New schools make debut around Minnesotaby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The start of school today Tuesday also meant the debut of at least seven new school buildings in Minnesota.
Thousands of students will now have completely new facilities to learn in, which bring a long-debated issue back to the forefront about what effect actual buildings have on learning.
In the end, most of the students at East Ridge High School in Woodbury followed the plan.
At a recent open house, they were given white T-shirts with their new school's new mascot on the front - the Raptor - and told to wear the shirt on day one. A good 80 percent of them did so Tuesday morning to open the third high school in the South Washington County School District.
There were a few lost students, but school leaders say the year started smoothly. As for the school itself, Principal Aaron Harper especially likes the cafeteria, where he said a high ceiling and wall of windows make students feel comfortable.
"You don't want to have an eight-foot ceiling; it doesn't feel warm, it doesn't feel welcoming," Harper said. "It feels the opposite of that, kind of like you're trapped."
A total of more than $400 million was spent to build Minnesota's seven new schools - the four high schools eat most of that. East Ridge, along with high schools in Farmington and Chanhassen cost more than $90 million each. A new high school in St. Michael cost $70 million. The three new elementary schools - in Rochester, Savage, and Chatfield - each cost between $16 million and $18 million.
They all allow in a lot of natural light, and all have the latest stuff: kilns in art rooms, fully-stocked work-out rooms, those interactive SMART boards in every classroom.
But is that automatically better for students? It is for Don Hainlen, superintendent of Chatfield Schools, which opened its new elementary to replace a decades-old building. Hainlen said the old building didn't have the ventilation system to accommodate all those people - it was literally a bad environment.
"We know that when students have matriculated from the old elementary to the high school, parents found that students who had respiratory kinds of issues - wheezing, coughing, that kind of stuff - in the old elementary, they'd come up to the high school setting and all those symptoms would go away," Hainlen said.
Hainlen said the new ventilation system replaces 40 percent of the air every minute, a healthier building that, in his opinion, will help students.
There have been studies over the years that suggest the building where learning happens is a factor in performance - but in Minnesota, that debate ultimately is settled at the ballot box.
By and large, new schools only go up in Minnesota after voters have approved higher taxes to pay for them, and it's rarely an easy sell. In Chatfield, the vote passed by just 72 votes -- on its seventh try.
Voters in the south central town of Annandale rejected a bond last year for a new $45 million dollar school. So, the district is trying again and only asking for $30 million. That vote is Thursday.
Annandale Superintendent Steve Niklaus said he's careful not to promise better performance with a new school - adding his students already perform well. Rather, he's promising a better environment. The 40-year-old building in Annandale that would be replaced was built during a short-lived experiment of 'open schools' - there were literally no interior walls.
Temporary walls now divide the space, but Niklaus said kids can still hear other rooms way too easily.
"There is no guarantee that a facility does necessarily transfer into immediate gains in test score," Niklaus said. "But I also think common sense tells you if you can focus on your teacher, your classroom - you would likely perform better."
Back in Woodbury, East Ridge principal Aaron Harper hinted that the school's price tag did raise concerns about extravagance. He had to quell a rumor that the new library would have a coffee shop. It won't - it'll have a counter to buy juice. And textbooks were mixed across the district to ensure that no one school would get all the new, shiny ones.
Harper also noted the building isn't just the school's, it's the community's. The auditorium, for example, will be open to area theatre groups.
"Obviously having new facilities is outstanding, it's marvelous - it's just a great thing," Harper said. "But I think the challenge we face as educators is to get the students and folks to really focus. We have the facilities, now it's time to add the best practices; it's time to add the most energy and work and dedication, and really set the bar high."
And school officials say discussions on the merits of new buildings are likely to become more common in Minnesota, as more and more districts try to replace their own aging buildings.
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- All Things Considered, 09/08/2009, 5:20 p.m.