This time last year, I was just finishing up a three month process of researching schools, a subject that, to be honest, has never interested me. I guess, on some level, I’ve always understood that schools are important. But I could have never anticipated the piles of research, hours of reading and the depth of knowledge that centered around one topic: schools and their impact on community.
My path to spending hours of my time reading about educational facilities planning started in an unsurprising way, the same way that many advocacy stories begin. I saw a threat to something I cared about, a school that meant something to me. I feared the conversations occurring regarding this school and its location were not telling the whole story.
And I felt a call to action would help guide the conversation, and ensure that all voices were heard, so the eventual result of this debate would weigh all the options equally. The product of this research was a blog post, Tech High School: A Tradition of Excellence, A Future in Flux, my attempt to off an alternate viewpoint regarding the impact of building a new school – before voters made their decision about the new school referendum.
When the night of the referendum vote came, I felt torn. There wasn’t a result of this vote that was going to make me happy. If the referendum was voted down, the school district would be denied much needed funding to improve their educational facilities – but it if was approved a new school would be constructed, something that I knew was a mistake.
The next morning I awoke to news that the referendum failed. I felt relief and concern. What are they going to do now? They still need money, the schools are still in terrible shape, and this doesn’t solve any problems. But also, for now, I knew we had an opportunity to create a more balanced discussion about the future of Tech High School.
Where we are now: The School
Shortly after the referendum failed I connected with Kevin Allenspach of the St. Cloud Times to have a conversation about next steps. (You can read that here.) Since the article, I have connected with many who share my concern about the school. One of them, Sarah Murphy, a fellow Tech graduate, now lives in Colorado. She has experience working on the rehabilitation and renovation of an existing school in Denver – North High School. Sarah shared her experience with me and her impression that, perhaps, the renovation of Tech wasn’t given proper consideration.
Sarah and I decided to take a tour of Tech High School to see it for ourselves (check out my SnapChat story here). To be clear, we do not now, nor will we ever be interested in proposing a bid to rehab the building as a school. We toured the building with the sole purpose of better educating ourselves on its current repair needs. I do not want to mislead you, the school has major issues, ones that would require consideration if a renovation, of any kind, were pursued.
But I have not been provided evidence that these issues cannot be overcome, and that retaining Tech High School as an educational facility for another 100 years is impossible.
Where we are now: The School District
I haven’t seen stats on this – but according to many people I’ve spoken with, District 742 is losing students. One cause of this, I’m told, is the quality of high schools in the neighboring districts of Sartell and Sauk Rapids.
This is frustrating, I agree. It is difficult to maintain proper school facilities and high quality staff when the tax base that supports your district is dwindling. It may seem that the best solution to this problem is to build a school similar to those in Sartell or Sauk Rapids. I believe this would be shortsighted. St. Cloud is not Sartell. It’s not Sauk Rapids. One might even argue that the only reason that Sartell and Sauk Rapids are the thriving municipalities they are is because of the successful growth of St. Cloud.
One argument I often hear, in one form or another, is that; if District 742 doesn’t find a way to attract the mid-to-high-income families back to their district, they will fail. They will not have the money to offer sufficient educational programs, which could lead to a widening in the already intolerable achievement gap. What is going unspoken here is the underlying implication that they only way to attract wealthy families back to the district is to build a new school.
However, moving the school will not solve the issues of racism, poverty and inequality with which St. Cloud struggles, and that play out in the hallways of the schools. It will only hide it better. I believe that a renovation of Tech High School’s current location could, not only attract those affluent families, but also go a long way to creating a more inclusive community overall.
Where we are now: Next Steps
The school district must move forward in its pursuit of funding, new school or not. Listening sessions will be held across the district, meant to give community members an opportunity to speak their minds. If you are a resident of District 742, I encourage you attend these meetings. And, please, let me know how they go!
I have some very specific requests of District 742, as they go back to the drawing board and begin designing the future of the school district.
1. Disclose (or obtain) all the information.
We need more information to decide if Tech High School can or cannot be renovated. A facilities condition report, historic structures assessment and environmental study are just a few of the information gathering reports that should be made publicly available.
