Tech High: A Tradition of Excellence, A Future in Flux

The other day I was wondering to myself, what makes the St. Cloud “metro” area different than the Twin Cities, aside from the obvious size difference. I think that one of St. Cloud’s great qualities is how it changes from edge to edge – it has its historic downtown, paying homage to the city’s beginnings, a commercial district with the more familiar car-oriented layout surrounded by suburban-esque residential development and, at its peripheries, rural expanses of farm land and natural amenities. A person can experience a little bit of everything in the greater St. Cloud area. My parents’ house is located on 10 acres of land against the backdrop of a pond, home to loons and wood-ducks, and yet every day I went to high school at the center of town.

St._Cloud_Tech_High_SchoolI always loved that, even though I lived where trees and corn fields outnumber people, I attended school across the street from Lake George and within walking distance to downtown or St. Cloud State University. I imagine the experience of attending St. Cloud Technical High School (commonly referred to as Tech) would be even more energizing today, with the revitalization of downtown and the restoration of Lake George. All the more reason I was disheartened to hear that the St. Cloud School District has elected to build a new school, thereby vacating the 1917 building where I attended classes.

Before I get too far into this it is important that I make some disclaimers so that you are aware of my bias on this topic:

  • I consider myself a preservationist and an urbanist. I believe that old buildings serve a purpose in the greater fabric of a city and that they are important contributors to a community’s “sense of place”. Furthermore, I believe that the best way for a city to grow is through appropriate, compact, mix-use development that makes the best use of land (versus sprawling, uncontrolled development).
  • I am a member of Tech’s Class of 2005 and I have not visited the interior of the building since graduation. That being said, I’ve made an effort to have conversations with individuals with a more recent knowledge of its condition so I can better speak to it.
  • I do not consider myself an expert on educational facilities planning; these observations are based on my independent research.

 “But Claire, Tech is old.”

Picture3I’m really going to need those of you who support a new school to stop telling me the age of the existing building. Seriously, stop it. In no scenario will that convince me that the building is worthless as a high school. Now, you want to talk to me about its condition, the lack of amenities or challenges to meeting the needs of present-day educational instruction, let’s have that conversation. But the building’s age alone is not, and let me repeat, IS NOT a reason that it cannot continue to function as a high school. With that said – there are some major issues regarding the current state of Tech that need to be discussed.

  • A renovation, of any kind, would require some major updates to mechanical and electrical systems. The way that Tech has grown and been added to over the years has created somewhat of a mish-mash of mechanics that heat and cool the complex. It will take creative design to ensure that a renovation properly addresses this issue in the most appropriate and cost-effective way.
  • Moving any interior walls within the oldest parts of Tech would require a structural analysis of the wall because some interior walls support the overall structure. Developing concepts for the effective use of space within Tech will not be as simple as moving walls around to expand classrooms.
  • The current location is limited in any additional growth. Large athletic fields are not an option if it were to remain a high school. Some feel this is a huge disadvantage, I disagree. The lack of space for sprawling athletic fields which separate the school from the community is a benefit of Tech’s location. Currently, the school utilizes partnerships with the nearby college, middle school and public parks to meet needs for physical education courses and sporting events. When I was in high school we ran laps around Lake George since the campus lacked a track on site. Sometimes it became a challenge to dodge geese and their… ehmm, byproducts, and every now and then, when the wind was just right, you’d get slapped in the face by water from lake’s fountain. But, overall I enjoyed spending that time outside (aside from the running part, which I truly hated).
    There are disadvantages to this arrangement, of course. If the off-site locations are not within walking distance, the students must be bussed (extra expense). Also, the negotiation and maintenance of use-agreements across multiple entities can require a lot of finesse. Ultimately, though, fostering these relationships has the potential to integrate the school into the neighborhood and strengthen the community as a whole.
  • Tech’s adjacent football stadium, Clark Field, is in rough shape. Deferred maintenance has resulted in sagging bleachers, deteriorating concessions and bathrooms in addition to mold issues, to the point that the facility is no longer used. Most agree, however, that Clark Field is an asset and efforts, led by the Alumni Association, are underway to bring “Tiger Country” back to operational order.

I don’t want to understate the importance of the repairs that Tech needs to continue to serve as a high school. But, more importantly I don’t want the conversation to get lost in these repairs. There are other factors at stake and it is important that they are equally considered.

