By Steve Robinson | September 17, 2019 - 6:34 am
Posted in Category: The Normalite

NORMAL – For many a junior high student, the thought – let alone the actual anticipated step up to becoming a new high school student – can be an anxious event. In the school year of 1995-96, students having completed eighth grade the spring before and headed for high school that fall had an additional concern besides trying to remember where their hall locker was.

That school year, Normal was getting its second high school in an attempt to lessen overcrowding at venerable Normal Community High School. The new school, Normal Community West High School, located at 501 N. Parkside Rd., opened the fall of 1995.

NCWHS faculty, staff, and students used their homecoming weekend Sept. 13 to celebrate the milestone of the school turning 25 years old.

Dozens of former students filed through the cafeteria to look at mementos of their years at the school and to visit and reminisce with their former teachers. The school’s first principal, Dr. Jerry Crabtree, was among those who saw a number of former students at the event which was held prior to the Normal West football game against Big 12 Conference opponent Danville.

Crabtree was principal of Parkside Junior High School and he and a number of teachers from PJHS who had been assigned to staff Normal West that first year were a little anxious themselves to be starting a new year heading and teaching in a new school. Roughly 150 teachers, both certified and non-certified, as well as a handful of support staff, could lay claim to helping get the new school up and running that first year.

Crabtree joked that all the kids he oversaw at PJHS in the spring of 1995 “couldn’t get rid of me” when they became Normal West freshmen. Kidding aside, Crabtree said that timing for those kids “was great because the whole objective when we started West was to really build a family atmosphere because those kids were like our own kids.” Crabtree admits that’s cliché thinking, but he said there were a number of teachers who he supervised at PJHS who came along to Normal West when he did.

Now married, Julie Stone was known as Julie Bueller when she was among the first students to enter Normal West when it opened, as a member of the school’s first freshman class. “We were really excited to be coming here,” Stone said about how she and her friends felt about being the first students to occupy the school. “There were a lot of new features here,” she said. “There was a new computer lab, a lot of new resources here, and we were really excited about it.

“Having Dr. Crabtree and some of our teachers from Parkside was really neat because it was neat to have that continuity. That made it feel pretty natural to come here.”

Prior to Normal West opening, Unit 5 School District had structured junior highs to have seventh, eighth, and ninth grade age students. Students entering high school at NCHS across town started high school with 10th grade through senior year graduation. Prior to Normal West opening, the district changed that format so that 9th graders would begin attending high school. Sixth graders shifted from grade school into junior high.

Crabtree remained as principal at Normal West for eight years, retiring in 2003, succeeded by Tom Eder. Looking back on his time at the school, Crabtree explained, “The overriding memory I have is of the students who were here. They were like my own kids. I tried to treat them like that. You can’t have the same kids for six years and not know them.” Crabtree added being around kids for that length of time as an educator means you get to know students’ parents and grandparents, too.

Crabtree said it’s both unique and “cool” to have former students who now teach at Normal West. Social Studies teacher John Bierbaum is one of them.

Lexington resident Jill Stutzman came to the pre-game event with her husband, Dave, and their children, and found herself looking back over her high school days going through the memorabilia that were laid out on numerous tables scattered throughout the cafeteria. “I wanted to go into elementary education when I got to college,” Stutzman said. Currently, she’s doing just that, teaching at Lexington Junior High School. An athlete herself, she was on the Wildcats’ girls’ basketball team the first two years Normal West was open. That team went to State those first two years. Her Wildcats girls’ head coach was Bernie Chiaro. She has parlayed that experience into serving as a coach on the LJHS girls’ basketball team now.

Class of 2015 member Stephanie Davis held her toddler son at this event and looked over old pictures from her recent past in secondary education. She is now a freelance graphic designer in her own business in Normal. “I was heavily in art, choir, and band while I was here,” she explained. She played the teen named Kim in the school’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” She has been back volunteering to help with the school’s production of “Beauty And The Beast” and will return to offer her talents for the Wildcats as-of-yet unannounced production next spring.

