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Is German Immersion School affecting neighborhood positively or negatively? Depends on who you ask…

Posted on 08 May 2017 by Calvin

By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Some residents who are living east and north of the Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS) at 1031 Como Ave. say the noise and traffic generated by the school are negatively affecting their quality of life.

School representatives counter that they have given a new vitality to a vacant property, and increased the livability of the neighborhood.

“We think we bring a positive energy to the neighborhood,” said volunteer school board president Kelly Laudon, who has two children at the school.

Neighbors don’t feel involved in TCGIS decisions
Several neighbors attended the TCGIS board meetings in March and April 2017 to voice concerns about how the school “monopolizes” the available street parking and doesn’t have a large enough parking lot for its needs. They feel that the school doesn’t involve the neighborhood in its planning processes, creates traffic problems, is allowing rubber mulch from the playground to build up on neighboring properties and the street, and is contributing to noise pollution in the neighborhood.

Kris Anderson has lived in her home along Van Slyke Ave. across from the school for 28 years. Her biggest concern is whether or not it is appropriate to have such a densely populated organization operating in a residential neighborhood.

“The impact of so many people in such a small space has completely changed the character of the neighborhood when school and after school programs are in session,” said K. Anderson. “I am deeply concerned by the fact that the community feels excluded from school planning, and that no consideration seems to be given to the impact of the school on their neighbors.”

“We want TCGIS to be a responsible neighbor,” said Josh Dworak, who has lived on the school’s east side along Argyle for seven years. “We would like a way to have effective communication with the school to resolve issues that affect our daily lives. We want the school and everyone associated with the school to respond in a way where they take responsibility for their impact on the neighborhood seriously and treat their neighbors as they would like to be treated in their own neighborhood.”

School officials counter that they have been responding to concerns since they were brought up by neighbors at the March school board meeting.

Laudon pointed out that this was the first time that neighbors had been to a school board meeting to complain since she joined the board in Feb. 2014.

St. Paul resident Ted Anderson was hired as the school’s superintendent in July 2016 after previously working at a school in Berlin for four years, and recalls speaking with two neighbors earlier this school year regarding the noise level at the playgrounds. “The other issues brought to the board were new,” he stated.

No parking for residents
“School staff and visitors monopolize neighborhood street parking near the school to the point where residents cannot access to their homes from the street when school is in session,” said neighbor K. Anderson. “This affects our ability to have our own visitors. It affects our ability to access our homes from a level surface—there is a hill behind the houses on the alley side, which makes it difficult to unload groceries, landscaping materials, building materials, sports equipment, and what have you. It affects access to our homes by handicapped individuals, again related to the hill on the alley side and also the availability of parking. Day after day, every street parking spot on Van Slyke Ave. is occupied by school staff and visitors.”

Since hearing about the parking problem in March, the school responded by asking parents and staff to make sure that one parking spot per home was left open.

“I feel that we are making headway,” said the school’s executive director in late April.
While K. Anderson and her husband Kevin agree that things are getting better, they’re still frustrated.

“As you can imagine it is discouraging to have a ‘neighbor’ who is so completely unaware of their impact on the surrounding residents,” said K. Anderson.

She is also frustrated that every discussion with the school seems to start from scratch as there have been three different administrators in the past four years, and a lack of continuity in which staff member is designated to handle community relations.

In the past, an assistant director held TCGIS/Como Community Partnership meetings every other month, which she appreciated.

Recognizing this as a need, TCGIS is planning to establish a community liaison, according to school representatives.

Laudon also pointed out that since moving into the neighborhood, two to three board members have been neighborhood residents, which has been done to remain connected with the neighborhood. Specifically, Jenneke Oosterhoff who lives along Como Ave. is appointed as a community-at-large board member and doesn’t have any children attending the school.

When the school learned from a community member that the District 10 Community Council planned to talk about the school at its April Land Use Meeting, the school’s director wrote up a letter that day outlining the steps they were taking following the March complaints, and school board member Natalie Yaeger, who lives in the neighborhood, read it at the meeting.

“We hope that these steps are contributing to improved conditions in the neighborhood and we are committed to collaborating with neighbors on practical, practicable solutions to these issues,” wrote TCGIS’s executive director in the letter.

Resident K. Anderson remains frustrated that the school has “no parking” signs up on its side of the street on both Como and Van Slyke.

Laudon explained that this is done for the safety of students, and to ensure that pick-up and drop-off run smoothly and quickly. Parents are not allowed to linger on the street, but instead pull up, drop their children off and leave. And, each drop-off and pick-up is spaced out over 20 minutes to help space out the number of people arriving and departing, according to Laudon.

