Champaign looks to turn elementary schools into magnet schools

By Alissa Groeninger

Champaign School Board members are eagerly awaiting Election Day.

The Champaign School District recently announced a plan to turn Garden Hills Elementary and Booker T. Washington Elementary schools into magnet schools, which are schools with a specialized curriculum.

This decision comes after a September announcement that the district is planning to renovate both schools in order to meet the mandates of the court ordered consent decree it received in 2002.

The ability to change the schools depends on whether or not the 1 percent sales tax increase passes because the state does not fund the construction of schools, said Champaign school board member Kristine Chalifoux.

In order to create magnet schools, the original renovation plans still need to take place, Chalifoux said.

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Originally the board voted to add classrooms and a gym to each school and considered completely rebuilding Booker T. Washington Elementary.

Dave Tomlinson, president of the school board, said the board decided adding space, without making curriculum changes, would not be the best option.

“We need to add (classrooms) in an educationally sound matter … for the kids,” he said. “Great programming leads to great achievement.”

Tomlinson said the board, the administration and the plaintiffs from the consent decree all worked together to come to this decision.

“It’s not about the building … it’s about what’s inside the building,” Tomlinson added.

Booker T. Washington was a magnet school before the consent decree, but Tomlinson said the school did not have enough space to serve children from around the district. The lack of space led to inequality among students because many did not have the opportunity to attend the school.

In addition to Washington, the district has had other magnet schools in the past, but currently, there are none.

“(Creating magnet schools) really meets the needs of the neighborhood,” Chalifoux said.

Chalifoux said the Board wanted to expand the educational opportunities in the schools to create public interest in them.

“(This will) help to diversify schools and make better offerings (for the community),” she said.

Arthur Culver, superintendent of Champaign schools, held meetings on Thursday in the Garden Hills Neighborhood and several weeks ago in the neighborhood where Booker T. Washington Elementary is located to inform community members about the proposal.

“The more community input we can get the better decision we can make,” Tomlinson said.

Chalifoux said the District and the board want to decide what focus community members want the magnet schools to have. Magnet schools can have a focus in any number of subject areas, including art and science.

“We want to make that (decision) together with the community to see what kind of school we want to offer,” Chalfioux said.

Becky Restad, member of the Garden Hills Neighborhood Association, said the Garden Hills School needs to be renovated because of a lack of space.

“Our gym isn’t even big enough for them to have basketball games,” she said.

Even though Garden Hills produces good test scores people do not see it as a good educational school, Restad said. She hopes turning the elementary school into a magnet school will change that.

“It will really focus this part of town in terms of education,” she said. “All the sudden people realize that Garden Hills is a good school.”