Education

Granite City families: Is splitting up at-risk, pre-kindergarten children a good idea?

Jerzie Gatewood, 4, during Ann Jarrett Mangiaracino's pre-k class at the Granite City Early Childhood Center.
Jerzie Gatewood, 4, during Ann Jarrett Mangiaracino's pre-k class at the Granite City Early Childhood Center. znizami@bnd.com

A controversy is brewing over where to house pre-kindergarten children who are at-risk or have special needs.

Some Granite City families are dismayed as rumors spread about the future of the Early Childhood program in District 9 schools, which would shift children from one central location to empty classrooms in other school buildings.

In its place, the district is considering moving its administration offices to the early childhood building, located at 3201 E. 23rd St.

“As a grandparent, I can’t imagine a gem like this being changed into a board office,” said Linda Knogl, a retired early childhood teacher and grandparent of children in the district. “We want them to think this through before they make any decision that would disrupt such a wonderful program.”

But school leaders said it’s too soon to say what action might be taken.

“We have to look at constructive ways to do our programs in a frugal way,” Superintendent Jim Greenwald said. “This is not about a pink slip, it’s about retaining the program and people keeping their jobs, but possibly relocating to another building.”

What is the program?

District 9 remodeled the building for the Early Childhood Center eight years ago to house programs for children ages 3-5. The program provides special education services, instruction, occupational and physical therapy for at-risk students students who are pre-kindergarten.

The Early Childhood Center houses about 275 students and 20 staff members in a building designed for very young children, with restrooms and outdoor space for the very young, and to accommodate the flow of traffic from parents and caregivers picking up and dropping off youngsters for morning and afternoon sessions.

It’s that specialization of the building that has some people concerned about a possible plan to move the early childhood program out of its current building and into unused classrooms in the district’s other elementary school buildings.

Six weeks ago, Greenwald met with the early childhood staff and assured them that they would not do away with the program, but they are considering moving them to other facilities.

As a grandparent, I can’t imagine a gem like this being changed into a board office. We want them to think this through before they make any decision that would disrupt such a wonderful program.

Linda Knogl, grandparent and retired early childhood teacher

Like many districts, District 9 is looking at ways to cut spending due to the state budget crisis. Greenwald said the early childhood program doesn’t use its entire building, and moving it to empty elementary classrooms might be a more efficient use of space. It would allow the administration offices to move from the current building on Adams Street into the Early Childhood Center building, consolidating administrators.

Greenwald said that decision has not yet been made.

Knogl, one of several parents who spoke against the plan at a recent meeting, is concerned the district is making a mistake. She said the building will require extensive renovations down to the toilets, which are designed for very small children. It is designed to be handicapped-accessible for children with special needs, and she believes the cost of renovating it for adults and renovating the classrooms in the elementary buildings would be up to $500,000.

Greenwald said he did not believe that number was accurate. “We’re not going to spend a king’s ransom on this,” he said. “If we were to go to the ECC, it would not be anything like $500,000.”

No decision made

Greenwald said the district is still studying the issue and does not know how much it would cost to move the administrative offices, or what the long-term savings would be.

But Knogl also said the dropoff and pickup routines for early childhood are different than those of regular elementary schools: parents must park and come into the building to sign their children in and out, four times a day with morning and afternoon sessions, and buses are not provided, so all children would have to be picked up.

“How would a regular K-4 public school handle that kind of in-and-out movement of people?” she asked.

The building also houses physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists and others who work in special education, which Knogl said is helpful as they are usually in the same building with their students at the ECC.

Paula Hubbard, head of special education for District 9, said she could assure parents that the program will not be cut.

“I think it’s very important to make certain all the needs of these kids are met,” she said. “This is stellar programming and it’s not going to be cut. We just have to figure out space-wise what we can do with it.”

But Knogl said she and other parents concerned about the plan aren’t worried about the program being eliminated, but about its quality.

“We know they’re not going to cut the program, that’s not the concern,” she said. “But they will disrupt it by breaking up those classrooms and leaving them with classrooms in various elementary schools.”

There have already been cost-cutting measures in the ECC program: A few years ago, District 9 stopped providing busing for children who were attending early childhood programs but were not in special education, which has its own transportation.

“You would have thought I ordered people to jump off a bridge,” Greenwald said. “There’s not that many districts that offer a full-fledged pre-K program anymore. … We can’t just go status quo and keep things the way they are.”

A central location

Knogl said as a former teacher, she believes the district may be jeopardizing the grant funds that help pay salaries of teachers and support staff for the ECC program by moving out of the building. Greenwald said he does not believe that is the case.

Greenwald asked for patience as administrators research the costs of the various options. “The public has to allow us to do our jobs,” he said. “It’s hard for people to remove their feelings from these things.”

Meanwhile, the administration building on Adams Street is not centrally located to district buildings, does not house all the administration staff under one roof, and is in need of repair, Greenwald said.

“It’s a really old building, and if the ideal situation came about, it would be nice to be more centrally located,” he said.

You would have thought I ordered people to jump off a bridge. There’s not that many districts that offer a full-fledged pre-K program anymore. We can’t just go status quo and keep things the way they are.

Jim Greenwald, Granite City District 9 superintendent

However, Greenwald said rumors that administrators wanted to move out of Adams Street to leave downtown Granite City were “totally false.”

“I love downtown Granite City,” Greenwald said. “There’s nothing wrong with where we are. … We are not in a sprint to leave Adams Street. If we have an educationally sound move and through the normal course of events would allow our board office to move elsewhere, we may look at doing that.”

Another option would be to move the administration to the closed Niedringhaus Elementary School, which housed the Six Mile Public Library for a year while its main branch was being renovated. It also would require renovations, the cost of which have not been estimated, Greenwald said.

“It’s a stately, beautiful, elegant building that looks like a medieval castle,” Greenwald said. “We have hoped for some (buyers), but it’s a 93-year-old building.”

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

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