The gravel road was deeply rutted causing the car’s suspension to creak and groan. A thick blanket of dust swirled around the automobile as it slowly made its way back to the farmhouse following a short shopping excursion in town. Life in the country.
That farmhouse would eventually be home to eleven children, but on this date only the four oldest had been born. Pulling into the driveway, the mother took time to see to the youngest child, Bill, who was only three. His older sisters were assigned groceries to carry into the kitchen. Dawn had the honor of carrying a special treat - Snickers bars for each of the children. The Mars family named the candy after their favorite horse and a bar would set you back five cents. They would enjoy them following dinner - provided the children thoroughly cleaned their plates.
The woman carried a bag from Woolworth’s. It contained a new dress which was a very rare purchase as the country was coming out of the Great Depression. The woman planned to wear the dress at Sunday Mass. It probably crossed her mind that only a few years earlier, her husband was wearing shoes that were so worn out that cardboard was used for the soles and he had stood in soup lines.
That woman was my grandmother - Crystal Drake. The year was 1939. My father, who will turn 83 in November, will not be born for another year.
Despite the difficult financial times, education was highly respected, valued and prioritized within rural communities. In Fergus Falls, 1939 saw the construction of two new schools: McKinley School and Adams School. The schools were built utilizing federal dollars designed to support education, but also to provide good paying jobs to help families and local economies rebound from the tough times.
When American schools were constructed, their intent was to educate children to be successful in the height of the American Industrial Revolution - the backbone of which was factory work. Today, we live in an unparalleled era of rapid change. The growth of knowledge and access to information has exploded. Artificial intelligence promises to significantly impact what students need to know and the skills they need to develop to navigate life. With continued advances in automation and robotics, manufacturing has changed. Employees need strong technical skills. Problem-solvers, communicators and team players are in high demand.
As the goals of education have changed, so have teaching practices. We still emphasize reading, writing and arithmetic. Foundational knowledge is a requirement for higher order thinking. What has changed is a movement to more cooperative learning emphasizing creative problem solving, communication and teamwork. To accommodate new approaches to instruction that reflect best practices in how children learn, modern schools are designed differently. Emphasis is placed on spaces that promote collaborative learning, artistic design, creative construction and problem solving.
The district created a vision of 21st Century learning emphasizing 1. Content Knowledge; 2. Creative Problem Solving; 3. Communication; 4. Character and; 5. Contributing Citizen. We have been working to match the capabilities of our facilities to our educational vision.
Historically, the district has taken good care of its buildings. The recent renovation to the Otter Fieldhouse in Roosevelt is a prime example. That said, maintenance costs increase as buildings age. We are limited with what we can do with some of the older buildings given their layouts and design. Neither McKinley nor Adams were constructed on lots large enough to meet the Minnesota Department of Education’s current requirements. MDE is highly unlikely to approve any major renovation to those buildings.
Which leads us to the possibility of a new elementary school. The last completely new school built in the Fergus Falls Public School District dates back to 1969. In the coming weeks, our community will receive a survey in the mail asking for your feedback on a potential new elementary school that would come before the community in the form of a bond election in the late spring of 2024.
The facility would be roughly 110,000 square feet and would house third grade through fifth grade. It would be located on 29 acres adjacent to Hilltop Church and across highway #210 from the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center. The site is within city limits and its proximity to the PWLC makes it a natural fit for our programming.
In a few days, our Prairie Science Classroom (available to 4th and 5th grade students) will be announced as one of only two Innovation Programs recognized by the Minnesota Rural Education Association (MREA) throughout the entire state of Minnesota. It is a great honor, high praise and well-deserved. The program is receiving this recognition because of its outstanding quality and the fact that it has a lifelong impact on the children who participate in it. There is only one other program like it in the United States. We have this unique educational partnership with the United States Fish and Wildlife in Fergus Falls as the result of vision, passion, collaboration and partnerships. I hope each of you is as proud of the program as I am.
The location of a new 3rd through 5th grade elementary school would enhance this program by affording greater accessibility to the Prairie and reduce transportation time. A new facility would also allow us to adequately address music space for our upper elementary students. Something we are sorely lacking currently. The district also lacks green space. We have needs for additional practice and game facilities – especially for middle school sports.
If built, what would the Fergus Falls public School District look like?
Lincoln would house Otter preschool and kindergarten.
Cleveland would be dedicated to first and second grades.
The new school would house grades three through five.
Kennedy Secondary School/Roosevelt would serve grades six through twelve.
What would happen to McKinley and Adams? While these buildings may no longer be ideally suited for K-12 education, they offer several opportunities to serve the community long into the future. Perhaps one or both could be converted to much needed childcare facilities. Maybe one could be home to a Boys and Girls Club or a family resource center. They could be converted to assisted living facilities or apartments. The important thing is that these facilities can still serve the needs of our community, but in a different way. Nothing is being wasted - just repurposed.
An important consideration is always cost. The school district is in the process of finalizing a list of needs which could include some updates to existing buildings. Once these decisions have been made a future column will be dedicated to the cost of the project and its projected tax impact.
Does a school building matter to a child? I’ll answer that anecdotally. When Lincoln School opened up, Melissa Amundson, Early Childhood Director relayed a story to me about a young four-year-old girl who walked into the front entrance and looked around, eyes wide, and said, “How lucky am I to go to this school?”
The school district is welcoming your feedback and ideas. We look forward to receiving the survey results as we chart a path forward for the future education of our community’s children. Future columns will provide more information about the impact a new facility would have on our school, community and the educational experience of our students.