At last, village school a 'priority'

At last, village school a 'priority'

SAVOY – The last elementary school in Savoy closed three decades ago, a victim of declining enrollment in the Champaign school district.

Now, with development booming, the district has proposed a new school in Champaign County's fastest-growing community.

It's a welcome prospect for most residents, most of whom have no "Proximity A" school where they could get first priority in Champaign's "school of choice" enrollment system.

"It's exciting for a lot of us," said Ruth Meyer, who has three young children. "From what I understand, it's going to give us not a guarantee but a better opportunity to receive our first choice."

The school would be built in the Prairie Fields subdivision east of U.S. 45 on land donated by developer Randy Peifer at Sunflower Street and Prairie Rose Lane.

Meyer and other parents who've already navigated the school of choice system aren't sure they would move their children to the new school, which would open in 2007. But those with younger children are interested.

Pam Beard, who lives a block from the new school site, has a fourth-grade son at Robeson School. Beard is happy there and is co-president of the PTA. But she said she'd probably send her 3-year-old daughter to the new school.

"It's right down the street," Beard said. "It's just really hard to pass this up."

Parents still face some uncertainties. There's no guarantee every Savoy resident who requests the school will get in, as the district has to balance enrollments according to racial fairness guidelines outlined in the consent decree. Savoy has some black families, but school officials say they will have to recruit black students from other parts of the district to make the numbers work, as they do for other schools in the south.

Still, about 80 percent of the students could be from Savoy, said Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd. Enrollment at each elementary school has to be at least 22 percent percent black. That's roughly 88 students, as the three-strand school in Savoy would have about 400 seats.

Gene Logas, the district's chief financial officer, thinks many parents of current and future students in Savoy – there are 227 now – will choose to move their children to the new school. It will be added to the kindergarten selection process, and transfer options likely will be offered to other students, Shepperd said.

"It looks like every child in the neighborhood will get in, and beyond that, we'll have to recruit," Shepperd said. "We won't be busing involuntarily. Both Barkstall and Bottenfield are overchosen by African-American students and have waiting lists. We hope some of those students will want to go to the new school."

No decisions have been made about the new school's focus or teaching style, Shepperd said. That would be done in conjunction with the community and school principal.

Also, Beard said, the district hasn't said which middle school the Savoy school would feed into.

"I think for a lot of parents that's a huge factor," she said.

Two of Meyer's children are at Barkstall in southwest Champaign, and the third will enroll next fall. She said she probably wouldn't switch them if the new school is built because she likes the year-round calendar and teaching style at Barkstall. She considers herself "one of the lucky ones" for getting in.

"I had so many friends who got their third choice or not even their third choice," she said. "It's unfortunate that my children do not go to school with the neighborhood kids they play with."

These days, almost every family gets one of its three choices, said Hattie Paulk, director of Champaign's Family Information Center. Of the roughly 570 kindergarteners who registered last spring, 18 failed to get any of their choices. Two of those students went to private school, but the rest got into one of their top three schools when school started, Paulk said.

Some Savoy parents said they had initial doubts about the $66 million bond issue because they couldn't understand why the district would build a new school in north Champaign, where two schools now aren't full. But they changed their minds after learning that 220 new seats are required under the consent decree signed to resolve a civil rights lawsuit.

The new school would be located across busy U.S. 45 and a set of railroad tracks from much of Savoy's current population, forcing the district to bus students. But the location didn't seem to bother parents who live west of the highway.

"That wouldn't sway me one way or the other," said Connie Brillhart, who lives in the Arbour Meadows subdivision and has a second-grader at Bottenfield. "The biggest issue is that Savoy has never been in 'A proximity' to any school."

Village Manager Dick Helton said the majority of Savoy's population, now at 5,606, is west of U.S. 45. But two of the three new housing developments planned for the village will be on the east side of the highway.

Prairie Meadows, immediately south of Prairie Fields, will have 350 to 360 lots. And Lake Falls, near First Street and Airport Road, will have another 450 lots. On the west side of town, Liberty on the Lake will add about 400 lots near Mattis Avenue and Church Street.

"I haven't heard anyone saying the location is a problem," said Susan Thompson, another Arbour Meadows resident, whose children go to Barkstall. "Basically all of us are bused anyway, or we take our kids to school. "

"How often do you get free land?" asked former Savoy resident Ann Small, who recently moved to Champaign. She plans to support the bond issue because existing schools need renovations and Savoy deserves a school.

"There's no priority school in Savoy now, and there are 300 kids there now and more coming," Superintendent Arthur Culver said. "If we didn't plan ahead, we'd get criticized more for that."

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Hoov wrote on March 16, 2006 at 2:03 pm

The Champaign School's proposal to spend $66 million has concerned and frustrated. I'll admit, I am no longer a resident of Champaign, so my voice may be less valid than one from in district. However, I was a resident for the majority of my life, and my 2 school aged kids were pupils at Garden Hills for K-5 and K-2, respectively.

I have experience with the school district and the way it operates. There's a lot of talk about facilities, new schools and improvements. Air conditioning, remodeling, expansion, parking lots. What happened to books? Teacher's raises? Increases in salary or benefits for aides, enrichment specialists, support staff and the myriad other people that touch children's lives on a daily basis in a school setting- those are things I want money allocated for.

Give students the support they really need- strong teachers and well funded classrooms. Quit asking teachers to pay for their own supplies, copies and snacks. Basic needs- like books, teachers, aides and support staff are under funded. "Extras" like ESL, gifted, foreign language, art, music, band, choir and other exploratory learning classes are barely holding steady, or being slashed at an alarming rate. With the focus on No Child Left Behind, the approach to the whole child has drastically diminished.

