Parents give Unit 4 plan a thumb's up
CHAMPAIGN – Mikki Johnson is still the concerned parent of teenage athletes, but the former Illinois football player has fewer worries this week.
The family residence for nearly 14 years in west Champaign, near Parkland College, has been rezoned from the Central to the Centennial district for the fall, which coincides with the time when freshman-to-be Zakk Johnson will enter high school.
From the outset, administrators in Unit 4 have said for the convenience of families that currently have an underclassman at one of the two public high schools which is about to become out of their district, they would approve transfers so that incoming ninth-graders can attend the same school – and be eligible for extracurricular activities – as their older sibling.
That good news for many parents was tempered by the knowledge that the Illinois High School Association is implementing new guidelines July 1 that would have prohibited those enrollments without a one-year loss of eligibility.
The upcoming IHSA mandates require students to attend the school they are zoned for or else they will be required to sit out for one calendar year.
Many families have faced months of uncertainty as they pondered how to proceed.
A dilemma averted
For parents such as Mikki Johnson, the options to consider were not easy to accept.
Daughters Haley (junior) and Claire (freshman) are currently students at Central, but under the terms of the new IHSA bylaw, Zakk could enroll at Central and not participate in any of his three sports as a freshman, or he could go to Centennial and be eligible from Day 1.
"It was a situation which had been discussed," Mikki Johnson said, "but it was so up in the air. We were waiting to see how the pieces fell and make a determination based on that."
The question became moot this week when the IHSA issued an interpretation that follows the Unit 4 policy and grants eligibility to students outside their enrollment school if they choose to follow an older sibling to the school they are currently attending.
Johnson and other families in similar situations are breathing a sigh of relief.
"We're ecstatic how it turned out," Mikki Johnson said. "The situation is understandable. Redistricting needs to transpire, but luckily for us it turned out to be what it is.
"The IHSA will grandfather them in."
Facing the changes
The student body facelift which is taking place within the Unit 4 schools – thanks to the redistricting plan that starts in the fall – could potentially create interesting scenarios for much of the next decade.
It is possible that next-door neighbors will have children at different public high schools in Champaign.
After years of study, to help alleviate overcrowding at Centennial and to better balance the enrollments at Central and Centennial, boundaries within Unit 4 were redrawn and will take effect for the 2010-11 school year.
Some areas that are currently zoned for Central will become part of the Centennial district (examples: Prairie Ridge and Timberline near Parkland College, Garden Hills near Bloomington Road and Mattis Avenue, and the area west of Mattis and north of Interstate 72.)
The areas being converted from Centennial to Central are even larger and include Cherry Hills in southwest Champaign, all of Savoy (previously only a portion of the community was in the Central district), as well as neighborhoods south of Kirby Avenue and east of Mattis along with areas south of Windsor and east of Mattis.
Wheels of change
Marty Hickman, the IHSA executive director, said the decision finalized by the board of directors on April 20 and passed along to the schools this week was pretty much a no-brainer.
"It was a common-sense decision; it wasn't a hard one," Hickman said.
Besides the changes occurring in Champaign, Peoria is altering its attendance areas and talks are ongoing in Springfield and Rockford which could lead to similar switches.
Working parents had contacted the IHSA about the benefits of having an incoming freshman (who doesn't drive) attend the same high school as a brother or sister who has a license.
"The older sibling, once they are at a school, can provide transportation," Hickman said.
"The IHSA made the right choice," Central athletic director John Woods said. "It makes sense families send their children to the same school and, if they do participate in activities, let them compete."
A good move
Jeff Altmyer's family is another with fewer headaches thanks to the IHSA's announcement.
Altmyer and his wife, Naomi, have a daughter (Alina) who is a sophomore and plays volleyball at Central. Son Alec will be a freshman this fall.
"My son is a three-sport athlete and I would not have him sit out his entire freshman year," Jeff Altmyer said. "We would have considered moving, if we really wanted Central, or else going to Centennial."
His feelings, he emphasized, had nothing to do with the people or the programs at either school.
"We're comfortable as far as the education at both, and in baseball and basketball I would have felt comfortable at either," Jeff Altmyer said. "The reason is that we have a daughter at Central and it's easier for him to be at Central."
He acknowledged that the family likely would not have relocated from the residence they've called home in the West Lake Subdivision since 1991 had the IHSA not granted the waiver of eligibility.
"You can't move in such a short time frame," he said. "To get your house ready to sell is a big step to have a kid go to a school."
Another Champaign resident, Bob Plecki, found himself in a situation different from many. His wife Kathy and eighth-grade son Mike remained in town after he was transferred to Florida by Busey Bank. They wanted their youngest son to complete the school year at Holy Cross, where the baseball team last fall went unbeaten (25-0) and won the Class 2A elementary school state championship.
The plan was for them to move south once the school year ended.
"As late as December, we thought Mike would attend high school in Fort Myers (at Bishop Verot)," Bob Plecki said.
However, his job duties changed and he's not required to be in Florida full time.