Picture4

School Location Matters

Tech is important to me. It is an old building, which we all know I love and it is my high school, a place that holds meaning to me. I associate a lot of sentiment and personal relevance with Tech. But, let’s, just for a moment, set that aside. Let’s pretend that I don’t have any connection to Tech, or even St. Cloud. I would still believe that the best use for that building is as a high school. Not for the warm fuzzy reasons that you may think cloud my judgment. But because schools, their location, design and condition, is so important to a community’s strength that neighborhoods can thrive or deteriorate simply because of a school (or lack of one).

_ags_f840bb2f6eb048c1855363633499bbbd ProposedFor instance, picture the difference in surroundings between the two school locations (above photos show the zoning surrounding the two sites, below shows the aerial views of both sites -top is current, bottom is proposed). Homes, businesses, parks and other schools surround the current location of Tech. It is a well-developed, diverse neighborhood. While the new location is overwhelmingly rural and the residential zoning that does exist is underdeveloped and lacks good “walkable” improvements, like ample sidewalks for example, there are multiple places where the sidewalks die into the earth abruptly. Sidewalks don’t exist at all along 33rd Street (which is likely to be the front-facing street to the new school). I was given an estimate of 10% for the number of students that walk to Tech’s current location. This may seem low, but 10% is better than 0%, which is how many people could safely walk to the new school location as it is right now.

Current SitePicture of Proposed Site2Walk Score, a website devoted to determining the “walkability” of neighborhoods, gives Tech’s current neighborhood a score of 78, meaning it is considered “very walkable”. What’s the score of the proposed location you ask? One. Moving the school basically rips away any opportunity a student or faculty member has to walk to school. I would hope that construction of a school would incentivize the city to make improvements to the area’s walkability. However, no matter the amount of sidewalks, students will never walk to the school if they have to hike across 100 acres to just to get to the front door (if the proposed land-swap between the district and city were to take place the school would be constructed on a lot of 102 acres).

Examining the Options

St. Cloud is a growing city. The population increased by over 10% from 2000 to 2012 and it is projected to continue to grow. According to the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation the population growth is projected to outpace the state’s through 2035. This is good news. More people means private investment and increased tax revenue, which means economic growth and more city services. It’s important that St. Cloud take control of this growth and make thoughtful decisions about how and where it should expand. Clearly, city leaders don’t need me to tell them this since they’re currently working on updating the city’s plan for growth, revising and building upon the last updates made in 2003.

Picture2

In looking at the plan from 2003, it is evident that the city has an intention to develop the land currently targeted for Tech’s new location. It certainly seems to have potential. There are opportunities to create beautiful park space around Neenah Creek and continue to add to residential development. I have no doubt that as St. Cloud continues to grow this neighborhood, at the edge of the city, would benefit from a high school. But, I think there is a unique opportunity to decide what kind of community St. Cloud will be – will it be generic, sprawling and overbuilt, or will it be dynamic, interesting and a model for other cities? Part of differentiating itself will require St. Cloud to break away from the “business as usual” approach to growth and investment in the city’s future – so perhaps instead of building a new, oversized, school the city should encourage the district to consider the possibility of adding an additional high school to service St. Cloud area students.

I know people’s first reaction to this is always, “three schools would be more expensive than two schools”. My response is, show me the data that supports this statement. To my knowledge, the school district has not thoroughly examined the feasibility of moving to a three-school model. Regardless, schools shouldn’t be measured on a simple cost-per-pupil metric. Research demonstrates that smaller schools tend to pump out higher graduation rates, average higher academic achievement with fewer incidents of crime and increased participation in extracurricular activities. Not to mention that students report feeling of greater sense of belonging and teachers a higher job satisfaction in smaller schools. Going back to the “economies of scale” argument for large schools, it is often overstated. Viewed at a metric of cost per graduate, small schools tend to be on par, sometimes even trending less expensive, than their mega-school counterparts.

Picture5If you are a St. Cloud tax payer, you will be footing the bill for whatever school is created; don’t you want to make sure that it is the best choice for the future of the city? Personally, I want St. Cloud to be awesome, to be a destination and a place that I can be proud to call my hometown. I’m not here to argue about whether or not Tech needs repairs. It does. I’m not here to dispute that the school district is growing. It is. I’m asserting that building a new, big, high school on 100 acres of land at the edge of the city is not the solution. We owe it to the future of St. Cloud to make sure all options have been explored and that investing in growth at the city’s edge does not come at the cost of its core.

If you agree, contact Mayor Dave Kleis and encourage the city to take a more active role in the planning of Tech’s future. Contact the school district board to affirm that you believe there are better, more creative, solutions to addressing the needs of the school district. And if you are a St. Cloud area resident, vote against any referendum that would fund a new oversized high school. Get involved. Stay informed. Take a seat at the table.