Kids are no longer "Jane" and "Billy"- they are white, black, Hispanic, male or female. Kids have become statistics. Administrating teaching has become a numbers game. It's no longer about the well rounded student at the end- it's about how well a kid can spout certain piles of information at certain times when it comes to funding issues.

I have serious reservations about millions of dollars of spending on capital improvements after last year' extended contract negotiations with support staff last winter and with teachers this past fall as well.

There were repeated comments from the Champaign School Board concerning budgetary constrictions disallowing even modest cost of living adjustments for the most important assets the schools offer- personnel. It is seriously upsetting that the school board was willing to spend $25,000 per DAY for temporary staff to replace support staff members like bus drivers, lunch room servers and janitors, but not willing to spend $150,000 over 3 years to offer these critical personnel a raise. At $25,000 per day, the cost of temporary staff would overtake the $150,000 cost of raises in less than one week. 260 non salaried employees in the school district averaged $192 per year in raises with the negotiated contract. These employees are worth far more than $192 more a year.

There were many instances in negotiations when the management appeared to be callous, uncaring, and dismissive of the concerns and complaints of the people that directly serve our children. If the goal of educating our children is excellence, every single person involved in their lives need to be valued and treated with dignity. A culture of respect and success for the adults participating in teaching, feeding, transporting and cleaning after our kids can help strengthen and encourage everyone. At least twice I have seen reports that there are seats for an extra strand of children at Garden Hills. My question is quite seriously: Where? The janitor's closet has been transformed into an office for a part time principal/student services director. Three people share a small closet like room for social services.

Storage rooms have been transformed into settings for language therapists, remedial reading instructors and other enrichment staff. Many of the classrooms I saw last year had 25 kids or more. I'll admit that I noticed a very serious drop in the number of students in classrooms for the older grades. 5th grade classrooms were either very well managed or had far fewer students than lower levels. I seriously wonder what implications that has for the middle school Garden Hills is "pooled" to; especially when I heard anecdotal comments of overcrowding in the same grades at other schools that pool to different middle schools. Middle schools and their needs have been almost entirely overlooked in the proposal. How does that serve our kids?

The middle schools are currently overpopulated and overcrowded. There are repeated stories of violence- both among students and escalating against teachers. Several teachers left our middle schools rather than face the very real dangers of instructing at that level. For many children, the middle school years are the most critical in who they become as adults. This age group needs better services- not drastically reduced opportunities to learn new things. I understand "funding" is an issue. Yet again, I take offense at the proposal that teacher's aren't worth it. I appreciate the need for improved facilities. I seriously agree that smaller, older schools need a lot of well designed changes to accommodate today's students and staff.

Dr. Howard and Southside are both overcrowded and need updating. Central is a landlocked school, and there have been more students than room there for 15-20 years. I very much agree that Savoy needs its own grade school. Taking the Savoy demand out of the students vying for seats for South Champaign schools will increase spaces for Champaign children in those schools. Savoy parents have certainly made it clear they don't want busing (who does?) and want a school near them designated as a "priority". Savoy parents have (for the most part) convinced the school board that they have a right to a service that many other students do not get- a neighborhood school. A Savoy school does not serve Unit 4 best- it serves Savoy best. I don't think Champaign should pay for Savoy's needs. I believe that Savoy would be far better served to start its own school district- to assure that Savoy children attend Savoy schools, and to avoid the consent decree issues Champaign faces. Convincing Savoy of that issue may be a difficult thing- but to serve its residents, I believe Savoy needs to provide its own services.

The reservations I have stem mostly from the needs I see children in Unit 4 schools as having. Yes, they need updated schools and modern facilities. Yes, they deserve comfortable settings and equitable environments. Yes, they are entitled to better than they are currently getting. At the same time, these students deserve well funded staff. They deserve teachers, aides, support staff, office personnel, lunch room workers, bus drivers and other vital members of their school environment that are fairly paid and given strong backing by the administration. The parents of these students deserve the knowledge that Unit 4 administrators are being mindful of expenditures.

Parents deserve to know that fee increases for required services (like books and drivers' education) are a reflection of budgetary concerns, and that more spending is not always the answer. I sincerely support better services and facilities for students. I do not do so at the expense of teachers or staff. Unit 4 administrators have done a lot of legwork trying to convince parents that this referendum was put together with a consensus- but building sites have already been set with no local input (until after the fact) and much of this proposal is being treated as a done deal.

Unit 4 deserves more openness and more than just shiny buildings.

u4excellence wrote on March 17, 2006 at 10:03 am

By law, referendum money of this sort can only be spent on construction, not staffing. So while the staffing and fee issues you mention are important, solutions to those problems come through the school board and cannot be directly addressed by the referendum.

However, the referendum does indirectly address these issues in an important way. Currently, the Unit 4 district is required by the terms of the Consent Decree to spend between $1.5 million and $2 million per year to cover all legal and consulting fees

related to the decree. That's $2 million per year that isn't going to staffing and other important district priorities.

Until the Consent Decree is lifted, the district will have to continue diverting this money to legal fees instead of spending it on educating our children.

The Consent Decree cannot be lifted until 2 sets of new K-5th classrooms are built north of University Avenue. The referendum, if it passes, would do precisely this. If the referendum does not pass, the district will be forced to continue spending those millions on lawyer's fees.

The district has made substanial progress on all areas of the Consent Decree but one. Test scores are up, and the achievement gap is down. The main impediment that remains before the Decree can be lifted is the construction of new classroom space.

Please vote yes on the referendum this Tuesday. For more information, visit www.u4excellence.org