New neighbors, tight quarters for two Champaign elementaries

New neighbors, tight quarters for two Champaign elementaries

CHAMPAIGN — One city block, two schools, a busy corner and 800 students.

The temporary move of Dr. Howard Elementary School to the Columbia School building at Bradley Avenue and Neil Street puts it next door to another elementary school, Stratton Academy of the Arts.

It's an unusual, if temporary, setup, and school administrators have been working for months to coordinate everything from bus drop-off and parent pick-up to playgrounds and start times.

Dr. Howard parents excited about the new school to come in two years are nonetheless anxious to hear how the temporary location is going to work.

School officials plan to communicate that in the coming days via email and social media, after finalizing details with the city. And they'll hold a picnic and open house at the school on Aug. 14, where students and parents will get maps, meet teachers and tour the building. School starts Aug. 16.

"I think we're all just kind of waiting for the 14th," said Jolee Phelps, who will have twin fourth-graders at Dr. Howard this fall.

"On paper, it seems kind of scary having the two schools right there on top of each other. All of us are just kind of trying to be positive and hopeful that the district and the administrators have a plan and that it's going to be easier than what it seems on paper. I think they've got their ducks in a row," Phelps said.

The biggest concern is transportation — getting students in and out of the two buildings and managing cars and buses near busy intersections.

Dr. Howard Principal Jeffrey Dobbs said he and Stratton Principal Stephanie Eckels started meeting months ago with Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Ivory-Tatum and other district officials to develop a transportation plan to make traffic "as smooth as possible."

"It's going to be more congested because you've got two schools coming together. Once my families get here and get acclimated to the drop-off and pick-up routine, things will run more smoothly," he said.

Both schools have the same starting times, and that won't change, he said. School starts at 7:50 a.m. and ends at 2:05 p.m.

At one point, the district considered staggering the times, but the bus logistics just didn't work, Dobbs said. Champaign has two "tiers" of school start times, with buses doing double-duty, and both Dr. Howard and Stratton are in the early tier. Changing one of them would have had ripple effects down the line.

"Logistically, it created a lot of obstacles," Dobbs said.

Officials are still working out the details for traffic flow during drop-off and pick-up times. School district staff are meeting with city engineers and Champaign police this week to finalize the plan, officials said. Ivory-Tatum and other district-level officials declined to elaborate until then.


Council action still to come

A draft intergovernmental agreement between the city and school district suggests converting Beardsley Avenue, which runs between the two schools, into a one-way westbound street between Neil and Randolph during school hours of 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Temporary one-way signs are still there from the last time an elementary school was housed at Columbia in 2011.

The agreement covers traffic changes near other schools affected by Unit 4's ongoing construction projects, including Columbia, Dr. Howard's permanent site, Central High School, Centennial High School and the McKinley athletic fields, said city Planning and Development Director Bruce Knight. It will be presented at a Champaign City Council study session on Aug. 14 and likely voted on by the school board and city council in September, Knight said.

The city's Neil Street Corridor study also identified the timing of traffic signals at Neil and Bradley as a concern for pedestrians, though that hasn't come up in discussions with Unit 4, he said.

Very few students walk to Dr. Howard, Phelps and Dobbs said. A large number of students ride buses, and that could increase with the relocation, though it's possible more parents may choose to drop off their kids, Dobbs said.

Traffic patterns at Stratton Elementary won't change, according to Assistant Principal Roy Van Meter. Parents will still drop kids off in the circle drive through the parking lot on Randolph Street, which is one-way north. Buses will continue to use a similar lot south of the school, he said.

The majority of Stratton's students are bused to school, he said.

Van Meter said he hasn't heard any concerns from parents or teachers at Stratton about their new school neighbors.

"For us, it doesn't seem like anything is really going to change," he said. "We'll find out in the first day or two."


A playground of their own

One thing that Phelps said Dr. Howard students are excited about: the new playground within Columbia's fenced-in area just west of the school.

Columbia — which has been used as both an elementary and middle school in past decades — has held administrative offices for the past few years and no longer had a play structure, though it had room for one on the grassy area outside the gym/lunch room.

A relatively new purple and blue play structure that was recently replaced at Bottenfield Elementary School was moved to Columbia. The district is also moving some of the playground equipment from the Dr. Howard site to Columbia, Dobbs said.

The school opted not to share a playground with Stratton, as the schools have the same lunch and recess times, and Dr. Howard students would have had to cross Beardsley to get to it, Dobbs said.

"We wanted our own," he said, and Phelps said parents felt the same way.

Basketball hoops will also be installed on the blacktop area of the playground.

"Seeing the playground go up was exciting," Phelps said. "The kids know they're going to have a place to go play."

The square footage of Dr. Howard and Columbia is about the same, Dobbs said.

