URBANA - Urbana Middle School East closes its doors today for the last time, and teachers and students are leaving the Jewel School, also known as the Cardboard Campus, with mixed emotions.
Even the school's sign is temporary, a canvas drape bearing the school's name thrown over the former Jewel sign. But teachers and students say they'll remember the lessons learned from the three-year experience all their lives.
"I've been here two years, and at this point, I think we're all ready to move," said teacher Kathy Barbour. "But I'll be telling stories about this later in my career."
The moving schedule is so complicated, Assistant Principal Donna Oakes-Novak has drawn up an elaborate chart that describes every detail of the transfer out of temporary quarters at the former grocery store on Philo Road and into the renovated middle school building on Vine Street.
"We look like a cardboard campus now," said Oakes-Novak last week as sixth-graders were winding up their classes there. "The giraffes are gone. Before we took the decorations down, it looked like a great school."
She said teachers have done a good job covering up the fact that the tan fiberboard walls separating classrooms were makeshift, decorating the halls and every room with bright posters, fabric, children's artwork and other things related to class themes like the giraffes.
"A giraffe is someone who will stick his or her neck out for someone else," Oakes-Novak, who's been at the school since August, said of that prominent message this school year.
But nothing can disguise the fact that Jewel School walls don't meet the ceiling and the noise level there is high.
There are no lockers so the sixth-graders currently there must hang their coats and backpacks in the hall.
And there are other inconveniences. Oakes-Novak turns on the lights by throwing a breaker, not by individual switches. Rooms don't have built-in areas to hold supplies. Computer access isn't equal to that on the main campus.
Oakes-Novak gestured to a line of students, each carrying a chair, moving to a new classroom.
"Hopefully, that's something we won't have to do next year," she said of the chair transfer, a common move at the building.
"The schedule's rigorous," said Oakes-Novak, whose office is currently located in what used to be Osco's camera department, of the impending move. "We hope to be out of here by June 16 and get the things in their new rooms by June 19. By July 1, teachers should be able to arrange their things."
Oakes-Novak will be working at the main campus all summer helping teachers move in and checking out all the new systems there.
Teachers say they'll be glad to get there for many different reasons.
"Most people are looking forward to walls that go all the way up," said Lara Hebert, who has taught in the building all three years the school has rented it, the first year for Leal School students while their building was renovated and the last two years for the sixth-graders.
"We spend a lot of time being quiet," Hebert said. "But it is fun to say you're teaching in a grocery store."
"I'm looking forward to being a unified staff and to starting and stopping the day in the same building," said Dean Laura Fitzgerald. "I'm not organized enough for one office, let alone two."
Oakes-Novak said the Jewel School day has been carefully organized so its 325 sixth-graders don't lose any opportunities.
"At 12:20 p.m., the buses line up, the kids get on, and the teachers go with the kids," she said. At 12:50 p.m., the teachers come back, and the kids stay for electives. Afternoons, there have been 1,015 kids in two-thirds of the main campus middle school that's under construction, and that's crowded. Somehow, it's worked."
District officials will be glad to see the end of Jewel School expenses, which included taxes and rent that amounted to more than $14,000 a month.
Renovations at the middle school, sanctioned by voters who passed a referendum to pay for them, cost between $17 million and $19 million.
"I remember one day I was giving a written test, and I realized my kids were listening to something next door," Barbour said. "It was another teacher in our team, giving the same test orally, and the kids were listening to the answers."
"I can't wait for a new room with built-in cabinets, a place where we don't have to huddle around a video because the volume's turned down," she said.
Oakes-Novak said she knows what's going on everywhere in the school, especially in the "refocus" room right next to her office, because the atmosphere is so intimate.
"It's been amazingly cooperative for being this close this long," she said of the 24 teachers and the staff members who have made the atmosphere work. "It's great for the sixth-graders because we don't have to worry about older kids. "
Jakeisha Nelson, 11, said she likes the school because she knows everyone, students and staff.
"It's been a good experience, but sometimes it's hard to be here," she said. "You have to be quiet all the time. It's hard to do tests because there's too much noise."
"And you know what?" Jakeisha confided. "Sometimes kids throw things over the walls."
Oakes-Novak and Jewel School teachers say the experience has brought them together professionally and personally.
"It's been fun for two years," Barbour said. "You so rarely know exactly what other teachers are doing. We now know each other a lot better. It's been an intimate experience."
"We all know each other very well," Fitzgerald said. "I'm so proud of the teachers. They've turned this building into a real school. They've put up with difficulties and provided a top-quality education in spite of lots of little challenges."
"In a situation like this, you get to see the good side of people," she said.
You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.