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Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017 12:06 am

District 186 dreams big

Community and students weigh in on improvements

PHOTO COURTESY BLDD ARCHITECTS

 

Last spring, student representatives from all three high schools were asked for their input on a plan to improve facilities throughout District 186. “They gave some very specific and good, detailed suggestions,” said Superintendent Jennifer Gill, “but at first they had trouble dreaming the dream.”

After the students were shown photos of other schools which had already been through the improvement process, they got on board, according to Gill. Some expressed a desire to log on to Wi-Fi to utilize their devices for school projects as well as space to spread out materials and study.

“There’s no elevator to a great plan,” said Samuel Johnson, principal architect for BLDD Architects. “You’ve got to take the steps. And when you’ve got a district with this many buildings, the possibilities are just about endless.” Johnson’s firm (the initials stand for “Because Life Deserves Design”) has been retained by District 186 to help shape the district’s ongoing facilities improvement plan, with the long-term goal of pinpointing the best and most affordable ways to either renovate the current outdated and decaying school buildings or construct new ones.

“We always like to involve the community from the ground up,” Johnson continued. “Everybody has ideas of what they would do if they were superintendent. However, the community – not being experts in educational delivery – does need some guidance.” To that end, over the course of eight well-attended community engagement meetings so far this year, ideas for improvements have been shared between the community, the district and the architect.

The next community engagement session, scheduled for Nov. 1, will focus on the district’s middle schools. “We know there are some pretty profound needs for cafeteria and gym spaces,” Johnson said, “but what about additional classroom spaces that would allow us to create something that’s a little more traditional, like a sixth-grade house?”

Gill says getting rid of outmoded and dilapidated facilities throughout the district is a priority, but with space at a premium, this will be a challenge. “We want to make sure we don’t have any more mobile units that kids are having to go outside for,” she said.

One overriding desire among community members and administrators alike is for space that will prepare students for the future. In addition to classrooms where the traditional type of education occurs, there can also be areas for small group and individual work as well as professional development. “Students come to us now with a great deal of knowledge of how to utilize technology,” said Gill. “So we are thinking about the space in terms of the jobs of the future and not the past.” She gave Johnson credit for illustrating to the community how classroom design can address the needs of 21st century learners. “The opportunity to think about having these state-of-the-art facilities and opportunities for students, really excites us.”

PHOTO COURTESY BLDD ARCHITECTS

 

The potential for innovation is not limited to the classroom, but extends to extracurricular spaces as well as the overall atmosphere of the school. Other area districts have been able to modernize while maintaining the old bones of existing school buildings, according to Gill.  “One of the things that they did in Decatur [where BLDD worked previously] is that when you walk in to the school it almost looks like a performing arts entrance – a huge, open area where kids can congregate and talk and collaborate,” she said.

Another example which might seem foreign to those who are used to the traditional school setting is the possible addition of field houses to existing campuses. “You don’t need to build another new competition gym,” said Gill, “but here’s another space where practices can occur, where you can have indoor batting practice year-round, indoor track season, and even host events that can then be a revenue generator for our district.”

At last spring’s roundtable, the student representatives were concerned with achieving equity between the different high schools. For instance, Springfield High students talked about their lack of proprietary athletic fields, while the Lanphier students lamented their lack of an auditorium forcing them to hold performances at the Hoogland or the Legacy Theatre. In contrast, Southeast students said they were doing fine with auditorium space, but the seats are falling apart and their gym works well for basketball and volleyball games but not so much for gym class. A few of the student participants have since gone out of their way to attend the regular community engagement meeting, according to Gill, sometimes bringing their parents with them.

As for budgetary issues, Gill is circumspect. “Any dreaming big like this is going to have its challenges in terms of funding,” she said, pointing out there is no specific provision for capital projects within the new funding structure provided by the recently passed state budget. “I think it behooves us to continue to talk to lawmakers about construction needs as well as the need for funding them at the state level. There will be a price tag at the end of it and then we’ll have to rise to that occasion and discuss what options we have at that time.”

Johnson believes that without taking the time to collect the data required to make objective comparisons, opinions and qualitative factors gum up the works. “We want to help the district look at how can we take advantage of efficiencies that allow us to spend more money in the classrooms,” he said.

“We know that we’ll never get to our preferred future unless we have a vision,” said Gill. “We are very much in that vision step right now.”

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com

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