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Kindergarten and first-grade instructor Mary Jensen works with her students at the Bert Raney Elementary School in Granite Falls. Teachers and students are enjoying the benefits of improved ventilation and lighting systems in the building. Only five of 41 rooms in the building met the state's indoor air quality standards prior to the installation of the new systems. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

'Fresh' approach to education at YME

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GRANITE FALLS -- Stuffy classrooms and hissing steam radiators might be the stuff of nostalgia, but they're also the cause for plugged noses and drowsy children not paying attention to teachers.

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They're part of the past at the Bert Raney Elementary School in Granite Falls, where the Yellow Medicine East School District is testing its entirely new heating, ventilation, lighting and electrical systems.

"A lot more positive,'' said Superintendent Al Stoeckman of improved air and lighting evident in the district's elementary building.

New energy-efficient lighting has made classrooms and hallways brighter and even more cheery, he said. The improved visual environment has probably won the most attention since the start of school, he added.

But the biggest change -- if invisible -- is the improvement in indoor air quality. Prior to the project, only five of 41 rooms in the elementary school met state ventilation standards.

They all do now. What Stoeckman called an "amazing'' array of ductwork and machinery has been installed in the building. A computerized system controls the temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide in each individual room.

Carbon dioxide monitors allow the computer to continuously adjust the flow of fresh air into individual classrooms "depending on how many students are in a room,'' according to Buzz Comstock, with Energy Services Group of Wayzata. The company is overseeing the improvement projects.

The district is investing more than $11 million to renovate the elementary and high school buildings. Most of the initial work has focused on the elementary school, where the new systems were put in place this summer. Groundwork was undertaken in the high school, and the work will be completed there next summer.

The elementary school (K-6) was built in the 1952, while the high school (7-12) is comprised of buildings constructed in 1930, 1965 and 1984. The elementary currently holds 403 students and the high school 462 students.

Stoeckman said the replacement of steam boiler heat in the buildings with a natural gas-fired, hot water system will reduce energy costs while providing a much more comfortable environment.

The system dehumidifies the air to make it comfortable and prevent mold growth. It uses natural gas, but also taps excess heat from equipment to warm the air.

Comstock said his company helped with the installation of similar systems in the Montevideo, Minneota and Madelia districts in recent years. The districts gave it high praise for the energy savings and improvements that resulted, he said.

"The projects were worth the money and chaos,'' said Montevideo High School Principal Bruce Bergeson. The Montevideo district updated both its elementary buildings in 2007 and the high school in 2009.

There was some chaos at YME too. New elementary Principal Jodi Kennedy said the summer building project made it a scramble to get classrooms ready on time. Without being asked, the district's teachers volunteered a day of work to help get things ready. Community residents volunteered and student athletes earned money for their sports by helping out as well, according to Stoeckman and Kennedy.

It's hard to measure the effects of poor air quality, but common sense tells us that poor ventilation makes students drowsy and concentration difficult, according to Dan Tranter, research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Health.

Rising energy costs in the 1970s and 1980s led many school districts to seal up buildings, but by the 1990s many realized the efforts had gone too far and harmed indoor air quality. Tranter said schools in the state are responding and indoor air quality has been improving since.

Health and safety issues were the motivation for the YME district, according to Stoeckman. The project has also involved adding sprinklers in the elementary school for fire protection. Sprinklers will be installed in the high school next year.

The district has also taken advantage of the construction to make other improvements. New ceilings were installed in hallways after they were opened to add the new ductwork. The district also installed wireless Internet capacity in the elementary building.

School buildings are getting a facelift too. Tuckpointing, a new color scheme and energy-efficient windows were added to the front of the high school. A new, energy-efficient doorway and brighter lobby greet visitors to the elementary school.

The need to upgrade the aging buildings has been on school board agendas for more than a decade, but in this case the procrastination has had its benefits. The projects went on the market as contractors were hungry for work, and bids came in well below estimates, Superintendent Stoeckman said.

Also, the availability of federal stimulus to help finance much of the work will reduce interest costs by $4 million, he said. The district issued Qualified Zone Academy Bonds -- a low-cost financing tool for such things as school building renovation -- for $10.7 million worth of work at an interest rate of .002 percent. Interest costs are calculated to total $144,000 over the 15-year term.

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Reconfiguration may result

GRANITE FALLS -- The two-year project to upgrade and renovate the Yellow Medicine East school buildings could lead to a reconfiguration of grades in the district, according to Superintendent Al Stoeckman.

He said the district is studying the possibility of adopting the middle school concept for grades 6, 7 and 8.

The school board is considering a proposal to move some preschool programs from the high school building into the elementary school, and making it a K-5 facility. It's currently a K-6 facility.

Grades 6, 7 and 8 would be offered as a middle school in a separate section of the high school building. The remainder of the high school building would be devoted to grades 9-12. The district offices would be moved to the west wing where some of the preschool programs are now offered.

-- Tom Cherveny

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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