Common problems plague Quincy's 'borderline' elementary schools - Quincy Herald-Whig | Illinois & Missouri News, Sports

Common problems plague Quincy's 'borderline' elementary schools; School District exploring options

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Conner Lee Smith, a third-grader at Dewey School, sits at his desk near an air-conditioning window unit in his classroom. Concerns have been expressed that the use of window units make it difficult for students to hear. (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt) Conner Lee Smith, a third-grader at Dewey School, sits at his desk near an air-conditioning window unit in his classroom. Concerns have been expressed that the use of window units make it difficult for students to hear. (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)
First-grade students at Ellington School listen as teacher Melissa Hopf, right, instructs them during general music class in the library. The library doubles as the music room because of limited space. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson) First-grade students at Ellington School listen as teacher Melissa Hopf, right, instructs them during general music class in the library. The library doubles as the music room because of limited space. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
An adult and student dart through traffic on Hampshire Street north of Madison School, illustrating a major safety concern for Quincy school officials. Several elementary schools and QJHS are bordered by busy, narrow streets. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley) An adult and student dart through traffic on Hampshire Street north of Madison School, illustrating a major safety concern for Quincy school officials. Several elementary schools and QJHS are bordered by busy, narrow streets. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
Second-grade students at Madison School head down to the basement from their second-floor classroom for a bathroom break. The only bathrooms in the school are in the basement. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson) Second-grade students at Madison School head down to the basement from their second-floor classroom for a bathroom break. The only bathrooms in the school are in the basement. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)

By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Anne Cashman, principal of Ellington School, finds herself in a tough spot these days.

Her school just received the lowest "educational adequacy" score among Quincy's seven active K-3 elementary schools in a facilities appraisal recently conducted by the school district. Its score of 93 out of 200 possible points gave Ellington a "poor" rating in that category.

Cashman doesn't like to dwell on any bad things associated with her school at 30th and Lindell.

"We try not to air our dirty laundry," she said. "We always put on a positive face. That's why the community doesn't always know that we're making do with rooms that are not great."

However, the Quincy School District is using a recent assessment of all its facilities as the springboard for a community discussion about the future of Quincy's public schools.

The discussion started in earnest this past week when school officials began getting feedback during a series of public forums. District residents are getting the opportunity to fill out a survey on existing schools and the way grades are configured.

Preliminary results from the survey will be announced at the School Board's monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Dewey School, 2040 Cherry.

Surveying the community

Joel Murphy, the district's business manager, oversaw the development of the facility assessment as well as the survey. He said the community's response will help determine what action he will eventually recommend the School Board take regarding the district's aging buildings.

The assessment showed only one of the district's elementary schools (Adams) received a "satisfactory" score. The six other K-3 schools — Berrian, Dewey, Ellington, Madison, Monroe and Washington — were listed as "borderline," as was Baldwin Intermediate School, which houses students in grades 4-6. Irving School, which was closed a couple of years ago, was the only building with an overall rating of "poor."

Murphy said a "borderline" designation means "there's action that we have to take to bring it up to satisfactory or look at other options."

Murphy said the goal is to determine if the district should try to repair, replace or reconfigure the district's schools. Most of the district's elementary schools have limited space and a variety of structural issues, and Murphy says the arrangement of grades in Quincy is "out of alignment with current practices" used in most schools around Illinois and the nation.

Most school districts in Illinois offer K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 arrangements. Along with the previously noted arrangements in Quincy for grades K-6, grades 7-9 attend Quincy Junior High School and grades 10-12 attend Quincy High School.

"If it's the feeling of the community that they are happy with our current structures, why change it?" Murphy said. "But if they say, ‘We'd like to see K-5 buildings and a 6-8 junior high and ninth grade moved to the high school,' that's a different option. If they say, ‘We want a K-8, 9-12 structure,' that changes the plans totally."

Murphy said the district would face difficulty converting to a series of K-5 or K-8 schools using the existing elementary schools, which have small classrooms and limited cafeterias/gyms. Most schools do not meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. If the district attempted to renovate the buildings to provide more space, Murphy said the existing portions of those structures also would have to be made ADA compliant.

