Garden Hills is a 4-strand school. They currently have over 420 students, and with the new addition, they'll have over 500 seats. That's a large elementary school. The kindergarten classrooms will be moved to the new section of the building and will be very large.
Lloyd, the assistant principal, took me on my 15-minute tour. It's a very low key school. Staff was usually in jeans and button down shirts or sweaters. The hallways were quiet even with tons of kids moving through them. The plus, for folks coming from the south of town, is that school doesn't start until 8:45 a.m., so if your child has to get on a bus early in the morning, it won't be before 7 a.m.
Garden Hills has their own computer lab with very new PCs. They also have a laptop cart that can be taken into the classrooms. They have large spaces for music and art and even larger newer ones coming with the new building.
I asked Lloyd, how the day-to-day will change for students at Garden Hills next year once they become the International/Fine Art Magnet school. And the answer I got, made me go "Mmmm." However, later in the tour, he told me that one of the elements being built into the school will be a brand new recording studio. So, I think in terms of investment, although kids won't have any additional times in music and art, the wealth of resources available to them will increase greatly.
As it turns out, children won't have any more actual Art time in their day (that is they'll have art, like everyone else in the district at least twice a week), but how they approach art will be different. Similarly, the International component I would have assumed would have more than one language available for children to learn -- and Lloyd pointed out that even now, students at Garden Hills have speakers who are fluent in over 30 different languages. But as part of the magnet school, a child will only learn Mandarin Chinese -- "probably once a week." A large component of the ESL programs are moving to the renovated Garden Hills, which means there will be a number of Spanish speakers at the school, but there will be no formal instruction in Spanish.
The whole thing seemed very limited to me. So I came home and looked up the International Baccalaureate program online, since this is the certification the district is trying to achieve. From the curriculum it appears as if what you learn is the same, but how you learn it is taught differently. So just like other schools might use different learning tools and theories, Garden Hills will use the IB curriculum approach to teaching. Oh -- okay. It's a teaching method like Montessori or Project Approach. Got it.
I've also decided that touring Columbia School where BT Washington is currently housed, isn't really necessary, since they won't be in that building next year and will have all new stuff. But what is necessary is for me to go to their public meeting on February 16th, to learn more about their magnet program: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The University of Illinois is apparently going to play a big role in how that curriculum works out. So I'm hoping to hear about an average day that is some how -- different and more focused than what was conveyed about Garden Hills.
In terms of feel: Garden Hills is really two long hallways in an L shape. The kindergarten playground that I saw attached to the lower grades was really more appropriate for 3-5 year olds than 5-7 year olds. I didn't see a bigger one, but I wonder if it's just going to get erected after the construction is finished. They are situated next to Garden Hills Park, which has some old swings, a soccer field and some open space.
Right now only six classrooms at Garden Hills have smart boards. But when the renovation is done, they will all have them.
The school is situated in a lower income neighborhood. There are small homes to the east and south of the school, and some older, more run down apartment buildings to the west. To the north is Bloomington Road. The school is set very, very far back, from the busier street. It was pretty quiet at 9:15 a.m. But the staff at Garden Hills was very welcoming. And although Lloyd admitted he wasn't that great at giving tours, he was very friendly and answered the questions I had honestly and as thoroughly as he could.