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Plan To Convert Warehouse Into School Rapped

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Some parents and educators in St. Paul are reacting with alarm to a proposal by the city's school superintendent to house several elementary magnet programs in a former warehouse in the inner city.

Last month, the school board purchased the site, a former Control Data Corporation warehouse and office facility, for $8.2 million. The district, which is critically short of classroom space, plans to renovate the building at a cost of $16 million.

David A. Bennett, the superintendent, said the district plans to place five to eight existing and proposed magnet programs serving a total of 2,400 to 3,000 children in the building. The first programs are scheduled to open next fall, and all are slated to be in place within three years.

But the plan has drawn fire from parents and educators who do not want the programs moved to the facility, which is located near Interstate 94, and who argue that the plan conflicts with a growing body of research that suggests children fare better in smaller schools.

The debate is expected to heat up as district officials consider which programs they will place within the 10-year-old building.

Recommendations are now being solicited from both a citizens' committee appointed by the board of education and a task force of administrators appointed by Mr. Bennett. The superintendent's final recommendations to the board are not expected until later this year.

But the committees' tentative discussions have already stirred protests from parents at Adams Montessori Magnet School and the experimental Saturn School, both of which have considered relocating. A parent committee at an elementary school for gifted and talented children, on the other hand, has expressed interest in using the building.

At the center of the debate are varying perceptions of whether the building would constitute one large elementary school or a collection of smaller schools.

David W.M. Frye, the district's associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said, "We are not perceiving this as a 3,000-student elementary school, we are perceiving it as facility with a variety of stand-alone programs ranging in size from 350 to 750 [pupils]."

District officials said the building's design will enable them to develop common areas and to build classroom spaces to fit the special needs of magnet programs. It also will allow children to attend classes in more than one magnet program at a time.

But Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs who has children attending the Saturn School, said the large size and enrollment of the new school building "may overwhelm efforts to provide an excellent education."

Jonathan Sher, a former associate dean of education at North Carolina State University and an expert on school size, said smaller schools provide children with educational and social benefits that are not effectively provided by "schools within schools." He called the purported advantages of the St. Paul proposal "illusory."

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