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SPOTLIGHT: Springfield school gets makeover

SHARE SPOTLIGHT: Springfield school gets makeover

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — In the spirit of renaissance, more than 1,000 local volunteers are giving one of Springfield's oldest elementary schools a makeover to commemorate its 100th anniversary.

But the upgrades are not purely aesthetic at Harvard Park Elementary School, which opened its doors during the 1911-12 school year at its present site, 2501 S. 11th St.

Leaders at West Side Christian Church, which organized the remodeling effort — called Springfield Sharefest — say they hope the changes also will improve student behavior and performance.

"We started by asking our church family first if they would be committed to this effort," said Melissa Sandel, the church's director of ministries. "We feel like God's been very generous to us, so we want to be generous to others. Over time, word has spread, and now we have approximately 75 community organizations participating."

A symbol of that change is easy to find. The school this year will retire its bear mascot for the "husky," marking a new chapter in the school's history, according to principal Kim Leverette-Brown.

"We're kind of changing the face of things," she said. "We were the Harvard Park Bears, now we're the Harvard Park Huskies. The kids had a voice in that."

Leverette-Brown, who is about to start her third year as the school's principal, said renovations to the school building hopefully will instill a sense of pride and accountability in students and parents.

"The attitude of the students, families and communities, in terms of student learning . we have to have an environment where it's built on mutual respect, and I think we've made a substantial amount of changes in terms of student behavior," she said.

Harvard Park traditionally has struggled to meet state academic standards, failing every year since 2002. In 2010, only 51 percent of the school's students met or exceeded state standards.

West Side Christian Church has a long history of partnering with Harvard Park Elementary School.

When the church created the volunteer project about six months ago, church leaders learned that about 93 percent of Harvard Park students lived below the poverty line, Sandel said. That number has risen to nearly 98 percent.

"That is why we are doing this, because we want those kids to know that their community cares about them and envisions a future for them that is bright," she said. "They just lack consistency. When they step into the school building, we want them to feel loved, to feel confident and that their community really does believe in them."

Church leaders hope the improvements will help improve test scores, increase parental involvement and cut down on behavior problems, Sandel said.

Nearly 1,000 Sharefest volunteers are expected to take part in the nine-day event, which ends Sunday. Each day is broken into three shifts.

Some volunteers are craftsmen, lending their respective expertise. However, most are regular people who just want to help.

Julio Barrenzuela, a local salsa teacher, has no carpentry experience, but says he feels compelled to lend a hand.

"There's a trend of giving back to the community with things that are not necessarily what you'd do every day," Barrenzuela said. "Oftentimes we expect the school district to do everything. The rest of the community can offset the costs for these projects if we just get together and put our muscles to it."

Sandy Daniels saw Harvard Park improve during her 21 years teaching at the school. She retired at the end of the past school year.

"When I first began working there, there were a lot of behavioral issues," she said. "I would say that has been diminished. There is a greater focus on academics and more of an emphasis on professional development."

She remembers the milestones, many of which weren't pleasant memories.

Daniels said the school temporarily closed in August 2002 after six poisonous brown recluse spiders were found in the kitchen.

Another close call came in March 2006 when a tornado ripped through Springfield, tearing off part of Harvard Park's roof.

"When the tornado ripped part of the roof off, in the room I was staying, water just gushed into the room and ruined some of the books that I bought," she said. "That was a traumatic experience."

But what she misses is the teacher camaraderie.

"We bond to overcome the issues of the students," she said. "There are a lot of extra challenges that don't happen in other schools, and because of that, the staff has become tight-knit. I am really going to miss it."

Daniels said she's excited to see her school family again this week when she volunteers for Sharefest.

"I'm sure I'll be back there and see what's happening," she said.