STEPHENSON — From the outside, the Stephenson Area Public School looks very much the same; but on the inside, the middle/high school building is filled with more color, and grades, than ever before.
The Stephenson Board of Education voted last summer to combine the two building school district into a single building beginning the 2020-21 academic school year. This decision was made in light of an ongoing drop in student enrollment, which is currently at 470 students. This includes about 70 students who are exclusively working online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The transition from two buildings to one has been a smooth one, according to Superintendent Susanne Carpenter.
The school board, the previous superintendent Ron Kraft, and herself have faced several issues with the transition and planned accordingly. Much of the initial decisions were made before Carpenter become superintendent in August.
Walking into what is now the Stephenson K12 building, one of the first things a person may notice is the amount of color in the hallways. The school has featured many murals and student paintings for the past several years, but now some of the artwork is geared specifically to its youngest members of the student body.
Of course, there are still murals of Eagles, the school mascot, and painted ceiling tiles left by past senior art students, visitors to Stephenson School District will now find paintings of bumblebees and the alphabet drawn in bright colors as they walk through the hallways. In the classrooms, the youngest students are greeted with colorful decorations and carpets.
While the new colors and decorations make certain parts of the building feel like an elementary school, ensuring that the areas designated for the youngest and oldest students remain separate was a goal the school board had in mind when transforming the middle/high school building into a K12 building.
Carpenter said they did not want students of differing ages to “intermingle” more than necessary. To help keep the students of similar age groups together, and separate from other age groups, the student body was divided into four subgroups: high school (9-12), middle school (6-8), upper elementary (3-5) and lower elementary (K-2).
Each group has its own lunch period.
K-2 classrooms are downstairs on the southside of the building and 3-5 graders are upstairs. Carpenter said the 3rd through 5th grade students have one wing of the upstairs designated to them, while middle/highs school students have the other end.
However, dividing the upstairs (which is a single hallway) into an elementary wing and a middle/high school wing did lead to one issue: Bathroom usage.
“There’s only one bathroom upstairs, so the teachers set up a schedule and its worked out really well, so the elementary kids aren’t in the same bathroom as a high school student,” Carpenter said.
She said there is 25 minutes of every hour designated for middle/ high school students to use the bathroom and there is a planned time that 3rd through 5th grade goes to the bathroom as a group. In the case of an emergency, a teacher will accompany a student to the bathroom, she added.
To accommodate a larger student body, the school now has two locations where buses drop off and pick up students, instead of just one.
Three buses are dropped off at the southside building, where the K-2 classrooms are located and four buses drop students off on the westside of the building.
Carpenter explained that bus routes with a higher percentage of lower elementary students were picked to drop their students off at the southside of the building.
At both drop off locations, adults wait for younger students to bring them to their classrooms.
“I think it’s just K-2 now, at first we did it for K-5 but the the 3rd through 5th grade have gotten to their routine on how to get to their classroom,” she said.
The change in buildings did not warrant a change in the recess schedule. Even the location of recess has not changed, as the playground remains at the former-elementary school building.
“We didn’t move the playground equipment,” she said. “It would be too expensive, plus we would need to have inspections and everything else if we did.”
Paraprofessionals walk students from the middle/high school building to the former-elementary school building property so they can enjoy their recess.
If a teacher wants, they can also bring their students to the playground at other times throughout the day.
“Teachers can tell when their students need a break, so they are welcomed to take their students to the playground to run around for a few minutes when needed.”
She said there were no unforeseen difficulties with the transition because there was a good plan involved. However, the COVID-19 pandemic did put a few snags in the plan.
Originally, the school had planned on giving incoming students, especially K-5 students, a tour of the building before the academic year began; however, that plan was altered in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Carpenter explained that they wanted to have an open-house so parents and students can familiarize themselves with the building and meet teachers, but instead they asked that parents called and scheduled an individual tour. The district also hosted virtual tours online, where teachers showed their classrooms and introduced themselves on video.