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Johns Hill, Durfee families react to proposed merger

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The Durfee Magnet School Building was erected in 1925.

DECATUR – A proposal made to the Decatur school board at its Feb. 28 meeting to combine Johns Hill and Durfee magnet schools into one new building has caused a stir in the community, mostly in opposition.

While the board won't take any votes for or against the plan before March 14 at the earliest, and even then will only decide whether to pursue necessary approvals from the Regional Office of Education and the Illinois State Board of Education, people are already reacting.

Kaylynn Gause has attended Durfee Magnet School since kindergarten, and the thought of closing the school, blending its program with Johns Hill Magnet School, or any other option that would change it significantly, makes her unhappy.

“We don't want it to be Johns Hill,” she said. “We don't want it to be any other school. We want it to stay right here for the simple fact that this has been running and so many families are here and people bond. It doesn't matter if the building is old. My dad went here and my grandma used to teach here.”

“We're a family here,” said Kimbyrlee Clark, a sixth-grader. “We don't know anyone at Johns Hill. And if you change it all around, it would be different. It wouldn't be the same and people who have been here since kindergarten would feel out of place.”

Katelynn Pruitt said a building doesn't have to be replaced just because it's old. “This is a good school,” she said. “I like it here.”

The recommendation was driven by the age and inaccessibility of both schools, the oldest in the district. Buildings and grounds director Jim Gortner said Johns Hill (89,761 square feet) was built in 1928 with additions in 1974 and 1986. The student population is 494. Durfee (48,918 square feet) was built in 1925 with additions in 1927, 1951 and 1974. The student population is 390.

The FACES (Facility Advisory Committee for Exceptional Schools) proposal, presented by committee chairman Bruce Jeffery, Sam Johnson of BLDD Architects and Chief Operational Officer Todd Covault, included several points:

  • Build a new K-8 school on the grounds of Johns Hill Magnet School and combine Johns Hill and Durfee Magnet School students in the new building. When the new building is complete, demolish the existing buildings housing those two programs.
  • Move forward with installing air conditioning in district buildings without it, with Harris School the first priority due to medically fragile students, followed by Muffley School, then the remaining district schools without air conditioning.
  • Move sixth grades to middle school programs at Thomas Jefferson and Stephen Decatur middle schools, with necessary building upgrades and licensure considerations for teaching staff.
  • Perform deferred maintenance work, develop long-range capital plan, establish priorities.
  • Additional considerations include combining Garfield and Enterprise Montessori programs, prekindergarten programs now in multiple buildings into fewer locations, and continue district-wide facilities planning.

“We don't 'go to' Durfee or 'work at' Durfee,” said Sara Bodzin, who teaches sixth grade. “We are Durfee. We're a family.”

There was discussion by the school board on Tuesday that a technology-focused magnet school might not be as necessary today as it once was, now that the district has moved to 1:1 technology. Every student has access to an iPad or MacBook during the school day.

But Bodzin said the school's designation as a technology magnet school is not what makes Durfee unique. Kids learn how to research and find information, analyze and make up their own minds. The technology is the tool they use, not the focus.

If people visited the school and saw what goes on in the classrooms, Bodzin said, they would see how important it is to the students and staff. 

“Teachers are constantly going out and trying to better themselves,” Bodzin said. “If you take away this school, you take away my family.”

The idea of moving sixth grade to middle school and out of the elementary buildings didn't set well with sixth-graders, either.

Kimbyrlee said she's in no hurry to go to middle school and get lost in the crowd, when she's happy in a K-6 building with younger children.

Emeri Rawls said her older sister, who is already in middle school, tells her that it's easy to get lost in the crowd because there are so many more students in one building in middle school. Emeri said that doesn't sound appealing at all.

FACES was organized in September 2015 and held several meetings with the board and the public to discuss options for addressing concerns in the district. Apart from Johns Hill and Durfee, other concerns included Stephen Decatur Middle School, originally built to be a high school, serves only 300 or so students in a building meant to hold more 1,000, while other buildings are bursting at the seams.

Waiting lists for the magnet programs at Johns Hill and Garfield Montessori, for example, are long, because those buildings are already full. About half of district buildings have air conditioning.

At FACES' final community meeting in September 2016, after the committee had presented a decade-old study done in 2006 and had not prepared any recommendations, board members expressed frustration with the lack of conclusion.

Board members weren't the only ones frustrated. Committee members received a letter dated Sept. 16, 2016, in which they were thanked for their service and told that further participation and meetings were not anticipated.

“The last community feedback meeting they had, the general takeaway was that they were starting over,” said parent Cathy Riggs, who attended that meeting. “They didn't get the feedback they wanted, so they were scrapping the plan altogether, a slap in the face to parents and community members who took their time to come to meetings that they thought would be productive.

"Then they come in at the 12th hour and decide there is action that needs taken? It's all very confusing. It also just confirms critics and parents that won't participate because 'why should I help or work on this when they are just going to do what they want anyway?'”

At Jan. 10's regular school board meeting, board member Fred Spannaus asked interim co-Superintendent Bobbi Williams to provide the board an update on the facilities study because the board had not had one since the September session with the committee. Williams said a community survey was under way and a report would be presented after that was complete.

That survey, of 200 households in the district, found that 42.5 percent were in favor of the proposal and 40 percent against, with 17.5 undecided. When the original question was broken down into more details about potential savings on maintenance with a new building, and that a new Johns Hill could be built on the existing site, favorable ratings went up an average 35 percent.

Johns Hill families and staff have spoken passionately about their connection to “the Hill,” as they call it, and how important that building and location are to their identity. Throughout the FACES process, Johns Hill, and moving or rebuilding that school have been on the top of the agenda.

“The building definitely needs something,” said Amanda Springer, whose 7-year-old Isabella is in second grade at Johns Hill. “The concern is bringing Durfee in. Johns Hill is arts-integrated, where Durfee is technology-integrated. Typically, the arts go (away) first when things happen like that. I don't know if they're talking about keeping separate programs with two magnet schools in one building. We have lots of questions and it's kind of like, 'Where do we go from here?'”

Sharon Renfro, another Johns Hill parent and president of the Parent-Teacher Organization, said the location of the school is historic, and the school community has a great fondness for that area, but whether the school is on the hill or on the flat ground below isn't important. Building a new facility on the flat area, which would provide accessibility and more parking, is an idea she could support.

The student body at Johns Hill is diverse, as the school is the site of the district's English as a Second Language program, but one of the very real issues is accessibility for people with mobility issues.

“We will be happy to have (the board) address the structural concerns,” Renfro said. “The fact they're talking about kids having a building they can be proud of and that's structurally sound is good. I hope it will have facilities that match the talent level in our building.

"It's so important that our facilities reflect that we're a fine arts school. We need all those things to help our kids excel.”

Durfee Principal Dianne Brandt said she doesn't have enough information to form an opinion at this point, when the proposal has only just been made and so much has to be done before it would become reality.

“I'll just keep doing what I'm doing, educating kids, until the very last minute,” she said.

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