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Vote is Monday on $12 million plan for Berthold School renovation and addition

Finding a quiet, private space anywhere at Berthold Public School is nearly impossible this year, in a building where every nook and cranny is used for classes, storage, office space or one-on-one instruction for special needs students.

1/04/12 (Wed)

A view of the master plan . . . These artist's renderings show the exterior
view of Berthold Public School, if the proposed changes and additions
are made to the building, including more classroom space, a new
commons area, and a second multipurpose gymnasium.


By Caroline Downs

Finding a quiet, private space anywhere at Berthold Public School is nearly impossible this year, in a building where every nook and cranny is used for classes, storage, office space or one-on-one instruction for special needs students. Enrollment at the beginning of the school year stood at 277 kids in grades kindergarten through 12, thanks to the 29 new kids who showed up for classes.

Students, instructors and staff members have made adjustments for the influx, with student numbers expected to increase. Even Lewis & Clark School District superintendent Brian Nelson moved out of the office he shared with high school principal Peggy Person to accommodate the need for additional space in the business office after rooms there were dedicated to special education and Title classes.

Parents and school district patrons can now find Nelson in the vo-ag teacher’s office.

“If teachers or parents want to see Mr. Nelson, they have to go through our vo-ag classroom,” explained Melissa Lahti, who teaches second grade and serves as the elementary school principal.

Vo-ag instructor Troy Enga smiled and shrugged at the situation. “If he’s on the phone for anything, and we’re in the shop with the saws or other tools running,” he said, “it’s going to be noisy. There’s nothing we can do.”

The Lewis & Clark school board, along with a group of concerned parents and school staff members, has addressed the problem with a proposal to renovate the building and add needed classrooms, commons area and even a new multipurpose gymnasium, at an estimated cost of $12 million. School district patrons will vote on a bond issue to fund the project in a special election scheduled for Monday, January 9th.

“My room is
hardly my room”
In the meantime, Lahti scrambles to make learning happen at the elementary level.

“My room is hardly my room,” she said. Although she is the principal, she has no phone at her desk. A hinged metal divider forms temporary walls around the desk, creating an illusion of privacy.

Lahti holds special education and medical needs meetings in her room as needed. Three days each week, a portion of the large kindergarten class troops into her room to practice their early reading interventions in a quiet place. A Souris Valley Special Services instructor is on a schedule to use Lahti’s room to work individually with a student.

In the meantime, Lahti and the other second teacher, Mrs. Brown, teach their students, a class of 23 wonderful and lively students that really needs to be divided for a full day of instruction. Because of space constraints, all the students gather in Mrs. Brown’s room for afternoon classes.

“Our original plan was to split them all day,” Lahti explained, “but my room is used for other things.”

The current first grade class with its 22 or 23 students, depending on families coming and going, could also benefit from two teachers. “But I have no options to split our primary classrooms,” said Lahti. “Where would I put them? If I get five to eight more kids for first or second grade, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Gym schedule
tough on families
Third grade teacher Leann Hall only has 16 kids in her classroom right now, something her students appreciate. They have space for their desks, plus an open area to gather for reading time. However, Hall is only too aware of what next year will bring.

“I’m going to have to find room for ten more desks in here,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s hard to imagine.”

As the parent of Berthold High School graduates, Hall is aware of crowding issues in another part of the school--the gymnasium--after her experience with sons in elementary, junior high and high school sports programs at the same time.

“I don’t know if people realize what it’s like for families with children at all three levels,” she said.

She described her family’s weekdays, which started at 5 am in the winter sports season with one son leaving for early morning practices. Many days ended at 11 pm, with her high school son attending late practices in the gym following a scheduled game, concert or other school activity. “That gets to be a long day for families,” Hall said.

Cafeteria crunch
Lahti understands the gym scheduling issue, but she has a more immediate concern with lunch. In order to serve all the students from the small kitchen, fit them into the limited table space and match up with the high school schedule, the first elementary class has to be ready with their trays at precisely 11 am.

“We try to be here at least one minute to 11,” said kindergarten instructor Brooke Storro, who teaches 18 students right now. “The first group of high school kids comes in at 11:02. We have two minutes to go through the lunch line.”

Storro said her students like eating early, and they endure the long school day with a snack, served about 2:30 pm. Fortunately, the older kids who follow her class are kind to the kindergartners when they all leave together, although the carefully-formed line of five-year-olds often gets disrupted as the bigger kids exit.

Lahti races the clock, as do the cooks who often cannot wash all the tables before the next group arrives. “Our first, second and third graders come in,” Lahti said. “I have to get 61 kids through in 10 minutes, to get their food and sit down. Then the next group of high school kids starts coming in, and once they all get through we have to dismiss some of our kids so the high school kids have a place to sit.”

Once those high school students have eaten, the final group of elementary students comes from recess, usually finishing about 12:35 pm which everyone agrees is late.

While the students watch the clock, the three cooks watch out for each other. The small pantry and limited counter space in the kitchen simply do not provide enough room to easily store or prepare the food needed for the number of students at Berthold school this year.

Head cook Mavis Cummings shook her head as she talked about avoiding accidents with other kitchen staff while removing pans of food from the oven or retrieving items from the pantry.

“When we’re making soup, we have all six burners going,” she said as she nodded toward the stove immediately behind the serving counter. “But we don’t even have room on the burners for all the pots we need, and we have to juggle things around.”

Making space for the library,
ITV, business classes, more

Juggling things around became a theme in the media center this year, too, as librarian and tech coordinator Jennifer Kramer built her own shelves and created walls with bookcases after moving the library from its old space into the slightly larger media area next door.

She apologized about the stacks of books still awaiting a permanent location and waved toward the magazine display perched on top of a low bookshelf filled with picture books. Kramer wants students to feel welcome in the library, but she can hardly fit any students in there. “We do not have a place to show a class of 25 kids anything,” she said.

The former library was transformed into an ITV classroom, but it also contains a separate business classroom, houses a special education aide and her students, and stores two of the school’s three mobile computer labs because no space exists for a separate computer classroom. At times, three different activities are taking place in the area, with the whirring of the school’s main computer server supplying background noise.

Some ITV coordinators have criticized the school for not providing a quiet classroom for the broadcasts, but Lahti praised the students for their patience and exemplary behavior in the ITV courses.

She also expressed her gratitude for the mobile computer labs. “The school board has done a great job getting us those things that we need,” she said, “but until you’re me and your classroom is experiencing this, it’s really hard to communicate our problem to people.”

She paused to watch a group of students gathered in front of a copy of the proposed building plan, displayed on an easel in the hallway for the public to see. The kids, who were on a bathroom break, ignored Lahti’s presence and talked over the renovations among themselves, pointing out various aspects of the plan.

“Some of the kids just assume this is going to happen, and I’ve had to explain it may not,” said Lahti. “Some of the kids ask, ‘When do we get this?’ and I tell them it has to be voted on. They understand.”