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Classrooms full at HOTL; another section added to keep class sizes low

Depending on choice of words, Heart of the Lakes Elementary School might feel a bit more cozy, or cramped, come next school year.

At its regular June meeting, the Perham-Dent School Board voted to add an additional class for first grade students in order to maintain smaller class sizes. There will then be five sections of kindergarten through second grade in the district – and every classroom space at the elementary school will be filled.

“It seems every year we struggle with this,” said Superintendent Mitch Anderson of the decision about whether to add the first grade class.

He said, several years ago, the board unofficially decided to maintain classes of 20 or fewer students in the youngest three grades in order to stay competitive with the parochial schools in town.

When school ended in May, 88 students were set to move to first grade. By the time of the board meeting on June 25, two more were registered, bringing the total to 90.

In recent years, Anderson said, the trend has been for more to sign up right until the first day of school.

Without the additional section, the existing first grade classes each would have had at least 22 students. Now, up to 10 more first graders can be registered before going over the preferred class size.

Board members voted unanimously to add the class.

“I guess, to me, it’s important because in those low grades, it’s so important to get those kids started out right,” said board chairperson Myron Roe. “Study after study has shown that’s where you save them (academically), not at the 7th or 8th grade levels.”

Board member Jim Rieber added that he thought of the addition as investing in the district’s future growth.

“We’re not going to get it (growth) if we keep cutting back,” he said.

There was no debate on the need for the class, and discussion turned to whether there was a room to use for it.

Elementary school Principal Jen Hendrickson said the plan is for several special education instructors to adjust and consolidate their spaces to free up a room.

“That’s pretty much the only option that we would have for another classroom would be in that room,” Hendrickson said, acknowledging that the shuffling isn’t ideal.

“But that pretty much maxes you out then for classrooms?,” board member Mike Hamann asked.

“Yeah… that’s pretty much maxed out,” Hendrickson confirmed.

A few board members joked about where to put portable classrooms.

Anderson said that the other grade levels are “a far cry” from needing to add any more sections.

Enrollment at Heart of the Lakes has grown from 428 students at the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year to 462 in 2013-2014: an increase of more than 30 students. Preliminary enrollment numbers and projections suggest this trend of growth might continue.

Last summer, a few weeks before school started, the board decided to add another section of kindergarten because of the same growing enrollment situation.

“It’s good that the numbers are strong… this early,” Anderson told the Focus after the meeting.

Adding the class now allows more time to find a new teacher.

Anderson said space at Heart of the Lakes is an issue the new planning task force will be asked to address during the course of their meetings.