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Wednesday, July 30, 2008 02:29 pm

So long, Senators?

A plan to relocate Springfield High School to the west side sparks controversy


Marissa DeWeese didn't really mind the congestion at Springfield High School. A member of the marching band, DeWeese thought it was pretty cool once when the band and freshman football team practiced on the same field while a group of law-enforcement agency trainees ran laps around the track.

Nevertheless, a committee made up of community members from across the district, assembled to examine the building needs of Springfield's public schools, found the conditions appalling.

In their report, submitted to members of the District 186 Board of Education in November, the committee members note that during football season the varsity, JV, and freshman squads must all practice on the same field, which is also used for freshman and junior-varsity home games.

They also point out that the Senators' athletic field can't accommodate varsity sports and that the New Street facility has no permanent bleachers, lights, or restroom facilities. Because the band also uses the field for practice, the field is almost useless for playing football or teaching physical education.

The committee also details structural problems inside the school. Classrooms, they say, are too small (less than 600 square feet, compared with 850 square feet in many of the newer schools around the district). Nor is there is seating in the gymnasium, which isn't equipped for setting up volleyball courts.

Springfield High's restrooms and two classrooms on the fourth floor are not accessible to people who have disabilities, and two narrow stairwells fail to meet building-code requirements. Perhaps most shocking: "The cafeteria is not in acceptable proximity to the commons. Students have to go through the lunch line and carry their food over 100 feet down a corridor. This creates a high potential for food spillage."

As a means of remedying the problems with the 92-year-old structure, the facilities committee has suggested building a new 1,600-student-capacity high school and athletic complex on Koke Mill Road "to accommodate west side population growth."

The recommendations have drawn fire from Springfield High's neighbors, who would rather see the district expand the current campus, whose rich history, diverse 1,400-student body, and central location, they say, could touch off revitalization of the core of the city.

But more and more Springfield families are choosing the western suburbs over the inner city, a trend that's unlikely to slow down anytime soon. So why not start planning for the future?

Well, because a lot of people really, really love that school.

DeWeese, a 2008 graduate, asks what seems to be on the minds of many residents of central city: "Is it really necessary to build a new high school?"

"The high schools of my parents no longer exist. When I get old, I'd like my high school to exist," she says.

Among the staunchest opponents of plans to relocate Springfield High are members of the near-west-side Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association, which encompasses the school.

Bill Castor, the group's president, says his association supports the district's capital campaign but thinks Springfield High School should stay put.

"Moving it would be costlier in terms of transportation at time when were concerned about rising fuel prices. It would also make participation of students and parents in clubs and teacher conferences most difficult for those who can least afford transportation out to the far west side," says Castor, whose three children all attended Springfield High.

Castor also stresses the importance of preserving the historic connection of Springfield High to the neighborhood. He views the school as a possible economic engine for the area.

"With all the investments that have been made , downtown has pretty much come back to life in the past 20 years. If we continue to let the neighborhood surrounding that beautiful downtown area deteriorate — and I think this would result in that — it's going to be a short-lived improvement if it's surrounded by a sea of parking lots and Section 8 rental properties."

He adds: "I don't think the west side of town is the magical place where you're going to get a good education."

Springfield's west side may not be the land of enchantment, but many people certainly find it alluring.

Between 1990 and 2000, most of Springfield's population growth took place west of Chatham Road and the population in areas to the east of Chatham Road saw a decline, according to the district's facilities planning committee, which cites U.S. Census data.

In addition, the committee says, most developable land lies on the far west side of Springfield. Enrollment at Lindsay Elementary School, the only public elementary school in the area, has swelled past capacity to more than 500 students, which suggests that building a west-side high school is more about demographic projections than present-day needs.

Other recommendations include the construction of gymnasiums at each of Springfield's middle schools and Southeast High, improving parking lots, adding restrooms at Memorial Field, making heating and air-conditioning upgrades, and replacing Lanphier High School.

Of the $261.3 million in suggested improvements, none has generated as much controversy as the idea of moving a high school away from the heart of the city and raising $57 million to build a brand-new school and athletic field on the west side.

At a recent school-board meeting, Ken Page, president of the Springfield branch of the NAACP, chided the school board, asking, "At what point will there be a true public hearing?" Springfield schools remain under a 1974 consent decree to desegregate its schools. School-board officials say that even under the relocation plan the district would continue to comply with the order.

School-board president Erin Conley responded to Page by saying that board members are gathering as much input from the public as possible, noting that a public work session devoted to the construction plan has already taken place and that another is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 23.

"The Springfield High School/west-side high school is kind of our elephant in the living room right now. As a board I don't know that we've come to a place of general agreement on that," Conley says.

Dr. Walter Milton Jr., superintendent of District 186, does have a preference.

Recognizing "a major concern that we don't vacate the existing building," Milton recommends moving forward with the construction of the new high school on the west side on property the district already owns. In doing so, Lincoln Magnet School — currently at 300 S. 11th St. — would move to the current Springfield High site.

"These are very difficult decisions, and we're trying our best to have a win-win across the board," he says. "We have a long waiting list of people wanting to become part of the Lincoln family. I think we have something good there."

Alternative-education programs would then be housed in the Lincoln building — a move that would save taxpayers the cost of building a new gym there, around $3 million in Milton's estimation.

"We don't have the luxury to build three high schools, although that might be the thing to do if we were a really wealthy community, but that's not our reality," he says.

Before any construction can be started, the district will have to ask taxpayers to approve a referendum, such as a 1-cent sales-tax levy. Conley says she does believe that the board agrees on the need for a referendum to pay for the middle-school gyms, which are required to comply with new state mandates on physical-education programs.

For Springfield High's neighbors, alumni, and current students, the issue is more than dollars and cents and new football stadiums. Their devotion to the Senators — previously they were called the Solons, after a Greek statesman — has as much to do with the building's remarkable story as knee-jerk nostalgia.

Erected in 1916, the school stands at the site of a former cemetery. Sometime in the 1980s workers in an elevator shaft discovered a tombstone bearing the inscription "CUT DOWN BUT NOT DESTROYED." The school is also rumored to be haunted by a petite blond poltergeist named Rachel. (The origin of the ghost's name are unclear.)

Specters aside, school spirit is also derived from the unusual mosaics on the north and south ends of the building's exterior. Mosaics that adorn the walls above water fountains, walls filled with student art from over the years, and the two-story art classroom in the center of the building where generations of students have scrawled their names are other points of pride.

"Our building has a lot of character," says Katie Ward, another 2008 graduate. "As much as people complain that we don't have a big new school like Glenwood [High School], at least we're connected to the community."

Besides, her classmate DeWeese says: "New schools all look the same."

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.

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