New $25M Urbana high school on track for opening after break

The site of Urbana’s new high school is still a construction zone: Hard hats are required upon entry, sawdust clouds the hallways and the building echoes with a steady drum of hammering.

In just about three months, however, the building will be fully prepared for students and teachers to move in, said Urbana superintendent Charles Thiel.

“We’re slightly ahead of schedule,” Thiel said.

Local requirements to be certified for occupancy could cause delays late, but Thiel said the district will be doing its best to work with local authorities and deliver on its target date of April 10, 2018 — right after students return from their spring break.

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The new school, at a cost of about $25 million, will replace the 120-year-old school building currently in use. Much of the old school will be torn down to make room for a new parking lot, but the oldest part of the building — referred to as the “castle” — will remain standing, though no definite plans are in place for how it will be used.

Moving into the new building with just five weeks left in the school year might seem unusual, Thiel said, but those weeks will be crucial to completing the full project — including the demolition of the old building and the addition of new parking space — by next fall.

Last week a handful of community members were given a tour of the new building as part of the local chamber of commerce’s “Education Day” for Champaign County leaders.

Shana Loveless, director of community relations for Urbana University and a participant in the tour, went to school in the castle through junior high.

“This is well overdue,” Loveless said of the rebuild.

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Many of the new building’s rooms are still empty, but there are just enough details to distinguish the spaces — sinks and lab tables in the science classrooms, buffet cases in the cafeteria space and painted accent walls in maroon, yellow, blue or green in the classrooms.

This month the wood floors were being installed in the gym, which is already outfitted with large maroon letters spelling “HOME OF THE HILLCLIMBERS.”

The new facility will have centralized air conditioning and improved air filtration, Thiel said, and classrooms will be modernized with new technology and easily movable furniture.

Stairways are much wider, and each classroom will have at least one window that can be used as an exit. After the January shooting at West Liberty-Salem High School, district leaders considered ways to provide additional escape routes from classrooms.

“Some of the safety features are vast improvements over our current buildings,” Thiel said.

Due to the Ohio School Facilities Commission’s regulations on classroom size, the new 88,000 square foot building will have fewer classrooms than the current facility. Because of that, two teachers, or sometimes three, will teach out of the same classroom on any given day.

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In lieu of a traditional teachers’ lounge, the building has “collaboration space” for its instructors, with desks and storage space lining the walls. Once completed, the room will also have a large table for meetings and an LED panel — the same kind that will be installed in the classrooms — so that teachers can work with the technology together.

“One of the big pieces was collaboration and flexibility,” Thiel said. “We want to be able to have staff and students work collaboratively and to be flexible so that, in the future — since we don’t know what education is going to look like — we could modify the building for our purposes.”

The two-floor academic wing will also include four “extended learning areas,” spaces outside of classrooms outfitted with comfortable seating, LED panels and whiteboards. These spaces are designed for students to use outside of traditional classroom time. That could meaning meeting for group projects, working through math problems or meeting in small discussion groups.

“The open learning environment where students aren’t going to be tied to a classroom — I think that’s a game-changer in Champaign County,” Loveless said. “I think that’s a really cool opportunity that I haven’t seen in any of the local schools here.”

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In 2014, Urbana voters approved a $31.3 million bond issue to build the new high school as well as a new pre-kindergarten through eighth grade building. The state is paying 61 percent of the $68 million cost to build both schools.

Construction on the elementary was delayed when the safety of the original location — a site near the Champaign Family YMCA that bordered an old city landfill — was questioned. In January, the district purchased a new plot for about $925,000 on U.S. 68 between Vintage Drive-Thru and Campground Road.

Construction on the elementary school site will continue throughout the winter, Thiel said, and, though their contract requires that the school be completed by January 2019, they hope to open the building in August for the new school year.

By the numbers:

120: Age of the old school building

88,271: Square footage of the new building

$25.1 million: Cost to build the new high school

61 percent: Share of the project paid for by the state

Source: Urbana City Schools.

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