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Overcrowding puts squeeze on Canyon Lake Elementary
State of our schools

Overcrowding puts squeeze on Canyon Lake Elementary

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Editor's note: This is the first story in a five-part series looking at the schools that are proposed to be closed under Rapid City Area Schools $250 million facilities proposal. 

The way Principal David Swank tells it, overcrowding has been a problem at Canyon Lake Elementary School since it first opened in September 1949.

That school year, according to Rapid City Journal archives, 300 more students had registered for lower grades than in 1948.

“This was originally supposed to be a seven-classroom school with an eighth room that was like an activity room,” Swank said. “It opened as an eight-classroom school.”

By 1951, according to school records, an addition had been built to relieve the pressure.

Today the school's main building has a student population of 407 with a capacity for 302. And the two buildings and four annexes that make up its 13.5 acre campus aren’t just over-stuffed but out of shape.

In the first phase of the Rapid City Area Schools’ proposed master plan for facilities, Canyon Lake and two other elementary schools would close over the next three to six years. Whether the buildings would be sold or demolished has yet to be determined.

That plan for now recommends transferring Canyon Lake students either to Meadowbrook or Corral Drive Elementary schools.

But closing schools is only one of many options on the table for the plan’s first phase. Three new elementary schools would also be constructed, while South and West Middle schools would be rebuilt where they stand.

The infrastructural overhaul would be financed by a $250 million bond issue that 60 percent of voters would have to approve of by referendum. The school-civilian task force that crafted the plan is expected to make their final recommendations to the board of education — which would decide whether to put the issue on the ballot — in June.

Full to the brim

School officials have over the years found a number of workarounds to Canyon Lake’s spatial constraints.

“We don’t have offices for certain administrative personnel. They’re in closets or storage closets, mostly,” said Kumar Veluswamy, manager of Rapid City school facilities.

Four annexes — the district’s term for the modular buildings that function as freestanding classrooms — have gone up at Canyon Lake since the 1980s. Six years ago, the school absorbed the Kibben-Kuster building a quarter-mile away.

Built in 1981, Kibben-Kuster was originally a special education facility. Its services have since moved to the school’s Jefferson building. Now known as Canyon Lake East, the building houses kindergarten and first grade students as well as music rooms and the campus library.

“I think (parents) understand what our limitations are here," Swank said.

"They understand that we’re doing the best we can with what we have," he continued.

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Still, he said, there are limitations to what can be done.

The gymnasium at the Canyon Lake building, for example, cannot be used for physical education during the two hours that it serves each day as the school cafeteria.

Lacking space in their classrooms, students in preschool and grades two through five hang their belongings on coat hooks that line the Canyon Lake building’s already narrow hallways.

And because many of the buildings were constructed before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, accessibility is scattershot. Several annexes do feature wheelchair ramps, but many of their bathrooms are too tight for a wheelchair user to turn in.

Underlying structural issues aside, the school simply lacks room for what school officials call 21st century learning, a cornerstone of the proposed facilities plan. One aspect of the philosophy is its emphasis on open classrooms with flexible space.

“It’s not like a balloon where I can put more air in and make the classroom sizes any bigger,” Veluswamy said.

Safety and maintenance

Crouching in the crawl space underneath the Canyon Lake building Tuesday, Veluswamy pointed to several points where the floor overhead is sags inward. Results, he said, of the school's high water table.

Recently installed wooden supports alleviate the bowing somewhat, Veluswamy said, but this summer new concrete will need to be poured and new still mesh installed for further stability. With the crawl space accessible only by duct-sized holes in the wall, he doesn’t expect it to be cheap.

“I could spend several millions fixing this,” he said, “but then if you’re going to build a new school why waste the money here?”

Even if the bond issue passes, Veluswamy said, a new school wouldn’t be built for several years. Money would have to be spent on maintenance regardless.

Veluswamy said water table moisture has created air quality issues and sewer problems in some of Canyon Lake’s annexes as well.

School officials also expressed safety concerns related to the size of the campus, its location in a residential area and its proximity to a busy road. Additionally, Swank figures that there are six or seven separate points of entry to campus facilities.

To limit the possibility of intrusion, newer schools often have only one main entryway. A chain-link fence does, however, encircle much of Canyon Lake.

“It’s pretty easy for people to come onto our campus. It’s mostly enclosed but it’s not entirely enclosed. And nor do we want the message to be that this is a prison," Swank said.

Canyon Lake does share a resource officer with West Middle School and several others in the district, Swank said.

Swank and Veluswamy added that walking between different buildings for class and activities in winter weather can be difficult on young students. It also cuts into their class time.

Officials said that 170-plus students who are bused to the school from the city's north side each day lose out on additional class time because of their long commute. 

“If you think about the cognitive capital that kids have at their disposal in a day, they’re spending the first hour of that sitting on a bus. And then they’re going home tired on a bus with 95 other kids," Swank said. "That creates its own set of issues. I would say 20 percent of our behavior issues are things that take place on the bus."

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