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Decatur school board decides to move all Dennis Lab students together after structural issues

Warning tape cordons off Dennis Lab School's Kaleidoscope Campus on June 27, 2023.

DECATUR — Decatur Public Schools is racing to build new classrooms for Dennis Lab students on the grounds of Garfield Learning Academy, after temporarily closing the original K-8 school buildings in late May over structural concerns.

The school board voted Tuesday to install three mobile buildings at Garfield, instead of the one they initially approved.

That allows Dennis middle schoolers to be near younger grades – as requested by parents like Nick Crim.

“Mentoring between grad grade levels has had a big impact for my son. In his early grade school years, my son’s classrooms had regular visits from older classes, helping them with projects, reading and math,” Crim said.

Crim said his son’s experience as a mentor in a special education classroom has been even more impactful, now that his son is entering sixth grade.

“I think I heard more about his time in that classroom than all the rest of his time combined. He loved the kids in there and took his status as a mentor very seriously,” he said.

Parent Nick Crim talks about how much mentoring between grade levels at Dennis Lab School has impacted his son. Emily Hays/Illinois Public Media

About 500 students were enrolled at Dennis last year.

The district has already broken ground at Garfield to prepare new electricity and water supply for the mobile buildings – which will add a total of 16 more classrooms onto Garfield’s existing 15.

School Board President Bill Clevenger estimated there are six weeks left until school starts.

“Everything from A to Z is going to be time sensitive. We’re going to have to keep moving as quickly as we possibly can,” Clevenger said.

The modular classrooms could cost up to $2 million for one year. The school board plans to vote on the exact amount by September.

Meanwhile, parents are still reeling after learning the two Dennis Lab campuses were unsafe.

“I found it hard to understand that we went to a school all year in these buildings. And a day after the school is out, they are now considered so bad off that repairs can’t be made so that we can be back in the buildings for this fall,” said parent Amber Carr.

DPS has provided a timeline for when they started investigating Dennis Lab building problems, based on teacher complaints in February. A structural engineer visited on the last day of school, May 30, because that was the first day that worked for both the engineer and district staff. That was when the engineer highlighted serious structural problems with the buildings and the district temporarily closed them down.

However, parents have long complained about some of the things the engineer noticed. For example, as reported by Decatur Votes, a Dennis parent told the school board in August 2022 that a staircase was pulling away from the wall at the Mosaic campus on West Main Street.

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.

Picture of Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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