By Steve Robinson | December 21, 2010 - 10:24 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Steve RobinsonBritteny Ross and Kiki Gibbs had lost touch since they had art class in sixth grade at Parkside Junior High. But earlier this month, they reunited and went bowling together with about 30 of their closest friends.

That was because Ross and Gibbs became involved in a program at Normal Community West High School called “Peers In Action.”

Ross, a junior at Normal West, said she was looking to find a way to meet more students attending the home of the Wildcats. She said her classmate, Katie Appel, talked her into joining Peers In Action.

Peers In Action is an activity and social program for students with disabilities, and involves other students from West interested in expanding their social outreach as well. It is overseen by three Normal West special education teachers: Olivia Newbold, Debbie Sondgeroth, and Kristi Fairfield.

Newbold teaches students at Normal West who have intellectual disabilities. Most of her students live with having Down Syndrome or are Autistic.

Sondgeroth said Peers In Action was modeled after a similar program she saw being done at Pontiac High School. “I observed that program at Pontiac and decided that I thought West had the students and the faculty which could also run such a program at our school,” she said.

Sondgeroth proposed the idea for Peers In Action to, and got approval for the program from, Normal West High Principal Tom Eder.

“The whole program allows those students who have cognitive impairments to have some socialization with other students,” Sondgeroth said. “It also gives the peers something to do with them outside of school.”

In addition to bowling, the group has seen movies, taken in Bloomington Extreme indoor football and Bloomington Prairie Thunder hockey games at U. S. Cellular Coliseum, and a Normal West basketball game, to name but a few activities they have done as part of this group.

The program has about 65 students currently, Sondgeroth said, 35 disabled students and 30 of their fellow classmates Sondgeroth calls “peer mentors.” Sondgeroth said any West student is welcome to join. 12 peers and 30 students total managed to get together for the fun at Pheasant Lanes in Bloomington the day I saw them.

The group does an activity a month outside of the school. When I caught up with the group about three weeks ago, they were kicking back enjoying each others’ company doing a little bowling.

The Peers in the group must apply to become members and are screened to make sure Sondgeroth and the other instructors heading the program understand an applicant’s intentions.

The Peers in the group meet monthly, Sondgeroth explained. In fact, the Peers in the group will be meeting next month with some professors at Illinois State University to learn more about autism. They will also see a documentary concerning people use wheelchairs daily to give them an additional understanding of what that can be like for someone. “So, we are providing some training as we go along,” Sondgeroth said.

“A lot of the students who act as mentors want to be educators themselves, eventually, or special ed teachers,” Sondgeroth said. “So this program gives them that experience.”

As it turns out, the students wanting to get into teaching special education have expressed that desire to their guidance counselors. The guidance counselors, in turn, pass the name of the students wishing to get involved on to Sondgeroth.

Then again, Sondgeroth said, some of the non-disabled students just want to be involved by spending time with their disabled classmates with whom they may not see very much of during the course of the regular school day.

As for the two old friends who had lost touch until Peers In Action reunited them: Gibbs, like Ross, is also a junior at Normal West, said she also enjoys the interaction the program provides. Gibbs kept her answers short and to the point with one-word replies, saying, yes, she was having a good time catching up with Ross.

Ross said being in Peers In Action helps her get “to know and understand people with disabilities because I had not really talked to anybody with disabilities before.”

The lesson Ross said she acquired from this experience was that “people with disabilities are just like the rest of us.”

Ross has ambitions to study chemistry and do research with pharmaceuticals when she gets into the daily working world.

I got the feeling both Ross and Gibbs would stay friends again for a long time, now that Peers In Action has gotten them back in touch. It appears that is a good thing for them. It also appears Normal West has, in Peers In Action, a program that will benefit those who join it in the long run.

By Steve Robinson | December 20, 2010 - 10:21 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

Town of NormalNORMAL – At Monday’s meeting of the Normal Town Council at Normal City Hall, Council members approved a quartet of resolutions concerning a proposed development for a 102 acre property in north Normal. In May 2009, Council members approved an annexation agreement with the Apostolic Christian Church. The property includes the existing church and the land north and northwest of it.

First, Council members approved a resolution conditionally approving a preliminary plan for the subdivision, which will be called The Communities of Mercy Creek. Council members then approved a second resolution conditionally approving a site plan for a cemetery on the same property.

Council approval was also given to a third resolution conditionally approving a preliminary development plan for a section of attached duplex housing, to be located north of the cemetery. That duplex project, a planned unit development, is to known as The Villas At Mercy Creek.

Council also approved a resolution conditionally approving a site plan for a two-story assisted living complex with approximately 120 beds and a three-story independent living complex with approximately 100 units. This retirement facility is to be known as Meadows at Mercy Creek.

