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Change on the horizon for District 196 schools

For the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District, planning for a changing school population used to mean figuring out where the growth was coming, then trying to make sure there were schools there to handle it.

That is changing, though. Now, enrollments that in some cases are shrinking or becoming more diverse are presenting new kinds of challenges.

"We've talked about what to do when schools become too big," superintendent Jane Berenz told school board members at a Monday night retreat. "We've never defined what makes a school too small."

That has become an issue lately in District 196. Developable land in the district's bigger cities is mostly used up, and growth in Rosemount has slowed along with the economy. In June the school board approved a boundary change that moved a large part of the Red Pine Elementary School into the Pinewood Elementary attendance area. Red Pine currently has 966 students, Pinewood just 566.

Because elementary schools are small they are typically the first to experience the effects of population changes, Berenz said. The changes are felt at higher levels, though. Berenz said she expects Rosemount High School to be the district's biggest school in the near future.

Enrollment is a significant issue for schools - you can only fit so many students into a building - but it is not the only factor that will affect the way the district manages its schools. The population of District 196 Schools is increasingly diverse. At Rosemount Elementary School, students of color made up 24.7 percent of the student body in the 2011-12 school year, up from 11.91 percent in 2001-02. At Shannon Park, students of color made up 16.23 percent of the population, up from just over 4 percent a decade ago.

Rosemount schools are still much less diverse than some other district schools - at Cedar Park Elementary, students of color made up 53.35 percent of the student body last year, and at Echo Park they make up 48.27 percent of the population.

Schools with unusually large populations of minority students may be labeled racially isolated by the state of Minnesota, which would force the district to make changes to balance enrollment. The district's magnet schools at Cedar Park, Glacier Hills and Diamond Path elementary schools were the result of those schools being identified as racially isolated several years ago.

Part of the issue is that schools were built for populations that are very different now than they were when the schools were originally needed.

"The schools that were built 40 years ago don't make sense now," board member Art Coulson said Monday.

The trick, board members said, is finding a way to balance everything.

There is no clear answer yet. And the district does not need one immediately. But the changes that are starting to show up in district elementary schools are not likely to stop anytime soon.

"We really are committed to doing thoughtful planning and having a process," Berenz said Monday. "We're looking different, so we have to plan for it."