Sunday Special: What's new at area schools

Sunday Special: What's new at area schools

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As you may have heard, there’s a new school in town (here’s looking at you, Academy High), a new challenge for headline writers (how to condense Bismarck-Henning Rossville-Alvin Cooperative High School) and a new countdown to the grand reopening of the next Champaign Central High School (T-minus 1,820 days or so). But that’s not all that’s set to debut this school year. Presenting our second annual list of 100 new this and that across the area:


Splurging for crates full of Chromebooks this summer: Carrie Busey Elementary (added 100), Unity High (four full classroom sets' worth), the Blue Ridge district (one for every third-grader) and Villa Grove (all junior-high students and high-schoolers, above, now have their own).


A revised dress code at Judah Christian. Out: the requirement that every student wear a collared shirt. In: Students in grades 7-12 can now wear jeans to school.


Last year's hashtag of choice in Monticello was #GoSages. This year, it's #ChooseKind — a district-wide movement inspired by R.J. Palacio's critically acclaimed books.

"All students will either be reading or listening to 'Wonder' and the follow-up picture book, 'We're All Wonders,'" says Monticello Middle School Principal Jeanne Handley. "Both of these books share the mission to choose kindness in our lives."


Goodbye, mystery meat. Hello, chicken penne with roasted summer veggies. The made-from-scratch menu in Danville schools (left) includes the debut of dishes you'd find in a fancy restaurant: spinach salad with grilled chicken breast and strawberries, chicken curry casserole and southwest cobb salad, to name a few.


Not to be outdone: Champaign's Unit 4 is adding on-site meal prep at an eighth elementary (Robeson), rotating themes to the salad bars in middle and high schools (tacos/nachos ... burgers/hot dogs ... Italian), and launching a first-of-its-kind program at Barkstall Elementary (a staff menu with online account and ordering capabilities).


A milestone in Urbana: The first bunch of bilingual elementary students moves up to middle school, where they can take science, language arts and social studies courses in Spanish.


Some year here soon, the traditional desks-lined-in-a-row classroom layout seems bound to go the way of principal paddles and overhead projectors. Among those going the alternative seating route in 2017-18: Gifford Grade School (debuting one outdoor classroom) and Tuscola's North Ward Elementary (new seating options include bean bags, exercise balls, stools and different varieties of couches, right).


A surge in enrollment forced Franklin Middle School to become the latest in Unit 4 to put a portable behind its building.

"We've joined the cool kids and got a double-wide," Franklin Principal Sara Sanders jokes of the leased unit, big enough to accommodate two classes. "The teachers who are now housed in the portable — we've yet to give this new guy a name — are actually really enjoying it."


Getting called to the principal's office could be a tad less terrifying at Prairieview-Ogden Junior High, where that room, the secretary's office and the breezeway underwent total makeovers.


Piloting at Danville's South View Upper Elementary: a Scrabble club for fifth- and sixth-graders, who'll go head-to-head in "friendly, competitive practice games" before school starts, Principal Mendy Spesard says.

The goal, she says, is "to increase our students' verbal skills, help them learn time management, pique their curiosity, and encourage strategic thinking and teamwork skills." Down the road, Spesard says, South View might host a student-vs.-teacher or student-vs.-parent tournament after school.


Amish Country's answer to the eclipse happens in two months and a day, when Arcola High (left, est. Sept. 17, 1917) celebrates 100 years in the old section of its longtime home. It will become the 12th member of the area's centenarian club, joining a list of fellow 100-and-up active schools that includes Monticello's Washington Elementary (1894), Bement Elementary (1899) and Champaign's ready-to-be-razed Dr. Howard Elementary (1910).


No longer on that list: Milford High, which is leaving a building that opened when William Howard Taft was president for a sparkling, $17 million new home that taxpayers voted to foot the bill for.


If it ever ends up raining here again, the littlest ones at Champaign's University Primary School are in for a treat. Debuting on the preschool playground: a mud kitchen, described by director Ali Lewis as a place to make mud pies, cakes and other assorted goodies.

"We are promoting and protecting early childhood over here at Uni Primary," she says. "Mud play is important."


