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Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 03:37 pm

Extreme school makeover

A church organizes an outpouring of generosity called Sharefest


Volunteers shovel mulch to soften the ground beneath the swings at McClernand Elementary School.

What would cause parents to be excited about sending their children to a 102-year-old school building where 82 percent of the students come from low-income homes?

The answer is an outpouring of generosity from a community intent on seeing the school succeed.

Ever since the summer of 2011, Springfield’s Harvard Park Elementary School has seen increased test scores, better parental involvement and higher teacher morale. The catalyst for that change was Springfield Sharefest, an ambitious “extreme school makeover” project that brought together more than 100 organizations and 1,500 volunteers to renovate the school inside and out in nine days.

The folks behind Sharefest were at it again last week, taking on McClernand Elementary School and Jane Addams Elementary School in Springfield. From July 27 to Aug. 2, volunteers swarmed the two schools, cleaning, painting, shoveling, sawing, sanding, lifting, drilling and building their way through several projects meant to instill pride in students, teachers, parents and the community.

Melissa Sandel is director of ministries at West Side Christian Church in Springfield and one of the main organizers behind Sharefest. She says the church never meant to create a school makeover program. West Side already had a relationship with Harvard Park Elementary School, and Sandel says the church “wanted to make a major play to help get Harvard Park Elementary School on a different trajectory.” During initial talks with the school, Sandel recalls the administration asking for basic items like plastic bags and copier paper.

“We had to help them recalibrate their thinking to the level of generosity that we were interested in investing in them,” Sandel told Illinois Times at McClernand last week as a saw buzzed in the background. “The more that we talked to them, the more we realized that their facility had major needs that were unable to be met by our school district, not for lack of effort, but because there is a significant gap between available resources and the needs of our schools and our teachers. We determined we wanted to stand in that gap.”

A volunteer cleans the sign for Jane Addams Elementary School, next to the newly-painted entrance.

In late July and early August of 2011, about 1,500 volunteers from West Side and other churches, businesses and nonprofits practically lived at Harvard Park, working 12-hour days to replace playground equipment, paint walls, landscape, clean, lay tile and more. Numerous volunteers spent their vacation days from work at the school, and several construction professionals from local companies donated their time to supervise volunteers doing more technical work.

The result was a school with a revitalized appearance and a rejuvenated community. Test scores at Harvard Park increased so much that the Illinois State Board of Education recently recognized the school with a “Rising Star” award for academic achievement. More parents became involved in their students’ studies and started attending school functions. And Harvard Park principal Jim Hayes says the show of community support gave the school’s staff renewed enthusiasm for their challenging work.

“As educators, you’re so often left to feel isolated,” Hayes said. “You constantly get bombarded by all the negative press, all the bad things going on in your schools. Having positive reinforcement makes you feel, as an educator, that you’re not fighting that battle alone, that you’ve got that backup and that support.”

How do upgrades to the school translate into higher academic achievement and more enthusiasm? Sandel says it’s because environment matters.

“That’s the reason that businesses and corporations spend billions of dollars on their facilities – because the way you feel when you walk into a facility dictates your enthusiasm for being there,” she said. “For teachers to feel well-resourced, to feel supported by their communities, makes all the difference in the world.”

Hayes says the improved appearance allows students to have pride in their school and that “you can see it in their eyes.”

Volunteers Larry Pierce (background) and Joni Colle (foreground) clear brush along the fence on the playground at Jane Addams Elementary School.

“The kids and the adults are able to see what a wonderful place we have,” he said. “That translates into school pride, and school pride translates into wanting to do well at school. What we’re seeing is kids loving their school. A lot of that has to do with their teachers, but a big part of it has to do with it’s a joyous place to be. Studies will show you unless kids want to be there, they’re not going to try their hardest.”

Sandel makes clear that Sharefest is “not just a West Side Christian Church thing.”

“We realized that people throughout our community care about our kids, and they want to make a difference,” she said. “There’s actually something inside every person that wants to be part of something larger than themselves, so we created Springfield Sharefest as a movement of businesses, organizations and churches in Springfield that share what they have for the common good of our city.”

This time around, Sharefest is divided into two parts: an “extreme school makeover” at McClernand Elementary School, and several smaller-scale updates at Jane Addams Elementary School. The project involves cleaning, remodeling, adding new playground equipment and safety updates at both schools. All of the projects that make up Sharefest are designed to meet the needs of the recipient schools.

The teachers’ lounge at McClernand now looks like a sitting area at a trendy hotel, which principal Michelle Robertson describes as a welcome change from the “dumping ground” that it used to be. A small modern sculpture sits on the coffee table next to chic couches, with four large, round worktables and contemporary, plastic-backed chairs nearby.