To improve things for parents and ease traffic in the neighborhood, TCGIS partnered with Great River School two years ago and began running three buses to transport students.

Playground materials toxic?
In March, Dworak helped neighbor Arturo Sanchez shovel a 5-foot by 5-foot by 4-inch-deep pile of rubber mulch material from his alleyway that had drifted over from the TCGIS playground.

Dworak is concerned about the “chunks of tire and deteriorating rubber” found in the school’s environmental rain drains, streets and neighboring properties. “Basically, TCGIS has installed a rubber tire dump on the playground that is polluting Lake Como and the Mississippi Watershed,” stated Dworak. “The neighbors smell deteriorating rubber on days where the temperature gets above 50 degrees.”

Executive Director T. Anderson said they “really regret the extent to which the rubber playground material has been transported off our property, and we have stepped up our efforts to mitigate the problem with the installer and manufacturer. The crumbling is excessive and has resulted in significant amounts being transported onto Mr. Sanchez’s property and into the alley during routine snow removal.” They have cleaned up the alley and plan to work with Sanchez to clean up the area around his bushes.

T. Anderson countered that the rubber mulch is not toxic, and is included on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s list of acceptable landscaping products. “We have been assured by the installer that the material is safe,” he said.

He added the playground was designed in cooperation with the Capitol Region Watershed District to keep rainfall on the property and flowing into the ground to reduce run-off into Lake Como. The rubber mulch is supposed to help with that. However, the school is concerned about how fast it is deteriorating and is discussing that with the manufacturer, pointed out T. Anderson. Once it warms up, the installer will take measures to strengthen the surface.

Environmental issues have always been a priority at TCGIS, say school representatives. There is a recycling program and students separate their trash into a compost bin at lunch.

Excessive noise levels
Some neighbors near the school think that the noise it generates is excessive, reaching levels that may damage hearing.

“I have frequently heard that I moved in next to a school, what did I expect?” pointed out K. Anderson. “It is extremely disappointing that I have never heard any school official recognize that this institution moved into a residential neighborhood and that they have any responsibility to preserve the character of that neighborhood.”

Dworak works nights, and the noise from the school playground prevents him from being able to sleep during the day. Anderson says that the noise is far too persistent and unpleasant to open windows, and prevents free use of neighboring porches and yards.

School representatives pointed out that they continue to remind kids to refrain from excessive yelling and screaming, but their program also recognizes that children need not just mental stimulation but physical activity to thrive.

Among the various options the school is considering is erecting a sound barrier, but they also recognize that a wall could have unintended consequences and create more barriers, said Laudon.

“The values we hold as a school community drive how we want to respond to the neighborhood,” observed Laudon. They teach students to gather information, interpret it, and then come up with solutions. “You don’t rush to solutions, you think about all the options,” Laudon stated.

‘We hear you. We see you.’
The tuition-free German Immersion School opened its doors in the fall of 2005 with kindergarten and first grade at the old Union Hall along Eustace Ave. As it grew by adding a new kindergarten class each year, it moved to a larger but 90-year-old office building at 1745 University Ave. In the 2012-2013 school year, TCGIS reached its full configuration as a K-8 school.

The next year, it moved its 370 students to the recently renovated former home of St. Andrews Catholic Church and parochial school in the Warrendale neighborhood along Como Ave.

The charter school’s small class sizes help ensure individualized attention for up to 24 students per class. The school offers full-day immersion kindergarten, English instruction beginning in third grade, and Spanish language in the seventh grade.

Each year, 87% of parents volunteer in some capacity at the school.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Department of Education recognized the school as one of its 2016-2017 Reward Schools.

The K-8 charter school currently serves 524 students. The largest classes are the youngest, which have three sections. As they rise through the school, TCGIS will need more space. The board has just begun its five-year strategic planning process to identify solutions to space needs.

While they expected attrition as students got older and moved away, all available spots are filled as soon as they open, even in the higher grades, pointed out Laudon. “It’s been some unexpected success,” she said. They have found that some families are actually choosing to move to the Twin Cities because they want their children to attend this school. Those same people often opt to move into the neighborhood when homes open up, in part because of the European mentality of having homes near their work and school to cut down on driving, she explained.

The school’s mission is “innovative education of the whole child through German immersion,” remarked Laudon. Its vision: Andere hören, andere sehen, weltoffen denken und handeln. Roughly translated, they work to hear others, see others and think broadly from a global perspective, she explained.

To the neighbors, Laudon said: “We are hearing you. We are seeing you. We want to think globally and broadly as we respond.”

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