Superintendent News

In May, the Fergus Falls Public School District will put a question before the community regarding whether or not to build a new third through fifth grade elementary school.  This column will focus on the question, “Why is a new school needed?”

The plan for the community’s consideration would involve repurposing the two 1939 elementary schools - McKinley School and Adams School to meet different needs within the community and replacing them with a single, new third through fifth grade elementary school constructed on a twenty-nine acre site across from the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center.  

It is fair to say that the world has changed significantly over the past eighty-five years since McKinley and Adams were built.  The world of education and school design has needed to adapt to remain both effective and relevant.   

Both curricula and teaching methodology have evolved to reflect changes in society and needed knowledge and skills in the workforce.  Most schools offer a fairly broad curriculum that includes the core subjects of language arts, math, science and social studies in addition to the arts and career and technical education courses.  Teaching methods have evolved to include more interactive and student-centered approaches. The emphasis now includes problem-solving, critical thinking, and personalized learning; moving away from rote memorization. 

Technology has revolutionized education, particularly since the emergence of computers and the internet. It has transformed the way students learn and engage with educational resources.  The rapid emergence of artificial intelligence will further transform education.  Modern school design includes collaborative learning spaces - sometimes referred to as “maker-spaces” or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or STEAM (science, technology engineering, art and math) spaces.  

The understanding and support for students with disabilities have improved significantly. Legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975 aimed to ensure equal educational opportunities for all students.  It is necessary (and the law) for schools to utilize specialized approaches to meet the needs of students with disabilities in the areas of cognition, behavior, vision, hearing, speech and other disabilities that can impact learning and other major life activities.  Neither McKinley nor Adams were constructed to accommodate these services.  Instead, over the years services have been provided out of rooms that were intended to be storage areas or in spaces far too small and limiting.  

In 1965, Title 1 came into effect. Title 1 is a federally funded program that our district utilizes to provide additional support for students in the areas of reading and math.  It is a critical early intervention.    

A more recent requirement has been the need to provide ESL (English as a Second Language).  The Learning English for Academic Proficiency and Success (LEAPS) Act was passed in Minnesota in 2014 to add an increased emphasis on English learner support.  During the 2022/23 school year, over 80,000 Minnesota students were eligible for English learner services.  This was an increase of 3000 students from the prior year. This support is essential in preparing our ESL students to be career, college and life ready.   

Within the last decade, schools in Otter Tail County have widely implemented a program titled School-Based Mental Health. The concept was designed to remove barriers preventing students from accessing mental health services.  Typically, these are contracted services between schools and outside agencies to provide access to mental health services and support within the school system.  Fergus Falls Public Schools has an agreement in place with Lakeland Mental Health.  These services are provided to students who are in need and whose parents have provided written consent.

Neither McKinley School or Adams School were designed to provide these services.  Instead, over the years every nook and cranny has been utilized at various points to meet the needs of students.  It’s not ideal - it is making do.  New schools are designed with these needs in mind.    

As developmental fit and space considerations drove a decision to move fifth grade to Cleveland School next fall, it is clear that Cleveland School lacks the facilities to fully support orchestra and band instruction.  A third through fifth grade elementary school would feature learning spaces specifically designed for these programs and aligns with our community's vibrant support of the arts.  

This is a fairly large school district - especially for rural Minnesota.  We currently have six sites.  When traveling from site to site, we are sorely lacking in green space.  The parcel we purchased as a site for a new school is twenty-nine acres and would afford us the opportunity for soccer and baseball/softball fields as well as greenspace in general.    

Finally, the new school would allow us to capture lost instructional time.  Our Prairie Science Class is an award-winning program.  There is only one other like it in the United States.  Supporting it requires a significant amount of logistics and greatly impacts the Cleveland School’s schedule.  Each student participating in the program spends between 40 and 50 minutes per day in transition - preparing to load the bus, riding the bus, unloading from the bus and returning to class.  While the program is wonderful, that does represent a sizeable amount of time out of the classroom.  Instructional minutes matter.  The location of the new school is right across from the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center.  Transition time would be greatly reduced which means that students spent more time with their teachers and more time learning.  

I view school facilities as tools.  The district has defined the education that our students need.  To be most effective, our facilities would be designed specifically to match the needs of the vision. I thought the following quote by Jeff Duntemann captures the principle perfectly for education,  “A good tool improves the way you work. A great tool improves the way you think.”