Niles’ first magnet schoolPublished 4:29pm Friday, August 26, 2011
Grace Northrop, 6, has already decided that the best thing about Eastside Connections School is being in her first grade class.
“My favorite class is Mrs. (Ann) Landgraf’s class,” said Grace — red punch stained around her mouth – as she excitedly skipped around the room, taking in the atmosphere that will be her home for the next school year.
The first-grader was one of many students who were introduced Friday morning to their new learning environment at Eastside Connections School.
Eastside Elementary School, built in 1939 on North 14th Street, closed its doors last year due to budget cuts. Through the support of the community, volunteer hours, donated materials and some funding from the district, the building has been resurrected as Niles Community Schools’ first magnet school. Its first students will begin class next month.
Supt. Richard Weigel detailed the school’s transformation for the public during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday morning.
“Schools today – we’re struggling,” Weigel said. “We’re struggling with our finances. We reviewed; we reflected; we thought.”
When the district decided to implement an all-day kindergarten program, it was determined that more space was needed to accommodate it.
“We thought, ‘what if we opened this building?’” Weigel said.
The idea was proposed to the school board, and a steering committee was formed. About 200 people attended a Coffee with Richard community discussion, where they voiced their opinions about the closed elementary school.
“It was unanimous. The community said, ‘we want this, and we want to move forward,’” Weigel said. “If we are going to do this, we all have to stay together.”
Board President Jeff Curry accepted a plaque from Weigel honoring the board for its involvement in reopening the school.
“It’d be very easy for us … to complain about our current financial situation, but we said, ‘we’re not gonna do it,’” he said.
“I have challenged our governor to come here and see how it can be done,” Curry said.
Board Treasurer Greg O’Toole gave an emotional account of his family’s volunteer efforts at the school.
“My family doesn’t have much to give other than our time,” he said, recounting how his now-graduated daughter, Cassie, who attended Eastside Elementary, asked why they had to volunteer.
“This is what we do,” O’Toole said. “We volunteered to help even when we closed Eastside.”
He explained how when he was a child in the Boy Scouts, he learned to “leave nothing but our footprints” when camping.
“Leave only your footsteps behind for others to follow,” he said. “Everyone that contributed should be proud.
“I’ll see you on the next project,” O’Toole said in closing.
Dana Daniels, board trustee and former president, recognized three families who dedicated significant amounts of time to volunteering at Eastside: Greg and Robin O’Toole, Bonnie and Bill Prenkert and Tim and Kim Bagby.
“To those three families … the community owes you a great debt,” Daniels said.
The home improvement store Lowe’s also donated labor, money and materials to the school, including grass seed and teachers’ lounge appliances. Watson’s Tree Service donated wood chips for the playground. Artist Dale Lewis donated a hand-carved Viking statue.
Robin Hadrick, principal at Oak Manor Sixth Grade Center, introduced the eight Eastside teachers: Brenda Brown and Bonnie Prenkert, kindergarten; Ann Landgraf, grade 1; Laura Proctor, grade 2; Kim Bagby, grade 3; Chris Lace, grade 4; Tammie Tallis, grade 5; and Megan Bartlett, special education inclusion. Bagby will serve as the school’s “teacher leader;” Eastside will not have a principal.
Annual awards will be presented each year in honor of volunteers Bill Prenkert and Joan Schmidt to a female and male student who demonstrate service above self.
“There isn’t a place in the building you can go, sit or swing from these two individuals haven’t touched,” Bagby said.
“Our goal is to prepare our students to be successful in the 21st century,” said explained of the awards. “Our children need to understand the value of service.”
After the ceremony, the public was invited to tour the building and speak with the teachers.
“I know these guys will have a future here,” O’Toole said he watched one family walk down a hallway. He reiterated the fact that volunteers will be an integral part of making Eastside Connections work.
“The schools and the teachers certainly don’t get paid enough,” O’Toole said. “How do you put a price on all of that?
“I think as a school board, as a community member, we have to look carefully at what our assets are,” he continued, referring to the University of Notre Dame’s campus, which is home to many historical school buildings.
O’Toole said that if businesses had not donated materials and volunteers not dedicated labor, the costs to renovate Eastside would have been “astronomical.”
“It takes a community to raise a child,” he said. “All of these things add fiber to that. It’s one thing to say you care about kids — it’s another thing to do something about it.”