Community Investment Plan Previewed: Council members received a report concerning projects to be worked on as part of the Town’s Community Investment Plan (CIP). Geoff Fruin, assistant to City Manager Mark Peterson, told Council members the Town will concentrate on fewer projects in 2011, thus spending fewer dollars than were spent in past years. In the last four years, Normal worked on a total of 125 projects, spending $57 million.

Both the number of projects and the dollar amounts to be spent on those projects will decrease in 2011, Fruin said. On the docket for Town workers next year are a total of 96 projects for which the Town anticipates spending $47 million.

Fruin said Normal’s CIP goals in 2011 “are very maintenance oriented.”

The Town will spend a total of $336,334 out of it Capital Fund, including electrical service upgrades at Champion Fields.

Bridge projects will receive attention with the use of dollars out of the Motor Fuel Tax fund. The bridges to be worked on are located on Vernon Ave., Broadway Ave., and Virginia Ave. Money has also been budgeted for miscellaneous street resurfacing projects.

Council Orders Daycare Center To Add Landscaping: For failing to comply with an original landscaping plan it submitted to the Town, Council members voted to mandate that Rogy’s Learning Center, 1110 S. Main St., must heavily increase its landscaping across its parking lot across Harris St. In addition, Council is mandating the child care provider add planter boxes to the fence at the front of the building.

Another issue brought up about the daycare center was its use of artificial turf in its playground area, as opposed to natural grass. Mayor Chris Koos asked how well using artificial turf worked for the play area. Council members were informed the landscaping plan had “incidental green space,” according to Town Planner Mercy Davison.

Council members were also informed by Greg Troemel, director of inspections for the Town, that the day care center does not have any sprinklers. Troemel said in lieu of sprinklers, and permitted by code, each classroom in the center has two exits to the outside.

Peterson told Council members the Town tries to accommodate builders and developers where it can. He said designers of the building brought in plans to the Town that did not indicate the building had sprinkler systems.

Peterson said the day care center holds a temporary occupancy permit issued by the Town.

Because of matters like the one involving Rogy’s, Council member Adam Nielsen said developers have “invited a much higher level of scrutiny” from the Town in the future.

Omnibus Agenda Items Approved: Omnibus agenda items approved by the Council included:

• Approval of minutes of the Council’s regular meeting held Dec. 6, 2010.

• Approval of Town of Normal expenditures for payment as of Dec.15, 2010.

• A motion to accept a bid from Normal-based Cottier Carpets in the amount of $13,614 for the replacement carpet at 305 S. Linden St.

• A motion to execute an agreement with Appleton, Wis.-based Pierce Manufacturing for purchase of a fire engine and other related firefighting equipment using the Northwest Municipal Conference Purchasing Program.

• A resolution conditionally approving an amended final development plan for the Morgan Court Planned Unit Development.

By Steve Robinson | December 19, 2010 - 9:05 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Steve RobinsonI was waiting for a bus home at the east end of the Kroger store on College Ave. in Normal Dec. 17 when I looked over at the pair of Salvation Army Bell Ringers standing out in the cold along with me.

At first, I thought they seemed awfully young to be Bell Ringers. Normally, everyone from college students to retirees volunteer for this seasonal temp job.

I got curious and decided to see what was going on with these two young men. I’m glad I did.

Jacob Baker and Tim Barnes were, when I interviewed them this past weekend, wrapping their third of three stints as Bell Ringers outside the grocery.

Baker, 14, is a freshman at Cornerstone Christian Academy in Normal. His parents, John and Mary Ann Baker, Danvers, have been helping him get to his bell ringing sessions.

Baker’s buddy, Barnes, 14, is a tall eighth grader at Kingsley Junior High School. Both boys are members of Bloomington Boy Scout Troop #12. Barnes is the son of Gary and Janet Barnes, Normal.

“For a number of years, our Scout troop has brought up doing Bell Ringing for service hours,” said Baker, whose father, John, is the Scoutmaster of the troop, which holds their meetings at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. “We thought we should start doing it to be helpful.”

Baker said while there is no merit badge for this, earning service hours counts toward being able to advance within the Scouting ranks. Right now, Baker is currently aiming toward becoming an Eagle level Scout.

Barnes is working his way toward the rank of Life Scout. “We’ve been bell ringers for the past couple of years, so, people have seen us out here before,” Barnes said. He added he would like to continue as a Bell Ringer once he gets to high school.

Jacob’s mother, Mary Ann, drove her son into town for the last bell ringing session Dec. 18. “I hope, from this, he realizes later in life to volunteer and to give service to other less fortunate people,” she said.

The boys were able to register online to sign up to volunteer to be Bell Ringers, Mary Ann Baker said.

