By Lyle R. Rolfe –
The late Aurora mayor Tom Weisner is remembered by the West Aurora School District 129 through a new building named in his honor and of his family.
It all started after Dr. Jeff Craig was named West Aurora School District 129 superintendent to replace the retired Dr. Jim Rydland.
“When I came here in 2014, Board members said they wanted to start thinking about a referendum for capital needs projects. Our buildings were in rough shape,” Craig said.
By August 18, 2014, they had prepared a proposed referendum and presented it to residents at every one of the District’s 18 buildings. The plans were presented at 80 public forums across District.
Bonds issued several years ago for other projects, had been paid down, so the proposed referendum for $80 Million would not cause an increase in property taxes.
It led to the District’s purchasing the former Dreyer Medical facilities on 15.1 acres of land bounded by Galena Boulevard, Edgelawn Drive, Downer Place and Constitution Drive.
The existing buildings have been remodeled for School District use, but there was still a vacant parcel that was perfect for a new building, so architectural first of Cordigan and Clark was asked to design a building for the proposed Weisner Center.
The parcel is sandwiched between a retention pond along Downer Place on the south and the Aurora Dental Arts building to the north.
The new facility has been named the Weisner Family Center for Career Development in honor of the entire Weisner family, according to Angie Smith, assistant superintendent for operations.
Craig said this building was included as part of the School District’s referendum project. It was planned to be part of the Pathways for Prosperity spearheaded by the late Aurora mayor, Tom Weisner.
The School Board vote to build the Weisner Center and accept the bid, was unanimous.
The Pathway includes the West Aurora, East Aurora, Oswego, and Indian Prairie School Districts along with Waubonsee Community College and the Aurora Chamber of Commerce.
“What better way to honor the person who was working on this for many years? If not for the city, we would not be on this site, so this is an appropriate way to honor Tom. He was instrumental in helping us with the property swap,” Craig said.
The building was the last of the many projects the District has been involved in since the referendum passed, he said. West Aurora has been working on this project for more than six years, but the name of the program and what would be taught was not specific at that time.
“We got involved because of our referendum. And because of the location of the property, we were able to include this as part of our referendum project,” Craig said.
The single-story building, nearing completion, contains 16,000 square feet of space, but is two stories tall. The extra height will be needed for some of the machinery and equipment the students will be working with Craig said.
The exterior is red and blue (West High School colors), with brick accents, Craig said.
Inside there are four, 2,600 to 2,700 square-foot large bays for students to work in plus an office and common area. Access to the bays will be through high overhead doors, to allow them to bring in large items to be worked on, he said.
The interior is being designed so they can have classes of any size and change the size without much work for different projects. “It will be very much like college facilities for these classes,” Craig said.
Craig said south of the building will be enclosed by a six-foot chain link fence with slats keeping it private from public view.
“We knew it would be part of a career center, but it took a while to determine what would be taught here,” Smith said. She served as a West District School Board member for seven years, so she was well-versed on the District’s needs.
School Board members said they needed this kind of project for the more than 20% of graduates who do not go on to a post-secondary opportunity.
In the new program, at the start, classes will be held only during regular school days and hours, but the plan is to eventually have year-round classes.
Craig has a background of teaching woodworking and drafting at the high school level, so he was aware of the need to prepare young persons for these jobs.
“It’s not just earning credit for graduation. This is about a career. There are certificate programs, partnerships with manufacturing business folks, and internships. Many of West’s top 10 students will be taking classes here,” he said.
District officials are designing courses, where students can earn certificates, internships, full-time work, and a two- or four-year degree.
They are following on what they consider the three most important career pathways for students to follow: Information technology, health occupation services, and advanced manufacturing.
Craig said new jobs are constantly becoming available and school officials want the West High students to be trained so they can walk into these jobs. Welding will be one of the first courses to be taught in the new center, he said.
“The average age of a welder in the U.S. is 57 years old. Billions of dollars are being allocated by many states and the federal government to repair our bridges, railways, pipelines and roads. And we don’t have the work force to get the job done.
“Our students trained at this facility, will be eligible to apply for many of these jobs,” he said.
Craig told of a program in Indiana where students who are being taught welding, are getting jobs paying $130,000 a year. “The district had to add money management to the curriculum because the students had never had that kind of money before.
“This same thing could happen at the Weisner Center,” Craig said.
Students here may be taught advanced machining, diesel engines, HVAC and other skills. But they will be using equipment donated by the equipment manufacturers because these companies want the students to learn on the actual machines, not training models.
Craig said the District is working with Steve Case of the Illinois Manufacturing Association. “They’re donating brand new $4,000 and $5,000 pieces of equipment so our kids will be using real equipment for training devices. They don’t want them learning on something that’s archaic,” he said.
“This is real world. This is now and relevant, It you’re going into the real world, you’re going to learn on this equipment.”
Smith said it will be a couple years before they reach full enrollment at the Weisner Center. They will be starting with juniors and adding the seniors the next year. And there’s a possibility they may accept students from other districts until they have full enrollment from West High.
Other school districts have similar training programs for different trades.
“But the thing that makes West unique is that we are asking employers what they need so students can be employed when they leave here.
“We want to teach students what they need to know to enter the work world, so we’re asking the experts in the field to offer help in providing what is needed by students,” Smith said.
“Our goal is to give students the training they need while in high school, instead of waiting until they enter junior college,” she said.
Smith said the District was thinking they would have to construct new buildings when the Dreyer medical facilities became available at the same time.
Until now, students had to be bused near Maple Park to the Kaneland Vocational Center for these classes, which meant two entire class periods were used transporting students. Now with the high school just a few blocks from the new site, students can be bused between the sites in a matter of minutes.
Craig and Smith agreed the District is grateful that the residents approved the last referendum. They agreed that without those funds, none of the Weisner Center would be possible.
The entire 15.1 acre site owned by the School District was zoned for medical uses, but is now zoned for education.
In the entire block bounded by Galena Boulevard, Edgelawn Drive, Downer Place and Constitution Drive, only two parcels are not owned by the School District. They are the Aurora Dental Clinic at Galena and Constitution and St. Mark’s Church at Galena and Edgelawn.