Tour of Jackson Highlights Potential, Price Tag on Future
By Brandi Makuski
About two dozen showed up for a long-awaited tour of Jackson Elementary School on Monday, ahead of a March vote on requests from two entities requesting long- term use of the currently vacant facility.
Jen Zach, president of the governance board for Point of Discovery School (PODS), led a tour group comprised of board members, district employees and citizens in the former elementary school, which had been occupied by 350-400 students before it was closed in 2005 due to budget cuts.
Zach is among those hoping the Stevens Point School Board will allow the new charter school to operate in the space, which now functions largely as a storage area. The board approved the new school to operate in November, but has yet to approve the Jackson School site for its use.
PODS has room for 50 students during its debut year of employing an expeditionary learning model, with plans to expand to 150 students in subsequent years. According to Zach, the charter school’s measured success in other districts is due in part to the small number of students- about 15- in each learning group.
“So using this model in a district-wide sense probably wouldn’t be feasible, at least not now,” Zach said, adding so far 34 students are signed up for the fall semester.
District leaders estimate upgrades to the building will top $1 million, with about $300,000 of the total cost going towards outfitting the school with air conditioning- a necessity given the high level of technology used in the new school and a proposed professional development center just down the proverbial hall.
Zach said the school leaders are being “extremely conservative” with their remodeling requests not only because of cost, but because that mentality is part of the school’s mission.
“One of the missions of the Point of Discovery School is to have an environmental focus,” she said. “Living lightly on the earth will be a theme that the students learn. So if we start our school that way, by using good but slightly ugly carpet, that’s a good thing to teach kids about.”
Zach said the building was ideal for the new school because of its open concept, which includes movable walls, and large indoor and outdoor learning space. But the building also needs a new boiler and security system, as well as upgrades to the kitchen and plumbing. Wheelchair accessibility also needs to be implemented throughout the building, she said.
The district is also hoping to use part of the building for its professional development center, where teachers- and eventually students and parents- will receive training on education-related apps, devices and other technology relevant to the district’s curricula.
Brian Casey, the district’s director of technology, said IT specialists in the district currently lack space to conduct training classes.
“We have no ‘home base’. Right now we’re creating space issues in other schools,” Casey said. “We have to spread out into spaces where other groups might normally meet and disrupt those schedules.”
But some on the board weren’t convinced the center needed its own space at Jackson. Board Member Jeff Presley suggested teachers receive training at their respective schools, saying the travel to Jackson Elementary put teachers at risk and potentially caused liability issues for the district.
Presley also said IT training at his own job was conducted onsite and suggested that would be more cost-efficient for the district. Casey said that might be more feasible if employees all worked in the same space, not spread out in 13 buildings.
“Right now, teachers are already traveling; they travel to Bliss (Educational Services Center) for some of the training but we often have to spread out into other areas so it’s harder to train,” Casey said. “This space (Jackson) is ideal for what we need, and it already exists here in the district. Why not use it?”
Board Member Kim Shirek suggested the district look to a mobile IT center, such as a bus or trailer, likening it to previous work experience she had while working out of her car.
Casey did say some training has been successful in respective school buildings, but other training programs required calling in one of the district’s IT specialists, and sometimes needed more space than was available.
“Our equipment is already mobile- that’s not the issue,” Casey said. “The issue is space. We have equipment, we just don’t have the space we need right now to do the training our teachers need.”
Casey also said scheduling time inside some schools was haphazard, and some available classrooms might contain only desks designed for smaller children not suitable for more than a few adults to sit during training sessions.
“We have different size groups all the time,” said Jeff Mlsna, a technology integration specialist with the district. “Sometimes we have ten teachers, sometimes we have larger groups. Sometimes it’s 20 secretaries. We need to adjust to the group size for required training for next year.”
The board will consider approving the site for PODS use at its March 9 meeting.