Weather Forecast


'We're ready': Paul Bunyan Elementary among schools welcoming students today

MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER Kayla Heltunen, a Minnesota Reading Corps volunteer assigned to Paul Bunyan Elementary, sharpens pencils in advance of school starting today.1 / 2
MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER Arianna Baker cleans the floor of the inside gym at Paul Bunyan Elementary.2 / 2

BEMIDJI -- A young boy, returning to Paul Bunyan Elementary this fall after attending K-1 there last year, stepped back into his school and beamed at the staff.

"I'm back!" he declared.

Excitement is in the air.

Today marks the first day of school for the Bemidji School District.

Among the schools set to welcome students this morning is the newly renovated Paul Bunyan Elementary, known locally as the "kindergarten center."

The school, which years ago served as a kindergarten center before it was closed, was reopened in fall 2011 due to increasing enrollments, particularly in younger grades.

The district reported last fall that elementary enrollment had grown by 300 students in the past five years and is predicted to continue along similar growth patterns. Kindergarten enrollment was then projected to grow by nearly 500 students by 2018-19.

So, it made sense to increase the instructional use of Paul Bunyan Elementary.

Initially, in 2011-12, the school hosted six sections of kindergarten, bringing in students from Lincoln and Solway elementaries; two sections of K-1, the district's pre-kindergarten program; and the district offices.

This summer, though, Paul Bunyan Elementary underwent a substantial renovation as the district relocated its administrative offices to downtown Bemidji to make room at Paul Bunyan Elementary for an additional four classrooms, three of which will be utilized for kindergarten, the other as a music room.

"The rooms look great," said Kathy VanWert, principal of Paul Bunyan Center, who this year is overseeing the operation of the kindergarten center and the district's Early Intervention Center, having previously served as principal of Lincoln Elementary. "We're ready."

There will be about 250 students in the Paul Bunyan Center on any given day; kindergarten sections have about 24-25 students and K-1 has about 20 kids in each of its sections.

"The demands of kindergarten are great," VanWert said, in addressing the benefits of a pre-kindergarten program, "to have that under their belt, before they start kindergarten, gives them a little extra boost."

Perhaps the most obviously improved area of Paul Bunyan Elementary is the kitchen.

"They had a kitchen that now has had a major upgrade, because they weren't able to cook back there before," VanWert said. "They had to go the high school and pick up the food, and keep it warm here for the kids. Now they can actually cook here."

Staff estimates the kitchen was made four or five times larger, complete with a walk-in refrigerator and freezer. A salad bar is expected to be added later.

"It's a fully functional kitchen now," VanWert said.

The cafeteria itself underwent renovations, including new flooring and decor appropriate for kindergarteners. On the wall, bright, colorful script proclaims, "Healthy Foods, Healthy Bodies," with popular characters surrounding each letter.

Another new space is a shared library/computer lab area. Computers are lined up on one side and a library offers books appropriate for 5- and 6-year-olds.

Students have technology one day a week, library one day a week, physical education five days a week, and music and art each two days a week.

"It's a nice schedule," VanWert said.

There also are additional areas for specialty teachers, speech and occupational therapists, and others, such as the newly added Minnesota Reading Corps volunteer.

The renovation also allowed for a staff work room, where they can make copies or prepare their materials; a staff lounge; and a conference room.

In addition to the elementary-school staff, related-services staff, such as school psychologists, the district nurse and an elementary school social worker, also are on site, who also will help with the school's daily operation, such as getting students on and off the bus and to their respective destinations.

"The relationships are being built and that's important," VanWert said.