School’s out for summer, but work is going on behind the scenes toward making one of Minneapolis’ most-squeezed schools less crowded for students and their teachers.

Seward Montessori School was built for fewer than 700 but holds almost 900 K-8 students and ranks close to the worst in the district for its lack of space.

“The crowding at our school is the least-conducive learning environment I’ve seen in the 23 years I’ve been a teacher in the district,” said Robert Reed.

Robert Reed by his office

Robert Reed by his office

He and three others who teach English to immigrant students share office space at one end of a classroom, behind a bank of file cabinets and a curtain. Reed often teaches groups of students in another subdivided classroom that he shares with a school psychologist, inhibiting students from the vigorous out-loud pronounciation that builds their skill.

After meeting with a parent-staff group, district planners are investigating options and hope to have a recommendation later this year.

One possibility is an addition to accommodate the current four classes per grade, as parents prefer. There are less palatable options, too. One is moving to a larger school. Or the school could cut back to three classes per grade, meaning fewer Montessori slots. Another would be to split the program, making Seward a kindergarten-fifth grade school and housing middle school Montessori elsewhere. A move or a split school would affect other schools.

The Montessori program came to Seward in 1991 after it outgrew the Northrop building, where it went only through fifth grade. The move and a 1994 addition to Seward allowed it to add middle grades. The school started at three classes per grade but a fourth class per grade was phased in starting in 2003.

It isn’t difficult to see the overcrowding because it spills into hallways. The one serving fourth- and fifth-graders typically has several groups of students working in groups on the collaborative projects that are a Montessori hallmark. Aide Emily Martin is at a hall table with anywhere from two to five students. Another table holds a couple of geraniums. A large table for robotics activities is chained to the wall because it once fell on a student; there’s no other place for it.
Two specialists are tucked into makeshift triangular offices shoehorned into opposite corners of the hallway. When a class comes through, the hallway is impassible as students weave their way around these obstacles.

“I lived in New York City and I had 600 square feet and I had a roommate,” explained Becky Tabor, who teaches English to up to five immigrant students at a time in a tiny office. “You learn how to live in smaller spaces.”

But parents are trying to get the crowding at Seward on the district’s radar. Their long-term goal is constructing more classrooms, but that could take three to five years. Shorter-term, they’re hoping to cap enrollment at closer to the building’s capacity while studying the feasibility of expansion with the district.

Students pack hallways

Students pack hallways

They’re starting to contact school board members on their space issues but some need little education. Board member Hussein Samatar’s children attend Seward, and those of Carla Bates did so. The son of another board member, Richard Mammen, works there.

The Montessori program requires specially ordered materials, and they’re stored everywhere, in copying rooms, other niches, even principal Tammy Goetz’s office.

The school runs six lunch shifts a day. Students complained last year to Supt. Bernadeia Johnson that they lacked time to finish lunch, much less get recess, so adjustments were made. Still, the first lunch starts at 9:50 a.m. and there are more than twice as many middle-schoolers, who lunch together for scheduling reasons, as there are seats. Music students wait for janitors to clean up after the last lunch before they can set up, leaving a truncated rehearsal period before they pack up to for their buses.

There are other effects. “My son says he gets a headache from the noise levels,” said Pam Berry, a parent who headed the site council’s building committee. So does Reed, who sometimes brings headphones from home. 

Goetz said the goal is simple. “We’re asking for a conducive learning environment for all of our students,” she said. “Learning in the hallway is not conducive.”