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."