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Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 07:21 pm

Better boxes

The case against replacing Springfield High School

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Springfield High School.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

Having resolved to build new high school facilities it can’t pay for, the board of School District 186 is exploring several tax hike proposals that the voters won’t approve. The board’s preferred plan to bring Springfield’s public high schools into the late 20th century is likely to cost nearly a quarter-billion dollars. Some $57 million of that will pay for a spanking new building for Springfield High School on Koke Mill Lane to replace its aging and overcrowded premises just west of downtown. Such complexes have become the norm in Illinois’s most nearly up-to-date towns. If you haven’t seen one you’ve seen something very like them; new prisons and assembly plants are built in the same sorts of locations, according to essentially the same design criteria.

Our fearless editor challenged the wisdom of replacing SHS in this space in 2008, noting that the present building is viable for most purposes and is surrounded by developable land and is served by bus routes from across the city. (See “Building the new Springfield High School,” May 29, 2008.) Fletcher Farrar called for building an expanded SHS where it stands as part of a larger planning effort involving the school board, the State of Illinois and private investors, to create a reinvigorated near west side. The option — not entertained by the district committee assigned to explore building options — would save energy, save history and save a neighborhood.

Such sensible arguments do not exactly refute the board’s case for a new high school building, because the board has never made a very cogent case for burying another cornfield in suburban New Berlin. A new building more than five miles west of the present school would theoretically accommodate projected growth in school population, but since its enrollment is to be capped at 1,400 it wouldn’t capture much of that growth.

As for facilities, the board’s committee of community members examined the district’s building needs and found that Springfield High’s varsity, junior-varsity and freshman football squads must all practice on the same field that hosts freshman and  JV home games, a field that can’t accommodate varsity sports and has no permanent bleachers, lights or restrooms. Nor is there seating in the gymnasium, or much reason for any, since the gym isn’t set up for volleyball.

Does DCFS know about this?

The only shortcoming identified by the committee that had anything to do with teaching was the 1907 building’s smallish classrooms. These were damned because they are significantly smaller that those in the district’s newer schools – even though the district’s newer schools are all elementary schools, where the classroom functions in a different way than in high school. (Perhaps high school kids need larger classrooms so they can practice running draw plays during study breaks.) What makes a classroom inadequate would seem to have as much to do with how it’s used as how it’s designed, but then the subtleties of educationalist doctrine have always escaped me. Rather than replace buildings, the board should be talking about replacing their facilities advisory committee.

The present building is surrounded by vacant or underused land. What is needed to bring it up to pedagogical standard — new and larger labs, cafeteria/commons, arts and gym facilities, practice fields — can be provided on site in the form of new wings and satellite buildings.

Stick a pin into any map of suburban Chicago and you will find a model for what SHS might become under such a plan. Intead of tossing aside investments made in the past, the folks up yonder build upon them. Highland Park’s highly-rated public high school, for instance, houses the same number of students as SHS. Its original building, which dates from 1900, remains in use, but special-purpose additions — library, field house, laboratories — have been added as needed over the years.  

As for Springfield High’s location just blocks from the city center, that is not a drawback but a potential advantage. The Springfield High Senators take as their emblem the Statehouse dome, but the view of it from the school is the only connection that its students have with it or with downtown Springfield. Whatever its shortcomings as a shopping mecca, downtown Springfield is a splendid laboratory for curious and energetic young people. Instead of atrophying in a setting fit only for raising corn, they could help in the soup kitchens and day care centers, docent, work backstage at theater productions, research historic buildings, apprentice under local businesspeople, show city council members how to Google “Union Pacific freight plans” or a hundred other worthy projects whose sponsoring organizations lack the people-power to do. But that can’t happen until the people making decisions for District 186 quit thinking that learning is something that adolescents can do only inside a box — even a box costing $57 million.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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