Before the renovation, teachers who wanted to make a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup had to retrieve water from the bathroom. Now, a small kitchenette built by Springfield’s Harold O’Shea Builders and framed in attractive espresso brown wood overlooks the lounge’s worktables and features a toaster, a pair of microwaves and a sink installed by E.L. Pruitt Mechanical Contractors in Springfield. A new stainless steel refrigerator sits in the corner near the Pepsi machine.

Sharefest organizer Melissa Sandel gives a motivational speech at the start of every volunteer shift.

Down the hall in McClernand’s gym sits a raised platform that has been used as storage for several years. The platform has returned to its original function as a stage, thanks to Sharefest volunteer Nate Harper, a union carpenter from Springfield who built new rolling storage carts that slide out of view. The surface of the stage has also been sanded smooth, repaired and refinished.

The kitchen at McClernand used to have old, wooden countertops that didn’t meet health standards, so they’ve been replaced with modern stainless steel countertops. Under the guidance of Curt Trampe at DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen in Springfield, volunteers also reorganized the layout to be more open and efficient, while workers from Ridings Plumbing put in new sinks.

Outside on the playground, the swings are repainted in bright blue and yellow. Last week, two mountains of mulch – each large enough to easily conceal a car – sat near the swings. Volunteers ripped up the old asphalt that lay beneath the old mulch, replacing the asphalt first with the old mulch, then with a thick layer of fresh mulch to make the play area significantly softer. Around the corner from the swings stand new basketball hoops and soccer goals.

In the school’s library, a set of sturdy and elegant wooden bookcases donated by Barnes & Noble sit beneath a space-themed mural painted by Troy Freeman of Free Sky Studios in Springfield. The library now has its first-ever circulation desk, and the school’s star mascot has been integrated into new wall art proclaiming this room the Starlit Library. In the hallways, volunteers paint walls, lay tiles and replace a dangerously sharp metal vent cover. Other volunteers hang sound-absorbing tiles in a first-grade classroom. The list of projects goes on and on.

Robertson says she’s especially excited about the library renovation because it means more children will want to read.

“These are kids who don’t have a lot of books at home,” she said. “Coming from poverty, so many of them don’t have those resources at home, so we’re able to get them excited about reading just in the presentation (of the library) itself.”

Chris Collins, a plumber with Ridings Plumbing in Springfield, installs a new sink in the kitchen at McClernand Elementary School.

Two miles west of McClernand is Addams Elementary School, where Sharefest volunteers worked on a series of health and safety updates. The school’s 30-year-old carpet was torn up and replaced with new tile. Though Addams has about 40 teachers and other staff, the school previously had enough parking space for only about 20 cars. With cars lining the streets and no sidewalks around the school, children had to walk in the street to get to school.

Now, a new parking lot built with labor and materials donated by United Contractors Midwest and P. H. Broughton & Sons of Springfield allows parking for more cars.

“It’s just a major, game-changing type of generosity and investment in that school,” Sandel said. “There are tons of people who are investing deeply in this.”

For many volunteers, their commitment extends well beyond Sharefest. West Side has maintained a reading mentorship program at Harvard Park since 2011, and now Rochester Christian Church is starting a similar program at McClernand. Because of the relationships forged through Sharefest, school administrators know they can share their schools’ needs, and they know who to ask for help.

Stephanie Barton of Springfield volunteered for Sharefest as a member of Rochester Christian Church, along with her husband. Barton says she wanted to be a part of the school’s transformation, and she hinted at possible future projects in the school district.

“It’s one of those things where I’ve been so blessed, and I think I took for granted my environment coming up,” she said. “I look at this school’s situation and think, ‘We’ve got to give back.’ To see the community come together is a blessed thing; it’s an awesome thing. This needs to continue. We’re already looking ahead to 2015. We can change the systemic problems with the community helping and giving back.”

The newly-renovated teachers’ lounge at McClernand Elementary School adds running water and a relaxing atmosphere.

While Sharefest has made a difference at Harvard Park and will likely do the same at McClernand and Jane Addams, each school has ongoing needs that only the community can address. The Springfield Public Schools Board of Education approved a budget earlier this year that cut millions of dollars from teaching positions, maintenance workers and educational materials, meaning that nearly every school has had to tighten its proverbial belt to do more with less.

McClernand principal Michelle Robertson says she hopes Sharefest will spur more investment in the schools from the broader community.

“The taxpayers of Springfield need to get into the schools,” she said. “They need to see the condition of the buildings that they have spent so many years not investing in. They need to see the good things going on in our schools. … I think if they really were able to see it firsthand, they might be more willing to support our schools.”

Kimberly Leverette, who served as principal of Harvard Park during the 2011 Sharefest and is now assistant director of human resources for the school district, says it truly does take a village to raise a child.

“At the end of the day, it’s about educating these kids,” she said. “They are the ones who are going to grow up and lead society. If we, as a community, can help shape their lives, it’s a win-win for everyone.”

The author, an Illinois Times staff writer, is a member of West Side Christian Church and participated in Sharefest.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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