New uniforms for St. Joseph-Ogden High's cross-country runners (left), Urbana High's orchestra (provided that cookie dough fundraiser, from Aug. 28 to Sept. 11, goes well) and Oakwood High football. And for the four-time IHSA state football champion Arcola Purple Riders: seven new helmets, most of which coach Nick Lindsey wound up giving to freshmen.


Coming in 2017-18: four new issues of PawPeratzi (right), put out every couple months by a different group of Michelle Brennan's journalism class students at Paxton-Buckley-Loda Junior High. It quickly became a must-read among staff and students when it launched last fall by teacher Jessica Hemby (now of Mahomet-Seymour Junior High), with the inaugural edition featuring a topical op-ed section (among the questions: "Is the dress code fair?" and "Homework or Nah?"), a farm-animal-themed crossword puzzle and a clever advice column ("Ms. Knowitall's Corner").


Happy 25th anniversary, Countryside School of Champaign.


$51,516 worth of security cameras at Monticello's three elementary schools — Lincoln (16 cameras for $19,173), White Heath (nine now, three later for $16,760) and Washington (nine for $15,583).


STEM, STEM and more STEM: a new lab for LeRoy Elementary kids to experiment in, a new pantry for Gifford Grade School faculty to "shop" in and what's sure to become the most popular room at Bement — one filled with 3-D printers, robots and an array of other devices suitable for students from pre-K through 12th grade.

"Super cool and a dream of mine," says Bement Superintendent Sheila Greenwood.


At Champaign Central, no more having to store tubas in the hallway outside the 61-year-old glorified closet of a band room. Five years before the doors swing open to a new high school and all those space issues go away, the Marching Maroons have the perfect short-term solution — a custom-built, 34-foot storage trailer (right), care of the Central Music Boosters and a few other kind souls. And that's not all: The support club threw in a new set of orchestral chimes, too.


While we're on the topic of music: Westville's Judith Giacoma Elementary is starting up a piano lab (left), where the goal is "to introduce and teach general music for all elementary students using new full-scale piano keyboards," Superintendent Seth Miller says, noting that "research on the positive influence music has on other academic arenas is abundant." Elsewhere in Vermilion County, the violins that arrived last year at Danville's Garfield Elementary will now be used to teach second-graders.


This marks the first fall in Arthur Christian's cozy new home — 16,000 square feet bigger and loads better than the old place. Among the features the 80 or so pre-K-through-12 students can enjoy now that they couldn't previously: a music room, library, stage, regulation-size gym with wood flooring (right), weight room, even space for an indoor batting cage.


Giving back, Dr. Preston L. Williams Elementary style: Imani Carr's fifth-grade class in Urbana is set to launch a pay-it-forward campaign, which could include anything from helping a fellow student with a challenging task to doing something unexpected to lighten a parent's load at home.

"The challenge will be to give a kindness card to the person they show kindness to and that person will put their name on the card and pay it forward to another, adding their name on the card," Carr says. "The card will be stamped so it can be mailed back to Dr. Williams, where we will add it to our chart on which we'll record acts of kindness."


New-look libraries await students and staff at Champaign's Bottenfield Elementary School (new fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and humor sections) and Edison Middle School (home to baby chicks, to promote the Garden and Sustainable Agriculture Club) — as well as Urbana High (new video-streaming service for teachers).


Ready to roll at 98-year-old Urbana Uni High: a high-tech, active learning classroom that architect Kristine Chalifoux compares to something you'd see on Google's campus, with "much more of that creative, interactive space." Consider the $243,000 makeover a reward for being named the 14th-best public school in Illinois last week by the website Niche.


LeRoy High hired Champaign marketing/advertising agency McKenzie Wagner to spruce up its inside walls with photos of students and the district's mission (left). Also doing summer redecorating: Tuscola High's library (new Warrior-themed walls, care of the alumni association and Pow Wows), Fisher's agriculture department (new accent wall features the FFA motto, right), and Champaign Central High's main hallway (now showcasing framed photos of multi-sport athletes and students in extracurricular activities and clubs).


Sure to be as popular as the biscuits and gravy at Ott's: The $10 million innovation center at Rantoul's JW Eater Junior High, which comes complete with a green screen room, STEM lab and reading nooks.


