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Lincoln Southeast students

Students make their way to lunch at Lincoln Southeast High School on Wednesday in 2011.

A new Lincoln high school should have room for 1,850 to 2,000 students, and be designed to allow flexible scheduling and different ways of learning, such as hands-on projects and online classes, a community task force has determined.

The diverse group of more than 80 local residents, educators and students reached those conclusions after spending six months looking at options for the city’s next public high school.

The task force is fine-tuning its draft recommendations into a final report that will be presented to the Lincoln Board of Education on April 24.

The school board convened the group in an effort to get its collective arms around the community’s priorities for high school education in the future.

Crowded high schools and housing development in all four corners of the city are forcing the issue.

Lincoln's six public high schools are at a combined 106 percent of their capacity, and four have more than 2,000 students. Lincoln Public Schools predicts high school enrollment will grow by 2,000 students or more over the next five years.

District officials recommended adding four elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school as part of an update to the school board's 10-year building plan, but where that high school should be built remains on open question.

The task force doesn’t answer that question, but LPS officials said they weren’t necessarily expecting that.

“It was a broader charge,” said Liz Standish, associate superintendent for business affairs. “We didn’t expect the exact solution. I think we expected community priorities — what they wanted to see us talk about. It was always defined as the beginning of the conversation not the end.”

Bob Rauner, one of the task force co-chairs, said it became clear to the committee very quickly that LPS has to keep up with the city's growth — which means building at least two more high schools in the next 12 years.

The task force's tentative recommendations urge the district to consider long-range plans beyond the high school currently needed, for two additional high schools to serve students to 2030 and beyond.

Another theme that arose during its discussions: New high schools must reflect that schooling has evolved beyond students sitting in rows of desks in a classroom.

“You have to build a building that can grow as education changes,” Rauner said. “Education needs to change. It can’t be what it was in the past.”

The task force broke into committees that examined four topics: city growth and high school capacity needs; high school building size; innovative delivery and alternative programming; and equity, diversity and community. Each committee came up with its own recommendations.

Task force member Rob Klucas said people often gauge growth by new commercial developments and don’t realize when residential growth is booming.

“When you go driving through those neighborhoods with houses popping up, it all gets real, real quick,” he said.

The draft report says LPS should build a comprehensive high school rather than two smaller high schools, and if it ends up building smaller schools they should be designed to allow for expansion.

The recommendations also suggest considering different grade configurations in schools to ease crowding.

While a comprehensive high school would cost more than two smaller high schools, the cost per pupil of the smaller high schools would be more because of the duplication of cafeterias, gymnasiums and other common spaces, committee members said.

Task force members also worried about the differences in athletics at smaller schools and their ability to offer other activities.

The task force recommends that a new high school have flexible space, such as walls that can move to create open areas or additional classrooms. The school should be designed to promote collaboration and hands-on group projects, especially in STEAM subjects — science, technology, engineering, math and the arts.

The recommendations also encourage a design that would allow school space to provide mental health and other community services to students.

The task force felt strongly about maintaining the district’s open-enrollment policy.

“We have school choice,” Klucas said. “That’s a value we don’t intend to thwart.”

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LPS should also maximize use of The Career Academy and focus programs, and consider broadening entrance requirements to increase diversity and equity, the task force suggested.

Jane Stavem, associate superintendent of instruction, said The Career Academy is exploring ways to increase opportunities for special-education students and English Language Learners, including shorter sessions over winter break.

Other recommendations:

* Considering flexible hours so students can take classes at night, on weekends or during breaks, since many work to help support their families.

* Offering child care services for students with children at all high schools to make the open-enrollment philosophy more equitable.

* More use of online classes so students can work at their own pace. However, some task force members were concerned that enabling students to work from home could isolate them.

* Offer more opportunities for students to explore varying interests and skills. For example, the district could create different credit requirements for graduation based on whether students are preparing for college or a career.

Stavem said graduation requirements are so tight that they limit students’ ability to try different things to determine their interests, for fear of getting off-track for graduation.

Providing transportation is vital to ensuring equitable access to the district's existing focus programs and any new programs, the task force said.

Superintendent Steve Joel told the group there are no simple answers and its work would be discussed in the coming years.

“It’s an opportune time in Lincoln to think about this from a lot of different perspectives.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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