NCHS Principal Trevor Chapman taught business at Normal West from 2005 through 2011 before moving on to George L. Evans Junior High School to become an administrator. Chapman credits Bierbaum, who had himself been a student and faculty, to guiding him concerning the culture of the school. From Evans, Chapman became NCHS principal in 2017.

By Steve Robinson | September 16, 2019 - 11:41 am
Posted in Category: The Normalite

NORMAL – When either raising children or watching them grow into young adulthood, 25 years tends to feel like it goes by in what many characterize as the blink of an eye. In Normal, the group who founded the Children’s Discovery Museum in Uptown and seen its progress grow and the hundreds of kids pass through now bringing their own kids must feel the same way.

On Sept. 12, the Children’s Discovery Museum celebrated its 25th anniversary with a breakfast at the Carol A. Reitan Conference Center at the Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel in Uptown. Later in the day, the Museum was open for all the fun educational activities it provides in the three-story structure. Later in the day, parents, grandparents, and kids were invited to have a slice of birthday cake to celebrate.

During the morning celebration at the hotel, Beth Whisman, the Museum’s executive director, told the 400 breakfast attendees, “We’re here today to the people whose mission and vision and passion and talents came together to find a way to fill this museum.”

The Museum began with phone calls in 1988 between then-Bloomington Mayor Jesse R. Smart and area residents Shari Buckellew, and Cheryl Denslow. Each woman had an idea for the museum but didn’t know the other at the time. When the women did meet, they began formulating a way to convince donors the project was worth the effort. Herb Eaton joined forces with the ladies after seeing a newspaper article about what they wanted to accomplish.

The event recognized the group of seven who saw a vision through to becoming a reality. The museum founders are: Doris Reeser, Lynette Reiners, Kathy Moore, Andrea Ginnetti, Eaton, Buckellew, and Denslow. In honoring these people, Whisman told the gathering, “These folks, like everybody else, had busy, busy careers. Yet each of them made time to make this community involvement come to life.” The Museum did come to life, at first located at a small storefront called Kids Crossing at then-enclosed College Hills Mall on March 27, 1994.

When the popularity of the Museum led to increased demand for field trips and birthday parties, it was determined a larger space was needed. That meant the founding group geared up for seeking out more community partners and do more fundraising. The next home for the Museum was Constitution Place, beginning in 1995, an 8,000 sq. ft. former train station in Bloomington, where it would be known as the Children’s Discovery Museum Of Central Illinois, until it found its current permanent home in 2004. The move also meant shortening the name to its current moniker, the Children’s Discovery Museum.

While the museum was settling into their second home, “that was while the Town was looking into their redevelopment, consultants recommended the Town look to anchor everything with something that would bring families to the Uptown area,” Buckellew recalled. “When the Town contacted us, they knew we were looking to move from Constitution Place. They asked us if we would be interested in locating in what was then known as Downtown Normal.” The museum cost roughly $8 million to construct with the museum founders raising $3 million, the rest the Town contributed, borrowing some of it.

When the idea of relocating the museum to its now-permanent home was first brought up, explained former City Manager Mark Peterson, “There was some skepticism in the community, but I think, of the people who were involved in the Children’s Museum, I think they thought it was a great idea.” He said logistical issues such as parking and the building being in close proximity to railroad tracks were things “we knew we could deal with,” he added. “Those of us who were involved in it weren’t skeptical at all. I think we were believers from the beginning that this was a great addition for Uptown, and more importantly, a great addition to the community.”

“I remember being in a meeting and saying, ‘we can do this, and this museum will be a great addition to the community,’” said Kent Karraker, who was Mayor of Normal 25 years ago. “There were a lot of challenges, but I have got to commend the founding board of the museum. They were intrepid pioneers and they’ve done a fantastic job to where the museum has grown to what it is now.” He said opponents of relocating the museum into what was newly christened Uptown “were among the first to attend the museum when it opened.”

