As enrollment increases, Judah Christian begins search for a new facility
CHAMPAIGN – Twenty years ago, Judah Christian School graduated its first high school class ... of three.
This fall, 17 students will start their senior year at the school. They are among 112 students in the high school and nearly 500 students who attend Judah Christian.
The school's high school population has increased steadily since the late 1990s, with the exception of a downturn in 2003 and '04. If the growth continues, in two years the school will be running out of room in its building at 908 N. Prosect Ave.
"For where are we right now, it's just perfect for serving our needs," said Dan Cole, chief administrative officer for Judah Christian School. "What I'm trying to do is look ahead when the high school is 200 instead of 100. We're going to be bulging at the seams."
Private schools often lose students after eighth grade, mostly because bigger schools offer more extracurricular activities, Cole said. Judah Christian does not field a football team, nor does it offer swimming – even though students can get involved in most other sports.
But more students are choosing to stay at Judah for high school. The freshman class this fall will have 42 students.
One reason for the interest, school officials said, is the lack of discipline problems.
Cole said parents are heavily involved with the school, and they and students understand the expectations regarding behavior. He said most detentions or suspensions are the result of being late to class or not turning in homework assignments. In the three years Cole has been with the school, it has expelled one student.
"Private schools have a lot more control in the discipline area than public schools," said Del Angelo, president of the school's foundation.
The school has a dress code. Students cannot wear jeans or T-shirts. They wear Dockers-style pants and shirts with collars and buttons. No skin can be visible between the neck and the knees.
"People come here because this is a Christian school," Cole said. "Parents want their kids to be educated in a traditional way in terms of values. This is like the way school was in the '50s."
Cole said the school emphasizes a partnership between parents and teachers. Its Parent Involvement Program requires that parents, as a couple, put in 25 hours a year of volunteering at the school.
Two years ago, the school also made a more serious commitment to the arts, bringing in new leaders who have been more active in recruiting students for band, choir and drama, Cole said.
He also said students' ACT scores are increasing, with the last two years the best yet. Judah's average composite score for last year was 26.2.
Cole said almost the entire graduating class this year is going on to a four-year college.
"I've always said our high school is one of the best-kept secrets in Champaign County," said Mick Noteboom, president of the school board.
Noteboom has a daughter who will be a freshman at Judah Christian in the fall and a son in preschool there.
"We have great teachers, and it's a wonderful educational system," he said. "The kids in each class are all very, very close. I think people are seeing the value of having their kids in a private school. It's a family choice, and the experiences my daughter has had there have been outstanding and very rewarding for her."
In the beginning
The school began in 1982, with six families looking to form a Christian high school. It started with 60 students in the seventh through 10th grades at Webber Street Christian Church in Urbana. It expanded to 90 students the next year and added an elementary school in 1986.
Today, most students are from Champaign-Urbana, but the school draws students from the entire county, including Mahomet, Rantoul and St. Joseph. It is nondenominational and has connections to 75 area churches.
In January, the school established a fundraising foundation.
"We're looking for people who want to invest in the Judah program, the Judah educational system," Angelo said. "We've had some very good support so far and very positive feedback."
The school bought its current building, at 908 N. Prospect Ave., in the mid-1980s – formerly the Champaign school district's Lottie Switzer Elementary.
The original building dates to 1927, with additions built to the east and the south. Judah officials built an addition in 1999, which added a gym to the north of the school with a full-size stage, sound system and concessions area. The building now has 75,750 square feet.
The oldest areas of the building house the preschool and third through fifth grades. In the basement is the art room and a cafeteria. This summer, the school is adding a kitchen.
The one-story, 1950s-era addition to the south has the kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms. The newest addition houses the junior high and high school classrooms.
School officials have updated the electrical system in the old part of the building and two years ago added 22 residential heating and air-conditioning units, which serve two classrooms each. They've also added energy-efficient windows and new lights.
"Even though half our building is older, it's kept in good repair. It's bright and cheery," Cole said.
The school now has two classrooms for each grade level, except juniors and seniors in high school. If the trend of larger freshman classes continues, Judah will have to add second classrooms for the upperclassmen.
The plan was to talk to parents next year about how to proceed, and the solution that school officials expected to propose was to keep the current building for preschool through eighth grade and build a high school at a new location, Cole said.
Then the Roberson Transportation building just east of Mahomet went on the market. Cole said the building would work well for a high school, but the school can't afford to buy it unless it sells the building it is in now.
It invited Champaign school district officials to look at it. Superintendent Arthur Culver has toured it twice with different groups. No price has been discussed, and Unit 4 officials say they are keeping their options open.
"Until Unit 4 says to us, 'We're not interested,' Roberson is still on the scene," Cole said.
Parents have some concerns about the location, Cole said: traveling a greater distance to take their children to school; and having children in two different locations for high school and elementary/junior high.
Many parents also have seen the time, money and hard work that went into expansion, so they have an attachment to the current building, Cole said. But the responses have been mostly positive.
"People were thrilled at a new facility for the high school, and the location," he said. "It's right off the Interstate. Everyone sees it as they drive by on the highway. It's got curb appeal."
Noteboom said although the board has known for some time the school eventually will outgrow its building, the possibility of buying the Roberson building is new. Board members are still looking at their options.
"We trust the administration. We trust Dan and our foundation board," Noteboom said. "We will all work together when there's a decision to be made. The board right now is 100 percent behind exploring our options. It's a very exciting time for us. It's a long-term decision. We want to make sure we're making the right decision and using common sense. We're not going to rush into anything."
The school can make do with its current building for another three to four years, although space will be tight, Cole said.
Angelo said if the Champaign school district doesn't buy the building, Judah's foundation will begin raising money for a new high school.
"Our position on it is, we pray about these things and we trust God to work out what we need," he said. "We felt like a door opened for us with Unit 4 and the Roberson building. If it doesn't work out, it's not the door we're supposed to follow. We're not bound to this concept. It's an option, and we're going to pursue it."
District's interest in Judah preliminary for now
CHAMPAIGN – Champaign school Superintendent Arthur Culver toured the Judah Christian School building twice in recent weeks, but he and other officials say the district's interest in the building is preliminary.
The first tour was with other administrators and the second was with two school board members and representatives of the black parents whose legal action resulted in the school's federal consent decree.
"It simply puts one more option out to the community in terms of a total facilities plan," Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd said. "It could or could not be a factor in a future plan. I think the district has to look at it seriously because it's adjacent to Franklin (Middle School). We have to look at it because the land is adjoining one of the existing schools."
The district's consent decree requires it to add elementary seats north of University Avenue, and the Judah building would provide that. But Shepperd said the district is not proposing buying the building to do so.
"We're not looking at Judah Christian as a way to solve all of our facilities issues," she said. "There's been no discussion of purchasing Judah Christian. We don't even know a price. The discussion hasn't evolved to that point."
Shepperd said district officials will continue to talk with the community about their concerns and devise a building plan.