Geary County Schools USD 475 is considering building an early education center on the property of the old high school building, selling other structures and moving 6th graders from Junction City Middle School to a building of their own.

Associate Superintendent Dr. Deb Gustafson said she and the construction committee discussed these and other options to improve student learning. She brought the ideas to the USD 475 Board of Education in November and said she will create a plan for building reprogramming to present to the board within the next two months.

The consideration for use of the old high school grounds follows offers from the city government and another unidentified entity for the property. The City Commission resubmitted an official proposal last month.

David Wild, chief operations officer for Geary County Schools, said he contacted all interested parties in district properties and put them on a 90-day hold status until Gustafson and the committee have a chance to put together a programming and facility use plan and the board has the chance to approve next steps. This gives the committee until the end of January to create the plan.

Although Gustafson said discussions are only in the preliminary phase, she mentioned that the district has some specific needs that prompted the discussions. Those needs include a location for early childhood learning, a place for professional development programs and classes for faculty and staff and potentially a place for 6th grade students to allow the Junction City Middle School to downsize their student population.

“We do have a variety of facilities, some that are being utilized and some that are not being utilized,” Gustafson said. “We really don’t want our facilities to drive what we provide for teaching and learning. Rather we believe that the teaching and learning needs that we have in our district should drive what we have in our facilities.”

She said there have been times the district has hit programming boundaries because of the limits of its facilities. She said the committee wants to pinpoint the true needs of the students and use the district’s facilities to help meet those needs, instead of approaching solutions the other way around.

Gustafson said the need for early childhood classes is more immediate and that the district should have as many early childhood classrooms as kindergarten classrooms. Currently, she said they have 36 kindergarten classrooms and 29 early childhood classrooms, and more than half of the early childhood programs are only for half-days.

She said they would want full-day programs and more classrooms so they could add 3-year-olds and keep the number of children per class low.

“Every teacher and all of the research would tell you that the gaps in learning begin in kindergarten,” she said. “That difference is between all of those 4 to 5-year-olds who have this robust early childhood experience versus not having that experience at all. … Schools are constantly trying to make those gaps up.”

Since younger children need unique features in their classrooms, Gustafson said the district’s building options are limited. As a two-story building, she said Franklin Elementary School cannot use utilized for this need, and many of the other buildings are also inadequate. The 29 early childhood classes are spread across the district in multiple buildings.

She said they discussed the possibility of a new elementary school but said they don’t see a need for it right now. If the district had an early childhood center, she said that would free up elementary school space and they wouldn’t have a need for a larger one. She said 20 early childhood classes are currently held at elementary schools.

They also discussed downsizing the population of Junction City Middle School. Although Gustafson said the group did not hold much conversation about the topic, she said they spoke about the possible relocation of sixth graders into a facility of their own and what that might look like.

She said this action would alleviate concerns with too many students in the middle school and allow a better transition for students moving from elementary school into middle school.

“There is research that says that the age group of the 10 to 13-year-olds should probably be in a smaller environment than 1,000 students, and I think that we could all say that having that many students in that location has posed some problems,” she said.

Additionally, she said the district has a need for more alternative programming and the committee posed the questions of where those programs would take place and whether any of the programs should take place in the same facility or whether they would meet students’ needs better in different buildings.

“Some students are just unable to be as successful as they need to be in a 1,600 number high school and they need a smaller setting with some different expectations, protocols and practices,” she said. “We talked about putting that into one facility.”

One option Gustafson said they brainstormed was potentially using Franklin Elementary School as that facility.

Lastly, she mentioned their interest in a location for professional development training. If they are able to build on the old high school property, Gustafson said they may use part of the space for the training.

If they build on the property, Gustafson said the district may sell the buildings Haug, Heim and the Larry Dixon Center, because they would no longer need them.

Dr. Anwar Khoury, president of the board asked whether there is any money available for building an early childhood center, and Wild responded that although there may be some money available for reprogramming options, they currently do not have money for an early childhood education center, which would be a 30-to-35-million-dollar facility. He said the endeavor would likely take another heavily impacted aid qualification.

Wild said the options they brought before the board in November are not recommendations, but simply preliminary ideas. Gustafson and the construction committee will write a proposal by the end of January to bring before the board.

“There has been a lot of discussion for the last couple years,” he said. “It’s just now coming together under Dr. Gustafson’s leadership.”

The board took no actions concerning the ideas at their November meeting.

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