Tom Kacich: It's time for new high school

Tom Kacich: It's time for new high school

Every 50 years, it seems, Champaign builds a new high school.

It's that time again.

Champaign High School (now Edison Middle School) opened in October 1914, replacing an overcrowded building several blocks north. The new Champaign High wasn't formally dedicated, however, until May 1915.

Centennial High School likewise had a soft opening, in stages, first in 1964 as an "annex" to the by-then jammed Champaign Central High School. Central in the interim had moved to the 1930s-era building on University Avenue — where it remains today — that had been built as a junior high. Centennial was formally dedicated in November 1967.

The Champaign school board is preparing to begin that once-every-50-years building process again. In January or February, the board will begin to discuss and appraise demographic studies and surveys with an eye toward choosing a site for a new Champaign Central High School in April.

After that comes a vote, likely at the 2014 primary election, on a tax increase to pay for the new high school and for capital improvements to the Centennial building. Tax increase votes had come in 1913 and in 1963 on the previous high school projects.

If a tax increase is approved this time, the new Champaign Central might open in 2016, only a year or two off the 50-year cycle.

One hundred years ago, Champaign High was virtually in downtown Champaign, at Randolph and Hill streets in a small building without a cafeteria, auditorium or gymnasium. The school's basketball team had to scout out local halls for its practices and games. Enrollment in the spring of 1914 was 585.

Voters approved construction of a new school on the grounds of what was known as the old Scott property at Green and State streets. The new school was designed for 1,000 students, and would have a large gymnasium plus an auditorium and a swimming pool. It was built on a high, well-drained lot, would be three floors high, 196 feet by 166 feet and made of Bedford Stone, brick and terra cotta. It would be, as the Champaign Daily Gazette put it, "one of the show buildings of the city."

Construction, of course, was delayed. The high school's 1914-15 academic year didn't begin until Oct. 7 — more than a month behind the grade schools — and even then the $265,000 building was barely ready for occupancy.

"The oldtimers who attended school under difficulties have nothing on the students of Champaign High School, whose students work in the new building today under many inconveniences," the Gazette reported on the school's opening day. "However with all that each teacher and most students were on the job and worked with more diligence than they have for many a day.

"Classes were held on the front steps of the building, in the school yard and in rooms, most of which were only half equipped."

On its first day, the school — whose principal, Lottie Switzer, later had a school building named for her — had 600 students (329 of whom were female) with the promise of more to come.

Few rooms had blackboards, classes had to double up in some rooms and the chairs that had been ordered still hadn't been delivered. Folding chairs had to be borrowed from the Illinois Traction System office. The lunchroom wasn't ready and most students had to bring their lunches from home, or go without.

"The dust and pieces of mortar have been left on the floor," the Gazette reported, "because no sweeping can be done on account of the fresh varnish."

The Champaign Daily News put a good face on the predicament, "Although everything to the onlooker seems to be confusion, the pupils are being taken care of as if it was the usual plan to commence school in a half-finished building with workmen on every hand."

Eventually, conditions improved and the building on Green Street served as the high school for 42 years.

By 1962, just five years after the high school had moved to the junior high building on University Avenue, enrollment was at 1,776 in a building designed for 1,500. And projections were that there would be 1,855 students in the building a year later. The school board quickly began planning a new Champaign High School to be built near Jefferson Junior High in Centennial Park.

Only later did the school board decide that Champaign would operate with two high schools, a decision that the current board seems ready to continue.

Tom Kacich is a news-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at

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