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Aaron Engel: One high school?

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The School District of La Crosse has met with a variety of community stakeholders in focus groups over the past two months to examine options for the future of the facilities in our district. With three decades of declining enrollment and aging facilities, we want to rightsize our facilities while improving our learning environment for students. One of the options we have explored is bringing together our two high schools into one new building.

A single high school in La Crosse is seen by some as a controversial idea. We have long had two successful high schools, Logan and Central, and we are proud of the traditions and identities we have developed around both of them. For generations, our two high schools have also helped shape the culture and character of the north and south sides of La Crosse.

As a school district, we have certainly reinforced some of these north/south identities. We have Northside Elementary, Northside Pride T-shirts, and extracurricular rivalries with high school football, volleyball and basketball. So it is understandable that the idea of one high school threatens some of those cherished memories, the shared pride and favorite traditions.

In the development of our facility options over the past few months, the idea of one high school was born out of a desire to improve the quality of our middle school buildings. Our middle schools are some of our oldest buildings and were not built to accommodate 21st-century learning needs.

A move to one high school will be an immediate upgrade to the experience of our sixth, seventh and eighth graders as it will allow us to move our middle schools to our current high school campuses, Logan and Central. Our high schools are 40-50 years newer than our middle schools. Our students will instantly have better career and technical education spaces, enhanced music and performance spaces, higher quality athletic facilities and more modern classrooms in general.

The construction of one new high school will result in state-of-the-art facilities for half of our student body, over 3,000 students. It will be an immediate upgrade and result in facilities at the secondary level that would boldly take the district into the next 50-100 years.

One of the questions we were curious about was, “Which school districts in Wisconsin have two high schools?” We discovered that the School District of La Crosse is the smallest district in the state that has two high schools. The next smallest school district that has two high schools has 800 more students enrolled in their district than La Crosse does.

As we looked at the 12 school districts that were most similar in size to La Crosse, we found that those districts averaged two middle schools and seven elementary schools. The School District of La Crosse has three middle schools and nine elementary schools. It is reasonable to consider rightsizing our facilities with fewer school buildings at all levels based on the size of our district.

Returning to the idea of identity, it is difficult for some people to imagine one high school because of their pride and identity around their high school experience at Logan or Central, either as a current student or with the schools being the alma maters of themselves or their children.

An option that could be explored to alleviate the issue of identity, is two high schools in one building. This is a model that exists in West Bend, Wisconsin. East and West Bend High Schools are located in the same building. Although this option brings its own unique set of challenges, it also brings with it the efficiencies of one building and one staff while keeping a vast array of opportunities for students and the identity around their own high school name, mascot and pride.

The idea of one high school in the School District of La Crosse is not a new idea. It has been discussed at various times in our community by different groups for years. However, we have an incredible opportunity right now to legitimately examine if it is a viable and successful strategy for our school district.

We are excited to have this conversation, to learn from others about the opportunities and challenges one high school will provide, and imagine a visionary future for our students, families and community in the School District of La Crosse.

Aaron Engel, Ph.D., is superintendent of the School District of La Crosse.


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