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Forest Lake Area Middle School began its inaugural year last fall, combining area seventh and eighth graders who would have previously gone to either Southwest or Century junior high schools.

Following a year of major reorganization to the secondary schools, the administration at Forest Lake Area High School and the newly formed Forest Lake Area Middle School said that though changes did not come without growing pains and adjustments, they were certainly for the better.

At the start of the 2018 school year, ninth graders, who previously would have attended one of the Forest Lake Area Schools’ two junior high schools, moved into the high school, and the seventh and eighth grade classes, which previously attended either the Southwest or Century junior high schools, were consolidated into one school at the former Century location: Forest Lake Area Middle School. Both the high school and middle school saw physical expansions, paid by the bond referendum that was passed in 2015. Forest Lake Area Middle School was renovated to accommodate the transition into one middle school, and the high school saw expansions to its science and technology labs, as well as the addition of new classrooms and space for an extra 500 students.

Superintendent Steve Massey said this was what the school district’s task force had envisioned years ago, and that “there’s no doubt” that the efforts were worth it.

“There was a vision for a unified campus that came out of that task force. When we started this year, with the seventh and eighth graders in the middle school building and the ninth through 12th graders at the high school building, it fulfilled that vision,” Massey said.

Forest Lake Area High School Principal Jim Caldwell said the shift to move ninth graders under the high school’s roof was a huge benefit to the students and as administration.

“It was a phenomenal change, community-wide,” Caldwell said, remarking that the transition helped boost a school-wide culture that was especially enhanced by extra-curricular activity participation, as well as students being able to take certain elective courses that either weren’t available or were difficult to access at the previous two junior high schools.

“Student participation in our extracurriculars, like dances, they were at the highest level we’ve seen them in a long time. So the ninth graders came in and they weren’t pushed down by students saying, ‘Oh, you’re little ninth graders.’ I think, if anything, they were lifted up,” Caldwell said.

Having consistency in grading coursework was also a big bonus.

“We have all our credit-bearing courses under one roof here at the high school now, which is where they should be. When [you] graduate from the high school, you’re graduating with a 9-12 diploma; you’re not graduating from a 10-12 diploma. Having the junior highs has [previously] created some nightmares for our registrar, because even if the course is named a little bit different, that messes up our transcripts. Now that it’s all under one accounting firm, which is our registrar, it goes a lot smoother,” Caldwell commented.

One of the biggest and most difficult transformations was the creation of a brand new school at the middle school.

“We started completely over in designing the seventh and eighth grade middle school by forming a team of both staff from Southwest and staff from Century and picking a whole new name and a whole new set of operations and procedures. We started with ‘What do we want teaching and learning to look like for students?’ It’s not very often we get to design a whole new school,” Massey said.

Some of those updates included changes to the grading system, including a way to differentiate grading between work and behavior, how physical classroom space is structured, and how the school addresses absences and tardies.

“The transition to the middle school went remarkably well,” middle school Principal J.P. Jacobson said. “It was a great coming together for students from each of the communities our district serves. Kids from each elementary school met peers from other elementary schools and new friendships were made. That was so much fun to see.”

At the high school, there were some learning curves and hurdles that both students and administration faced throughout the year, especially in relation to in-house training for teachers and staff.

“Some things we did not anticipate, like needing to in-service our staff more. We were so student-centered that if we dropped the ball anywhere, it was that we didn’t in-service our ninth grade teachers coming in about what it’s like to teach high school kids, and we didn’t in-service our 10th-12th grade teachers enough on what’s it like to deal with a freshman class,” Caldwell said. “I had a teacher come into the office probably in January, and she sat down and said ‘Jim, if I would’ve known at the beginning of the year what I know now about ninth graders, my year would’ve gone a lot smoother.’”

Caldwell also said it was a rough year for high school administration due to an almost complete turnover rate with its deans and assistant principals with the exception of Assistant Principal Kathy Ungerecht, who retired in June. Because of that turnover, Caldwell said, he and Ungerecht spent more time helping the new deans and assistant principals in their roles rather than focusing their attention on helping teachers, “which is really where I need to be,” Caldwell added. This upcoming year, the only person who will be new is recently hired Assistant Principal Jeff Cavett, who will be filling Ungerecht’s position. Cavett was previously a curriculum specialist in the North St. Paul/Maplewood/Oakdale school district before coming to Forest Lake.

On the student level, Caldwell saw ninth and 10th grade students struggling with transitions and not using Ranger Time, a half hour designated specifically for students to get help from teachers or work on school work, in the way it’s intended. Instead, many students spent that time socializing. It’s nothing an incoming class hadn’t dealt with before, but with the amount of new students and the flexibility of schedules at the high school level, it was something he hadn’t anticipated.

“There was a learning curve there, and it was a lot steeper than what we thought it was, so we had to make sure we were on top of hall supervision during Ranger Time and making sure teachers were out in the hallway making connections with kids,” Caldwell commented.

While there were far fewer instances of upperclassmen getting busted with alcohol and tobacco, the underclassmen saw more of those instances, specifically with e-cigarettes.

“I would call e-cig use an epidemic that’s moving across every high school in the country. … To be honest, that was mostly our ninth and 10th graders,” Caldwell said. “We truly believe most kids aren’t doing it. It’s a small percentage of our kids that are, but that e-cig use is definitely on the rise.”

Overall, those learning curves are evening out, said Caldwell and Massey, who anticipate a smoother year next year. They were still pleased with how the transition went.

“Both at the middle school and the high school, I couldn’t be more pleased with the magnitude of that change and the transition that took place under the leadership of the teaching teams and the administration. They put so much time and energy and thought into that work, and they pulled it off. Clearly there are things we need to continue to flesh out and work through, and we’ll continue to do that, but we made that transition in a phenomenal way,” Massey said.

“We’re looking forward to this next year,” Caldwell said.

Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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