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GFAFB readies for first school year after consolidation

Sandy Gregory, a third grade teacher at Twining Elementary and Middle School on the Grand Forks Air Force Base, visits with Ssgt. Susan Davis in her new classroom at the school. Gregory and other teachers from the Eielson school are getting their classrooms ready for the upcoming school year after consolidation of the Base Schools this year. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Rachelle Corbin, a second and third grade teacher at Twining, moves boxes from her old classroom to her new classroom recently in preparation for the new school year. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

Several boxes, plastic crates and stacked chairs lay scattered around her, and posters topped nearly all the desks. Still, there was progress. She’d spent the past week or so packing 26 years of teaching materials from her time at Carl Ben Eielson Elementary School and transferring it to Nathan F. Twining Elementary and Middle School.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” she said. “With elementary, too, you’re prepping for all grades. There’s a lot of storage and things to put away.”

Gregory was one of several Eielson employees preparing for an outcome that had been debated over for years. In April, the base board approved the consolidation of Eielson with Twining in response to declining enrollment and as a way to cut costs. The Twining’s name will remain the same, and Eielson will close as a school.

A few details are left to tackle before school starts on Sept. 2, said Assistant Superintendent Jody Thompson.

“Facility-wise, we’re ready to go,” he said.

Consolidation

School officials expect 315 students to attend Twining this year, with room to spare.

The school will have pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students. Previously, Eielson had students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, while Twining had fourth through eighth grade.

 As both schools used to have a significantly larger population, even with current enrollment, Twining could accommodate the equivalent of two Eielsons, said Twining Principal Mary Koopman.

School officials said unexpected changes to federal funding and other factors drove the decision to consolidate, which saves $441,798 in staff reductions, according to recent district estimates. That’s about $147,045 less than originally anticipated last year.

The consolidation saves money for both Grand Forks Air Force Base School District and the Grand Forks School District, which share services. It also reflects declining enrollment and likewise, declining federal funding, said school officials.

Federal funding has played a major role in supporting base students. With enrollment declining because of limited housing, the federal aid given to the districts — which supports students from military families — has also declined. The money also covers students who live in town, but districts receive more for ones who live on base, according to the districts.

This year, a total 406 base students are expected on base and in town, less than half of the number attending school in 2008-2009. The districts anticipate $2.2 million in federal aid to help educate these students, according to the most recent estimate available.

“It’s a Catch-22,” Koopman said. “(Parents) don’t have housing because we’re at full capacity. Kids don’t go to our school because there’s no place for them to live, and missions aren’t being brought to the base because we don’t have housing.”

Additional changes

Although many of Twining’s offerings will be the same — even Eielson’s library was successfully transferred to Twining — there will still be some changes.

Transportation is the biggest concern to parents, as the base stopped providing the longtime service because of budget cuts, Koopman said. But school officials are working hard to ensure student safety, especially for those who walk to school, she said.

The school is also housing Eielson’s former Head Start program, which will accommodate 34 students throughout the day, and an early childhood special needs program. Extra classrooms will be given to specialists and paraprofessionals to work with students, a luxury that will end if there’s a boost in enrollment that would require those rooms, Koopman said.

The Twining building will get some updates, including installing more plug-ins to accommodate the technology students and teachers use during the day, she said. As far as the now-empty Eielson school, the district plans to minimally maintain it for an undetermined amount of time, she said.

Some longtime elementary teachers the Herald spoke with on Wednesday said they looked forward to the smaller class sizes the consolidation offers, the later start date after Labor Day and a more unified elementary school.

“I really feel like it’s going to give us a full elementary feel,” said teacher Rachelle Corbin.

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit www.grandforksherald.com. 

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