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Thursday, May 29, 2008 08:38 pm

Building the new Springfield High School

The best location is where it is

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The idea of replacing Springfield High School with a $57 million new building in a cornfield on Springfield’s west side is so lame, so yesterday, so pre-Obama, that it should hardly be called an idea at all. It would be just like Springfield to build a suburban-type school just as high energy prices, the collapse of the housing market, and an appreciation for diversity put an end to the culture of sprawl. Sure, there will always be people who want to live and school their kids in a wealthy white bedroom community, but if those people have a choice between Chatham and Springfield’s imitation of Chatham, they’ll pick Chatham every time.

Here’s a better idea. Build a $57 million new high school on the site of Springfield High School. Keep the wonderful old 1917 Beaux Arts façade, with its monumental approach at the end of Adams Street. Keep the classic auditorium, the new multipurpose room, and the relatively new science labs. Keep all that is good and serviceable. Keep the history and traditions and the Susan Wilcox legacy of excellence.

But pump some new money into the old campus — it’s hardly landlocked. There is vacant land at the corner of Walnut and Monroe just begging for a school building. To the east, across Lewis Street, there’s land for sale. Acres of parking lots between SHS and the Capitol need a better use. To the north are boarded-up houses, waiting for what’s next. Anything that can be built out west can be built here better, without disrupting surrounding neighborhoods.

In fact, the new Springfield High School, on its existing campus, would help preserve and enhance the core of the city. Just two blocks away, the Capitol complex is itself the subject of a new planning effort, and the Vinegar Hill residential neighborhood is busy reinventing itself. By planning together, the three entities could link themselves with parks, walkways, and new investment that would reawaken the bland and forgotten area west of the Capitol.

Buildings alone won’t make the old high school new. To compete with suburban schools, SHS needs new ideas, a new story. As the school in the heart of the city, it could adopt the city as a classroom. Urban design could become a field of study, alongside the basics of preparing for college. A curriculum would be designed around how the physical environment affects quality of life, with attention to transportation, energy conservation, and neighborhood preservation. There would be regular field trips to nearby halls of government, and kids could grapple with real issues of the day.

The new SHS can also compete by celebrating diversity, not just tolerating it. New generations are learning that it’s a privilege to go to school with people of different races, cultures, and economic backgrounds. The new school would work at improving race relations while teaching students to recognize and oppose racism in even its subtle forms. This is the kind of education you can’t get in suburban monoculture high schools. Embracing the rainbow could be a hallmark of this new urban high school.

Deciding on a new high school offers a teaching moment. Values education begins here. Where the school is and what it’s about are lessons as important as the courses that will be taught. Lecturing on the environmental detriments of sprawl makes no sense in a classroom built on a cornfield. A lesson about preserving core cities — making them livable, walkable, and sustainable — rings true where you can look out the window and see it happening. Learning to appreciate people different from you happens best where differences are brought together. Today’s ideas all come together at the new Springfield High School, on the campus of the old SHS.

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.
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