CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Amidst calls for Champaign school district officials to address glaring racial disparities in district academics and disciplinary numbers, school board members Monday night weighed whether they would okay a plan to move students from Garden Hills Academy to International Prep Academy on Kirby Avenue.
Public comment Monday was split between Garden Hills residents concerned that a “pillar” of their community could be compromised, as well as significant support from IPA families who want to see the district’s only dual-language Spanish program expanded to include a middle school level.
Others, like Champaign NAACP president Minnie Pearson and Champaign County ACLU president Carol Spindel came to urge the district to take “immediate” actions to address disparities between white and black students in the district.
According to data from the Education Opportunity project at Standford University, Black students in Champaign test 2.14 grades below average. And according to the Illinois State Board of Education, only 8 percent of black children are proficient in English and 6 percent are proficient in math.
Pearson called the situation “tragic,” noting those numbers come 10 years after Unit 4’s consent decree — which was implemented to level the playing field between black and white students — was lifted.
Amidst this backdrop, board members began a discussion of whether they would expand the scope of the district’s IPA referendum project further than planned in 2016.
Back then, $6 million was allotted for that school’s project. It included expanding the gym and cafeteria, add a secure entrance and modernize classrooms.
Now, board members are weighing whether they will add to the project’s scope, noting the 1957-era school is in need of HVAC upgrades, new windows, flooring and technology — among a long list of items.
What wasn’t discussed in the brief presentation was how the district would pay for any extra additions board members approved.
Member Chris Kloeppel said that needed to be a part of public conversations before January — the month that Unit 4 director of capital projects and planning Elizabeth Stegmaier told board members a decision would need to be made in order to avoid construction delays.
But it’s possible that IPA students could be bussed to Garden Hills, although there’s no proposed date of such a change. For the first time Monday, the district publicized an idea of swapping the two student groups: bussing Garden Hills students to the Kirby Avenue campus that’s now IPA and taking IPA students to Garden Hills.
Superintendent Susan Zola said Garden Hills’ 227 open seats could allow the district to expand the IPA dual-language program to a middle school level: right now, it’s only K-5, and according to one student who spoke at Monday’s meeting, the limited Spanish-speaking classes at Edison Middle School don’t mirror the full-day program at IPA at all.
That, in turn, could address some capacity issues that have gone unaddressed: Zola said enrollment at the district is at an all-time high of 10,347 students and there’s not enough room for them at the middle schools.
Currently, none of the district’s capital projects upgrades address that issue.
Board member Gianina Baker, however, said the issue isn’t just about seats.
While plenty was said about the benefits to IPA students, Baker noted that benefits to Garden Hill students weren’t among the discussion topics. Two Garden Hills neighborhood residents spoke at the meeting to say that while they weren’t necessarily against that proposal, the school was a “pillar” of the community for those who lived around it and sent their children there. Garden Hills has been an elementary school in the area since 1958.
Pearson urged district officials to remember that it was Garden Hills residents who really “owned” the building.
To justify the move, Zola and director of human resources Ken Kleber pointed to issues within the Garden Hills building, noting that an open counselor position had no applicants and that the school was “severely under-chosen” in the district’s schools-of-choice program that allows parents to rank which schools they prefer.
Board member Kathy Shannon urged people to consider an alternative narrative: instead of impacting the neighborhood negatively by bussing kids further from their homes, she said the district was considering moving “an extremely popular program to a neighborhood that’s struggling.”
The district will organize information nights in January, Zola said, where officials will hear from Garden Hills families about the proposal.
On Monday, there was no mention of what those parents thought; the two Garden Hills residents who spoke said they learned of the idea via Monday’s agenda.