Bijou awaits its fate
Bond issue repairs pending District 11 decision that could relocate Westside alternative school

       Bijou School Principal Wayne Hutchison is used to waiting on facility improvements.
       A late-1990s bond issue that would have built a major addition at the 730 N. Walnut St. alternative high school wound up being used elsewhere. A transfer of a portable classroom from Midland Elementary, planned last year to alleviate crowded conditions, continues to be delayed by state certification issues. And Bijou's $709,000 bond issue allotment from 2005 - which was to fund a modular auditorium (none exists now), replacements for its four aging portable classrooms and various system and hardware unpgrades in its creaky main building - remains on hold while School District 11 officials decide whether to keep the Bijou programs at the current site or not.
       Hutchison doesn't oppose the idea of moving. It wouldn't be the first time for Bijou since it started in 1970 under the title of Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). But he does mind the crowded and deteriorating conditions in the portables (they are 30 years old; built to last only 10) and what's left of the original Bristol Elementary, erected over a century ago. The part that remains is the one-time gymnasium and kindergarten rooms. The main building was torn down in 1972.
       “We're bursting at the seams for space,” Hutchison said in an interview this week. “It's not just students. I have to juggle office schedules for support people because I don't have room for all of them.”
       Without modern heating/cooling/ventilation systems, the school's 135 students work in classrooms that get too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, according to Hutchison and various teachers. The air circulation is also poor, said Ray Childs, the school's maintenance head.
       “I send kids out with masking tape to cover holes near the door when it snows,” commented social studies teacher Andrea Brown. “And we've duct-taped the carpet down.”
       Things need to be fixed so often “the maintenance people call this their second home,” Hutchison said. “There's always some maintenance issue.” Examples he gave included frequent power losses, plumbing problems and roof and window leaks.
       Asked about Hutchison's summation, District 11 Facilities Manager Mike Maloney offered no argument. “It's just not a very nice facility,” he said. “We should do much better for those kids.”
       Ironically, that's the main reason the bond-issue money hasn't been spent yet - because of the possibility the school will have a whole new location.
       Maloney is not recommending a new school. The idea would be for a site that is in operation already. How is that possible? Very possible, if the district's School Configuration Committee recommends, as some expect, changes at certain as-yet-unnamed, under-utilized schools that could open up space.
       The group's 30-plus members, consisting mostly of citizens, is scheduled to meet again Oct. 22, listening to recommendations from its four subcommittees. This will be followed by public hearings, a “master plan” in November and a “formal report and implementation plan” in December, according to a schedule presented to the Board of Education last June.
       If a recommendation does not call for a new home for Bijou, Maloney said he thinks there still would be time to order the necessary supplies to accomplish the bond- issue upgrades next summer at the Walnut Street site. This might be OK with some students, who, in random, informal comments, indicated a mix of liking the old school's funkiness but desiring facilities that would be more comfortable and functional.
       There seemed to be little doubt the staff would like better work conditions. Science teacher Nancy Bonner has an unfinished sink in her room in the main building. The part that was built was from a grant she'd received that was supposed to augment bond issue money.
       There was an amiable dispute between Bonner and her students as to what windows did or didn't work. One that the students thought was broken just sticks sometimes, she explained. But she and her class agreed on one key point: On a hot day, the room temperatures get into the mid-90s. Unfortunately, new windows are not part of the bond issue money.
       In Jill Arnott's art class, a heater hangs from the ceiling. It's so loud that when it comes on she said it's hard for the class to hear her talk. She also pointed out where she has various art supplies stacked near the ceiling - representative of a schoolwide lack of teacher storage space. Additional space is also not a bond issue item.
       Vicki Patterson, a retired English teacher who's come back as a one-year fill-in this year, first taught at the site in 1976 when it was EOP. Most of her teaching career, through 2003, has been there, usually in one of the portables. One year her portable was partitioned to allow a nursery on the other side. “It wasn't easy trying to teach while the babies were screaming,” she commented.
       Another time she had a portable without air-conditioning. Some of her students were pregnant girls, one of whom passed out on a hot day. A request to the district got her nowhere. But the next year she tried a different tack. She pointed out that the computers in her room might malfunction from excessive heat. “Within three weeks, I had air conditioning,” she said wryly.
       She praised the school and district maintenance people: “They've done a good job keeping up with a not a very good building.” But as far as future improvements, she did not express high optimism. “We've always called ourselves the stepchild of the district,” she said.

Westside Pioneer article