Last year, when Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Superintendent Joe Gothard was new, he made the rounds to discuss the district's challenges and successes.
One memorable anecdote concerned a sophomore who wanted to take calculus, usually reserved for seniors. The student couldn't do it because he didn't have transportation to the senior campus, a separate facility two miles away, and the time it took to get there created scheduling complications.
The situation was "troubling for me on many fronts," said Gothard. But it helped him understand what direction the district needed to go.
Scheduling limitations and high school students at multiple sites help explain why Gothard is recommending a major and controversial change: reconfiguring the high school to serve grades 9-12, with 6-8 middle schools and K-5 elementary schools.
The district is one of just four in the metro with a 10-12 high school and 7-9 junior highs, an arrangement in place for 56 years. A senior campus in the district-owned Diamondhead Education Center serves seniors for half the day.
The plan would move sixth and ninth graders into new schools and close the senior campus. Moving into that repurposed space would be offerings like adult basic education, administrative offices and a program for young adults with special needs.
To accommodate 700 freshmen plus half the senior class, an addition to Burnsville High School is planned. The project would add an activities and athletic center with three full basketball courts, many classrooms, and spaces for group learning.
That would require a bond referendum. While the school board hasn't yet approved the measure, the district is pursuing state approval to move forward, he said.
If all goes as planned, a $70 million referendum vote would likely happen in February. The goal is to have the high school ready and new grade configurations in place in 2016-17.
The grade shifting is part of a broader proposal, unveiled this summer by Gothard. Dubbed "Vision One91," it makes recommendations about the use of districtwide facilities and puts an increased focus on college and career readiness.
"This isn't just moving students around, this is a new way for Burnsville," he said.
New referendum funding would address other areas of the plan, such as school security updates and technology needs. Most likely a second ballot question would ask for approval of a $2.5 million-per-year technology levy, said Jim Schmid, school board chair.
But the biggest change would be grade realignment, which would give the district more flexibility with facilities, Schmid said.
Moving sixth-graders would also solve another problem: "We're bursting at the seams at our elementary schools," he said.
With sixth-graders gone, early childhood programs could move into elementary schools and space could be reconfigured to suit today's students. And with other programs relocating into the former senior campus, the district wouldn't need its leased spaces, saving $100,000 a year, Gothard said.
Selling parents, students
Recently, the school board received results of a community survey that asked 400 residents their opinions on school-related topics. When asked if they supported a $70 million bond referendum, 65 percent said yes. But only 35 percent of all respondents and 40 percent of parents were in favor of the main reason for the tax increase — grade reconfiguration.
Convincing people to get behind the change may be hard, Schmid said, and the board will need to inform them about what a 9-12 high school really offers students, particularly academically.
Gothard said that with ninth-graders still in junior high, he's "concerned about [them] taking that year seriously."
There are many reasons why the 9-12 model is nearly universal: research supports it, and it aligns with state academic standards and even federal nutrition guidelines for school lunches. Sixth- and ninth-graders also have more options for advanced classes, sports and after-school activities, he said.
One parent concern, however, is whether ninth-graders are mature enough for high school, said Schmid, also a parent. Others are skeptical because of tradition, he added.
But Jeff Marshall, the high school activities and athletic director, sees ninth-graders in high school as "a fantastic change," he said. "From my perspective, there's nothing negative about going this route."
Ninth-graders can play high school sports now, but must take an activity bus to do so. Numbers for sports like football suffer as a result, he said. Having more time to develop as athletes, singers or school newspaper reporters means "the product that we put out is going to be that much better."
And the change allows for curriculum alignment and encourages kids to think about post-high school plans earlier, he said.
A senior this year, Blake Scollard said the new arrangement would be a "weird thing … because we've never done it that way." But having a four-year high school career does make sense, he said.
Marshall believes educating parents and students is the answer. The district will begin holding community meetings about the topic soon.
"So is it going to be challenging? Yes. But I think it's doable," Marshall said.