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New Jefferson center would provide greater accessibility, encourage independence

(Sarah Minor —
Ian Rhutter, 3, and Erin Hinsdale, 3, play with Lego bricks during active play time in their class at Jefferson Early Childhood Center in Wheaton.

WHEATON — If Cammy Babiarz tried to use the bathroom connected to her classroom at Jefferson Early Childhood Center on her own, she wouldn’t be able to — not because she didn’t try hard enough, but because it would be physically impossible. The bathroom is too small to hold her wheelchair or the wheelchairs and walkers of other Jefferson students.

If Babiarz wanted to independently wash her hands at the sink in her classroom, she wouldn’t be able to do that either. She, and other 3- and 4-year olds at Jefferson, would have to climb onto a stepstool with a teacher or aide nearby in order to safely reach the sink.

A lack of accessibility at Jefferson Early Childhood Center, which was built as an elementary school in 1958, is just one of the reasons Wheaton Warrenville Community Unit School District 200 has been working with Jefferson staff to create a plan for a new facility that would best serve the needs of its students. The school mainly serves 3- and 4-year-olds in the district with learning or developmental delays.

Jefferson Principal Stephanie Farrelly said the new facility would help foster independence for the center’s students.

“Right now, we have some students who are very prompt-dependent, so they’re relying on adults maybe for some assistance that they could be doing by themselves, but because of the structure and the facilities, we do have to give them that adult support,” Farrelly said.

Overall, students with disabilities make up 66 percent of the school’s population, while the remaining children are typically developing students who pay tuition to attend the center.

The district is required by law to provide early childhood services to students with disabilities who enter the school district when they turn 3 years old, said Erica Loiacono, director of public relations for the district.

Some of the biggest problems in the building include the bathroom facilities, heating and cooling issues, lack of parking, poor pick-up/drop-off traffic flow and insufficient classroom space.

Jefferson Early Childhood Center consists of both instructional and blended classrooms.

Instructional classrooms are for students with more significant disabilities and have a maximum of 10 students, Farrelly said. Blended classrooms include six students with disabilities and 11 of their typically developing peers.

The instructional classrooms have connected bathrooms — single-toilet bathrooms that don’t have enough room for students’ walkers and wheelchairs.

At the other end of the building are communal bathrooms that include two toilets and one changing table in the girls’ room and one toilet, one changing table and two urinals — which aren’t used — in the boys’ room, Farrelly said. These bathrooms service about 130 students each day.

Trying to service so many students with so few toilets takes time away from learning because teachers and aides have to leave the classroom to take students to the bathroom, and once they’re there, they have to wait their turn to use the facility.

“They’re here to learn, and the facility challenges are taking away from their full experience,” Loiacono said.

The communal bathrooms aren’t handicap accessible, either. Students use stepstools to reach the toilets, and toilet inserts are used to make the seats smaller, Farrelly said. The stall with the changing table in the girls’ room is meant to be a handicap accessible stall, but a wheelchair can’t fit into the stall while stairs to climb up to the toilet are set up.

The heating and cooling systems in the building are old and they don’t connect to the gym, making it difficult for students who have trouble regulating their body temperature to spend any time in that space, Loiacono said.

Closets at Jefferson have been converted into less-than-ideal learning spaces for students who need a more focused, private learning environment, Farrelly said. Therapies, such as physical and occupational, often take place in the hallways of the school, she said.

Because of a lack of space at Jefferson, phonology and mild speech programs are held at Madison Elementary School, and an instructional classroom program will begin in January at Clifford Johnson Elementary School.

Having programs at these other locations is costly because the district has to purchase special equipment for those locations in addition to the equipment already present at Jefferson, Farrelly said. The young early education students who attend those programs also aren’t in a school with typically developing peers their own age.

Besides some street parking and a staff parking lot, there is little available parking near the center. There is a pick-up/drop-off location for parents in front of the building and one for buses in back.

Whereas the current facility’s capacity is 289 students, with 91 square feet per student, the new facility will have a capacity of more than 400 students, with more than 100 square feet per student, according to a presentation from Legat Architects, the firm behind the new facility's design.

Classrooms will include removable walls that teachers can use to section off a part of the classroom for therapies or for students who need a space with less distractions for certain subjects, Farrelly said.

Therapies also will be provided in the new facility’s sensory room, she said.

Farrelly said instructional and blended classrooms will be paired and connected with an adjoining bathroom for each pair of rooms, and everything will be updated and handicap accessible.

A parking lot will be installed where the current center now stands, still with one pick-up/drop-off area for parents and one for buses, but the setup of these areas will improve traffic flow, she said.

At the board’s Dec. 12 meeting, members heard from staff regarding the best layout for a new 59,198-square foot facility that would be built to the south of the current structure and also decided on a funding mechanism for the project.

In order to pay for the project, the district will have to pass a referendum in April asking for residents to approve of the $17.6 million capital project and the use of taxpayer dollars to fund it, Loiacono said.

The board plans to vote to place a referendum question on the April ballot at its next meeting, which will take place 7:30 p.m. Jan. 9 at Hubble Middle School, 3S600 Herrick Road in Warrenville.

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