Many of the local schools don't have large enough lots to accommodate more building additions. That's one reason why the concept of building several new schools — with adequate parking, pickup/dropoff and play areas — has strong appeal for some school officials.

‘Teaching has changed quite a bit'

Some of the rooms that Cashman said "are not great" are in the lower level of the original Ellington building, erected in 1914. Newer parts were added on in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the library was added in 1995.

But it's the 99-year-old original structure that worries Cashman.

The old section houses several classrooms. One in the basement has flooded twice since Cashman became principal nine years ago. Not only were educational materials ruined, but classes were disrupted for a time until things dried out and were put back in place.

"We have to run a dehumidifier in that classroom at all times and empty it daily," Cashman said. "And it's loud. When a teacher is trying to teach and you have the dehumidifier going, that's something that impacts instruction. It's the same way with our window units in other rooms when we're trying to do air conditioning."

Even in her own office, Cashman turns off the window AC unit when she talks on the telephone because of the noise. She knows what it's like for children trying to hear teachers' voices above the din of window units.

Ellington classrooms average 841 square feet. That figure is a little bigger than the district average, but Cashman said it's not adequate to meet today's educational needs.

"Teaching has changed quite a bit since I started in 1985," she said.

"We don't teach in a way any longer where the children just sit in a desk and the teacher stands in the front of the room. Students are expected to work cooperatively in their learning, and there are actually times when you need a space for students to meet in whole group and then you need a space for them to meet in small group and then you need to be able to meet with them one-on-one. So it requires a little more space."

"When I went to school, the nuns lined up five rows of six chairs and six desks and that's where you sat and didn't move," Murphy said. "Nowadays, you've got a group of students working over here, another group of students working over there, and you've got the teacher working with yet another group of students. There's interaction and movement and stuff like that, and trying to do that in a room this size with 25 or 30 kids just doesn't work.

"And as we try to get as much technology as we can into the hands of the kids, that's another component to put into that space."

Technology advancements set the stage for even more changes to come.

"We use easels and charts, and we have a guided reading table," Cashman said.

The lack of room has caused some Ellington teachers to give up their own desk to free up space.

"They utilize their guided reading table," Cashman said. "That's sort of the center of their classroom, and they'll use the storage space on shelving and things like that for items that would normally have been stored in a desk."

Cashman said Ellington, which serves 322 students, doesn't have enough space for all the classes students take. For example, the library is doing double duty. It serves as the library on Monday and Wednesday and Friday mornings, and it's the music room on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday afternoons.

"You can't just go to the library at any time if you wanted to do a research project," she said. "You can only visit on your scheduled time."

Cashman says Ellington's cafeteria is too small to accommodate all the children for lunch. Some students eat meals in the gymnasium, which cuts into gym time.

"We cannot have PE during the lunch hours," she said. "And if we have any special events, like an assembly, school pictures, vision and hearing screening — essentially anything that's outside what we do on a regular basis — we have to remove people from their settings."

When Ellington has vision and hearing screenings, library time is done in the classrooms. When school pictures are scheduled, physical education classes go outside — unless it rains, meaning PE must be held in a classroom.

"We have a lot of juggling that has to go on, and sometimes what the children are offered in its place is not the highest quality," Cashman said. "We do the best we can, but it's not the quality they'd be getting if they were in their regular setting."

Traffic congestion concern after school

Safety after class is dismissed for the day is a daily concern at some of the elementary schools.

Traffic congestion occurs at Ellington when parents and school buses line up along Lindell, an east-west street, to pick up students, and parents cross Lindell from the south side — "which is always scary for us," Cashman said.

A pickup lane is designated on the north side of Lindell, but as vehicles line up to the east along Lindell, the traffic often narrows to just one lane.

"The neighbors have worried about the safety" at that location, Cashman said. "So it's more than just a school problem. It's a community problem."

Traffic congestion after school is a top concern for Jim Sohn, principal at Madison School, which has an enrollment of 416. Problems along Maine Street near 25th had been a problem for years, but parking is now restricted in front of the school. However, similar problems are still in place on the north side of the school at 25th and Hampshire.

Murphy was taking photos of the congestion one day earlier this month when he witnessed a car running into a school bus.

