History of Champaign Public Schools

Compiled by Lauren Smith from school histories written by: Helen Levin, Michael Markstahler and Charles Renner - November 13th, 2009

The first school in Champaign County was held in a log cabin, located on the Sangamon River, about a mile south of Mahomet. Children from five pioneer families attended this early school. In 1853 a private school was built in Hensley Township. The school started the following year and boasted an enrollment of twelve students with each student required to bring his/her own seat and desk. The tuition was $13.00 per month. There were no public schools in Illinois before 1855, because there was no law on the statue books of the State of Illinois providing for a general system of schools. “Pay schools” were maintained in places where teachers were paid by patrons, and in most settlements schools were kept up for three to six months each year. Free schools were almost unheard of anywhere in the state.
Little Brick School

In 1855 an Illinois law was passed on which our present statewide system of public schools is based. Champaign was divided into two school districts: District 1, west of First Street and District 2, east of First Street. The first public school, known as “The Little Brick” was built at a cost of $4,000 on the corner of Randolph and Hill streets in District 1. District 1 erected a second building in 1868 at Lynn, University and Park Streets and it was called West High School. It was a brick structure, three stories high, that cost $80,000. The first District 2 school was built in 1860, but was destroyed by fire the following year. A second building was also destroyed by fire the following year. When this building was rebuilt in 1872, it was known as East High School, later changing its name to Marquette.

Reorganization of the two districts occurred in 1890, resulting in a single district, Union District NO. 6. Rivalry between East and West High Schools was eliminated and students from both districts were housed in West Side, which became known as the Champaign High School. In 1892, “Little Brick” was burned to clear ground for a new high school, known as Central School, to accommodate the large number of students. In this same year, the West High School building burned and a new elementary school, The Avenue School was built. Lincoln Elementary was added in 1894, followed by Willard and Gregory in 1898.

At about this same time, football had become a very popular sport in the nation as well as locally. The game was first introduced to Champaign High School in 1891 by a man from Albion College in Michigan. During this first year, the school played a game with the University of Illinois Reserves, playing without goal posts or yard lines and with a very hazy idea as to the rules of the game! The game ended in a 4-4 tie. Champaign’s football team quickly became one that was feared by the largest schools in the state. In fact, Champaign won its first State Championship in 1897! Other sports programs were also gathering strength, and soon baseball and track were also regarded as major sports. To this day, the athletic programs at both Central and Centennial continue to be strong and offer opportunities in many different sports.

In 1901, the district’s name was changed to Champaign District 71. School was now in session for approximately 175 days. Elementary pupils were in graded classes and had instruction in Art, Music and Domestic Science (girls only!). Reading, Spelling, English, Physiology and Hygiene, Physical Training, Observation Work (or Plants and Animals), Geography, Arithmetic, History, Public Speaking, Vocal Music, Art and Handwork were all listed in the curriculum for grade schools. The high school program of that day was organized into five curriculums: Latin, German, Latin Scientific, German Scientific and English. Manual training and domestic arts were required in ninth grade. In 1908, the curriculum was revised and was much closer to current day curriculum. It included: Foreign Languages, Biological Science, Commercial and English classes.

Col Wolfe School

The major problem confronting the school Board from 1900 – 1935 was increasing enrollments. A building frenzy was soon underway! In 1905 Columbia and Colonel Wolfe Schools were built, followed by Lawhead in 1907 and Dr. Howard in 1910. In 1914, the Senior High School on Green Street (currently Edison) was built and planned to house 1,000 pupils, although there were only 585 at the time. By 1925, it was filled to capacity. The “old” high school, Central school, was converted to an elementary school when the new high school was built. Two more grade schools were added; Southside in 1924 and Lottie Switzer in 1927. In 1935, a Junior High School was built on the site of the old “Avenue School” which had been torn down. (This is currently Central High School.) With this new school, it was possible to relieve the load on both the high school and the elementary schools, as well as secure the advantages of a specialized junior high school program for grades 7-9. Prior to building the new middle school, the eighth grade had been concentrated at Central School in order to provide some specialized training. Once the junior high was completed, the major part of the Central Building (Randolph and Hill) was no longer used as a school and was leased for business purposes.

After World War II, the state legislature took measures to encourage the reorganization of school districts into more efficient operating units. Champaign District 71 and twelve former oneroom districts in the surrounding area were consolidated into Community Unit District No. 4 in 1948. The post-war elementary enrollment boom in Champaign once again required more schools! Westview and BTWashington Schools were opened in 1951. Following close behind the elementary enrollment boom was a junior and senior high enrollment jump. This resulted in the new Franklin Junior High, which opened in 1954 and the conversion of the High School on Green Street to Edison Junior High in 1956. The old Junior High at Lynn, University and Park was converted, with a major addition, to Central High School. The growth in Champaign continued and three more schools were added: Bottenfield Elementary in 1955, Carrie Busey in 1957 and Garden Hills in 1958.

Then in 1961, the district built Jefferson Middle School, and shortly after the school board decided a new high school would be needed. Building on “The Annex” began in 1963, and it served as supplementary classrooms for Champaign High until its completion in 1965. The new High School was officially named Centennial High School after the adjacent park. At this same time, two more elementary schools were added. Kenwood opened in 1963, and Robeson opened in 1967 to help keep pace with rapidly expanding southwest Champaign.

Suddenly the rapid enrollment boom began to reverse. A study done by two University professors predicted a rapid decrease in the number of school age children beginning in 1971. This lead to the closing of a number of older schools in the district including Hensley, Bondville, Colonel Wolfe, Gregory and Lincoln. Two more elementary schools were closed in 1977 and 1978: Savoy and Switzer. Southside was scheduled to be closed in 1978 only to be delayed until 1982. It was briefly used by the Champaign Park District until it was reopened in the fall of 1989.In 1968, as the result of a recommendation of the Equal Education Opportunities Committee, the school district’s elementary boundaries were reorganized to provide a racially balanced population in all elementary schools. In 1977-78 the Unit 4 School District adjusted its attendance levels to K-5, 6-8 and 9-12, and the three junior highs were converted to the middle school concept, complete with team teaching. At the same time, the school board briefly considered a re-merger of the two high schools, to be located at the Centennial-Jefferson campus. However, according to Dr. Peter Shoresman, president of the Board of Education at the time, “The board perceived that the community as a whole was not in favor of one high school.” Combining the two high schools would have resulted in an enrollment of over 3,000 students and would have meant decreased opportunity for student participation in sports and activities.

As the Champaign population continued to grow in the southwest neighborhoods, Barkstall school was built in 1998. Stratton School was also built in 1998 on land just south of Columbia to provide more north side seats for Unit 4. During the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s several schools, including Columbia and Franklin, were closed, reopened and restructured for different uses. As times continue to change and the population in Champaign fluctuates, the Board will once again face difficult decisions. Just this year, the current high school boundaries were changed to equalize the enrollment between Central and Centennial. These changes will go into effect in the fall of 2010. As a result of the Consent Decree, BTWashington will be torn down and rebuilt to accommodate more students. (BTW staff and students will move to Columbia during this time.) BTWashington is tentatively scheduled to reopen in the fall of 2011 as a Magnet School with a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math theme. At the same time, Garden Hills Elementary School will be expanded and become a magnet school with a Primary Years Programme (International Baccalaureate Curriculum), which will include foreign language, and a secondary emphasis on the arts. As the future unfolds in Champaign, Unit 4 schools will continue to change and grow to match the needs of the Community.