Capt. Paul James of the Salvation Army oversees the Bell Ringers, while Andrea Raycraft coordinates schedules with volunteers. Misty Paul, a volunteer for the Salvation Army, has the duty of driving to various locations and delivering and collecting the famous red kettles we have all seen around this time of year.

Paul said there are high school students and Boy Scout Troops that have stepped up and volunteered to ring bells at kettles in the past.

Paul, who has two sons at Parkside Junior High School, said, “At this time, we have some high school kids, some Boy Scout Troops, and some churches that do help out.

“We are lacking younger people to do this,” Paul admitted. “So it’s good to see the youth coming out and trying to support the community.” Paul, herself, was a Bell Ringer when she was the age of young Baker and young Barnes. “I loved it,” Paul said. She attended both Bloomington High and Normal Community High, but graduated from NCHS in 1995.

Now that I have met these young men and learned more about why they – and other young people like them – do volunteer for this duty, I’ll make sure to carry a little extra change in my pocket for when I am near one of those kettles.

By Steve Robinson | December 13, 2010 - 8:23 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Steve RobinsonWe will all enjoy the upcoming Christmas holiday, and hopefully, all the shopping will be done, cards sent to friends and loved ones, and any last minute essentials will be purchased before the big day.

On Dec. 26, after 80 members of Normal Community High School’s Marching Ironmen have enjoyed their holiday, they will board a couple of charter buses, joined by 20 chaperones for a trip to Orlando, Florida to be part of the Citrus Bowl Parade on Dec. 30. They will return home to cold, snowy central Illinois on Jan. 2.

Nate Titus, a senior at NCHS, plays trumpet, but serves as one of the two drum majors for the Marching Ironmen. Hayley Meadows is the other drum major. For Titus, going to the Citrus Bowl Parade makes up for NCHS having nixed a trip to the Fiesta Bowl Parade in Phoenix two years ago, when he was a sophomore.

Ashley Bolen is a member of the color guard. Those are the young ladies, predominately, who can twirl flags and wooden rifles while either in motion or standing still. There will be 12 members of the color guard going on this trip, as well.

“I love performing, and this is such a performing sport,” Bolen said. “This is a way to show school spirit, in a way.”

“I’m so excited,” Titus admitted. “It’s going to be a great time.”

This thought never dawned on me before, but parades are easier than doing halftime shows. “In parades, we just march in a straight line,” Titus said. Halftime shows, or field shows as the band calls them, require marching in specific formations, which requires a little more effort.

Lance Meadows, director of bands at NCHS, said the marching band has been practicing since the end of the football season, in October, to get ready for the big event. Meadows and fellow band instructor Joshua Masterman are responsible for getting their charges ready. The Marching Band have to get this done in just nine rehearsals, including a final one in Florida to get the performance down perfectly.

But, Titus said, some of those rehearsals have been called off because of the bitterly cold weather we have been having lately. That means spending time indoors memorizing music.

The Marching Ironmen has been seen this year around here, too, marching in both the Memorial Day and Labor Day Parades through Downtown Bloomington.

Meadows said he can count on one hand the number of times the Marching Ironmen have been part of the Citrus Bowl Parade. “It’s quite a prestigious honor,” the veteran band director said about being invited back to this event. “The organizers of this parade are familiar with us and familiar with our program.”

Also included in the itinerary for the Marching Ironmen is participation in a short parade at Disney’s EPCOT, near Orlando, on Dec. 28. The kids will even get a day at the beach – at Cocoa Beach, Fla., as winter is starting, no less! — on Dec. 29; followed by the Marching Ironmen’s appearance in the Citrus Bowl Parade Dec. 30; a visit to Disney World for fun on New Year’s Eve; wrapping up with a tour of other attractions in the area on Jan. 1. The sun-soaked Marching Band will depart Orlando Jan. 1, returning to winter in Normal on Jan. 2.

Meadows said although they have been practicing for a couple months for the parade, the marching band will get one more rehearsal in at the hotel on the night they arrive in Florida.

Meadows said students have raised money by doing a little of everything, from selling fruit to cheesecakes to doing bagging for tips at local supermarkets to holding a garage sale. The students know well in advance that participating in sales and doing other things will help earn cash because they have about two years to earn the money needed for such an excursion. Meadows said each student needs to raise “about $1,000” to make the trip.

“I think just being in Marching Band – wherever you do it – is a lot of fun,” said Titus, son of John Titus and Phyllis McCluskey Titus, Normal. “You get to perform in front of people from your town, or from out-of-town, as we are doing this time. It’s just fun to really show the people what we’ve been working on and what we can do.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Bolen, a junior. “It’s going to be a fun trip.” Ashley is the daughter of Jim and Mindy Bolen.

It sounds like plenty of hard work went into making the trip possible. Here’s hoping the Marching Ironmen have a blast to usher out 2010 and welcome in 2011!

