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Progress slow, steady on Paul Bunyan Center

Bemidji School Superintendent James Hess assured board members Monday, "We will have an excellent kindergarten, and that's all there is to it."

Hess was referring to the Paul Bunyan Center located at 3300 Gillett Drive N.W., which will be home to four sections of kindergarteners from Northern and two sections from Solway Elementary schools next year.

Several years ago the building, which currently houses school district administration offices, Community Education and the Bi-County Community Action Program's Head Start program, was used as a kindergarten center. All kindergarteners in the Bemidji School District attended the center, which offered half-day kindergarten. Today the district offers all-day, every-day kindergarten, and kindergarteners attend six neighborhood schools.

But with district officials seeing a growing number of students entering into the school district, the school board needed to decide on ways to create more classroom space.

The school board voted to remodel the Paul Bunyan Center as a short-term solution to ease the overcrowded classrooms and voted to build a new elementary school as a long-term solution.

In order to make the Paul Bunyan Center suitable to accommodate kindergarteners again, the school board provided written notice to end the lease with the Bi-CAP Head Start program, which currently uses three classrooms at the center.

Head Start, a national education program for youth, offers services to 271 children ages 3-5 and their families in Beltrami and Cass counties. The program offers families a combination program of one-three home visits per month and one-three days of classroom experience per week. It also offers a center-based program of four-five days of classroom experience per week plus two home visits and two conferences per year.

Head Start Director Julie Johnson declined comment on the cancelled Paul Bunyan Center lease. Bi-CAP executive director Deb Allison said, "We are actually in the planning phase," but would not give additional comments.

At the school board meeting Monday, Hess said he has had conversations with Johnson about where Head Start classes could be offered in the future.

"We are trying to brainstorm ideas of where head start might be relocated in our community," he said.

Hess said administration is considering cancelling the sale of the former community education building located at 1420 Beltrami Avenue.

District administrators have met with Northern and Solway principals and kindergarten teachers to discuss the transition of kindergarteners to the Paul Bunyan Center.

Hess said he met with Susan Shelquist, executive director of Bemidji Kids & Company, a program which provides child care for elementary-aged children each school day at all six elementary schools in the district. He said the Paul Bunyan Center will offer Kids & Company for kindergarteners next year.

Administrators have also met with a number of architects interested in plans for the new school. A planning committee will be set up to help plan for the new elementary school.

"We have much to do and we have a short time to get it done," Hess said.

Hess said he has not publicly released much information on the Paul Bunyan Kindergarten Center or the proposed new elementary school, but said he and other administrators are available to answer questions from parents who call.

One of the current issues the district is having with repurposing the Paul Bunyan Center is how to bus students to and from the building.

Teachers in the district follow a negotiated contract that has a certain number of instructional minutes per day they are expected to teach. Each licensed staff member must teach 300 minutes and are given 60 minutes of preparation time. In order for kindergarteners at the Paul Bunyan Center to receive the same amount of instructional time as other students in the district, the Paul Bunyan Center will have to follow a new bussing schedule than it had 10 years ago.

When the building was used solely as a kindergarten center, students were transported to and from the center from their neighborhood elementary schools.

"If we were to continue that, teachers at the center would teach less and children would receive less instruction per day than other children in other kindergarten classes," Hess said.

Hess said the latest proposal on the table is to have students be picked up from their homes and transported to their neighborhood elementary schools. From there they would then be bussed to the center. After school, kindergarteners would be transported to the Bemidji Middle School and from there bussed home.

"That might change somewhat, but that is the way to ensure all kids get same amount of instructional time and be safely transported," Hess said.

Hess said the district could not afford to bus kindergarteners directly to and from their homes.

"As much as we'd love to do that that would put a large financial burden on the district," he said.

Hess said he is not willing to compromise on the quality and fairness of the education students receive, but the planning for the repurposing of the Paul Bunyan Center and planning for the new school will take time.

"We're trying to equip a school, staff a school and schedule schools that haven't been a school," he said. "We are starting from scratch. It's going to take a little bit, but we'll get it done. Certainly helpful comments should be directed to us. We'll do our best to answer questions quickly and professionally."