TOLONO – This year's Unit 7 fifth-graders have some big changes in store for their next school year.
Early this year, work is starting on a new wing of Unity Junior High School, a $1.3 million project that adds six classrooms, a special-education room and a common area to the 3-year-old school.
In those classrooms, sixth-graders – who would have previously been the oldest kids in Unity East and Unity West elementary schools – will become the youngest students of the expanded junior high.
They will go from an elementary school setting and style to "a true middle school concept," said district superintendent Michael Shonk.
That means each class will be taught by a teacher who specializes in that subject, and students get an opportunity to take exploratory classes – short, sampler-style courses that give students a taste of courses like French, Spanish and art so that they can have a better idea of what they want to focus on in high school.
It also means those sixth-graders will get to mix more with their slightly older peers instead of younger children, a move junior high Principal Mary Hettinger feels makes sense.
"Physically and academically, I do believe sixth-graders are much more like seventh-graders, compared to elementary kids," she said. "They're in that adolescent stage."
The new wing will add enough space for the school to go from its current 215 students to a projected 330 students next year, Hettinger said.
"It will not increase taxes whatsoever," she said. "It's all in the budget."
The expanded school is also not expected to change the amount of busing in the district drastically, since most Unit 7 students are already bused to school.
Hettinger said she thought the increasing district population is due at least partially to the new schools and the quality education the district provides.
Until 2002, many students were taught in aging buildings unable to accommodate libraries, special-needs classrooms and handicapped accessibility.
Now, the new elementaries and junior high are primarily on one level, with media centers, gymnasiums and classrooms.
Since the upgrade, "our district has become more marketable," Hettinger said. "We are certainly on the upswing."
When those schools were built, they were designed with possible expansion in mind.
"We always felt we were going to experience growth," Shonk said. "We didn't think it would happen this quickly."
But with overcrowded elementary schools, rising populations and new housing developments, the district decided to take action. "We've had to adjust space this year to accommodate everybody – and we still don't have enough space," Shonk said.
With the new addition, Shonk and Hettinger anticipate the space problem for elementary through junior high school students will be solved – for at least a while. "I think this is a very good fix for the next five years," Hettinger said.
Though construction on the junior high begins early this year, the new wing won't be attached to the school until either spring break or early summer, so as not to disrupt learning.
The new wing is expected to be completed and ready for occupation by August 2006, Shonk said, just in time for next year's sixth-graders and their teachers to find their desks, seats and lockers.
Hettinger, for one, can't wait to see the sixth-graders arrive. "I will be getting one-third more students, but I'm looking forward to that," she said. "I think it'll be a smooth transition."