Some schools die of old age, others burst with students

Mike KnaakColumn, Print Sartell - St. Stephen, Print St. Joseph0 Comments

What’s the life expectancy of a new high school? How long into the future will it adequately serve students?

With two new high schools opening in Central Minnesota this fall, students, parents and teachers will experience the unique beginning of new places to learn.

The Sartell-St. Stephen school district opens a new school on Pinecone Road. It replaces a relatively new building, from the mid 1990s, that will soon house middle school students. The first Sartell high school opened just 50 years ago.

On the southwest side of St. Cloud, a new Tech High School replaces a building that dates to 1917.

The designers of both buildings are looking ahead 50 or more years. During planning stages, teachers, students, administrators and architects asked what does education look like today and what will it look like years from now.

Both feature a variety of bright, open spaces for all types of learning – large classrooms, spaces for small groups and adaptable technology labs. And there are some traditional features that are gone. There’s no library in Sartell. Books are shelved around the building in “little libraries” and several studios support digital media creation and production.

While Tech “lived” more than 100 years, Sartell’s most recent high school lived a shorter life.

Situations in very different cities made the difference between the lifespan of two schools.

In downtown St. Cloud, Tech essentially died of old age. With additions in 1938, 1954, 1963 and 1975, Tech expanded to accommodate a growing student population and changing curriculum. But new wings and paint couldn’t save the main building.

As a student in the 1970s, I remember walking the high-ceiling halls, climbing the open staircases and seeing the beautiful wood trim and doors. New fire codes killed the classic look of the old building. And I remember playing sports in a gym, which doubled as an auditorium, with walls dangerously close to the basketball court. The 1975 addition included a larger, safer gym and swimming pool.

Tech was already more than 50 years old when the first Sartell High School appeared. When it opened in 1969, my Sartell area classmates from North Junior High School and Tech left for their new school. A year later, the St. Cloud district’s new high school, Apollo. opened.

That first year that new Sartell junior/senior high school accommodated 675 students in grades seven through 12; 18 seniors graduated the first year. Rapid growth in the district led to a new high school in 1993.

In 1970, there were 1,323 residents in the city of Sartell. By 1990 the population had grown to 5,393 and those numbers don’t include the people in Le Sauk Township and St. Stephen.

School enrollment kept pace. In 2000, the district served more than 2,500 students. By 2018, the enrollment grew to more than 3,900 and just in Sartell, there were more than 18,000 people.

Along the way, the Sartell-St. Stephen school district built two elementary schools.

While old age killed Tech, “youthful” growth fueled Sartell’s need for more student space.

Real estate agents and community leaders tout the Sartell-St. Stephen school district’s reputation to attract new residents and the availability of residential building space added to the growth boom of the last 20 years.

At various school meetings the last year or so, I’ve heard Sartell-St. Stephen district residents ask how long the new high school will last … and when will they have to finance a new one. There’s no certain answer to how much and how fast student populations will increase.

But when it comes to design and educational opportunities, these new buildings won’t die of old age any time soon.

Author: Mike Knaak

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