Much-needed space would give students, teachers, staff room to grow
CHAMPAIGN – Esther Muhr and the 137 students in her Bottenfield School enrichment classes trek daily, rain or shine, across two parking lots to their classroom in Faith United Methodist Church.
Muhr said everyone's adjusted well to that displacement.
"There's just not a spot for enrichment classes here at Bottenfield," said Muhr, who's taught at the school for three years. "One day, I realized there was this nice, big empty church next door; we asked their board, and it works out just fine. I take groups over there throughout the day, and there's a nice conference room that serves as a classroom." The church doesn't charge the school for its use.
If voters approve a $66 million bond issue March 21, it will authorize major repairs and upgrades in all district elementary schools except the two newest, Barkstall and Stratton.
The three new schools are high profile, Chief Financial Officer Gene Logas said, "but the improvements to the schools are the heart of the referendum. They'll affect 3,000 students every day."
Bottenfield is in line for almost $4 million worth of work that would include adding classrooms and support space and a new gym and performing arts area – space to accommodate Muhr's enrichment students.
Principal Barb Daly said the work is long overdue.
"We just want everyone under one roof, although the church has been very generous," Daly said. "We don't have enough space to get our whole population in one meeting room, so we'd be adding a gym. We need physical education and performance space away from the cafeteria. We'd add six classrooms, two to replace the portable classrooms out behind the buildings."
Two classrooms on the south end of the school would hold music, reading recovery and literacy classes; classrooms to be built on the west end of the school would hold art, enrichment, special education and support services classes.
Daly said her special education teachers now work in one room that's divided down the middle, a situation that's far from ideal because a teacher on one side might be working with a very vocal child while a teacher on the other works with a child who needs to concentrate.
Muhr's office is in one of the two portable classrooms parked behind the school, trailers that would be removed if the bond issue passes.
"I have a desk in the literacy center," she said. "The other portable is the music classroom."
Muhr said parents are happy to sign permission slips to allow their children to go to the church for class because they're happy to have their children participate in enrichment, classes that help youngsters improve critical-thinking skills.
But she said it would be more convenient and save time if the classroom were in the school building.
"It would be nice," Muhr said.
Said Daly: "Our teachers will always focus on student achievement, and they need facilities that will help them teach. Walking outside four or five times a day doesn't do that. And you have to remember: Bottenfield's a relatively new school in the district, only 50 years old, and we're in relatively good shape."
Kristin Camp, principal of Carrie Busey School, said the $3.7 million worth of work that would be done at her school would include a new gym with a stage, two new classrooms, two new restrooms, remodeled computer rooms and a remodeled library.
"What we're looking at here is the fact that one room serves as a cafeteria, a gym and a community room," Campi said. "That means we have to schedule everything around lunch and P.E. We have a small window to get 390 students through lunch and then clean up for P.E. That drives our entire schedule, our whole day."
Camp said a new gym would separate lunch and P.E. and give the school extra storage space so everything now stored in the halls could be put away.
Extra classrooms would solve other problems, she said.
"We have six specialists sharing one room, our enrichment and reading specialists, our psychologist and speech and hearing specialists," Camp said. "We get it done, but it's not the best situation."
Portables also stand behind Washington School, which was built in 1950. Principal Sherry Alimi said the portables are used for office space, storage for physical education equipment and for band and orchestra because there's no room in the community room.
Alimi's school focuses a lot on art and performing arts – the district's new music curriculum coordinator, Bob Smith, is based there – and the referendum calls for construction of new performing arts space and other improvements valued at about $4.6 million. Alimi said they would include enlarging Washington's library and building a computer lab.
Jesus Yepez, a social worker at Washington, said that two years ago he, Gail Groff and their intern worked with children in a small storage area between two kindergarten classes, an area with little of the privacy social workers need to deal with children's difficulties.
"After it became apparent that wasn't a very good idea, the district moved one of the two portables at Centennial to Washington and gave it to us to use," Yepez said. "They set it up on the blacktop, and it's spacious and accessible. But for the kids and staff members to go back and forth to the main building is very cumbersome."
There's also not a lot of privacy in the portable, which has dividers that don't reach to the ceiling.
"There's a space on the other side of the wall a P.E. teacher uses for equipment, and the psychologist who comes in once a week uses the space next to the P.E. equipment," Yepez said. "She's worse off than we are."
Major improvements at other elementary schools would include a gym and classrooms at Garden Hills; a gym and new windows at Kenwood; remodeling and windows at Robeson; a new gym, classrooms and entry at South Side; and classrooms, a gym, windows and playground equipment at Westview.
"We need safe, modern facilities for all students with equalized program space," Superintendent Arthur Culver said. "We should do better."