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‘Leave Garden Hills Alone’ Champaign Residents Oppose Unit 4 Campus Swap

Hattie Paulk, former director of the Champaign Unit 4 Family Information Center, speaks to a crowd at the Garden Hills Elementary School on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. Paulk opposes a proposed swap of the Garden Hills and International Prep Academy campuses.

Garden Hills Elementary School parents, neighbors and Champaign community members said they opposed a proposal that would swap the school’s campus in north Champaign with the International Prep Academy —  the district’s bilingual program. A diverse crowd packed the Garden Hills cafeteria for a listening and information session hosted by Champaign Unit 4 Superintendent Susan Zola on Tuesday evening.

At a Champaign Unit 4 School Board meeting last month, Zola proposed the swap as a means to solve several problems the district faces. Parents of IPA students want the program expanded through at least eighth grade, but the IPA campus is not large enough to accommodate such an expansion. Meanwhile, she said, the district’s middle schools are overcrowded. Garden Hills, on the other hand, has more than 200 open seats, and is “under-chosen” in the district’s schools of choice process, Zola said.

But many who spoke during Tuesday’s forum said they feared such a move would not benefit the mostly black and low-income students who attend Garden Hills. The elementary school was recently renovated. District officials are still trying to figure out to what extent and scope the IPA campus will be renovated.

“The hardship of children and parents who are already struggling to make ends meet and then you’re going to take them out of their neighborhood where they can feel and see the value of this building, they’ve lived through all the construction and renovations… and you’re going to take them from here and bus them across town to a dilapidated school that should not even have anybody there,” said Minnie Pearson, a former Unit 4 teacher and president of the local chapter of the NAACP. 

Azark Cobbs, a Garden Hills neighborhood resident, said he didn’t want the proposal to pit black parents at Garden Hills against Latinx parents who want to see the IPA program expanded.

“We’re all in it together, there’s enough money going around… I’m glad this brought all of our attention together for one cause because we’re going to work together to make changes. And leave Garden Hills alone, Dr. Zola,” Cobbs said.

State Rep. Carol Ammons, an Urbana Democrat, said she had received many concerned calls from residents about the proposed swap. She said every student in Unit 4 deserves access to a bilingual program — not just IPA students. 

“And if you are going to make a decision to expand K through eight for IPA, and not for Garden Hills and not for Dr. Howard (Elementary School), and not for all the schools in Unit 4, then you are making a huge mistake, and I cannot possibly support that kind of action,” Ammons said. 

Josh Payne, who mentors at-risk youth in the community, said Garden Hills is “under-served.”

He said he worries that if the district goes forward with the swap that it will send the message to Garden Hills students that the district doesn’t care about them. 

Hattie Paulk, the former director of the district’s Family Information Center, suggested that if school officials move forward with the swap, that parents consider taking them to court.

“My heart is breaking that you want to take the kids out of here. This is a nice school,” Paulk said. 

At the board’s December meeting, Zola said many Garden Hills students struggle both academically and behaviorally, but she did not clearly explain how the swap would mitigate those issues.

Melissa Kearns, a coordinator for Garden Hills, said during Tuesday’s meeting that the teachers at the elementary school are committed to their students. She implored Unit 4 administrators to provide culturally responsive professional development to the school’s educators, and additional support services to students and their families. 

“What we’re seeing is a need for a deeper commitment. We know it’s not equitable,” Kearns said. “Our kids need clinical counselors. Those families need those same supports.”

She said moving schools would not address the problems Garden Hills students face.

“What’s going to address the problem is making sure our kids get an equitable opportunity for an education with students who look and don’t look like them,” she said.

Some attendees also questioned why a gifted program had been removed from Garden Hills. Zola said the program was cancelled roughly three years ago because few families of eligible first grade students selected Garden Hills as their school of choice.

In an interview after the meeting, Ronick Frazier, a Garden Hills parent, said she hasn’t spoken to any parents at either her child’s school or IPA who approve of the swap idea.

“Integrating it, yes, but moving them, swapping them, they’re not in support of it,” she said. “The gifted program, too, that should be back (at Garden Hills).”

Zola said she’ll present a report about the proposed swap incorporating feedback she’s received from both IPA and Garden Hills families at a school board meeting scheduled for Monday, Jan. 13. She said she will also provide board members with recommendations on next steps, but assured the crowd at Garden Hills that no final decisions would be made at the meeting. 

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

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