"We fit just fine," he said, but "we don't have room for growth." (A mobile classroom outside is for a district-wide special education life-skills lab and not part of Dr. Howard, he said.)


'Just a beautiful building'

The building didn't require any renovations, but custodians gave it a thorough scrubbing this summer — floors, walls, classrooms, lockers, the works, Dobbs said. The terrazzo, tile and wood floors were polished to a glossy shine.

A few temporary partitions that had separated classrooms into offices had to come down, and district crews updated the technology and installed smartboards, Dobbs said.

The oldest part of the Columbia building dates back to 1905 — five years older than Dr. Howard — with original hardwood floors, classic pendant lights and glazed bricks lining some hallways.

"All of this is original," Dobbs said on a walk-through Wednesday. "It's just a beautiful building."

There are other pluses compared to Dr. Howard's old building: The gym is bigger and isn't below ground, so it's more accessible; it opens onto the playground and also has a larger kitchen; and there's no classroom annex requiring kids to walk outside to lunch or PE.

Some of Columbia's classrooms are bigger, too, including the one where kindergarten teacher Becky Williams was unpacking some of her 78 neatly labeled boxes from her old classroom at Dr. Howard. It doesn't have its own bathroom but does have a bigger walk-in coat room for her students, which will be restored with hooks for coats and backpacks.

"The building has such character and charm to it," especially the wood floors and chandeliers, she said.

Williams said teachers have a slogan: "Welcome to the old and improved Dr. Howard."

"It is five years older, but we feel it's kind of a step up, really, in some ways," she said.

She said the new location might be noisier, noting that she'd heard several sirens that morning. But those weren't uncommon at the old location along University Avenue either, she said.


'We'll figure it out together'

Teachers were eager to get into the school, as it will take a little more time than usual to set up their classrooms in an unfamiliar space.

Jennifer Simmons, a former enrichment teacher who will have her own fourth-grade classroom this year, said she had her first summer teacher nightmare recently. (Apparently, that's a thing.)

Hers went something like this: It's the first day of school, but the staff hasn't had time to pick out "stopping points" in the school, where kids stop when they're lining up for lunch or recess to make sure everyone is together.

"The nightmare is my kids just keep going. I'm chasing them all — 'Are you in my class, are you in my class?' — because it's the first day, and we don't know anybody yet," Simmons said.

"It's the little things like that you have to figure out before classes start," she said. "It's like a puzzle, and we'll figure it out together."

Space is an issue, with some support staff sharing smaller rooms, she said, but "we're making the best of it."

Phelps is worried about having enough space for after-school clubs, but she's confident the staff will work things out.


Welcome, new neighbors

The busy corner at Neil and Bradley remains a concern for parents, mostly in terms of potential congestion during pick-up and drop-off times.

"It's probably going to be a little rocky the first week or two," she said.

Dobbs doesn't know of any parents who opted to leave Dr. Howard because of the move. Some students have transferred to other schools this year, but that happens every year, he said.

"Again, everyone's just trying to keep in mind that this is temporary," Phelps said. "It's an inconvenience, but it's worth it because we have good teachers."

School isn't about a building or location but people, she said.

"Just like your family is what makes the home. It's not the house. It's the people who make the school. It's the administrators and teachers. The teachers are so amazing. My kids would not want to be anywhere else."

In the meantime, the two principals and some teachers are already thinking about possible collaborations between the two schools.

There's a large park-like area between them, with shade trees, benches, a pavilion and a large community garden that Stratton already incorporates into its "studio time" arts curriculum.

Fifth-graders work in the garden and maintain hydroponic gardens in their classrooms. Teachers also started a composting project for the garden using leftover food from the cafeteria, Van Meter said.

Simmons and Stratton teachers who served together on a science curriculum committee also talked about sharing resources and ideas.

"We're just right across the street from each other," she said.

Musical chairs

The Champaign school district has gotten its money’s worth out of the Columbia school building since it first opened in 1905 at 1103 N. Neil St. Among its recent uses:

➜ 1981: School board closes the longtime elementary school and moves students to the larger Franklin school building as part of a desegregation plan.

➜ 1982: A new board reopens the popular school as a magnet middle school program.

➜ 1989: Columbia is converted back to an elementary school as part of another redistricting plan, swapping with the larger Franklin, which had been built as a junior high.

➜ 1998: Columbia Elementary closes with the opening of the new Stratton Elementary a block away.

➜ 1999: Columbia reopens as an alternative education program. The program goes through several iterations before closing in January 2009.

➜ January 2010: Columbia becomes temporary home to Booker T. Washington Elementary School for 18 months while that school is rebuilt.

➜ August 2011: The district’s Family Information Center moves to the Columbia building, along with other district program offices.

➜ Summer 2018: Family Information Center and other offices move out so Columbia can house Dr. Howard Elementary while that school is rebuilt over the next two years.