CHAMPAIGN — After teaching in New York City’s public school district, Lindsay Aikman was used to working in old buildings when she and her family moved to Champaign six years ago.
Before she left for C-U, she taught in a building that previously housed an insurance company.
So when she heard about the new bilingual International Prep Academy program housed in the building vacated by Carrie Busey, the facility’s age, peeling paint and lack of air conditioning didn’t give her pause when she looked at schools for her incoming kindergartner.
“To me, school can happen anywhere, and it’s about the people that you have,” Aikman said. “This isn’t to say that in a community as resource-rich as ours, all kids don’t deserve the absolute best that the community can afford. That is the job of the community, to make sure that we are investing in all of our schools equally.”
Instead of choosing one of the district’s newer schools, she decided to enroll her oldest child, then a kindergartner, in one of its most run-down buildings, where he’d learn half of his subjects in Spanish and half in English. Five years later, he’s well on his way to fluency in Spanish.
Parents like Aikman loved the West Kirby Avenue school so much that they pushed to add middle-school grades, a dream that became reality this spring.
In two years, IPA students will no longer report to the district’s oldest elementary school that hasn’t undergone a significant renovation.
Instead, they’ll head to a gleaming new $24.33 million building with wide-open common areas, collaborative spaces for teachers, a large library and a gym.
It’ll be a welcome change for a school that has a shared cafeteria and gym, a library that is a converted classroom and portable structures housing some of its classes.
The new building will also be designed with the plan of piloting a middle-school program in the older building, with a long-term possibility of eventually tacking on a middle-school branch for around $15 million.
Aikman, who will have a sixth-grader and a third-grader at the school in the fall, was already sold on the program. But now, she thinks it’s set to reach its full potential.
“We’re really, really proud of the program,” she said. “We’re very, very appreciative that it was extended through the eighth grade, because as a parent group, we’ve fought for this for years.”
‘A true equity question’
The $24.33 million project will replace the $6 million in minor renovations the school was set to receive from the $208 million referendum voters approved in 2016, which included $25 million from district reserves and $183 million in taxpayer-funded bonds.
During its March 9 meeting, the Champaign school board approved the $18 million budget increase. According to the district, the project won’t cost taxpayers any extra on top of the $183 million in bonds they approved four years ago. The extra money comes from what the district has referred to as friendly interest rates on the $183 million it sold in bonds.
But it’s not the first referendum project to receive a major budget increase. Edison Middle School’s budget increased from $15 million to $25 million last fall, when the decision was made to add heating and electrical updates, sprinklers for fire protection and plumbing updates. Champaign Central’s went from $87.1 million to $99.4 million.
In all, the projects are now projected to cost $289.7 million.
That extra $81.7 million will come from a few different sources. The district leveraged its original bonds to earn around $34.2 million in re-offering premiums and $5.6 million in interest.
In addition, the district pulled from various pools of money designated for operations and maintenance. That includes the $9.5 million it made from refinancing bonds from the school-facilities sales tax last year.
Out of all of the additions to the referendum, International Prep Academy’s budget is by far the biggest increase. The school is also in a much different circumstance than it was four years ago, when the subject of a K-8 building was broached but eventually cut from the referendum voters approved.
When the referendum passed in 2016, the IPA program was in its infancy — in just its second year at its new location, which was constructed in 1957 to house Carrie Busey Elementary. During the 2015-16 school year, it expanded from 98 students to 221.
Since that time, the school has become increasingly popular. Last year, 375 students attended. Four years ago, 38 families made it their first choice to fill 46 kindergarten seats. Three years later, 72 did likewise, to fill 67 seats and four classes.
“We’re putting a four-strand school into a three-strand building, which is not sustainable,” Principal Jonathan Kosovski said. “I think the district also realizes, ‘Well, if they’re not at IPA, where are they going?’ Because we don’t necessarily have space in all of our other buildings, either.”
In what has become increasingly rare in the district, IPA is a popular program that also is one of the highest-poverty schools.
During the 2018-19 school year, 69 percent of its students were considered low-income, second only to Garden Hills. Sixty-one percent of its students were Hispanic, far more than any other school.
“I think the district sees the need of equity at the forefront here, and they have a building that is not at an equitable level with other elementary schools, so I think they are trying to level the playing field,” Kosovski said. “You’re looking at a building that is populated by a majority of minority students, and you’re looking at the marginalized students in this building and the success we’re trying to create for them. I think they realize this building has to be different.
