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Portage Considers Closing a Middle School

Portage Public Schools

As early as November, the Portage Public Schools could ask voters to approve several major building projects. The Board of Education is months away from a final proposal. It could build several new or remodeled middle and elementary schools as well as new pools and stadiums. The district might also close one of its middle schools. And that raises concerns for at least one parent.

The district says replacements are past due for the buildings and facilities in question. Its three swimming pools leak. Its only stadium’s best days are in the past. And then there are the school buildings.

"Our current facilities were built for air quality of 1960s. Our new buildings will be built for air quality for 2015. It’s vastly different," says Assistant Superintendent of Operations Ron Herron.

And Herron adds that air quality is just one of the issues with Portage’s older schools. He says they also use more energy than they ought to and the classrooms don’t get enough sunlight.

"We know from research when you have more windows and more air circulation – all of these things provide for a better educational learning environment. And so there’s a cost to doing all of that," he says.

Last year, the district had a committee of more than 30 people study the facilities issue. The group held two community workshops last fall and surveyed people online.

"We want to show some transparency to our parents. We want to show that we are willing to at least look at their concerns," Herron says.

In December, the committee made recommendations to the board. It said the district should build four new elementary schools to replace five current buildings. It called for building two swimming new pools and up to two new stadiums, and moving Portage’s Community High School and early childhood education program.

But middle schools top the committee’s priorities list. And its proposal in that area has parent Katie Williams concerned.

"I do not like the idea of having three middle schools going down to two," she says.

That’s what the committee has suggested – closing West Middle School and rebuilding Northern and Central middle schools. The new schools would each accommodate about 1000 students. They would continue to share a campus with a high school. Williams says she’s concerned that for many students, a larger school would mean a lower-quality experience.

"You go from three sports teams down to two, from three musicals down to two, it just – has far reaching ramifications. Studies show there’s an increase in discipline issues as there’s more children and students in the school. As the school size increases, there’s a decrease in school morale for teachers and students, there’s a decrease in participation," she says.

Williams says she’s not sure why the district would close West Middle School. She’s not sold on the argument that placing its students closer to a high school would give them better access to advanced academics and sports.

"West has been on its own for the entire time it’s been built and it’s been functioning very well. The kids perform very well. I don’t think it’s been an issue," she says.

The state labels Portage West an “excellent” school in its top-to-bottom rankings. Despite the public meetings, Williams says she thinks many parents don’t realize what’s being discussed.

At the district, Assistant Superintendent Herron says that just because the buildings would be bigger doesn’t mean those schools would be less excellent.

"Some of the data we showed in the previous – I don’t remember what date that Board meeting was - showed that there are plenty of high performing larger middle schools around the state and around the country. It’s all in your curricular design, building design," he says.

He says class sizes would stay the same. And, he says, the design would create a small-school feeling.

Herron adds that it’s not that West isn’t a good school. But he says the district has to consider the needs of everyone.

"That may look different than what’s best for one of those individual pieces," he says.

The Board has called the middle school question “sensitive” and says it needs “more information” before it makes a decision. Trustees say they hope to arrive at a final plan in May or June.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. She covered those topics and more in eight years of reporting for the Station, before becoming news director in 2022.
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