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Modular buildings create problems for Rapid City schools

December 8, 2018
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In this Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, photo, students work on projects in Carrie Baker's classroom at Canyon Lake Elementary School in Rapid City, S.D. (Ryan Hermens/Rapid City Journal via AP)

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — When Canyon Lake Elementary on the city’s west side opened in September 1949, a short item in the newspaper noted what would turn out to be an ongoing trend.

“With first day registration completed at Canyon Lake elementary school, nearly 300 more pupils in lower grades are enrolled this fall than in 1948.”

“Right away, they had to build an addition,” Canyon Lake Elementary Principal David Swank said recently, standing in the concrete yard in front of two annexes. “They were overcrowded.”

A crowded school has remained a theme in the school’s nearly 70-year existence. An addition came in 1953 and 20 years later — school officials aren’t sure on the exact date — came the first of ultimately four annexes built on Canyon Lake School comprising both the “west” campus building and the old Kibben-Kuster school building, called “East Canyon Lake” by school officials.

Between the 1980s and the early 2000s, in fact, Rapid City’s school district constructed 20 such annexes — modular buildings retrofitted with bulletin boards, desks and other classroom amenities — as a semi-permanent fix to a growing problem.

It’s not a new problem either. The headline of that 1949 article — “New School Site Big Problem for Education Board.”

And in 2018, as an ad hoc group formed by the school board continues to talk about school facilities, annexes are back in the conversation. Some annexes — or modulars — lack water for bathrooms. Others are not ADA compliant. Some have noisy heating or cooling systems, and they’re almost all too small.

On any given day, students in roughly 40 classrooms across the district spend at least part of their day in the temporary permanent classrooms, the Rapid City Journal reported.

“They’re more like a building you can put on a skid trailer and haul away,” Rapid City Area Schools Facilities Manager Kumar Veluswamy said. “They weren’t designed to be classrooms for 40 years to come, but that’s what’s happened.”

On a recent Thursday at Canyon Lake, elementary teacher Carrie Baker had students assembling dinosaur skeletons with toilet paper rolls in a classroom inside annex 122A. Blue linens filtered a harsh neon light panel. An inert window air conditioning unit sat in the wall. Other than two thin window slits, the only daylight slipped in from a view of nearby Canyon Lake Road. Coats hung from the back wall, and all around the classroom of 18 students and a teacher were the wood panels more befitting a 1970s supper club than a classroom.

“It’s hot in here,” said Baker, waving herself down as she welcomed in visitors.

The annex holds two classrooms in approximately 500 square feet. At one time, teachers only needed desks facing the chalkboard and maybe a globe. But officials say modern classrooms — with, for example, power supply for laptops and SmartBoards — need nearly twice that space. Moreover, teachers can’t as easily collaborate with other teachers on their grade level when they’re split between buildings. Some teachers, Swank said, have even requested to remain out of the annex, citing the learning environment.

Baker is not one of them.

“I actually like the quiet out here,” she said. “At recess, the kids running out to the playground can distract us. But I actually don’t mind these buildings. It is a lot of brown with these walls.”

A classroom in another annex, though, suffered from a high water table and sewer problems.

“Those stink,” said Baker. “We’d empty the bucket of water from the dehumidifier daily.”

School officials are quick to say the annexes do not prevent high-quality learning and teaching. Generations of students have come and gone from Canyon Lake’s annexes. But the structures are far from ideal. And just walking to music class that is in another annex requires putting on and taking off winter coats — a cumbersome process for anyone, but especially for elementary students. Moreover, the coats eat up a line of wall that could be used for learning materials or bookshelves. Mud gets tracked in on carpets and means maintenance visits more frequently. The makeshift wooden ramps could create a trip hazard thanks to concrete settling.

“We’ve been fortunate that nothing has happened,” Swank said. “But it’s required a really strong maintenance team who is going to drop another project that is going to come and fix a more threatening issue.”

This fall, a facilities task force has been assembled to provide recommendations later this school year to the board. They’ve met privately to discuss, among other issues, plans to alleviate crowded schools. A new elementary school could be on the docket when they make public their recommendations. Population bubbles in the southwest and north of Interstate-90 led to overcrowding at some schools this September, forcing the transfer of 111 students.

“We have enough capacity across the district,” said Veluswamy. “But it’s not in the right location.”

The 435 students at the Canyon Lake campus technically fit within the classes, but Swank had to move the library to an old gymnasium in the East Canyon Lake building to vacate space for another classroom. Now, kindergarten through first grade are what the school terms “at capacity.” They’re not the only one. Six schools are over functional capacity. Another five are nearing it. A new building north of the interstate could alleviate crowding in the elementary schools and, potentially if placed correctly, draw down from the 180 students from Canyon Lake who live north of Interstate-90. That could, Swank said, free up the annexes to be used as overflow for other schools or something different.

“We’d have the opportunity to use them as dedicated spaces,” said Swank, standing in the doorway to Mindy Nelson’s fourth-grade classroom. “Mindy’s room could double as a student interest lab. We’d have opportunities to set up projects and experiments and let them sit.”

On a recent Thursday afternoon, children ran up the cinder block steps of the annexes and hung their coats up on the wall of Nelson’s room. The school’s STEAM-squared initiative — called “Student Interest Groups” at Canyon Lake — flip the script on classroom learning. Students work in groups spread out over the classroom working on everything from yoga to coding to survival techniques. But the confines of the annex at Canyon Lake make this a little more difficult.

“Tight?” asked Nelson. “Yeah. You can say that.”

A musty air hangs in the classroom (officials say the ventilation meets industry standards), the diffused blue light washes over the students’ faces as they concentrate on iPads, and Nelson takes a few steps to bound the classroom on the other side of the room.

“No one wants to complain,” Swank said. “But we won’t be heartbroken if these classrooms go.”

Finding the political will to build any new school is daunting, though. The last time the school looked to opt-out of a state limit on property tax collection, the proposal was soundly defeated by a public vote.

So, for the time being, the school board continues to treat these temporary structures like the permanent replacements they’ve become. In 2014, the board put new roofs on many annexes, and at a recent school board meeting, Veluswamy and Assistant Superintendent Dave Janak presented a slew of needed capital improvements, including heating and cooling units for the annexes.

Veluswamy said he’d argue against any new modulars, but with a tight budget, one might just look to the past to understand how this might be resolved. Among the plans reported on by the Journal in 1949 to alleviate overcrowding in the schools was this novel idea: the construction of a “temporary building until the school population changes.”

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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