Mundelein High superintendent touts STEM expansion

Mundelein High School officials aren't just talking about the importance of science, technology, engineering and math education for today's youth.

They're putting their money where their mouths are by planning a $23.6 million expansion dedicated to so-called STEM instruction.

Large science labs and spaces designed to let students work cooperatively are just a few of the modern features planned for the three-story structure.

Mundelein High District 120 Superintendent Kevin Myers is thrilled about the project, which could break ground in summer 2015 and open for students the following year.

“It puts Mundelein up at the front of the pack,” said Myers, who joined the district this summer. “To me, that makes it a point of pride for our community.”

Myers wants the public to be involved with the effort, which will be funded with money from district savings and a roughly $8.3 million state grant.

To that end, Myers is inviting District 120 residents to attend the first in what he hopes will be a series of public discussions about the proposed addition.

The session is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the school, 1350 W. Hawley St.

“This isn't just our building,” Myers said. “It's the community's building.”

Emphasis on science

With a proposed facade resembling the periodic table of elements, the 51,852-square-foot addition will contain 25 classrooms and labs, as well as storage space and other amenities.

Most of the educational space will be for the science department.

The administration is focusing on the STEM subjects to encourage teens to pursue those courses in college and to prepare students for careers in high-tech, global fields.

Mundelein High officials looked into similar programs and facilities at suburban high schools, including Warren Township, Woodstock North and Wheeling, while developing the expansion plans, spokesman Ron Girard said.

“We are joining other select schools offering STEM labs and facilities that will put pep in the step of our students and help them get excited about their futures,” Girard said in an email.

The most visible part of the addition will be a three-story building that will run east-west and bisect the courtyard near the center of the school.

Educators will take advantage of the building's height by conducting scientific experiments on the roof and in a chamber that will stretch from the first floor up to the third, Girard said.

A one-story leg between the new building and the existing facility will run north-south. That's a relatively new element of the plan.

Despite the T-shape, a lot of the courtyard will remain, albeit in a different configuration.

“(We're) trying to maintain as much of the courtyard that we can for green space,” Myers said.

As part of the project, classrooms in the existing building will be repurposed into math and special education classrooms and offices. But most of the construction work will be contained to the new building, so it shouldn't affect day-to-day school activities, Girard said.

Financing the project

The grant will cover about 35 percent of the project's cost. The state board of education and the state's capital development board are behind the money, which will be delivered quarterly as work is done.

The rest of the cash — about $15.3 million — will come from a loan.

Officials will use some of the district's savings to settle that debt. A tax-rate increase will not be necessary.

This kind of financial undertaking would've been impossible a decade ago, when the district was in poor financial shape and running multimillion-dollar annual deficits.

Years of staffing cuts, fee increases and other changes helped change the district's fiscal outlook.

“I'm really proud of where things are,” board President Karen Havlik said. “When I (joined) the board nine-and-a-half years ago, we were in big trouble.”

Officials applied for the grant in 2002. They patiently waited for a response, year after year. After a while, they forgot about it.

State officials contacted the school last year and said the money was approved.

Board members — none of whom were on the panel when the application was filed — were pleasantly surprised.

“We all said, 'What money?'” Havlik said. “We had to have people go into the archives and see what it was we applied for.”

'Dramatic changes'

The effort will be the campus' biggest expansion since 1995, when voters approved a $12.5 million project that included new classrooms and a new library.

The proposed work was not included in the $10 million construction plan voters approved in April 2011. Those projects included roofing and bathroom repairs, the installation of artificial turf on the football field, and other aesthetic efforts.

“Our school has gone through dramatic changes,” Havlik said. “Everything is updated and clean and vibrant, and this is just going to add to it.”

But the project's details haven't been finalized. That likely will happen in January, when the board could approve construction plans.

Between now and then, Myers wants to hold two or three public meetings to update people about the project. They'll also be opportunities for residents to share their opinions.

People should participate not merely because the work will be funded with public money, Myers said. The building and the educational opportunities it promises could boost public opinion of the school, he said.

That could lead to higher property values, he said, and a greater sense of pride in Mundelein High.

“We have the opportunity to be an elite school because of this addition,” Myers said.

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