‘Absolutely not what we wanted’

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Champaign school district proposal surprise to some families

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Blindsided. 

That’s how some International Prep Academy parents are feeling after they showed up Monday evening to a Unit 4 school board meeting to voice their support for a campus expansion, that would, in turn, expand the school’s Spanish dual-language program. 

But what those parents say they didn’t realize, however, was that that same night, board members planned to discuss a campus swap. 

The idea? 

Move International Prep Academy to the Garden Hills location — programming and all. 

Then, move Garden Hills to the Kirby Avenue campus that’s currently IPA. 

Superintendent Susan Zola told board members that night that 227 open seats were part of the reason district administrators had thought of that plan in the first place. 

She said Garden Hills is a “severely under-chosen” school and that many of the students who are often placed there come late in the enrollment process. 

If IPA moved to Garden Hills, it’s possible the extra space would allow the district’s only dual-language program to expand into middle school. 

“We definitely do want a K-8, we do feel like the district really promised a K-8 (dual-language program)…” IPA’s PTA president Sharlene Denos said Tuesday. “But in no way do we want to have this at the expense of the Garden Hills community.” 

Garden Hills Academy — formerly Garden Hills Elementary — has been a neighborhood school since 1958. 

It’s where Cristean Thompson sent her children since the year she started living in that neighborhood — 1971. 

And it’s where her granddaughter goes to school, now, after Thompson’s daughter died. 

It’s also where her granddaughter wants to go, Thompson said. It works out nicely, she added, because she can work and take her granddaughter to school in a relatively small area. 

“It’s real convenient for me because I also work… I don’t have to drive two and three miles for me to come pick her up,” Thompson said. “I would be a little bit unhappy if they did move it, you know, because it’s convenient for me and I’m sure it is for a lot of the neighbors that have kids going to school.” 

Thompson didn’t know that option was on the table until her sister called her Monday night. She’d seen the proposal talked about on the news, then called Thompson. 

And that’s part of the issue for some families: instead of learning via direct district contact, they learned via the news, word-of-mouth or lower-level school staffers.

And some IPA parents didn’t realize until they were already at Monday’s meeting what would unfold that night.  

“For the IPA parents that came to the board meeting…we were very disappointed,” Denos said. “Our push to promote what IPA is doing… having it presented in this way, where we were kind of taking over another community to get our K-8 school is not what we wanted and we were not consulted for that.” 

Board president Amy Armstrong opened Monday’s meeting by saying that the meeting discussion was the first for the board on the topic; Zola said the idea came from “internal discussions” related to district capacity issues. 

Unit 4’s enrollment is at an all-time high — 10,347 students this year — but there isn’t enough room: portables are scattered across the district’s campuses, housing excess students.  

The campus swap proposal could help with that, but some parents wonder if it would come at the expense of current Garden Hills students. Some say that the optics of sending kids out of a neighborhood with struggles would make the situation look worse than it is.

Neighborhood association president Chad Smith said some of the confusion and uncertainty around the topic could have been prevented had the district approached the Garden Hills community first.

“I just wish that…in the future that when these conversations are had that Unit 4…get input before making decisions,” he said. “With this, I know that no decision was made, but I think a lot of the fears could be eliminated by simply having a conversation with the neighborhood association ahead of time.” 

District officials said Monday they would hold forums on the topic next month.

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