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When the bell rings at 10:38 a.m., students stream into the Wayzata High School cafeteria for the first section of lunch.
It doesn’t take long for the room to fill.
“It’s not easy to find a table where all your friends can sit together,” said sophomore Eva Petterson.
Like most schools in the Wayzata district, the high school is at capacity. With 3,200 students, it is already Minnesota’s largest high school. And it’s projected to add 700 to 900 students over the next 10 years.
That’s why the district is holding a referendum, on Feb. 25, asking voters to approve $109 million in bond funding to expand the high school, build an elementary school and make infrastructure improvements, such as better securing school entrances. It’s also seeking to renew a technology levy.
If approved, the expansion would bring the high school’s capacity to 3,900 students — almost twice the number of students enrolled at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
In many ways, Wayzata is a victim of its own popularity. Families are drawn to the district’s stellar test scores and its reputation for producing students primed for college.
And with the economy slowly recovering, new-home construction is surging again in the district, particularly in its northern tier.
“We’re really sensing that we’re on the front end of this burst,” said Superintendent Chace Anderson. “And we feel like this package we’re bringing to voters in February responds very nicely to our anticipated needs and will accommodate us for years to come.”
A desirable district
While several suburban school districts have seen enrollments decline in recent years, Wayzata has experienced just the opposite. Student enrollment districtwide has increased in the past 10 years from 9,705 to 10,666.
Just drive around the district’s northern communities, such as Plymouth and Medina, and it’s obvious what’s driving the enrollment increases. More than 1,200 homes have been built in the district over the past four years, and 1,600 more are slated by 2017.
That growth has already prompted the district to build additions at three elementaries. And it closed open enrollment two years ago to help keep its student population in check.
It’s easy to understand the district’s appeal. Its students consistently post some of the state’s highest scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment exams. Five of its seven elementary schools have been named National Blue Ribbon Schools by the U.S. Department of Education. And each year, the district produces dozens of National Merit finalists.
“What we’re really talking about here is the fact our school district is a desirable one,” said Karen Arkesteyn, a parent who served on the district’s facilities task force. “People want to live here, and they want their kids to go to Wayzata schools.”
Still, there are consequences attached to such popularity. Overcrowding is the most obvious in shared spaces in the high school — the cafeteria, halls and the auditorium.
“Every year, you’ll have one or two classes that are huge,” said senior Monika Weimer. “In one of my science classes, some kids have to sit at benches in the lab.”
Anderson said he thinks class sizes at the high school are currently reasonable. But that could change in coming years, he conceded.
“Inevitably, our class sizes will go up,” he said. “We are very committed to maintaining our class-size targets. However, we can’t do that if we run out of classrooms.”
School leaders weren’t looking at first to build an elementary school. Then two unexpected things happened.
Last February, updated enrollment figures cast doubt on whether the district’s elementary schools could handle future growth even with additions at Greenwood, Oakwood and Sunset Hills elementaries.
Then, last May, the Legislature approved funding for all-day kindergarten. That meant the district had to find 14 to 15 more classrooms to accommodate all-day programming. That’s about one-half the number of classrooms in a typical Wayzata elementary.
“That was the game changer,” Anderson said.
The revised plan now calls for building an eighth elementary school north of Hwy. 55 to accommodate 760 students.
Also, the district hopes to expand the high school by 172,000 square feet for new classrooms and labs, a bigger cafeteria and another entrance.
So far, there’s little organized opposition to the plan, although some fliers put up around town have questioned why the district hasn’t opted to build a second high school.
School board members did consider that, but ultimately decided against the idea because of expense.
In addition, many in the community — including students — didn’t like the idea of splitting district kids up. With one large high school, students have a multitude of choices when it comes to joining groups, clubs and athletic teams.
For example, there are baking, knitting and film groups as well as a “music listening team” that recently finished second in the state competition.
“It keeps all of the resources here,” said junior Charlie Chermak about the plan to expand the high school. “The greatest thing about our high school is the fact it offers so many opportunities. I wouldn’t want that to change.”