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What’s going on in the Urbana School District?

The facade of a light brown brick school building with three glass doors. It saw Flossie Wiley Elementary in red letters. There are leafy green trees surrounding the building, and a grassy area in front of the entrance.
Urbana School District 116 website

From contract negotiations to football fields to school assignments, Champaign Unit 4 has had some drama. But they are not the only area school district with public controversies: Urbana has had its fair share of complicated and concerning issues. 

Multiple threats of violence to Urbana High School have resulted in hard and soft lockdowns, remote learning days, and FBI involvement. At the last school board meeting, the board voted to terminate the principal of Urbana High School, Taren Nance. He was hired in 2021 after the school went without a principal for a time. Before him, the school held on to principals for only one year at a time. There is not a specific explanation for Nance’s termination. The board also voted to demote and reassign an assistant principal and associate principal. 

It’s not the first time there has been upheaval in district administration. There have been persistent issues related to racial justice and discipline as well. What has recently garnered the most community and parental response at board meetings, however, is uncertainty surrounding the future of elementary schools in the district.

Dual Language Program

Last year, the Urbana School Board was considering merging its dual language program. It is currently split between Leal Elementary School and Dr. Preston Williams Elementary School. Teachers and administrators who work within the dual language program were largely in favor of the measure. They were hoping for combined resources and a more language-accessible space for Spanish-speaking students. As it stands now, these students face communication barriers in schools that are not completely dual language. 

The heated discussion stirred emotions and brought up familiar concerns — concerns that were also heard in the recent Unit 4 discussions, particularly the possibility of more disruption after what students have endured throughout the pandemic. Had the merger gone through, it would have resulted in 170 monolingual students at Leal being moved to Dr. Preston Williams and other Urbana schools. The other 160 dual language students at Dr. Preston Williams would have been moved to Leal. The results would have made Leal exclusively a dual language school and Dr. Preston Williams exclusively a monologue school.  

Most outspoken in opposition were Leal parents, mostly white, who were concerned about losing their neighborhood school. Ultimately their voices, and a lack of clear support from Spanish-speaking families (only 36 families responded to a survey, and 27 wanted to maintain the two-school model), led to the issue being tabled so that more information and data could be gathered on the best way forward.

Renovation of Wiley Elementary

Just last week, the Urbana School Board voted 4-3 to close Wiley Elementary for the 2023-24 school year for needed renovations and asbestos removal. Renovations and asbestos removal are not controversial things. We think most would agree that this is something that should be done, especially for a 73-year-old school that poses possible health risks. 

What was controversial, however, was deciding to close the building without a plan for where current students and staff would go next year, and if Wiley would be reopened the year after.  Again, concerns of disruption arose. With no plan for moving the students and staff into another building (something Unit 4 has had the luxury of, as various elementary schools have undergone renovation), they will likely be assigned wherever there is space in other schools. Parents and staff from Wiley spoke during a two-hour comment period, with not one person speaking in favor of closing the school without a plan to reopen it. 

Both elementary school issues are rooted in the matter of how to best serve marginalized communities in schools. As we’ve seen in proposed school assignment changes in Unit 4, when decisions are being made that center on the need for equitable school experiences for students of color and/or students from low-income households, there tends to be an imbalance in the response from the community. In general, white, more resourced families speak the loudest. Currently 40% of Leal students are white, and 54% come from low-income households. 

That also seems to have been the case in Urbana’s dual language discussions. While their concerns over being moved from a neighborhood school have merit, if additional discussions and data indicate that English learners are best served in a fully dual-language environment, the only viable option is to shift that to an existing school, equitable access to education needs to be prioritized over the convenience of a neighborhood school. Wiley has a much different demographic makeup than Leal: 20% of students are white, and 78% come from low-income families. This is a population of students that cannot afford uncertainty. Yet despite immense pushback from families and teachers, four board members decided to push ahead without a plan for their future.

The success of Black and Hispanic students at the elementary school level is crucial. This is especially true considering that success can carry through to the high school level, where currently, those students are not faring well compared to their white peers. As these discussions and decisions continue, we hope to see the needs of students most in need of educational support take precedence. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Trude Namara, and Mara Thacker.

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