Peterson admitted where the Museum is home now wasn’t the original location planned for it when it was considered being added. He said it was first considered to be located on land where Uptown Station now sits. “But we shifted it over to the east a little bit, but that was a minor change,” he said, adding the owners of the bar formerly located where the museum now sits, Rocky’s, was compensated by the Town.

At the time Reeser and Buckellew were among the group wanting to put the museum started in 1988. “A friend of mine and I had seen a museum like it in Michigan and we both thought it would be really nice to have one like that here,” Buckellew recalled.

Once the museum opened and people saw what it contained, Peterson said, any skepticism about the museum’s potential success faded.

Pushcart Derby Moving To Rivian Plant: Kids are always seeking new places to play. And in previous years, some have participated in the Museum’s Pushcart Derby. The derby, a fundraiser for the museum, encourages kids to apply principles of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) to design and race a vehicle. In June 2020, the fourth year for the event, the popular race will relocate to Rivian Automotive’s manufacturing property. Proceeds from the annual fundraiser support the Museum’s mission, enabling the expansion of STEAM programs, the creation of new exhibits, continuing outreach initiatives and scholarship provision for disadvantaged youth.

Two Million Plus Visitors Now: The 25th anniversary comes just three months following the museum honoring its two millionth visitor in June.

By Steve Robinson | September 14, 2019 - 10:58 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

NORMAL – Everybody attending a big high school homecoming game wants to see a big victory. It’s many respects, just anticipated and expected by fans of the home team. And Although Normal Community West High School went scoreless in the first quarter of their Big 12 Conference game against Danville Friday, Wildcats defenders held their guests scoreless the rest of the way while they marched to a 29-7 victory.

The Wildcats received the kickoff to start the game but punted to the Vikings after punting having gotten as far as the Vikings’ 40 before Danville defenders pressured them. Danville (1-2 Big 12 and overall) started their opening drive just inside Wildcats territory at West’s 49 yard line. The Vikings chewed up the clock as much as they did yardage, scoring when sophomore quarterback Eric Turner, Jr. dashed into the end zone for the score followed by junior kicker Edgar Segura’s successful extra point. That gave Danville a 7-0 lead with 3:16 left in the opening quarter, a lead they carried into the second quarter.

Each team would have two possessions in the second quarter before Normal West (2-1 Big 12 and overall) would find enough traction allowing them to get past Danville defenders. Senior quarterback Carson Camp would connect on an 11 yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Cole Hernandez at the 2:27 mark of the second quarter for the Wildcats’ first score of the game. Freshman kicker Owen Senn’s extra point tied the contest at 7-7.

Danville started their ensuing possession at their own 35 but the Vikings punted on their fourth play of the drive having lost five yards. Segura’s punt put the Wildcats at their own 35 to start their next possession. But a 48 yard completed pass from Camp to junior wide receiver Cole Hernandez put the Wildcats on the Danville 17. Two plays later, junior running back LaTre Billups rushed past defenders for a 5 yard score followed by a successful 2-Point conversion pass between Camp and Hernandez, increasing the Wildcats’ lead, 15-7, going into halftime.

Danville would have two unsuccessful drives and West one before West would add to its lead at 4:40 in the third quarter. Camp would connect with Billups a second time on an 18 yard touchdown play, Billups dashing down the far sideline into the end zone for the score. That resulted in West increasing the lead, 23-7, thanks to a 2-Point conversion play which followed as Hernandez connected with sophomore wide receiver Max Ziebarth.

Both sides would get a possession each before Danville would get the ball again, starting at their own 16, the result of a Vikings interception. West had a drive which started at their own 28 and was progressing until Ward picked off a Camp pass, giving the Vikings the ball at their own 16. But that drive was stopped when Normal West junior defensive back Davonte Crawford picked off Turner’s pass and got the Wildcats starting a new drive from their own 30. From there, the Wildcats chewed up both yardage and time on the way to their next score. That came when Camp connected with Hernandez for a second time on the night, this time from 12 yards out, putting Normal West up, 29-7, with 2:37 left in the contest, followed by a failed extra point try by Senn resulting in the final score.

