District ponders what to do with Dr. Howard

District ponders what to do with Dr. Howard

The problems with Dr. Howard Elementary School start at the front door.

Technically there isn't "a" front door but several options that often confuse visitors — and prospective principals.

When Jill Trentz interviewed for the principal's job in 2009, she tried to get in on the James Street side, where there is indeed an awning and a sign reading "Dr. Howard."

No go. Doors were locked, no buzzer, no one around.

"I thought, I'm going to be late for this interview and I have no idea how to get in," Trentz recalled.

Multiple additions to the century-old school have created a hodgepodges of stairwells, levels and entrances that are a challenge to navigate. The main entrance was moved to a less obvious entrance off Park Street because it brings visitors closer to the office.

The school's age and configuration have made it a prime target for renovation or replacement for years, and the district is leaning toward the latter.

Even as the school board ponders where to build a new Central High School, administrators have recommended rebuilding Dr. Howard on a new site. Several board members endorsed that idea at a recent meeting.

It's not clear where yet. One big factor is which neighborhoods are underserved in terms of elementary schools — primarily, the northwestern quadrant of the city, "where we do have a lot of families," said Superintendent Judy Wiegand. But no decision has been made to move the school out of the central part of the city, she said.

Some parents favor rebuilding on the same site, saying the school is an integral, historic part of the neighborhood.

"If we need to tear it down, why can't they rebuild where they are?" asked Melissa Breen, who attended Dr. Howard as a child and sent her son there as well. "It's over 100 years old. I get it. But there's history there, too. There's a story there. Sometimes we and our kids lose sight of how important that is for a community."

Trentz doesn't care where or how the building is rebuilt, as long as something is done — and soon.

"My concern is not what the building will look like. It's more about the timeline. I want it yesterday," she said. "We need it now."

A walk to the basement illustrates why.

First up is the gym — or the "cafegymatorium," as the staff calls it. There's just one cramped, underground, slightly aromatic room for breakfast and lunch, PE classes, the Kids Plus after-school program, plays and music performances.

Tables are wheeled out for lunch periods and put away before afternoon PE classes. A makeshift stage is set up and taken down for music programs and other shows. The room isn't big enough to hold all 450 kids at once, so assemblies and programs are held in shifts.

The library is down there, too, complete with 70s-era paneling. It has no room for expansion, so the librarian has to cull books ever year in order to shelve new ones, Trentz said. Humidity control is an issue in some rooms, with peeling paint from past flooding an ongoing moisture/seepage issues.

Nearby are offices for some instructional staff, including the school psychologist, speech pathologist, social worker, reading specialist and instructional coach. Luckily, they get to spend part of their days in the classrooms upstairs.

"We make a conscious effort not to have kids down here all day," Trentz said.

In a hallway leading to the office are two random sinks that date back to the school's early days, when the basement had the only plumbing, next to a high-tech motion-activated towel dispenser. "My favorite thing in this building," Trentz said.

Among the school's other challenges:

— The Annex: Kindergartners and first-graders are in an addition connected to the main building by an ill-conceived second-floor walkway. Sending a 5-year-old to the office means the child will have to walk outside or go upstairs, across the walkway and back down the stairs. Teachers worry about fire and tornado drills, when 75 kindergartners have to get through one small hallway.

— Stairs and more stairs: Because of all the additions, which don't match up well, the school has five stairwells and nine different levels. "There's stairs everywhere," Trentz said. "We have so many, you have to go up to go down sometimes, and down to go up."

— Accessibility: Grandfathered in before the Americans with Disabilities Act, the school has no elevator for wheelchairs. Staff members had to carry one parent down to the basement to see a student performance. "We lose attendance at concerts," said teacher Sharon Stewart.

— Sinking walls: The floors in the oldest part of the building are sagging because the walls are sinking, likely from the high water table in the area, officials said. Student desks have to be positioned once at the start of the year, with their legs propped up with risers so they don't wobble.

— Dropoff/pickup: With no room for a circle drive, most parents drop off their kids on Park Street, a brick residential street. Staff members stand out in the mud and snow to help kids in and out of their cars.

— Parking: With only a few parking spaces, teachers and other staff have to park on the street, taking valuable spaces from local residents and leaving few options for parents visiting the school. It's also an issue in the winter, when parking is prohibited on University Avenue, a snow route, and teachers have to walk farther in the snow, Trentz said.

Kindergarten teacher Sharon Stewart sums up the school's issues: "So many kids, not enough room."

"We like the brick, but ... it's kind of depressing," added kindergarten teacher Melissa Fragoso.

Four years ago the district developed plans to tear down Dr. Howard and replace it with a three-story school on the same site, but community residents wanted to try to save the oldest parts of the building.

Now even some preservation-minded residents concede that would be tough.

School board member Kristine Chalifoux, who once hosted a town hall meeting at her house across the street to try to save the original Dr. Howard, said that scenario is impractical given the district's financial and space needs — and the school's sinking walls.

She would love to shore up the school structurally, renovate it and "make it a little boutique school," with perhaps two classes per grade, and somehow find enough parking. But with growing enrollment projections over the next two decades, the district can't afford to build a small school, she said.

"The preservation part of me says 'Keep it.' The school board part of me says 'We can't afford that. That's not our mission,'" she said. "We should give kids a proper place to learn and teachers a proper place to teach."

Neighbors still argue for more creative solutions.

Breen said the neighborhood has plenty of green space at nearby Eisner and Davidson parks, and on the school site itself. She concedes parking is an issue, but says school dropoff is chaotic anywhere.

Some have suggested the district try to close James Street and acquire nearby properties to find more space. A few years ago the school bought a house at the corner of James and University and tore it down to use the lot for staff parking. But neighbors complained to the city, and it's now an empty grass lot.

Trentz also noted that homeowners in the neighborhood don't want to give up their houses so the school can expand.

She said school officials have concluded there's not enough space to rebuild on site and meet all the goals of the district's Great Schools Together plan, which calls for every school to have adequate green space, expansive libraries and a separate gym and cafeteria, among other features.

"We want to make sure our students have what other students have, a 21st-century learning space," Trentz said.

Kristin Hoganson, who lives across from the school on Park Street, has a third-grader there and two older children who also attended Dr. Howard. She loves having a school within walking, biking and short-driving distance for many families, and says it adds character and "aesthetic value" to the neighborhood.

She said her kids aren't bothered by the building's shortcomings, including the playground, but acknowledges that it's "dingy" and inadequate for educational needs.

She'd love to preserve the historic parts of the building and see a more workable school there. But if it's not financially viable, she wants the district to "land bank" the property for possible future school use.

"If they don't keep that land for school purposes, they will never have a chance to have a school in that densely settled neighborhood again," she said.

School officials say they're sensitive to the neighborhood concerns.

"We're not finalizing any plan unless we figure out what we're doing with the site, just like with Central," Chalifoux said. 'I'm not leaving an abandoned building in the district."

Dr. Howard Elementary School— 1117 W. Park Ave., C— Built in 1910 as a two-story, four-room schoolhouse— Named for Dr. Hartwell C. Howard, one of Champaign County’s first doctors, who donated land for the building— Additions made in 1920, 1934, 1952 and 1958— Now has 450 students

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