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Elementary Ed in a University Town
March 28, 2008 - 11:56pm


Champaign-Urbana is not a small town, though it’s often thought of as one. It’s actually two cities, of course, with separate governments. Urbana is the county seat and address of America’s 14th-largest campus; Champaign is home to the second-largest food manufacturing plant in the world, a 1.6-million square foot Kraft facility that makes enough processed American cheese slices in a year to “stretch from Champaign to the moon."

Population sums run as high as 210,000, but that’s certainly taking into account surrounding communities and probably the transient student population too. In any case, something has changed in our shared demography recently, or at least in corporate attitudes to our demographic worth: We only just got Starbucks, Potbelly Sandwich Works, Cold Stone Creamery, and other businesses well above Hardee’s/IHOP/Arby’s in the food chain.

Together we have the crime of a medium-sized city, though the relative data can be crunched many ways, and an apparent gap between rich and poor. On the busy road north to the big box stores and the better mall, kids from the lower-income neighborhood walk across five lanes of traffic nonchalantly, slowly, fatalistically, as if daring drivers to take anything else from them.

One of the most noticeable problems of (especially) Champaign’s size is its schools. Education being the cornerstone of citizenship and all, I’m sorry to admit that before parenthood I simply paid my taxes and assumed public school issues would work themselves out. But necessity puts the spur to apathy, and now that Starbuck is five and nearly done with Montessori kindergarten, I’ve started paying attention. As Mrs. Churm pointed out to me, the schools of Champaign are funded just by Champaign’s taxes, with the odd result that instead of being uniformly good or bad—the way of many individual Chicagoland suburbs, where she grew up—the Champaign school district looks like a microcosm of a much larger city’s, such as Chicago’s. I suppose I thought the university’s presence and resources would somehow moderate disparity the way a large body of water moderates temperatures onshore.

Many university employees own homes in a small area of Urbana known by the weirdly inverted nickname “the faculty ghetto.” When my wife and I mention to other parents that our house—bought before we had children—is on the fringe of that area, they sigh, Ohh, as if we have no worries. If nothing else, many parents with advanced degrees get deeply involved at the elementary school where Starbuck will go. But there is a kind of educated-elite flight in process. Professionals and businesspeople of all stripes have been buying big homes across town, in Champaign, where taxes are lower and plywood McHousing is still being thrown up on bare tracts among the corn despite the economy. (If the film Field of Dreams taught us nothing else, it’s that corn stands for Death.) Their tradeoff is schooling.

Everyone (but me) seems to know the names of the best primary school in town (private tuition is $1,000 more per year than at the university), the worst, and the reputations of the 16 between them. Unsurprisingly, African American and Hispanic neighborhoods have fared the worst, and a lawsuit against the Champaign school district resulted in a consent decree that aims “to improve the academic performance of the district's black students, and it mandates the district to eliminate unwarranted disparities between black and white students in participation in gifted classes, assignment to special education, discipline and attendance, among other things.” A Schools of Choice program now assigns kids to schools based on “parent choice, building capacity, racial balance, availability of special programs, presence of siblings in the school, and proximity preference.” This has led to further unease and violations of the decree.

An outreach program called the Chancellor’s Academy, hosted by UIUC’s College of Ed, was started in 2005 to offer professional development training to area educators to try to level the field. Last year 80 local teachers and 40 administrators attended the two-week program. “Funding,” the Illinois News Bureau reports, “comes from the Illinois campus, which pays for faculty time, books and supplies, and a $500 stipend for each participating teacher. The school districts provide staff to assist with planning, as well as release time for teachers to attend training activities during the school year.”

I don’t know how results will be measured, but one hopes that the 8th-best public university in the country, with a 1.5-billion dollar endowment, will be able to do something for its community, if only for the uni’s best interests (think faculty recruitment). A psychogeographical map of all this—needs, interests, funding, population, abilities, compassion, stories—would be fascinating, especially if it had an overlay of the university’s influence (for better and worse) on our little town.


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