“It took us a while to get us going and eventually, we got going at the end of the half, and that’s what I wanted to see,” said second-year Wildcats head coach Nate Fincham. He labeled his team’s response the rest of the way to the slow start as being positive.

“At the beginning of the game, we came out a little flat and Danville came out ready to play and we had to kind of catch our breath and wake up and play,” Fincham said, theorizing as to why his team was scoreless in the first quarter.”

Danville head coach Marcus Forrest said his team played the way he said his likes to play. “We played physical, we played aggressive, we played at the tempo we wanted to play. We were moving the ball and controlling it.”

But he added miscues started to help the Vikings’ desire to keep that style of play continuing led to his team unraveling in the later quarters. “Normal West has a quarterback who is a tough kid and we knew that. But we also knew defensively when we could get to him, good things happened for us. When our defense was passive, bad things happened for us.”

By Steve Robinson | September 9, 2019 - 10:42 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – Citing his and his wife’s desires to locate closer to a daughter and her husband who just had a first child, Unit 5 Superintendent Dr. Mark Daniel announced that he will be leaving the district at the end of the current school year which ends June 30, 2020. He made his announcement at a brief news conference Monday afternoon from the School Board’s meeting room at district headquarters. Daniel became Unit 5 Superintendent on July 1, 2014 succeeding Dr. Gary Niehaus, who retired after serving as superintendent for seven years.

Explaining he and his wife, Janet, have just become first-time grandparents who wish to be close by to the child’s family, Daniel told reporters, “I want to share that over the summer, I have respectfully informed the Board of Education that I will be seeking a new superintendent position for the 2020-2021 school year.” As a result, he will be seeking a similar job in the Chicago area.

“This was a difficult decision as Bloomington-Normal was such a wonderful community,” Daniel, a father of four daughters added. “But Jan and I are excited to have more time with our daughters, our son-in-law, and our grandson in the very near future.

“I’m extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished in my tenure at Unit 5,” Daniel said. “We’ve enabled career pathways enabling students to graduate from high school with associate’s degrees in high-demand career fields, supporting local businesses and organizations.” He also touted that during his time, the district has been able to provide over $500,000 in tuition-free credits to high school students during the previous school year.

He reminded that during his time at Unit 5, graduation rates in the district increased – from 86.1 percent in 2014 to 92 percent in 2017. He said that higher figure is about where graduation rates remain today. He also led a program to put career counselors in the district’s two high schools to coordinate career readiness with area businesses to give students real world experience.

He also said he was pleased to be part of the negotiation team which brought Rivian Automotive and Brandt Industries to McLean County. “Through these negotiations, business partnerships developed supporting our college and career opportunities for students while meeting future employment needs of local businesses.”

Daniel, 58, is the 12th superintendent to lead Unit 5. School Board members recently approved a 1 percent raise for him, bringing his annual salary to $203,000. Board President Barry Hitchins said the district will work with an Oak Park-based search firm, School Exec Connect, to begin a search for Daniel’s successor. Although Hitchins could not recall the exact amount to be spent on the search, he said “it will be under $30,000.” Plans to approve a contract with School Exec Connect are slated to be part of the Board’s Sept. 25 meeting agenda. Hitchins confirmed School Exec Connect would, in looking for Daniel’s successor, be hired by Unit 5 for a third time. He added the search committee’s goal is to hire a new superintendent who would be hired in time to start at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year which started next July 1.

Daniel closed out the written statement to the media by saying, “It’s important to know I’m not going anywhere now. We have a lot of wonderful work to do in Unit 5.” He added by announcing his decision at this point in the year allows the school board to have “sufficient time to seek my replacement. I look forward to an outstanding school year as it continues to be an honor and privilege to serve the Unit 5 community.”

Prior to the press conference during which Daniel made his announcement, he and Hitchins broke the news of his exit during a brief meeting with administrators from the district’s 17 elementary schools, four junior high schools, and two high schools.

