The Edina school district is asking voters on Tuesday to allow it to create classrooms of the future, places that function a little more like a modern office environment with movable furniture, common work spaces and areas where partitions could be easily put up or taken down.
To do that, the district wants to borrow $125 million for a proposal that also calls for adding on to the high school and security and infrastructure improvements.
“We know that students learn differently,” said Susan Brott, the district’s communications director. “If a classroom consists of one teacher standing up in the front of a room with 25 to 30 kids in their desks, well, that’s only one style of learning … I think we can do better than that.”
Edina Public Schools is one of 14 school districts with referendums on the ballot in May. Most school districts are asking taxpayers for money for renovations, though some are proposing an addition or money to build a new school.
Edina’s referendum marks the first time in over a decade that the school district has asked residents for a tax increase to pay for facility upgrades. Edina voters have a long history of approving the school district’s requests for financial assistance.
Opposition includes a handful of families who say the plan doesn’t address the district’s needs and spends taxpayer dollars on unnecessary items.
“Edina is one of the best school districts in the area, but it’s not the best because it spends money lavishly,” said Eric Strobel, an Edina parent and one of the leaders of Edina CARES, a group urging residents to reject the measure on Tuesday.
Edina joins a growing number of school districts seeking to move away from the traditional classroom setup where students are confined to desks, lined up in rows, while the teacher lectures at the front of the classroom — a setup frequently referred to as “cells and bells.” The average age of an Edina school is 51 years and most classrooms reflect the traditional design.
The school district’s plan calls for making widespread modifications to all Edina schools to create more flexible learning spaces where students can work together in groups, and teachers can switch seamlessly between offering students one-on-one help and working with large groups.
Lisa O’Brien, an Edina parent who leads a group of referendum supporters, compared the changes the school district is proposing to how the modern kitchen has evolved from a small place used exclusively for cooking to a place where families gather and children do homework.
“We don’t want a school district that’s content to sit on its laurels,” O’Brien said. “We don’t want to cap our excellence. We want to push forward.”
Many Edina teachers are backing the plan, saying the new design would allow teachers and students to move more around more freely to collaborate with their peers.
Jenn Carter, the high school’s dean of students, got a grant a few years ago to renovate a world language lab. With that money, the school replaced divided workstations with tables on wheels, added multiple plug-ins for technology, and created several new learning stations.
She said she saw students becoming more engaged in their daily work in the lab, and she expects to see more of the same if the district is allowed to make the kind of renovations currently being proposed.
“Every child has their own, unique learning style,” she said. “We need our classrooms to be flexible because that’s what our students need.”
High school expansion
The proposed project also calls for building an additional 135,000 square feet at the high school, a plan being driven by the district’s plan to move ninth-graders from the middle school to create a more traditional high school and middle school experience.
Under the plan, a multipurpose activities center would be built at the high school to accommodate physical education classes and to provide meeting spaces for extracurricular groups and room for students to work on projects like robotics.
A district facilities task force initially raised concerns about the scope of the activity center given the projected cost.