Until next time…

~Claire

Want to continue to research this topic? Here are some great places to start:

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13 thoughts on “Tech High: A Tradition of Excellence, A Future in Flux

  1. I am a 2001 graduate of tech and as much as I loved the school and the history that goes with it I truly believe it’s time for a change. Yes currently it has poor walkability but, as the say, if you build it they will come. They need to build in a more rural area in order to get enough land to have all athletics at the school. When I went there we have to go to south for track, soccer, and tennis for sure. Now they also have to go some where for football. I feel there is a big party of school pride and spirit to practicing and having games/meets on your own turf. Also in your arial map it shows mostly vacant land but go out another mile or two and you find several very family oriented neighborhoods. You will find many more kids in the Tiffany parks, Walden woods, bent tree aches then by tech where most houses are filled with older adults or college kids. Would I love to see tech stay open for centuries to come, yes but I would also love to be able to attend a sporting event where there is ample parking and a true home field advantage when my niece and nephew attend “tech” in a few years.

    1. Liz – thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. Your points are valid, however I think that it is a mistake to build a new school simply to add large athletic fields and parking. That being said, I believe that area of town would be well served by a well-designed high school. And there is a possibility that the city and the district could partner to create athletic fields that could be used by the school and then also used by the public – which would benefit everyone. I guess our opinions diverge when speaking about the essence of school pride as it is tied to having sporting events on campus. I think the more that the school is tied into the community, the greater the school pride will be – if the school is located, essentially, on an island of over 100 acres there is no way for it to be tied into the community. Lastly, I am familiar with the neighborhoods that you mentioned – but I’m not sure it would be accurate to say that those residences consist of more families than those that surround Tech. If you have the data to confirm this, I would be interested to see it. Regardless, those large residential developments would not be considered “walkable” and any students that do reside there will almost certainly be commuting to school in vehicles. If the new school is built as it appears it will be (large and sprawling on a massive lot) there will be very few students who walk to school, which is a shame. Again, thank you so much for your insight. I appreciate you joining the conversation.

  2. Claire, thank you. I am a 1999 graduate of Tech and an architect working in Denver. In 2008 I was part of the team that renovated, preserved and updated North High School. NHS is in the middle of Denver, built in 1907. It is similar to Tech. The residents of Denver voted to renovate, spending approximately $35 million for preservation, technology upgrades and HVAC upgrades. The school is now growing in enrollment and a jewel in the city. Check out North here: http://hparch.com/work/north-high-school/

    1. Wow! What an incredibly beautiful school and a fantastic example of the success of preservation! These are exactly the type of preservation stories that reignite my dedication to the cause, thank you SO MUCH for sharing! I really appreciate you taking the time to read my post – I’m hoping to continue to communicate my ideas for the future of our alma mater and hometown. If it is alright with you, I might enlist your help and advice as we begin these discussions, you have a very unique and valuable perspective. Thanks again!

      1. Definitely. This week I sent off a package to each board member with a brief letter and pictures of NHS.

  3. Visit Tech soon. See the water dripping onto third floor computers in classrooms and puddles on the floors. Walk the narrow hallways between classes when hundreds of students are passing in the hallways. Try to find a bathroom that hasn’t been closed due to tiles buckling and falling to the floor below. Then think about why Tech is referred to as a “shooters paradise” by local law enforcement (an impossible maze of hallways, entries, levels, etc) and lack of accessibility for students with special needs. I believe parts of Tech can be be renovated, but not for a high school. The first thing you must do before forming your opinion is to see the school as it is now. Then figure out where on earth the students would go during this sentimental renovation journey?

    1. Hi Janine – thank you for reading and for your comment. I understand your frustration with the current condition of Tech. I find it frustrating, too. I’m frustrated that the School District has allowed the building to deteriorate in this way. I take by the tone of your comment that I won’t be able to convince you otherwise, but I assure you that my experience has show that, even buildings that appear to be the worst of shape, can be renovated and continue to serve their community for generations to come. To your point, I have not been inside the building since I was a student and I just want to reiterate the effort I went through to have thoughtful conversations with those closest to the building in its current condition. I don’t feel that my physical presence would do anything to sway my opinion. Lastly, I want to be clear that this is not an issue of “sentiment” – but instead it is simply an matter of good urban planning and land use. Again, thank you for your comment and for reading. I think it is important to keep this conversation going – St. Cloud will be the better for it.

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