"We have probably 160 cars that come to pick up, and we have maybe 24 or 25 kids that actually walk home without getting in a car. The rest get bused out of here," Sohn said.

Adapting to other issues

Madison School is one of several district schools with limited restrooms. When the multi-story building was built in 1890, restrooms were placed only in the basement. Youngsters must march down a couple of flights of stairs whenever they take a bathroom break.

Sohn said teachers have learned to time the bathroom breaks when possible to coincide with PE or music, both of which take place in the basement.

"We have wonderful teachers. They adapt to it," he said. "But if you do need to take your class out for just a bathroom break, it's five minutes to get everybody down there, five or 10 minutes for a bathroom break for everybody, and then five minutes back. So you're looking at 15 to 20 minutes out."

Bathrooms also are in the basement at Dewey School, which also doesn't have a cafeteria.

Students have to eat in the gym, which affects PE scheduling and other activities. Dewey also doesn't have central air conditioning. Instead, classrooms have window air conditioners, which can be noisy.

No cafeteria at Monroe School means multiple lunch periods in the gym. Classrooms are tight, storage space is lacking, and window air conditioners also are used in the classroom.

Brian Trowbridge, Monroe's principal, said those conditions detract from the educational process, but he says solid education is still taking place.

"The teachers are used to what this building offers, and they still give quality instruction," he said. "But the curriculum and how it's delivered has changed since the 1960s when this building was built, and you can only adapt so much to it. Eventually, changes need to occur, and that's kind of where we are."

Murphy cited studies that show good school facilities can have a major impact on a student's performance in school.

"Students do better when they hear well, see well, are not packed into small places, noise is not distracting, lighting is good, air quality is good, and the heating and cooling is balanced," he said.

"We have great, great schools. It's just that our facilities don't match how great our schools are," he said. "What I mean by that is good teachers can teach anywhere ... but our physical structures are limiting what we can do."

Trowbridge believes the idea of building new, modern schools has merit.

"It depends on who you ask," he said. "I have young children, so yeah, I'm going to want new schools."

However, he also knows others who are more interested in keeping property taxes as low as possible.

"You hope that there's some common ground that can be discussed and they'll be able to understand how (having good schools) affects the community," Trowbridge said.

‘Golden opportunity' approaching

Murphy said he intends to refine the various options available to the district, based upon input from the community and the School Board, and will present recommendations later this year.

If the district decides to undertake new construction or renovations, it will likely need a new funding source.

A golden opportunity is approaching.

School Board members were told months ago that several bonds comprising the district's debt service tax levy will be expiring in the 2015 tax year. If voters give their approval, the district could undertake a major building campaign by using that freed-up levy to pay for construction bonds without causing a noticeable change in the district's overall tax rate.

Another option being explored is the possibility of asking voters to approve a sales tax increase of up to 1 cent to help pay for school construction costs.

Murphy hopes to present a final report and recommendations to the School Board at its December meeting. December is the deadline for getting issues placed on the March primary election ballot — the earliest a tax issue can be placed before voters.

If the district can't meet that target, a subsequent opportunity to put an issue before voters comes up in November 2014, Murphy said.

Bud Martin, the district's former business manager, told the School Board two years ago that the district has been spending between $30 million and $40 million every 10 years on a litany of life-safety projects needed to upgrade the district's aging schools. He suggested it might be wiser to start investing money in new buildings.

Murphy agrees. He likens the district's old schools to a fleet of antique fire trucks.

"They're beautiful. They're absolutely gorgeous. They run fine when they're running down the street, and if you want, we can add some additional bells and whistles to them," he said.

"But when it comes to push and shove and you have a fire, do you want that antique fire truck pulling up to put out the fire at your building, or do you want a new fire truck to put out the fire?"

— ehusar@whig.com/221-3378

YOUR INPUT SOUGHT

District residents are getting the opportunity to fill out a 26-question survey about existing schools and the way grades are configured. The survey is on the district's website (www.qps.org), and residents can answer it online or fill out a paper copy at the Board of Education headquarters, 1416 Maine.

COMMENT HERE

Share your thoughts about the school's aging buildings. What should the district do? Repair? Replace? Reconfigure? Comment below.

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