Dan Wagner says his son received a wonderful education at Jefferson Early Childhood Center in Wheaton.
But the challenges John confronted while navigating the 1950s-era building, where two-thirds of the students have special needs, are still fresh in Wagner's mind and convinced him to help spearhead a referendum push to replace the aging facility with a new one better equipped to address the needs of Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200's youngest learners.
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About this seriesThis is the first of a two-part series examining Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200's April 9 ballot question concerning the future of the Jefferson Early Childhood Center. The second installment will take a closer look at how the proposed project would be financed.
Wagner says John was diagnosed with autism at 15 months and became a student at Jefferson when he turned 3. Now, he's doing well as a fourth-grader at Madison Elementary School in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200.
But while John got a wonderful education from the staff at Jefferson, Wagner says, the physical facility made things far more challenging than they needed to be.
"The facility itself is taking away from the education experience of children," he says. "There's no other place in the district that has this kind of facility that does not meet the needs of the kids."
District 200 officials agree, and that sentiment is the driving force behind their push for a tax increase this spring that would allow them to build a new Jefferson behind the existing building and eventually raze the old structure.
They say Jefferson, at its best, was designed for elementary school students, not 289 preschoolers ages 3 to 5. Built more than 50 years ago, they say the building is aging, outdated and beyond any quick-fix solutions.
Long lines in common washrooms serving one wing of the building take away from instructional time, they say, especially for special needs students who move more slowly. In classrooms that do have bathrooms, the facilities are not accessible for students in wheelchairs or walkers.
There is a lack of appropriate instruction space, officials say, and not all of the school's entrances are accessible for students dealing with disabilities.
Wagner says student safety is another issue, especially before and after school when cars line up on Manchester Road.
The building is "so close to Manchester that with a kid like John, who would like to run, you're always on edge," says Wagner, who co-chairs Friends of the School, a group supporting the referendum campaign.
"Jefferson is an incredible place because of the faculty and the staff," Wagner says. "The facility is absolutely horrible."
To address such concerns, the school board voted 6-1 in January to place a referendum question on the April 9 ballot asking voters whether District 200 should issue $17.6 million in bonds to finance the cost of constructing a new early childhood center at 130 N. Hazelton Ave. in Wheaton.
Proponents say replacing Jefferson is more fiscally sound than renovating the building, which opened in 1958.
Superintendent Brian Harris says a renovation plan also would leave the district with few options to house Jefferson students during the remodeling. An on-site mobile city with rental units would pose a "significant one- or two-year cost," he said.
Another option "might have been to farm the programs out into our elementary buildings, but that would have overcrowded every single elementary building in the district," Harris says.
Critics, though, are raising financial concerns, arguing the district should not take on more debt until there is certainty about a proposal by lawmakers to shift teacher pension costs from the state to downstate and suburban school districts. In 11 years, principal and interest payments on the Jefferson debt would cost taxpayers an estimated $23.4 million, officials say.
School board member Jim Gambaiani, who cast the lone "no" vote in January, says his opposition isn't about Jefferson, but rather about spending any money on new buildings or capital projects at this time.
"I think we really need to step back and really let the skies clear, if you will, before we go down this path, because there are too many unknowns that could have even more significant impact financially on the district," Gambaiani says.
He said he's toured Jefferson several times.
"There's no question, as you look at that building, it's clearly dated," Gambaiani says. "There are obviously challenges in that building, but also in many buildings."
One of the problems facing teachers and students at Jefferson is the lack of space for one-on-one instruction and private meetings between parents and staff, Principal Stephanie Farrelly says.
Some students, including those with autism, are receiving instruction in converted storage closets without windows, so they won't be distracted by loud play activities, fans and window air-conditioners, Farrelly says. Students who require sensory therapy use trampolines and other equipment set up at the end of hallways.
Officials were forced to open satellite sites at Madison and Johnson elementary schools in 2011-12 because enrollment at Jefferson already meets the building's capacity of 289 students.
Of the students at Jefferson, only about one-third do not have special needs and pay tuition.
Students become eligible for the district's special education services when they turn 3, Farrelly says, and the rolling enrollment adds about 100 students a year.
In one wing in the building, more than 65 students use two common washrooms designed for elementary students and not preschoolers, the principal says. Long lines are a hurdle for both special needs students and those who are toilet training.
"There's a lot of instructional time that's wasted," she says.
On the other side of the building, children in walkers and wheelchairs cannot access classroom bathrooms and must use the common washrooms.
"It takes them three to four times longer to walk the distance that you and I can walk, and they have low muscle control, so by the time they make it from there to here, it's just not good," Farrelly says.
The school's gym and hallways lack air conditioning, preventing medically fragile children from attending Jefferson, officials say. A nurse's office next to the gym does not have a bathroom, so if students become ill, they must use a washroom about 100 feet away.
Step stools are necessary for students to reach classroom sinks, but even with the stools, students can reach only the hot water handles -- a setup that requires an adult to accompany students.
For Nancy Swanson, a longtime special education teacher on the assessment team at Jefferson, such barriers contradict a staff goal.
"It's so hard to see children not being able to be independent," Swanson says. "A big focus of our program and our philosophy is to help any child with any sort of special needs be as independent as they possibly can."
If voters approve the tax increase in the April 9 election, design plans call for building the new school on what is now an athletic field on the 10-acre Jefferson property near the DuPage County Fairgrounds and, once its finished, to demolish the existing structure.
Officials say the district would seek bids for the project in fall 2013 and construction could begin in spring 2014. Students likely would move into the new building in August 2015.
The new school would cover 59,198 square feet, with a capacity of about 400 students, according to plans by Chicago-based Legat Architects. The existing building covers 26,507 square feet.
Officials shaved off about 3,700 square feet from a previous proposal in response to a community survey and feedback from Jefferson staff, reducing the projected cost from $18.3 million to $17.6 million. Among the changes, architects trimmed storage areas and spaces in classrooms for teachers' work stations and redirected the areas to "collaborative team rooms."
Officials also abandoned a proposal to move the district's administrative offices from the School Service Center in Wheaton to the new Jefferson.
The design would preserve a sensory garden in a courtyard surrounded by the one-story building. Every two classrooms would share one accessible bathroom.
Farrelly says the design would offer more flexible spaces in classrooms where staff can provide therapy with little distraction, but also open the area up for other activities.
Swanson says the new building would allow the district to bring all its preschool students and staff under one roof, allowing teachers and therapists more opportunities to bounce ideas off each other.
"You feel very alone being that person that has to go to that other building, especially knowing all the great community we've created here," says Swanson, who sat on a committee during the design process.
Wagner also applauds the design.
"When you have this diagnosis of special needs, your eyes are as big as saucers," Wagner said. "You don't know what to do … It's wonderful to be able to follow the path into a Jefferson. Ultimately, you have a better facility that's going to meet the needs of these special-needs kids."
Coming tomorrow: A closer look at the financial impact of a new Jefferson for the district and taxpayers.