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Full speed ahead for West Prairie renovation project

Rich Egger
The West Prairie School District is ready to renovate and update the middle school in Colchester to serve as a junior-senior high school.

Members of the West Prairie Board of Education and administration held a groundbreaking ceremony for a facility that's already built.

The ceremony outside the current middle school in Colchester marks the beginning of renovations to the building. Once completed, the building will be used as a junior and senior high school.

“This is something these folks have waited for quite some time and saved for. I’m excited for that,” said Superintendent Guy Gradert.

The district started holding public forums in the fall of 2017 as it developed a plan for its future facility needs.

Currently, West Prairie holds classes in four buildings: the north and south elementary schools in Good Hope and Colchester, the middle school in Colchester, and the high school in Sciota.

The district anticipates saving money by operating just three schools once the renovations are completed: the north and south elementary schools will house Pre-K through 6th grade students, and the new junior-senior high school will serve students in grades 7-12.  

Gradert noted the future junior-senior high building was used as a junior-senior high by the Colchester School District before it consolidated with the Northwest School District in 2003 to create West Prairie.

The current high school building will be left vacant, though the district will continue using the site for a while for industrial arts and gym classes and for its football field and track. Gradert anticipates the site will eventually be sold.

For now, the Sciota building is housing junior and senior high school students, meaning the Colchester building is vacant while renovations are made.

“There are no kids here so the construction crews can work at probably a greater rate of speed without obstructions than you would in a normal case,” Gradert said.

He said the building is a solid steel structure that architects and engineers consider a good building to keep open. He said it would have been cost prohibitive to renovate the building in Sciota.

The district accepted a $9.4 million bid for the renovation project.

“We have a combination of health/life safety bonds, we have bonded against our county’s (school) facilities sales tax fund, and we’ll add $2 million of working cash for cash flow purposes,” Gradert said.

“Approaching it this way leaves our fund balances very healthy so as we can continue normal operations.”

He said the project could be done by mid to late fall of 2022.

He is excited that for the first time there will be a cafeteria in the school.

“Kids for years had to walk to the south elementary for a cafeteria. To me, that’s a big piece,” Gradert said.

He said the renovation project will also add some classrooms, upgrade the HVAC and electrical systems, and update the science lab.

“There are a lot of things that are going to create a better learning environment for our kids.”

Gradert acknowledged there will be a wide age range between the youngest and oldest students at the new junior-senior high, but said he previously worked at a district that had a Pre-K through 12 campus where the older students served as mentors to the younger ones.

“We had basically Big Brother-Big Sister programs within the school system. There are a lot of things that can come out of that in a positive way,” he said.

“But we are always mindful that we need to make sure that we’re treating each grade and age in an appropriate way and making sure their environment is appropriate as well.”

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.