Cramped inside a former locker room - under an old shower head and near a bathroom sink - three Riverside Elementary students are led through a reading intervention lesson.

The location isn't ideal, but it's reality for the school with no space to spare.

The need for instructional room at the school isn't just a necessity, said Superintendent Klint Willert.

"It's pretty serious. We have to do something," he said.

With an uptick in enrollment expected over the next several years and no classroom, closet or locker room sitting empty, the Brainerd School District is facing some tough decisions in how to accommodate.

Riverside isn't the only building with dire needs. Across town at Lowell Elementary, students are receiving specialized instruction in stairwells, hallways or a tight storage room.

Even more pressing, though, is getting the 1939 building up to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) code.

That has to be done "yesterday," Willert said. Because of the specialized Gifted and Talented AGATE program in the building and no where else in the district, it needs to be accessible for all people.

"Not doing something is not an option," he said.

A closer look inside the schools:

Riverside Elementary

The elementary school saw an extra 43 students this year over last, which brings the school to 630 kids.

In return, that's upped class sizes to 27-29 kids in some grade levels, said principal Jodi Kennedy.

The district aims for about 25 kids in a class.

More kids means more staff and programs are needed, as well as space to house each.

With no classrooms to spare, some special education teachers are sharing rooms.

"When you're doubling up, you're not getting the max in education benefits," Kennedy said.

Even in classrooms with one teacher, space is still tight, Willert said. Desks are packed close together in order to have some spots for individual learning activities. Still, those activities - like listening stations or reading areas - are small and not far enough away to create a quiet environment.

That can hamper learning, especially for special education students who need that quiet spot away from distractions, Willert said.

Kennedy added, "With our growth in autistic kids, there's a need for a quieter learning opportunity. Sometimes we just can't offer that."

Built-in classroom storage is almost non-existent, so boxes, papers and supplies are stacked high in corners.

The 1955 building has seen six additions and facelifts since it was erected. With no room to spare still, school leaders are limited in exploring new programs, Willert said.

Down the hall, a room dubbed "the closet" or "the telephone booth" measures in at 45 square feet and holds the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) Program.

Three adults can be packed into the space at a time, with three students receiving services there.

Ideally, that space would be 250 square-feet for that size of a group, said Earl Wolleat, director of Buildings and Grounds for the district.

After the school hired another special education teacher recently, the reading intervention program was moved from the room it was sharing with special education to a former locker room.

The locker room was an art supply storage space previously, but now students are being educated under a shower head, which is spruced up with a bouquet of red roses.

"Great learning still occurs here," Kennedy said.

When the reading intervention program displaced the art supplies, they were moved to a janitorial closet, sending cleaning machines to a back area with electrical panels. That's a safety hazard, Wolleat said, and it must be moved right away.

The problem: There's no place to move it.

On the second floor of the custodial closet, where air handlers let out an abrasive hum, gifted and talented assessments are done on a foldout table with a miniature white board.

Back on the main level of the school, the gym serves as a physical education venue, a lunch room and a music room.

As eager, chatting kids sit down for a meal, a group of youngsters sits on the stage and runs through songs for music class.

Kennedy's office serves several purposes when her staff have no where else to go. It's a nurse station, a psychologist's office and a special needs assessment space.

Lowell Elementary

The rooms at Lowell Elementary were built with zero storage and little room to expand, per the typical 1939 building.

Classrooms range from 750-800 square feet, but that's cut each time storage cubbies or shelves are added.

Class sizes are at about 23, but the small rooms make for a cramped environment, school leaders say.

Space is at a premium, but it has forced staff to collaborate and come up with creative solutions they wouldn't have otherwise thought of, principal Todd Sauer said.

"It has also forced us to look at every space and use it efficiently," he said.

Still, interventions are done in the hallway or stairwell. A storage room in the main office offers a place to sit down for other interventions.

The three special education teachers share a room, with cubicle divers strategically set up in the space to offer some limited privacy.

On the basement level, an old shower room connected to the nurse's station holds teacher supplies and serves as a backup space for health checkups.

Sauer's office doubles as a conference room, since there are no meeting rooms in the building. Staff meetings usually happen in someone's classroom.

Rising enrollment expected

Already at capacity at just about every building, the school district is expecting its enrollment numbers to keep climbing.

District officials can estimate with close accuracy the number of students they'll see coming in with each new kindergarten class, said Steve Lund, director of business services for the district.

They do that by keeping tabs on the births in the area each year, and based on the past they know between 90-95 percent of those kids will come to the district five years later for kindergarten.

Further, the district has also seen an increase of students coming in from outside of the community. That's likely thanks to the uptick in the economy, which means more parents are settling down in the area for work, Lund said.

This year's kindergarten class has 505 kids. Lund expects about the same next year.

"If enrollment plummets will our needs be resolved? Yes. But do we anticipate that? No," Lund said.

Increasing class sizes - an option district officials don't want to do - might allow for more kids, but there's no room in the current rooms to add more kids, Willert said.

Possible solutions - for now

District administration recently recommended the school board approve two construction projects at Riverside to address immediate needs: The first was a 1,400-square-foot addition to the front of the current office to allow for individual instructional areas. There would also be a safe and secure entry point in the $220,000 upgrade.

The second recommendation was to add four permanent modular units for four additional classrooms, which would cost an additional $910,000.

Both projects were put on a temporary hold after some members of the school board said they thought the administration's recommendation to move forward with upgrading Riverside without first looking deeper at Lowell could be premature.

Now Willert will lead a more comprehensive examination of Lowell and the potential implication with parking and other impacts in a possible addition there.

He'll will bring the information back to the board at a future school board meeting for consideration.

The district is currently pursuing an in-depth study on all of its facilities, which would list priorities in regard to fixing issues. That is still in the works.

Time is running out, though.

"If next year's kindergarten class is large, we have no space. We have nowhere to go," Willert said.

"We want to give kids a good learning environment space," he said. "A shower room and closet are not conducive to that."

JESSIE PERRINE may be reached at jessie.perrine@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5859. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/brainerdnews.