Before Friday's start to the school year, freshmen at Mahomet-Seymour High got a GRIP (short for: Getting ready, informed and prepared). Explains Principal Shannon Cheek of the new initiative: "It was a four-hour session each day that we tried to acclimate the freshman students to the high school. We discussed policies and procedures, had the student mentors assist the freshmen in finding their classes and we provided a sort of quad day in the commons that featured the various clubs and activities we offer. Went really well."

Other acronyms you may hear this school year:

— CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities). Launched a decade ago in Effingham, it's now being adopted by Douglas County schools.

"It's aimed at giving juniors and seniors real-life experience" via partnerships with local businesses, says ALAH Superintendent Kenny Schwengel. Only the serious need apply: Meetings are held five days a week year-round, from 7:30 to 9 a.m.

— AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). Last year, there were more than 6,200 schools nationwide practicing what the program preaches: Hold students accountable to the highest standards and provide academic and social support, and they will rise to the challenge. Joining the club this year: Danville's Mark Denman Elementary. Says Principal Kim Pabst: "We are ready to take our students from the 'I can't' mindset to the 'I can' growth mindset."

— iRISE (Respecting the Identities of Students in Engineering). Centennial High's AVID club is teaming up with the UI's colleges of engineering and business, as well as the University of Chicago's Magentar Financial Literacy program.


"Bismarck-Henning Elementary has joined the Hidden Rock craze with specialty painted rocks depicting items pertaining to school," Principal Laura Girton reports.

Crossing guard Jane Cress took care of the painting (right) and retired PE teacher Sue Colby maintains the children's garden they'll be hidden in. It's the kids' job to find them, then hide them again.


Some 21st-century technology for an early 20th-century school building: An electronic marquee is now up and running at Edison Middle School.


After years of renting space on the third floor of a downtown Urbana church, Campus Middle School for Girls has moved into new digs — about five blocks to the east, in a residential neighborhood, at 108 South Webber St. (left).

"We now have a whole single-story building to ourselves, with ample parking and lots of beautiful green space," says CMS' Leanne Cunningham.


Giving back, Jefferson Middle School style: Most Fridays this school year will be Jaguar Pride Hat Day, during which "staff will receive Jefferson hats, and for the recommended donation of $1 by staff and students, we will collect money for a designated organization," Principal Angi Franklin says. "Students will pick where the money goes each week and will present the donation."


You've seen the movies and read the books. Now's your chance to hear the music of 'Harry Potter,' performed at football halftime on Friday nights all fall by Unity High's Marching Rockets.

"I know many students are 'Harry Potter' fanatics, so I thought it would be appropriate," says band instructor Jerry Cardiff. "Kids absolutely love it."


Holy guacamole, Batman. Look at all those educators making like caped crusaders on opening day in the Rantoul city schools district (right).


Something new at Danville High: Every freshman will be paired with an adult mentor, who'll check in bi-weekly and help them stay on the path of the four-year plan new students are required to come up with.

"Every two weeks, we are reviewing individual student goals," Principal Kimberly Norton says. "All students will be well-aware of their four-year plan and beyond."

Starting up at St. Thomas More: a "house" system, with teachers playing school parent to groups of 20 or so students. It's an effort to "build our community and foster a sense of family," says teacher Melissa Marquart, who'll pull triple mom duty, with her freshman daughter joining her junior son at STM.


First-year students might not be the only ones asking if they're in the right room the first few weeks at Hoopeston's John Greer Grade School. The district's closing of 133-year-old Honeywell Grade School prompted the total transformation of Greer (left).

"All classrooms have been recreated from scratch and are colorful and academically engaging," Principal Dan Walder says. "To help ease the stress of this transition for teachers, a brand new teacher's lounge has been created."


A different way of learning at Rantoul Township High, one of nine districts statewide picked to pilot a competency-based learning program, where the focus will be on demonstrating mastery of specific skills and not on time spent in a classroom.


It should only be another month until construction is done on St. Joseph-Ogden High's two new science labs, which haven't been updated since the 1960s. You may also still see construction workers at Urbana's Yankee Ridge Elementary (the bulk of the work during the school year will happen away from student learning areas, Superintendent Don Owen says); Hoopeston Area High (shooting to have its new all-weather track finished by late fall); and Mahomet's Middletown Prairie Elementary (gym walls and roof are up, more to come).