By Steve Robinson | December 9, 2010 - 10:04 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

Unit 5NORMAL – A property tax matter concerning State Farm has been settled, as far as Normal’s Unit 5 School District is concerned. Board members, by a 4-0 vote, agreed to authorize the amended settlement agreement with the Bloomington-based insurance giant.

Three members of Unit 5’s board – Board President Meta Mickens-Baker, Board Vice President John Puzauskas, and Board Member Mark Pritchett – are all employed by State Farm and abstained from voting on the measure.

District Superintendent Gary Niehaus said arriving at this agreement came after a “long tenuous process.” He thanked State Farm for helping Unit 5, and the other area governmental bodies for their assistance in arriving at an agreement.

The other local governmental bodies involved were: the City of Bloomington; McLean County; Bloomington School District 87; Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District; Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority; Bloomington Township; Heartland Community College; City of Bloomington Library; and City of Bloomington Assessor.

Niehaus explained to Board members the signed deal prevented Unit 5 from having to resort to nearly $2.8 million in spending cuts. District 87 is expected to sign off on the deal leaving the eight remaining governmental bodies to sign off on the agreement.

State Farm has 54 properties, the assessed value of which would remain unchanged through 2014 — $132 million.

During the meeting, there was a Truth In Taxation hearing but no citizens opted to speak at it.

UFEA’s “Good News”: Connie Stanczak was honored in a “good news” report presented by Vickie Mahrt, president of the Unit Five Education Association (UFEA). Stanczak, a fourth grade teacher at Grove Elementary School, received a grant from The Ronald McDonald Charities of Central Illinois in the amount of $9,705.74. The money will go toward the purchase of four CPS Student Response Systems, which is a tape player equipped to accommodate 8 sets of earphones, and 32 books. The equipment will become the basis of a Reader’s Workshop Library at the school.

The books specifically chosen to highlight 10 key strategies that are linked to improved reading comprehension. The 10 key strategies are: Visualizing; monitoring/correcting; making inferences; predicting; analyzing; synthesizing; critiquing; determining importance; making connections; and summarizing.

Unit 5 mapDistrict’s “Good News”: Board members learned about Decker Industries, a training and work site for students with developmental disabilities, which has been established at Eugene Field School. The training center was started by teachers Jane Collins, Dawn Sheppelman, and Hilary Ruyle. A number of teaching assistants have helped in this effort as well, including Shirley Boykin; Susan Haag; Lewis Dickinson; Vicki McCain; Laura Gaffney; and Jill Ziebarth. Each of these teachers works at the center at varying times at the center, serving as job coaches, student mentors, and helping students to gain necessary skills.

Because budget cuts by the State of Illinois forced the closing of the Occupational Development Center, students needing such training had nowhere to turn. But Collins, Sheppleman, and Ruyle requested Eugene Field consider becoming a training site. The center, known as Decker Industries, and is named after Collins’ sister, Dianne Decker, who passed away 13 months ago.

Construction Update: Progress continues to be made on the site of the future George L. Evans Junior High School in south Bloomington. Richard Ach, senior project manager for Chicago-based Turner Construction, informed Board members that, among the improvements made were: Lights and glazing are complete in the school library, or IMC, and guidance areas; flooring in the north classroom wing has been completed and an inspection had been performed; an inspection in the administrative area was scheduled for this week; floor, lighting, and ceiling work in the cafetorium had been completed; flooring, lighting, and ceiling work had been completed in the kitchen area; and work on the kitchen south entrance vestibule had been completed.

The work on the bleachers and locker rooms in the gymnasium area has been completed, Ach reported. That area received an inspection last month. Lockers and base work has been completed on the first and second floors of the school’s south classroom wing.

Loren Baele, Unit 5’s director of technology, supplemented Ach’s report with an update on security at all of the district’s schools. The district has been working a timetable, starting in October, to update security at new and existing buildings. It is hoped all the schools, including Evans Junior High, will have the security updated by the end of January.

Enrollment Update: According to same day enrollment figures for November, the total population of Unit 5’s schools as a whole increased, but not even by one percent. The one-day comparison, measured for Nov. 30 versus the same day a year ago shows there were 13,067 students in class that day as opposed to 12,947 students in class last year. That is an increase of .93 percent.

The district’s three junior high schools gained a total of 39 students in the last year, giving Unit 5 a total of 2,849 students, or a 1.39 percent gain. There was a jump of nearly two percent in the number of elementary school students at the district’s 18 facilities.

The district’s two high schools are trying to come up with an even split in the number of students they service. Normal Community High gained just four students from November a year ago, and have a population of 1,871 students. Normal Community West High School lost a total of 52 students versus this time a year ago, and has a population of 1,670 students.