At almost the same time, the family received additional news.
"We then found out we'd been redistricted to Central," said Plecki, whose older children Sarah and Dan are both graduates of Centennial.
"With the older siblings, Mike grew up a Centennial kid," Bob Plecki said. "He knew all of the coaches and some of the teachers. You don't have that same familiarity with Central although I've personally looked upon Central and Centennial as equal."
A new path
Mike Plecki doesn't have the choice of following an older sibling to Centennial because they have already graduated. He took advantage of a different option and will not attend a public school.
He will enroll at St. Thomas More.
Bob Plecki didn't want to speculate what choice would have been made had Centennial still been in the picture.
"We would have liked the option to go to Centennial," he said, "but I can't say for sure. A lot of the males from Holy Cross are going to St. Thomas More."
A few years back, Sarah and Dan Plecki had to make similar decisions.
"The older two had the St. Thomas More option as well," Bob Plecki said, "but they felt strongly about Centennial."
Dad will be in for a change as well this fall.
"I have closets of Centennial clothing," he said. "Now I'll have to buy green and gold."
Monitoring the situation
Jeff Altmyer was not surprised to learn the IHSA was preparing to enforce stricter standards for monitoring where student-athletes reside.
"I think a lot of people have cheated the system," he said. "I think they are trying to crack down."
Mikki Johnson, who played football at Illinois on the defensive line from 1991 to '95, is more at ease with Zakk attending Central. His feelings go beyond having two daughters already at the school.
Their mother, Tiffany Johnson, is a social worker at Central.
"The fact that their mother is there alleviates a lot of concerns," Mikki Johnson said. "There are a lot of issues with public schools, concerns about the level of aggression, the level of violence, and from the parental perspective you want to be certain they will be as safe as possible."
All along, Centennial athletic director Brian Easter hoped for the best, but he wasn't sure what to expect.
"Initially, with the bylaw worded the way it was, it didn't look like it would fly," Easter said. "It looked like they (the younger siblings) would have to attend different high schools or forfeit a year of eligibility."
Easter and Woods, his AD counterpart at Central, will be saddled with the additional responsibility of confirming the residences of student-athletes.
"It's going to require more diligence on the ADs in multi-high school districts to stay on top of those issues," Easter said. "I don't know where everyone lives, and I can't look up addresses of 700 different kids. You have to rely on the honor system from kids and the families."
He won't turn his head, however, if a complaint is lodged.
"If someone brings it to my attention, that a student doesn't live at this address, I'll look into it," Easter said.
Woods said "we'll have a case every once in a while," but added, "I can't follow 1,200 to 1,300 kids around town. The bottom line is if a student registers and provides the necessary documentation, it's up to the district and the school to ensure what is submitted is accurate.
"We wouldn't have any reason to believe people would provide false documentation."
The key, Woods said, is to be proactive.
"We have to make sure we educate the public and ensure that eligibility rulings are sought when necessary and try to avoid any child losing eligibility because of the school they choose," Woods said. "When we talk about eligibility, we'll have to be diligent in our efforts."
Depending on the ages of current and incoming high school students, the combined decisions of the IHSA and Unit 4 create the possibility that families who live side-by-side in years ahead will have sons or daughters at different schools playing against each other. And, it will be perfectly legal.
For example, a current fifth-grader who would be ready to start high school when the family's current eighth-grader would be a senior, could attend the opposite school of where he or she is zoned if there's an older sibling who will still be in that high school for the 2010-11 school year.
Woods said that shouldn't surprise anyone.
"We've got that right now," he said. "Under the old bylaw, as long as they entered as a freshman they were eligible. We have families split. It's not anyone trying to skirt the system.
"It's just rules have changed a little bit. There were a number of reasons a student would request a permit (to attend a school other than where he was zoned). The IHSA did the right thing. The interpretation is fair. I don't anticipate a lot of conflict."
Among the families with a child currently attending a school where they were not zoned is Greg and Missy Kaiser.
They have been (and still are) zoned for Centennial, but Missy Kaiser said, "when looking at high schools (for their daughter Kelsey), we petitioned to go to Central."
A swimmer, Kelsey Kaiser will be a senior in the fall. Upcoming freshman siblings Peyton and Alyssa Kaiser have the option of attending Central or Centennial, but Missy Kaiser said no decision has yet been finalized.
It has only been a few days since they realized they had a choice.
The student body
Enrollments on file with the Illinois High School Association from Centennial and Central high schools for the past 14 years:
YR. CENTEN. CENTRAL
2009-10 1,599 1,338
2008-09 1,536 1,267
2007-08 1,471 1,326
2006-07 1,500 1,334
2005-06 1,529 1,373
2004-05 1,483 1,374
2003-04 1,433 1,338
2002-03 1,423 1,317
2001-02 1,462 1,333
2000-01 1,508 1,305
1999-2000 1,522 1,251
1998-99 1,445 1,215
1997-98 1,410 1,260
1996-97 1,403 1,214
NOTE: The 2002-03 school year was the first one for St. Thomas More.