After a four-year co-op with Villa Grove, Heritage High has a softball team of its own. So do all three Champaign middle schools — Edison, Franklin and Jefferson — marking a Unit 4 first.


It's all about first impressions: New entryways await visitors to Farmer City's Schneider Elementary and Homer's Heritage Elementary (which also joined Rantoul's Broadmeadow Elementary in building new bathrooms).


It's good to be a 3-year-old at Philo's St. Thomas Catholic School: After years of being grouped with the 4s and 5s, they now have a classroom all to themselves.


The new envy of the Vermilion Valley sports conference: Salt Fork High, home to what Principal Darin Chambliss believes is the league's only all-weather track, which has been completely redone and resurfaced since anyone last ran around it.

Others with brag-worthy sports facilities upgrades: Tuscola's East Prairie Middle School (new everything inside its gym after 40 years of wear and tear), Georgetown-Ridge Farm High (re-seeded football field, right) and DeLand-Weldon High (new gym scoreboards).


Speaking of sports, the new principal at Champaign's St. Matthew Catholic School, Michelle Biggs, is the better half of Brad Underwood's new Illini basketball director of operations, Joey Biggs.


Among the new electives offered at Danville's North Ridge Middle School: Crime Scene Investigators, History through Film and Global Detectives. Elsewhere, Atwood-Hammond Grade School is offering Intro to Ag to junior high students for the first time, and Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Elementary, like St. Matthew, is welcoming its first-ever class of preschoolers — 26 of them, to be led by veteran teacher Ang Testory. The district acted fast — Gibson City's Busy Hands Preschool just announced in February it would shut down in May, leaving the Ford County town with a void.


A special guest will sound the opening bell by the flag pole Monday morning at Champaign's Bottenfield Elementary — a member of the Porter family, which donated the century-old cast-iron bell from one of Champaign County's original one-room schoolhouses (left).


They aim high at Urbana Middle School, where Principal Scott Woods says the goal is to help "revolutionize the way middle school students think about and resolve conflict." Woods thinks he's found the perfect partner to make it happen: UI associate psychology professor Mikhail Lyubansky, whose grad students, UMS' guidance counselors and select UMS students will work together on innovative restorative practices.


Among the new initiatives happening in Vermilion County — at Oakwood Junior High, an awareness program in conjunction with The Prairie Center of Urbana called Too Good For Drugs; and throughout the Hoopeston Area district, all staff members have been trained in first aid of a non-traditional sort — the kind involving youth mental health.


DeLand-Weldon's preschoolers now have an outdoor playground of their own (right). Also getting equipment upgrades for elementary kids' entertainment: Arthur Grade School, Unity East and West and Urbana's Dr. Preston L. Williams Elementary.


It wasn't the recent photos of the brand new floors or playground surfaces restrooms that turned Rantoul city schools Superintendent Michelle Ramage's Facebook wall into Comment Central. Nope, it was a lesser-celebrated new feature at both Broadmeadow and Pleasant Acres elementary schools — new fountains equipped with water-bottle fillers and filters (left).


"Sometimes, the little things make a big difference," says Jeff Starwalt, principal at Mahomet's Lincoln Trail Elementary. Like the new paint job outside his school, the new carpet in the computer lab at Armstrong Township High, the new A/C in the upstairs hallway at Danville's Garfield Elementary, the newly paved parking lot at Unity Junior High, the new coat of wax on the floors at Champaign's South Side Elementary, the new energy-efficient windows throughout Ludlow Elementary, the new floor mats with the Storm logo throughout Salt Fork South, and a new ceiling and LED lights in the first-floor east wing at Rantoul Township High.


Coming in March: groundbreaking on the 66,000-square-foot addition to Paxton's Clara Peterson Elementary.


It might be easier to go over what isn't new this fall at Oakwood High. The short version of a lengthy list: the school's first foreign exchange student in a decade-and-a-half (she's coming from Austria), a new driver's-ed car, new stage curtains, new athletic co-ops with Salt Fork in cross-country and wrestling, and a new date worth saving next month: On Sept. 10, five days before an unusually early homecoming, the Vermilion County village will be tuned in to ABC, pulling for Class of '15 grad Abby Foster to be crowned Miss America.


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