“I don’t think the district is just looking to spend money to spend money, but I think there is a true equity question at our campus. It’s not fair to tell all of you Brown students that you have to go to the … last elementary school to be renovated or changed.”
Space for middle schoolsSixth-graders will attend the school next year as IPA begins to ease in its middle-school program. Kosovski said 450 students are already enrolled, and that number will likely increase.
That means more portable structures will be added to the two already there.
Those space issues will be alleviated by the new building in two years.
The new building will also provide relief for the district’s three over-capacity middle schools, one of its most pressing issues not originally solved by the referendum.
“It was a well-known fact that we had a middle-school-capacity need,” school board President Amy Armstrong said. “We identified over $300 million in facility and programmatic needs. We couldn’t even begin with that number (on the 2016 referendum). It was illegal.
“So we had to work backward from that number, and I don’t know that the community was ready to pass a $283 million referendum.”
Enrollment at the district’s three middle schools was 2,315 last year, up from around 2,100 students a few years ago, Superintendent Susan Zola said.
She said the district would prefer to open up around 200 seats among the schools. The district’s projection of 180 to 210 students for IPA’s middle school could theoretically solve that problem, at least in the short term.
There’s no guarantee, though, that that many middle-school students will attend the school. Unlike the three middle schools — Edison, Franklin and Jefferson — families will have a choice as to whether to stay at IPA for sixth grade.
While students can leave, it isn’t so easy to transfer into. Incoming students have to meet a baseline requirement of Spanish-language proficiency to enter the school after the first grade.
The school will rely on the program’s popularity to retain students for middle school.
“We don’t know if this program will grow to a K-8,” Armstrong said. “We think it will, and we have parents that say they will, but will they?”
That’s why the district will “leave the existing structure of old IPA, use that building for the growth of that program, and then if it does grow, then we look at the budgets and the reserves, and what do we have to do to move that building out to a full K-8,” she said.
More relief regarding the district’s middle-school capacity issues may come down the line.
After finally allocating the $25 million in reserves originally included in the referendum, reserves are projected this fall at around $49 million, according to a five-year projection presented to the school board in March.
By fiscal 2025, reserves are projected to sit around $70 million. That’s subject to change, of course, as the district deals with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
The district projects around $37 million each year in state and federal funding, which means it has more than enough to cover any shortfalls from those sources.
Board member Chris Kloeppel mentioned at a recent meeting that instead of taking another referendum to taxpayers in the coming years, the district could conceivably dip into its reserves to add middle-school seats.
Zola also said that converting another school to a K-8 model down the road may also be a possibility. Garden Hills, for instance, had over 200 empty seats last fall that could be used for middle-schoolers.
Moving into a new eraAmong the numerous benefits of the new school, Kosovski is looking forward to relief from the headache of trying to juggle gym classes and lunch hours, which both take place in the same space. The new school will have central air conditioning, which the old school didn’t and which wouldn’t have been provided in the original $6 million update.
Beyond the obvious changes, the old building simply wasn’t assembled for modern teaching practices.
“It’s a pretty standard 1950s elementary school, so it’s not very collaborative by any means,” Kosovski said. “Everything is in isolation. They’re just in old classrooms, and they’re not in spaces that have the new, advanced technology for that learning.”
The new building also allows the program to reach its optimal efficacy by giving students three extra years at the school.
For native Spanish-speaking students, Kosovski cited research that shows that a bilingual education actually increases achievement in English and other subjects. For native English speakers, he said, it takes seven to 10 years to become truly bilingual.
“The sixth through eighth is kind of like, the wings are spreading, if you will,” Kosovski said. “There’s a lot of foundational work that happens in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“Kids are really getting to the point of truly becoming bilingual and biliterate at that age.”
Recent board meetings have begun with public comments decrying the money spent on what some view as opulent new school buildings.
Aikman, who teaches at Centennial, doesn’t see it like that. Over the years, she’s grown used to teaching in sub-optimal conditions. That’s why she was moved to tears when looking at renderings for some of the referendum projects in recent years.
“This is what we, unfortunately, as teachers, get used to,” Aikman said. “We get used to peeling paint and subpar facilities. … Teachers aren’t used to working in spaces that treat us like professionals. Teachers aren’t used to that, where the spaces are built and designed to the needs of our students.
“We’re used to working with whatever we’re given. It’s an amazing gift. We’re grateful.”