A little more elbow room: Willmar’s older elementary schools enjoy slower pace after new building opens

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WILLMAR — Everything feels different at Roosevelt and Kennedy elementary schools in Willmar.

When the new Lakeland Elementary School opened Jan. 2, it was a bittersweet time for the Kennedy and Roosevelt students and staff who would be staying behind.

Some of the kids were going to miss playground friends, and the grownups would miss their colleagues, but they knew they would be gaining some breathing room. Lakeland was built to relieve overcrowding in the district's elementary schools.

"It is a definite change," said Kennedy Assistant Principal Patrick Beierman. "It's amazing how losing 200 kids plus staff kinda calms things, and I mean that in a good way."

At Roosevelt, about 400 students left for Lakeland, leaving the school with about 525 students.

The building was built to hold 650 students, said Principal Lori Lockhart, but it sometimes held nearly 1,000 students.

"With that many students in a smaller space, the natural consequence of that is it's busy," Lockhart said. "The hallways almost become unsafe."

Lockhart said she's still getting used to a little slower pace. With so many children, there was "a lot of action all the time," she said.

Now, she and the rest of the staff have found there's more time to handle the things that come up in a day. English Learner teachers had moved from room to room with their teaching materials on carts, using whatever room was available. Now, each English Learner teacher has a classroom, and the carts are history.

Kennedy, as the largest of the three schools, has more than 700 students, and is also spreading out into the newly vacant classrooms. Some are being painted and spruced up before moving in, Beierman said.

There's less sharing of offices and less small-group study in the halls. Before and after school, the hallways are busy, but they're not packed with kids. Half as many cars drop off and pick up kids.

"All of our kids are benefiting from a more quiet, smaller learning experience," Lockhart said.

Beierman said lunch times have become calmer at Kennedy. Before, the school was extremely crowded, he said, but with fewer children, "the decibel level went down."

Even though lunch times haven't changed at either school yet, kids can get their food quicker and have more time to eat.

"I haven't had nearly as many calls for (disciplinary) assistance in the cafeteria," Beierman said.

Roosevelt Assistant Principal Jim Mitteness said he handles less playground discipline, too.

"I think the kids feel it, too," he said, because he can spend more time with students than he could before.

English Learner teacher Angie Kotzenmacher said she can see that her students are much happier, and so is she. "It's nice to have things ready and available," she said.

Nancy Gosseling, another English Learner teacher, said as soon as she saw Lockhart enter her room, "I love my room." After working seven years off a cart, she said, she can now decorate her walls with visual aids for her students.

Another change is a space for Cardinal Place, the district's after-school care program in the elementary schools.

The program formerly met in the cafeteria at Roosevelt, but if there was a staff meeting, they had to find another place. Now they have their own room, with lockers outside it.

The Cardinal Place kids have noticed a change in their school.

"Now the halls aren't so crowded," said Brynn Streff, 6, a first-grader.

Nathan Duininck, 7, in first grade, and Elijah Schieck, 5, a kindergartener, said there aren't as many kids to play with outside, but they like it better.

Elijah said having fewer people "feels weird," but according to Nathan, the lunchroom works better now.