2. Provide a realistic concept design for the renovation of Tech’s current location
Guide the architects to develop a design scheme for the current location of Tech that does not force a sprawling campus onto a dense urban site. Clearly Tech’s current site cannot sustain six baseball diamonds, three soccer fields, eight tennis courts, a football stadium and acres of parking. But, let’s get creative – request the architects answer these questions: What can fit? How can we creatively use the space we have? And what partnerships and opportunities exist with the City of St. Cloud, St. Cloud State University and other neighboring schools to meet the athletic needs of the school?
Until these questions are answered, I fear we are having a one-sided conversation. Now is your opportunity, District 742, to make the St. Cloud Area School District one that the state, and even the country, can look to as an example of how to create community-centered schools, where students succeed and the community thrives.
It’s interesting the approach Minnehaha Academy took. With the addition of the Middle School in the early 1980s they were extremely crunched for space in an aging facility, and considered building a new location from scratch in the suburbs. Ultimately though what happened is they decided to stay because of the central location. Instead was Breck that left after some disgruntled students burned down the chapel, and Minnehaha bought it to use as the Middle school
This also put an end to the discussion about demolishing the original 1912 building and rebuilding since with the purchase of the South Campus they no longer had enough money. Instead they remodeled it over the years, destroying the interior character like the plaster, high ceilings, cast iron radiators, and hardwood floors, but also fixing the plaster, wiring, and such (they had been warned that deferred maintenance was an issue and they needed to either start remodeling or demolish and rebuild).
Eventually the 1949 gym, which was retrofitted to be a gym/auditorium after plans for building a new auditorium as part of the fine arts addition in 1977 were dropped, was demolished. Multi-purpose facilities are sub-optimal for both, and the gym had foundation problems that would have required fixing. A new gym and auditorium were built, and a 1977 addition was reclad with fake history cornices to mimick the 1922 and 1912 buildings.
I’m curious about the urban geography aspect here. Could you tell me a bit about where Tech is located in St Cloud? What kind of neighborhood, etc. Does this have pros and cons?
Hi Bill – I get into this somewhat in my first blog post on the topic (http://fortheloveofmnblog.com/futureofstcloudtech/) to give you a little idea of the surroundings of the current and proposed school sites. Tech’s current location is walking distance to downtown, the local library and university. The new location would put it near some suburban-esque developments on the southern edge of town. As it stands, St. Cloud has two high schools – one towards the northern edge and Tech near its center. The idea is that moving the school to the southern edge (where growth is anticipated) will better serve those students at the southern side of the district and balance between the two schools. But right now, population is far more sparse on that edge of town and I think it would be wise to see more development before building a new school. Moreover, I think that St. Cloud would be better served to pursue a three-school model so as to keep the schools smaller and community based. I think the fact that Tech is right in the heart of town is a huge benefit and many of the school district board members have painted it as an encumbrance.
This is a gorgeous historic school building. I’m sure it needs serious renovation, but I’m also sure that it could be renovated into an excellent school building for St. Cloud’s modern needs.
Sports fields are an interesting issue. All too often, school administrators think that sports fields *must* be right next door to the school. They do *not* have to be. It is traditional, in fact, to have sports fields some distance from the school. This actually reduces the level of distraction of the students in class (no raucous sports outside the window). Athletic students are quite capable of walking a couple of blocks.
Clark Field, kitty-corner from the school complex, seems quite sufficient for everyday outdoor Phys Ed activities; it is larger than the fields we have at Ithaca High School in NY, and our school population is larger. For other sports which need additional specialized facilities, arrangements can be made to shuttle students to other fields; you already have buses. I see substantial sports facilities adjacent to South Junior High School (half a mile away) and at St. Cloud State University.
A school location should *not* be determined by where you can put sports fields; doing that would show a poor sense of priorities.
If necessary, the school can be expanded into the block between 13th and 1th Avenues and between 1st and 2nd Streets. There are also so many surface parking lots that if parking is thought to be needed, a garage next to the Great River Regional Library would make the most sense. (Incidentally, if the school is not already using the public library as their school library… they should. Anything else is an unnecessary duplication of effort.)
This proposal might require negotiations between the school district, the public library system, and the city government, but seriously, they *should* all be cooperating anyway!