By Lee Reinsch
DE PERE – Step into West De Pere High School science teacher Dana Lex’s classroom, and there’s an immediate draw into the natural world.
With inactive hornets’ nests adorning the walls, tree branches suspended from the ceiling, and taxidermied raccoons, fish, deer and other wild creatures salvaged from the trash or inherited from relatives, the room has the power to make one consider the natural world.
There’s even an aquarium where a mild-mannered bearded dragon named Emily resides.
This seemingly magical room wasn’t the centerpiece of a recent referendum-focused open house held at the school.
But classrooms were open and teachers on hand to answer questions, chat or lead one astray down the bright hallways of West De Pere High School.
Lex says her room suits her teaching style.
“I built this room to teach,” she said. “I had to be comfortable in my room. The room helps me do what I do.”
But not every teacher’s that fortunate.
This wing of the high school is 16 years old, and the school has more than filled it.
“If you have a certain number of kids, you have to find room for all of them,” Lex said.
Lex said they’ve done what they can to make extra classrooms for teachers.
One science teacher got a classroom after years of traveling from classroom to classroom, moving his equipment around on a wheelie cart and holding classes in any room that happened to be free.
Another science teacher, Kegan Wirtz, who teaches freshman science and chemistry, carts his stuff around from classroom to classroom.
“I like it, though,” he said.
He said it adds variety to his day.
Wirtz has his system organized well enough that everything he needs to create a pop-up classroom fits on the cart and doesn’t topple off or get left behind. Sometimes paperwork wants to escape the cart, but “that’s what paperweights are for,” he said.
Other teachers from other subjects have had to move to different wings of the school, away from their former department colleagues and on different lunch schedules, which means they don’t get to catch up on what’s happening in each other’s classrooms.
Another science teacher teaches in a converted math classroom on a different wing, also away from science colleagues.
It might be a step up from a cart, but it means being out of the loop when it comes to fellow science teachers.
Two English teachers from the second floor are using classrooms in a different area, away from their English colleagues.
They’re now on different lunch schedules so, like the others, they rarely see each other.
Overcrowding is an issue for both school districts in De Pere, West De Pere School District and the Unified School District of De Pere.
Growth in the suburbs such as Ledgeview, Hobart and Lawrence have brought more students to both districts.
Lex, who has taught at West De Pere High School since 1998, said 24 students per classroom seems to be the sweet spot for class size.
“If you go even to 25, just that extra amount seems to triple the work and create all these different dynamics,” she said. “It’s tough to keep everything going in the same direction with more than 24 students.”
She likened it to keeping two-dozen plates spinning in the air, with some that are broken and others that are cracked.
“The more people you put in a classroom, the more you’re going to lose some,” Lex said. “They’re going to fall through the cracks.”
Every student is different, she said. They’ve got a lot on their minds, from social issues, school pressures, home problems, not to mention the basic development of the teenage brain.
“Some are close to graduating and being out on their own, and they’re dealing with a lot,” she said. “You have to push them, but not so hard they break. You want to give them a nudge a certain way, and you can’t do that with 32 kids,” she said.
If her classes grew any more, there would be kids perched on tables in the back of the room, she said.
“You want them all to be close to you, and if there are too many students, there’s not enough of you to go around,” she said.
Right now, West De Pere High School Principal Dr. Russ Gerke said there are a handful of teachers shuffling between classrooms.
He went on to say in 10 years time, if the student population grows to 1,400 as it’s projected to, the problem will be worse, if additional teaching space isn’t added.