Peoria County ROE plans to move its alternative high school to the Franciscan Recreation Complex
Dormant since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Franciscan Recreation Complex in West Peoria is getting closer to a rebirth as the home to an alternative high school.
The Peoria County Regional Office of Education is pursuing a lease agreement with the Peoria Park District to move its Regional Learning Center to Franciscan from its current location in Wildlife Prairie Park.
Regional Superintendent of Schools Beth Crider said while they’ve been pleased with their relationship with Wildlife Prairie Park, the Franciscan site offers some distinct advantages.
“Our main issue since we opened in 2011 has been transportation,” said Crider. “Moving to the Franciscan complex allows us to have access to a bus line and to be able to serve a large segment of the population that just could not access us, because you have to provide your own transportation to our school.
“We think this will open a lot of doors for us, and West Peoria is very excited to partner along with the park district. We think we'll have access to community agencies; we think we'll have access to workforce development options, and then the needed transportation that we didn't have at our other location.”
Park District Executive Director Emily Cahill said they had to shut down Franciscan as one of the cutbacks to weather the initial impact of COVID. She said the opportunity to reopen Franciscan as an educational facility is mutually beneficial.
“The reason it makes sense for us is because we can work with them to generate revenue to support the Franciscan center,” said Cahill. “It allows us then to reduce the subsidy to an amount (so) that we are able to add back in some of our fitness programming: yoga, fun and fit, the programming that we do that really serves hopefully residents of that neighborhood. They (the ROE) are also a fantastic partner, so they are willing to work with us to support West Peoria events. So we think it's a win-win.”
West Peoria Mayor Jim Dillon has been a dedicated advocate for reopening the Franciscan complex in some manner, calling the facility a major part of the community.
“This is a way, I hope, to get it started back so that they'll have some funds to be able to put some afterschool programs or some pickleball back in there, or senior exercise classes,” said Dillon. “They had all kinds of different things in the past, so it would be a way for them to generate some funds and be able to put some programming back.”
However, Cahill said residents shouldn't expect the complex to start functioning the way it did in past decades just yet.
“There are people out there who want us to open it back the way that it was 10 years ago, and the reality is, is that's not viable in our current environment,” she said. “The usage rates didn't justify a significant subsidy because the folks who were using that facility were not primarily West Peoria residents; they were people coming from all over the city into that space.
“With the other recreation centers that we have in our inventory, specifically Lakeview, we’re able to meet that need closer to the people who are using that facility. So by being willing – and having our board be willing – to evolve and to reimagine, we are finding a purpose for that building that is actually, I think, better for the community.”
The Regional Learning Center offers a traditional school day during the normal academic year, typically serving between 30 and 75 students. Crider said it serves as an alternative for students from all Peoria County high schools who are having academic or attendance issues, or may be dealing with social and emotional struggles.
“It gives the students a second chance to get their high school diploma,” said Crider. “The reason our students have been successful is we have smaller class sizes, and we have dedicated staff and we surround them with a lot of wraparound programming to help make them successful.”
Crider said her office only recently learned about the Franciscan site's availability, and noted its large gymnasium, classroom-like environment, and enhanced security make it an appealing location.
“One of the reasons we're so excited about it is that campus is truly a campus environment, where it's not just a building; it is surrounded by a beautiful park and recreation opportunities,” she said. “So if we have to transition from the gorgeous Wildlife Prairie Park, at least we're moving to a space that still has that opportunity for outdoor space and for recreation.
“The City of West Peoria has such a gem with that complex, and most importantly, we want to partner with them. We’re there during the day, (but) that space will be available at night and on the weekends so that it still can be utilized by the community. We will make sure that gym is available, and it has a beautiful kitchen. So we want to be a good neighbor and a good partner.”
Crider said some renovations need to be made to make the Franciscan building suitable, so the transition most likely will occur during the next school year.
“We're going to stay at our current location at Wildlife Prairie Park until we have the new complex ready for us with the construction that we need,” said Crider. “As everyone knows right now, with supply issues and getting a hold of people to be able to do the construction, that set us back a little bit.
“We talked about putting our classes in pods and maybe having school in the gym, but we were going to need like 12 pods and nobody has 12 pods. We were just running into barrier after barrier, until we looked at each other and said, ‘Why don't we just stay (at Wildlife), if they would be amenable to that?’ They've been a great partner; there's no animosity there, and there was no hesitation.”
Dillon said bringing the county's alternative high school to Franciscan is at least one step in the right direction, and other agencies are exploring other possibilities at the location.
“We were approached that Goodwill was trying to get a grant to do a summer program for some young kids,” he said. “What we really, as a city or a community, would love to see is the Franciscan center back open the way it was, but I don't know that's going to happen. So we have to look at what's our best alternative, and especially in today's world if they can use that and help these young kids, I'm all for it.”