School district scrapes classroom space from thin air

Millsboro Middle School is one of many schools scrambling to carve classrooms from other existing spaces, including the library.

Photo by Maria Counts

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the Indian River School District is practically clawing at the walls for some breathing room.

At Millsboro Middle School, that means losing the library for a little while.

“We are rapidly expanding. This year, our library will be converted into two classrooms,” using a portable, expandable wall, said Principal Jessica Jackson. “It’s happening now. We have rearranged some of the bookshelves, and we’ve cleared two walls to put up the two Smart Boards.”

“They’ll probably put up partial walls, but we’re not going to do any permanent change [in the library] … It’ll be a library again once we convert it to an elementary,” said Superintendent Mark Steele of the school board’s proposal to convert the middle school into an elementary school.

 “The majority of our classrooms have Chromebook [laptop] carts. … What we may do is transfer the books into the English teachers’ classrooms, so the students may still have access to them. But this school has not had a librarian for several years, so it was up to the teachers to bring the students to the library,” Jackson said.

The decision not to hire a librarian was made well before Jackson arrived this summer, likely due to a need for more teachers or staff elsewhere.

“It’s going to depend on our continued growth, on whether we will be able to hire a librarian again for the future,” Jackson said.

 “We’ve been very creative this year in regards to our use of space,” said Jackson, who has tentatively offered to donate her own personal office to accommodate others. “A lot of our support staff are having to share space, and we’ll just have to keep rolling with the punches, if you will, and keep being as flexible and creative as possible while we have this number of students,” she said. “And we don’t anticipate it decreasing.”

As of Aug. 7, she had 778 students enrolled for this fall — a growth of 60 students since last September, and 84 more students since the prior year.

Millsboro Middle’s maximum capacity is 800 students, so they’re already at 97 percent of space intended to teach local children.

Millsboro Middle School is also permanently retrofitting an old workshop building to gain classrooms.

In that building, the popular agriculture classroom will be upgraded to hold all its students, plus a handwashing sink and easier access to the greenhouses. The workshop will be converted into a classroom. The custodians will no longer be crossing classrooms to access the electrical closet. But the weight room will likely be sacrificed to become another traditional classroom.

“At the moment, it will likely just be closed, which is unfortunate. I know that our coaches use it. It’s kind of an incentive for the kids to get in there,” Jackson said.

The design and mechanical work will cost just under $30,000, plus expenses. After that, construction costs are estimated in the six-digit range because of the tall ceilings, mechanics and construction work.


Other schools coping


“To cope with growth, we have to try to create classrooms for instructional purposes,” said Joe Booth, IRSD supervisor of buildings and grounds.

“We’ve got some buildings that have some years on them — my gosh,” Booth said. “It’s a credit to the district that we’re keeping the buildings in action for all these years, but it comes at a cost.”

The IRSD is also considering portable classrooms, such as outdoor trailers, to accommodate the growing student population in places where there’s just no room to expand.

Long Neck Elementary School was happy just to get some more wall space. They have a portable wall can open to transform neighboring kindergarten and pre-K classrooms into one big room. But that need has become obsolete.

Today, Long Neck needs the little classrooms, so they will install a permanent wall (costing $7,810) that can hold a nail or an entire Smart Board. North Georgetown Elementary did the same thing a few years ago, Booth said.

Building principals bring such needs to the school board.

“It’s up to the principal to say, ‘This is why I need this… This is the program that is in there…,” said Booth. “We do [divisions] all over the place. We divided the library at Georgetown Middle School,” to form a separate computer room, he noted.

At Sussex Central High School, a break room and existing office space will be squeezed to create two new offices for clinical counselors ($4,695).

That’s besides the other big maintenance projects, such as Selbyville Middle School’s gymnasium floor refinishing ($13,950) and the likely need for new running-track surfaces at both SCHS and Indian River High School (possibly costing in the hundred thousands, said Board Member Jim Fritz).

Many of these projects are funded by Minor Capital Improvement money — an account partly fed by the State and partly by local taxpayer funds.


IRSD plans the big projects


The IRSD continues to work toward permanent building projects to increase student capacity. The board is brainstorming a new Sussex Central High School building for roughly 2,400 students. The current high school would be repurposed as a middle school, and the current Millsboro Middle School would become an additional elementary school. Also, Selbyville Middle School and Indian River High School would each have several classroom additions.

Steele said state agencies generally liked the concept when he mentioned it at a Preliminary Land Use Service (PLUS) site plan review in July.

This month, IRSD administrators are preparing to submit Certificates of Necessity (CN) requests to the State. If the State approves the CNs, the IRSD would have permission to take the funding question to public referendum.

“We are running out of space for potentially being able to expand,” said Principal Jackson, thinking of a potential referendum this school year. “We’re hoping for community support.”

Meanwhile, the State has allocated $2.98 million to the IRSD to start designing a replacement Howard T. Ennis School. Superintendent Steele also expects Sussex County to approve a subdivision at the Stockley Center so the IRSD can obtain the property to build the new school, across from the current SCHS. The school would be 100 percent State-funded, since it serves students with special needs from across the county.

Laura Walter
Staff Reporter