“The Unit 5 Board thanks Dr. Daniel for his leadership, his effort to empower his staff members and his ability to build important relationships with community and business leaders,” stated Hitchins, who sat next to Daniel during the press conference. “The Board will begin the search for a new superintendent immediately.”

“We appreciate Dr. Daniel’s dedication to the students and families of Unit 5,” Hitchins said in a prepared text. Hitchins responded to a reporter’s question that Daniel’s contract with Unit 5 expires July 30 and “this was just the opportune time” for this change to occur.

It has been a couple years since I looked to see if there were any teens who were budding bocce players. Regular readers will recall then my finding the team of Victoria Mendez-Duke, a sixth grader at Kingsley Junior High School at the time and her teammate and friend of her parents, Carlo Robustelli. The unusual duo made it to the quarterfinals before being sent packing.

But bocce is a game families can get interested and involved in and because they say they like doing things together as a family, that is how I found Adrian and Nicole Wesley and their two sons, Oliver, a 7th grader at Parkside Junior High School, and Conrad, a sophomore at Normal Community West High School.

The Wesleys had never played the game before, Nicole Wesley admitted. They saw the event being promoted and thought it would be a fun way to spend an afternoon. There also was the social aspect of the event for the family – getting out amongst the community and having the chance to meet others.

Nicole said the family came to the first event in 2017 and then bought a bocce set to play at home. For purposes of this year’s event, Nicole and Conrad teamed up while Adrian and Oliver joined forces. Oliver said he has also had friends his age who play who have helped advance his knowledge of the game. Conrad added he remembers boning up on the rules by watching a YouTube video or two.

Teams which rack up two losses during games, which ran roughly 20 minutes each in this format, basically would keep a team from advancing in the round robin format. While Nicole and Conrad’s efforts sustained those two losses quickly, Adrian and Oliver managed to hold their own against a variety of opponents, including winning their second game against Bonita Howard of Normal and her son, Lane, a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia. That match went into overtime, tied at 7-all, but the Wesleys team won in overtime, 8-7, and they kept on winning, right until they got to the quarterfinals before being eliminated. Despite the loss, the Wesley family smiled throughout, having had a good time.

Oliver said he enjoys learning about Social Studies and Computer Skills and is giving some thought to trying out for the Track and Field team at PJHS. Conrad said he likes the aspect that this sport is something that one can do when age overtakes one’s ability to play more rigorous sports. Conrad would like to be either a college professor or researcher in physics when he joins the working world, he explained.

Even when they were behind in games, Adrian Wesley said, “The whole point to being out here was to have a good time. If we were not having a good time, we would not stay.” Sometimes, there is more to winning. And that is another lesson the Wesleys were hoping to see their boys take in during this experience.

Because space was limited on the grounds of Normandy Village, a total of 32 two-person teams could sign up to participate, paying $35 to participate, according to Dr. Bob Broad, co-owner of Normandy Village. Broad’s wife, Julie Hile, is the other co-owner of the sprawling property. Profits from the event were divided equally between Bloom Community School, an independent, private school serving families with children in kindergarten through eighth grade, and Mulberry School, a private, non-profit school in Normal, Broad said. Bloom Community School sits on the Normandy Village property.

The event took place at what is now known as Normandy Village, the former Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School which the State shuttered in 1979. And the sponsorship of the event has changed, too. WGLT FM, the National Public Radio affiliate operated by Illinois State University handed off direction of the event to Normandy Village.

There were about 20 volunteers to assist with scoring and game judgement calls and a couple of entertainers, John Till, and Chris Corkery, providing background music. Broad said “it takes many, many hours to find sponsors and volunteers. It’s a lot of work and I love the school.” By trade, Broad teaches writing at Illinois State University.

The Wesley family’s two teams may not have won any grand prizes but to them, that wasn’t the important part of this day. It was spending time with their kids. And their boys having a good time with their folks. In that respect, the event was a win-win situation.