District 200's new Jefferson center on track to open next fall, and leaders are excited
After such a long wait, it's hard for Principal Stephanie Farrelly to choose a favorite space in the new Jefferson Early Childhood Center under construction in Wheaton.
The two classroom wings, the natural lighting, the accessible bathrooms, even the wider doorways are all vast improvements from the outdated Jefferson.
But during a recent hard-hat tour, Farrelly had to take a picture of an interior courtyard in between the classroom wings, one example of the attention to detail going into a project more than seven years in the making.
Jefferson's students are as young as 3, and about 60% have developmental delays, speech and language needs and physical needs.
The courtyard will have a therapeutic purpose, allowing students to work on social and gross motor skills and sensory regulation.
"Every single piece of equipment was specially designed for that age of the child, but then also looking at the sensory needs, taking that into account," Farrelly said. "So we are beyond thrilled with what that's going to bring to the program here and for the students here at the preschool level."
Parents, teachers and district officials share her enthusiasm as the building really begins to take shape. The concrete walls are standing. And to get the building buttoned-up for winter, crews are completing the roof and preparing to install expansive windows staggered at various heights for kids and adults.
"That building is going to be ready and occupied by students at the start of the 2020 school year, and we're absolutely still on target for that," Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 Superintendent Jeff Schuler said. "In fact, I would anticipate that the building will really be complete by late March, early April."
The nearly 43,000-square-foot building has been a long time coming.
At least four different school boards wrestled with the fate of the 1950s-era Jefferson -- built as an elementary school, not for a young special education population.
Voters twice rejected tax increases that would have funded a new Jefferson -- in 2013 and again in 2017, as part of a substantially larger $154.5 million funding request for repairs and renovations at all but one district school.
When the district went back to voters a year ago, the third attempt easily passed. Nearly 72% of voters approved a new plan for replacing the district's early childhood center.
Instead of seeking a tax increase, the district reached a lease agreement with a bank that fronted the roughly $15 million cost of the project.
The district will retain ownership of the land off Manchester Road and rent the building for 20 years while making annual principal and interest payments from operating funds. The district then will take ownership after paying off the debt.
The project is now "tracking right on or a little under budget," Schuler said.
"Getting that building complete was a huge community conversation," he added.
To the north, the old 26,507-square-foot Jefferson will be demolished next summer. Space constraints there have forced the district to house four satellite sessions at Longfellow Elementary, but the new building will allow the district to bring all its state-mandated early learning services under one roof.
One of the rarer features of the new Jefferson is a geothermal system designed to generate utility savings. It's also a far quieter method of heating and cooling the building than the window air-conditioning units in the old Jefferson, where there is no schoolwide system.
Half the classrooms also don't have bathrooms, and the ones that do are too small and not wheelchair-accessible.
Between every two classrooms in the new Jefferson will be dedicated bathrooms for students, as well as an integrated therapy space for children who need minimal distractions.
"The classrooms will be joined with one another, but then they'll also be able to receive some of those individualized therapies that they require in addition to therapy still being addressed in the classroom," Farrelly said. "It just gives them another option."
She's also looking forward to sharing a media center area with community partners in the Wheaton Warrenville Early Childhood Collaborative, a 6-year-old program funded primarily through the DuPage Foundation and administered by Metropolitan Family Services.
Their common goal? Preparing all kids for kindergarten and supporting families in under-resourced areas of the district.
"Just to have a preschool program that's specifically designed for our age population and our special education needs, having it accessible for children and for our community members as well is just so incredibly important," Farrelly said.