Local school districts hoping to strengthen bonds with UI

Local school districts hoping to strengthen bonds with UI

CHAMPAIGN – The University of Illinois' strategic plan commits to forging stronger ties with Champaign and Urbana schools.

It's not very specific, however, about how UI development plans would affect the schools' tax base and tax revenues.

Expanding development, including retail and restaurant space at the Research Park on the Champaign side of campus could boost tax revenues for Champaign schools. But it's not clear what the redevelopment of the 160-acre Orchard Downs complex, something to be completed by 2011, would mean to Urbana schools' bottom line.

Because that property is currently off tax rolls, the UI pays the district about $365,000 a year to educate the approximately 130 children living there, and that income could cease if graduate student housing is moved elsewhere.

UI Chancellor Richard Herman said the collaboration between the UI and the schools has been successful.

"Urbana has done an excellent job in terms of working with students for whom English is not their first language," he said Tuesday.

Urbana Superintendent Gene Amberg said he hopes the proposed redevelopment of Orchard Downs into upscale condominiums will generate money for the school district.

"One of our concerns is the tax roll situation," he said. "We are hoping for economic development. "

Champaign school officials say they're encouraged by their first look at the chancellor's plans – and they're eager to hear more details.

"We're very interested in the section that refers to partnerships with the district," Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd said. "We see the UI as a unique and valuable resource, and we're very open to exploring opportunities. We're also interested in proposals that support a strong tax base and the quality of life in the community."

Goals for new cooperation between the UI and local schools include:

– Developing master teacher positions in the education college to build connections between schools and campus. Three positions would be for Champaign schools, and two would be for Urbana schools. Each would be paid $70,000.

– Doubling the Chancellor's Academy for Teachers started last summer with 30 teachers.

– Improving math, science and technology preparation for teachers and learning for students by conducting summer programs for students, recruiting participants, providing scholarships and recruiting teachers for them.

UI Education Dean Susan Fowler said details on the master teachers' program aren't final yet.

"It's an idea at this point, a place holder that says we need to engage in careful and critical thinking," Fowler said. "It's a commitment by the chancellor to work closely with the schools and put money behind that commitment because we live in the community. But a critical conversation has to occur, and that's with the schools."

She said every year, the UI conducts about 100 research projects in school classrooms in which several hundred student teachers are also trained.

"We want to be more available, to bridge student teaching with support from the college to the schools," Fowler said. "Funding will help us get engaged talking about how to work together to support student teachers and research projects and focus on critical programs."

She said the master teacher program could match on-campus teachers with those who want to learn more about teaching a specific subject like science or to discuss issues like challenging behavior, achievement gaps or other education topics. Or it could bring teachers from the districts to campus to give them extra training.

Amberg said he's keeping an open mind about town-and-gown education connections.

"I'm looking to see if (the UI) sees itself engaged in a protracted effort to improve the quality of the local schools, some strategy we can all focus on," he said. "Our districts play such an important role in attracting high-caliber faculty. It's important for us to be there at the table.

"Both President (B. Joseph) White and Chancellor Herman have made public comments about strong relationships with communities and schools, and we're going to take them at their word."

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