change has to be something you don't mind," she says. "You don't want to be packing up your room every year, but you have to be flexible to be able to change."

Community input

District administrators, the school's architect and School Board Member Joan Powell made up the committee that decided the four possibilities.

But that was due to a tight state deadline to submit a building plan, Powell explains. She stresses that parents and others are crucial to the process.

"I have no idea what way the community is going to go on this," she says. "We need the community input. We would have liked to have had more people involved, but we were really up against this timeline. That was one reason we decided to go ahead and pull the data quickly and see what kind of alternatives would fit with the data we had.

"I really feel like our options pretty much cover the range. If anyone has any other ideas, nothing is a done deal."

The school district also is trying to get an extension on the deadline, she adds, and did incorporate ideasfrom community sessions in the 1990s, the last time high school options were discussed. Lakota East and Lakota West opened in 1997.

For parents who have lived in the district many years, the growth, particularly in West Chester, appears to be tapering off compared with the early 1990s, as Liberty's continues swelling.

"We have been pretty lucky," parent Susan Martinez says. "Our kids went to the same elementary schools all the way through the sixth grade. We aren't thrilled with the taxes, but it's necessary to maintain the school district."

But her daughter, Lara Martinez, 13, an eighth-grader at Liberty Junior, isn't too keen on one of the future high school options - eliminating the freshman facility in favor of starting ninth-graders in high schools.

"I'd rather have a freshman school," Lara says. "It makes it easier for sports, and you get to see all your friends. On TV, you always see how the older kids gang up on the younger kids, but they can't do that here."

Lara's younger sister, Elena, 11, was in portables for the fourth and sixth grade at Liberty Elementary School, her mother recalls.

"She wasn't too thrilled about that," Susan Martinez says. "She kind of thought it was unfair that she got two turns. (But) I don't really think the portables make that much a difference. They are inconvenient, but I don't think they are a big problem. I haven't seen any real effects from it."

E-mail jedwards@enquirer.com.




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